In her book Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, environmental scientist Jessica Hernandez breaks down why Western conservationism isn’t working, and instead offers Indigenous models to heal Indigenous lands. In this excerpt, she describes how her father’s ancestral relationship to nature saved his life as an Indigenous child seeking shelter in a war zone.
My father is one of my greatest teachers, and I will always carry his teachings and stories and hope that they are passed down in our lineage. There is also a story he shared with me that puts forward one of his greatest teachings he passed down to me. This is the story that passed down his intergenerational love for nature and our environments that has been present throughout our ancestral history as Indigenous peoples. This is also what ultimately led me to pursue the environmental sciences as I was given the opportunity to pursue higher education. My deep love and respect for our environments and nature is why I became an Indigenous scientist and why I advocate that Indigenous science can ultimately heal our Indigenous lands.
His story where his life was saved by a banana tree, in particular its leaves wrapping the bomb, is why I selected this title, Fresh Banana Leaves, for this book. The banana leaves saved my father’s life and it offered him a fresh start in the diaspora. His story reminds me of the harsh realities that wars continue to leave behind on our environments and our memories. He recalls hearing loud airplane noises that eventually muted all of nature’s sounds. As he looked up to see what had muted his entire surroundings, he saw military planes. In an eyeblink, bombs started falling on the encampment and obliterating everything they came in contact with. The gruesome scenes that these airstrikes left were not new scenes to him as this was the same destruction bombings and military raids had left in many villages and pueblitos throughout El Salvador. His survival instincts told him to start running toward the banana tree while trying to avoid the shooting from the military soldiers on the ground. All he could think of during this time was to seek refuge from the bombings, and the banana tree was what called him. The same tree my father had shared his stories to and the same banana tree he had built a deep connection with was the same tree calling him toward it. This banana tree was special to him because it had become his nonhuman friend, and this friend allowed him to escape the human world that, to my father, was full of torment and violence.
My father told me that sometimes he would climb the tree to get some bananas for the rest of his comrades as most of them were afraid of heights. While on the tree, he would sit on one of its branches and just enjoy some bananas as he stared into the landscape and prayed for safety. It was the same banana tree in his recollection of events that was the determining factor to escape and leave everything behind in his native lands. At 14, my father had already spent most of his childhood in survival mode and had witnessed the worst that comes from humankind—war. This is why he always sought connections and relationships with plants and animals. Plants and animals are innocent and they never want to hurt us, he always told me. The more we take care of them, the more they take care of us. They communicate to each other, and they know which humans are here to not just extract from them but also respect and care for them as well.
My father saw a bomb drop above him. As he recalls, he thought his life was going to come to an end and all he could think of was “it was going to end too soon.” His short years of his life flashed before his eyes. However, when the bomb dropped on top of the banana tree, the tree’s leaves wrapped themselves around the bomb, preventing it from igniting. It is a surreal vision that is still hard for him to believe, but that banana tree saved his life and ultimately saved our lineages’ and descendants’ lives. Yes, our ancestors look after us, but sometimes they also offer us their protection through our animal and plant relatives. After the bombing stopped, everything in sight was destroyed. However, my father was standing underneath this banana tree.
There is a magical surrealism in this story, but that is because the connection we as Indigenous peoples have with nature is far greater than the Western way of thinking can ever explain. This is the spiritual connection that makes us mourn when our environment is destroyed as parts of our spirits are also destroyed with our environment. The banana tree was not destroyed during the bombardment, and it became why my father survived and why I am here.
He did receive gun wounds in his leg and was left in the fields by his fellow guerrilla soldiers because, injured, he was a liability to them. As he recalled his story, he did wish they would have left at least some water for him, but they did not. He does understand why this happened as during war, in order to survive one must adopt an individualistic mentality. This means that you only look out for yourself and not others. Your main goal as a child in war is to survive. Many of them had already lost everything, from their families to their homes.
Taking care of nature and nature taking care of us in return is the greatest teaching my father has taught me. Indeed, nature protects us as long as we protect nature. This is something Western science has failed to understand or explain. Settler colonialism introduced ideologies and beliefs that nature is meant to provide us resources, to meet our needs, without requiring us to protect it as well. Nature has been described as an infinite sink, and this is what has led to overfishing, overharvesting, and essentially environmental degradation. Environmental degradation is the destruction that continues to occur in our environments. It is why our environment continues to face severe droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters and our ecosystems continue to decline.
Indigenous peoples know that Western way of thought has also taught us that we are separate from nature. Nature is viewed for its value, whether it is economic, or for its beauty, a beauty that is rooted in the Western notion of pristine wilderness. However, both values that we continue to place on nature and its resources continue to separate us from it. These economic values (natural capital) are the main reasons why coffee and banana plantations were introduced in El Salvador. Capitalism, coupled with natural capital, is also what pushed these landowners to further exploit and oppress Indigenous peoples to generate more profits. All of these things combined created these social divides that pushed poor, working-class, and Indigenous peoples to start organizing to revolt and fight for their rights.
A lot of our rainforest in El Salvador was wiped out to make room and clear the landscapes for these plantations. Many of our elders say that if the rainforest were not cleared as much as it had been, that even the current natural disasters, such as hurricanes that El Salvador experienced in 2020, would not have been as terrible because the three would have reduced the flooding by capturing some of the water from the heavy rains. In Western science, this has been proven as it is estimated that trees do not only provide canopies or covers from rain, but their tree trunks can absorb up to 35% of rainwater. This is the estimate for mature trees, which are the ones that are fully grown and have reached their maximum height. Younger trees also absorb rainwater but at lower percentages. This sole understanding that is rooted in Indigenous understanding of our environments and the fact that our ways of knowing are ignored under settler colonialism is why we have devastated nature to the point that it can no longer protect us from natural disasters. If there were more trees in El Salvador, the heavy rains from the hurricanes would decrease in magnitude as these trees would have already been mature so they would have absorbed 35% of rainwater. This means that the flooding that impacted our communities the most would have decreased.
Unfortunately, we continue to value nature’s capital and economic revenue instead of the protection it can grant us. If our landscapes were not degraded to make space for extractive agricultural practices, or huge cities, our landscapes would be protecting us from any climatic changes the earth underwent. However, we must learn to adapt to these new environments while ensuring to replenish what we had destroyed in nature. As long as we continue to remove ourselves from nature, nature will not be able to protect us from environmental impacts. Of course, with these environmental impacts, the most marginalized communities, including Indigenous communities, are the ones most disproportionately impacted. Settler colonialism has taught us that in the species hierarchy we are on top and therefore we have more power than other plant and animal species. It is this notion of hierarchy that favors white people in the racial hierarchy system and humans in the species hierarchy system. Instead of seeing unity and a shared set of power among all races and all species, we continue to place white men at the top of our systems due to settler colonialism. We also continue to separate humans from nature.
Our Plant and Animal Relatives
This separation between humans and our environment—including both plants and animals—prevents us from seeing them as our relatives. This is why we continue to place economic values on them, as if we indeed saw them as our relatives, there would not be a price tag attached to them. It is no surprise that as Indigenous peoples we see our plant and animal species are relatives, hence, why many plants and animals play an important role in our creation stories. These creation stories differ among communities, tribes, and pueblos as we are distinct and not monolithic. For example, for us Zapotec people, our creation story states that our ancestors were born from trees and jaguars. Our ancestors were created by our deities inside caves by utilizing natural resources to create our people. We came from earth, and this explains the strong connection we have with our Mother Earth as Zapotec people. Given that we are children of deities, we believe that in our afterlife we return to the clouds and our spirits feed the earth with the most essential resource of them of all, water. This shows that we understand that our role on earth does not end when we are gone as we are continuing to provide water to our plant and animal relatives in the form of rain. This is why we call ourselves “cloud people” and this is the literal translation from our names, Binnizá, Binn Ditzaá, among other variations based on the Zapotec variant each pueblo speaks. This means that plants and animals are indeed our relatives as we came from them, and this is why we continue to protect them and advocate for their rights as well.
Our creation stories focus on native animals to our region, and this demonstrates that we always knew that we had to live harmoniously and in strong relations with them since time immemorial. Unlike Western European cultures that have commodified all natural resources, including animals, when we consume animals we continue to ask for their permission and protection before we consume them. However, these are not the beliefs or values Western cultures have as the agriculture systems focus on breeding animals for consumption in masses and making them undergo inhumane practices so that we can continue to have our beef and other meat products.
For Indigenous peoples, we have a relationship that Western cultures cannot understand with animals as they are our direct relatives, and we continue to understand that some of them are placed on earth for us to consume and only take what we need without overkilling or overhunting them. During colonization many of our animal species went through these boom-bust cycles because they were being overhunted and overharvested by settlers. This is the main reason why we witnessed huge declines of our traditional foods, in particular our animal species. We are still living in a time where we are trying to increase these species through Western conservation and its practices, but the continued impacts from climate change makes it hard. This is the main reason why we as Indigenous peoples know that Western cultures do not understand what it means to live in harmony with our plant and animal species as natural capital continues to value animals and plants for their economic value and not for the relationships one can build with them.
For my father, the banana tree became his relative, and this relative supported him while he endured the most awful times in his life. The banana tree had created his sanctuary away from the reality he was facing.
We strongly believe that the relationship he had built with this tree was why the tree protected my father. A bomb not igniting upon it being dropped is what Western religion teaches us is a miracle, but we deeply know that it was just nature taking care of my father because he had taken care of nature. If it were not for this tree, I would not have existed in this world and neither would this book. Many elders have told us that our ancestors once dreamed us into the future, but my father also believes that it is our plant and animal relatives that do this as well. So I will always wonder whether that banana tree dreamed me into my father’s future and will be curious to know which of my descendants it also dreamed of.
Excerpted from Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science by Jessica Hernandez, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2022 by Jessica Hernandez. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.
Dr. Jessica Hernandez is a transnational Indigenous scholar, scientist, and community advocate based in the Pacific Northwest. She has an interdisciplinary academic background ranging from marine sciences to environmental physics. Her work is grounded in her Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing. She advocates for climate, energy, and environmental justice through her scientific and community work and strongly believes that Indigenous sciences can heal our Indigenous lands.