From Deserts to Gardens: Indigenous Land Management Techniques Explained

What if I told you that we belong here? What if I told you that the Earth needs us?

In this powerful video, Dr. Lyla June challenges the idea that humans are a burden to the Earth and argues that we actually belong here and can be a critical piece of the ecological puzzle. Drawing from indigenous land management techniques, the speaker explains how native people have been active agents in shaping the land for thousands of years, becoming a keystone species and refining keystone cultures over time. Rather than trying to control the Earth, indigenous people have tapped into and aligned themselves with the forces of nature, creating non-human centric systems and intentionally expanding habitats. Dr. Lyla June makes the case that if we applied these strategies today, we could transform dead systems to living ones and protect and augment life on a holistic regional scale. When we become allies with the Earth, we can live within her processes and become a part of her system as we were born to be.

What if I told you that we belong here? What if I told you that the Earth needs us? What if I told you I’ve seen my people turn deserts into gardens. 

For tens of thousands of years, native people of this land constructed beautiful gardens all around them. We were active agents in shaping the land to produce prolific abundance. We expanded and designed grasslands and forests for the benefit of all life. We became what the world calls a keystone species, or a species upon which entire ecosystems depend. And our cultures became keystone cultures, refined over time. 

Now, much was made about the positive environmental effect of the pandemic. As more people stayed home, pollution levels dropped, animals began to reclaim habitat, and the logical leap that many observers seemed to make was that the Earth would be better off without humans. I reject that leap. The Earth may be better off without certain systems we have created. But we are not those systems. We don’t have to be at least. What if these human hands and mines could be such a great gift to the earth that they sparked new life wherever people and purpose met?

I’d like to share important indigenous land management techniques in hopes that they might inform and inspire us today. The first is to tap into and align ourselves with the forces of nature. Why try to control the earth when you can work with her? In southwest deserts, native farmers have leveraged the pre existing topography of the land. They placed their fields at the base of watersheds to catch every drop of the monsoon rains and the nutrients that flow down with them carried down from upland soils. This alluvial farming technique requires no outside fertilizers or irrigation because all of this comes with the rain. 

Another fascinating land management technique is intentional habitat expansion. Why put plants and animals into farms and cages when you can simply make a home for them and they come to you? Indigenous peoples have intentionally augmented grasslands for Buffalo. By bringing gentle fire to the Great Plains, we would transform dead plant tissues into nutrient dense ash, nourishing the soil and unlocking the seeds of pyro-adapted grasses and medicines like echinacea. Over time, this fire would prevent trees and shrubs from taking over the grasslands and would nourish the soil to generate top soils up to four feet deep. Many people think that we followed the buffalo when in fact the buffalo followed our fire. 

A third strategy is to create nonhuman-centric systems. Why hoard for your own species where you can live to serve all life around you? Coastal nations of British Columbia enhance fish habitat by planting kelp forests where the herring lay their eggs. This helps that small silver fish lay even more eggs, and both the eggs and the hatched herring fish cascade up the food chain, nourishing so many other life forms such as bear, salmon, orca, eagles, wolves and more. By seeding this food web and feeding all life around them, coastal nations have greater food security for themselves, because they feed the hand that feeds them. 

These are the types of food and land management systems that Europeans came across as they spread westward. They often mislabeled them as terra nullius, or virgin land, or wilderness, instead of what they really were: living heirlooms, thousands of years in the making. I would venture to say that these systems are even more efficient than industrial food systems because they protect and augment the very things that give us life, instead of extracting and destroying them. 

Sometimes I wonder what the world would look like if we applied these strategies to today – if we protected life, expanded life. I guarantee you if we did, we’d no longer see humans as a bane to the earth or something she’d be better off without. We’d see humans as a critical piece of the ecological puzzle. 

In addition to healing the soil, we must also heal our history. And we can do that together. So much of these continents were conquered and stolen from a people who often never wanted to fight in the first place. Countless native people were displaced from their homelands, their children put into boarding schools where our languages and cultures were prohibited and destroyed. This legacy will not be healed by simply appropriating and mimicking native knowledge. We must also work to restore at least some of the stolen places to Native people, who often live like refugees today, aching to return to their sacred homelands. 

When we understand that humanity is an expression of the Earth’s beauty, we understand that we too belong. When we become her friend, her confidant, her ally, her partner in life, instead of her dominator, her superior, or her profiteer, we can transform dead systems to living ones. And this does not involve isolating national parks and never touching a blade of grass. No, it involves rolling up our sleeves, living within her processes, becoming a part of the Earth’s system as we were born to be, and using these mines to protect and augment life on a holistic regional scale.

Coming soon…

For more info on the speaker, please visit:

We bring your story to life

Find out how video storytelling can help your audience resonate with your sustainable idea, research, campaign or product.

Related stories

How might the hidden lives of bees show us what it means to be a sustainable species?

Get our latest video releases
in your mailbox bi-weekly

We never send solicitations or junk mail and we never give your address to anyone else.

The following is a step by step guide to translating our videos.

How to translate sustainable human videos

Here is some instruction so you can easily translate the videos.

Required Tools:

- A Computer.
- Internet Connection.
- A basic text editor program like Notepad or Wordpad.

What Is a .SRT File?

A .SRT file extension is a SubRip Subtitle file. These types of files hold video subtitle information like the start and end timecodes of the text and the sequential number of subtitles.

Steps To Translate A Video

Step 1 : Locate the appropriate .SRT file.
In the embedded spreadsheet below, find the title of the video you wish to translate. Check to be sure that your language has not been translated yet.


Step 2: Download the SRT file.
Double-click on the .SRT file for the video you wish to translate. Click on the Download button.
Step 3: Translate the file.
Open the file using any basic text editor program such as Notepad or Wordpad or equivalent. Do not open in Microsoft Word as it will corrupt the formatting. After opening the file, you want to REPLACE the English text with your language, line by line, keeping all numerical and time formatting. When you finish, rename the file with the name of the language you translated.
Step 4: Upload your new .SRT file using form below.
When you submit your translation file and provide your email, we will inform you once we have uploaded it to the video. Please allow for 24-48 hours for us to do this as it is a manual process.

How has this video story impacted you?