I was in high school when reforestation was a big thing. Every week, we would be planting trees as part of our Technology and Home Economics subject. I felt really good about myself thinking that I am contributing something meaningful to combat climate change.

One day as I was riding home, I was telling an elder how we have planted so many trees and how many will we plant in the next few months. He was listening intently to me, not saying anything. Then at the end of my exuberant storytelling, he told me, “Careful. You might be creating a green desert.”

I was annoyed like the petulant teenager I was. How dare this old person diminish my contribution to care for the environment! Does he not know about climate change?! Does he not know that trees reduce the carbon dioxide in the air?!

Thinking that I know better and with complete belief in my lofty ideals, I did not ask what he meant. In hindsight, maybe he didn’t say anything more because I was not ready to listen.

Fast forward to a biology class in college. We were discussing bio-diversity and the reforestation program of the government. That conversation with our elder flashed back in my mind. And I finally understood what he meant by the creation of a green desert. He was trying to point out that the trees we were planting were exotic species, specifically the mahogany and G. Melina. Mahogany is bio-invasive which reduces the biodiversity in the forests. The G. Melina is a voracious water-sucker which deprives other plants causing them to stunt. It also makes the surrounding areas dry and is not suitable for watersheds, which our forests are. As we introduced more of these trees in our mountains, we were indeed creating a green desert!

Indigenous and “Modern” Knowledge

I was inspired by the wisdom of the elder. At that time, I have not heard of the concept of the green desert except from him. His gentle admonishment always rings in my head when I think I know better than the people I am talking with. He taught me not to dismiss what I do not know. Together with other elders I have met, they taught me to honor the wisdom that may not be in the curriculum of mainstream education or academic jargon. An elder also taught me that the “modern knowledge” I am learning in school can be harmonized with the indigenous wisdom from many cultures. This elder instilled in me that the harmonized learnings can enrich the work I am doing.


Now I am in the peacebuilding field, and that “green desert” lesson serves as an analogy for me. It asks me, as I do good, am I doing more harm?

As I use seemingly sophisticated conflict analysis tools, am I aware of how the local people view reality? Maybe I am assuming that we have the same way of knowing and creating meanings. Maybe my peace is differently articulated from theirs.

As I make a comprehensive conflict analysis report, am I listening to the indigenous voices and insight? Maybe I am analyzing alone and I assume they see the way I do.

As I craft theories of change, have I tried to see the mountain range and not just the hole I am planting in? Before I introduce strategies and solutions, have I checked if these are endemic to the area and can be sustained by the existing resources? Have I looked at the type of “soil” and “environment” I am planting in?

Wait! Am I the right person to plant or to choose what to plant? Is it the right time to plant? Or is it even right to plant? Maybe I am planting just because I have a spade and the seedling and I am paid to do it? Maybe it is wiser to pause and step back to see how life naturally reclaims its place?

I grapple with these questions as I seek the harmonization of learnings from both the old and the new.


Seven years ago, I got into coffee farming and I asked another elder how to know if a tree promotes biodiversity. He said, “Look at it. Are there orchids or ferns or moss in its trunk? Are there birds in its branches? Are there animals that feed off it? Are there other plants and trees around? If yes, then you have your answer.”

Oh what a simple test and yet so profound! No doctorate in biology needed! Just the awareness of the inter-connection of all – living and non-living. It is also a reminder that a meaningful evaluation can come from the people themselves.

It also reminds me of my effect in spaces I am in. Just as I consider a tree, I also contemplate on myself. Do I share life to others? Do I give nourishment to those around me? Do I share space for others to grow and expand their “branches” so that they can give life to others too? What do I bring? Most of the time, I am not aware of my impact. Planting prompts me to it.

As I reflect further, it also made me ask myself, what if I look at the world and the systems we are in, not from a human-centered view? What if humans are not the center of my analysis? Would it make a difference? Then again, that is a topic for another blog. 



Chokkalingam, U., Carandang, A. P., Pulhin, J. M., Lasco, R. D., Peras, R. J., & Toma, T. (n.d.). One century of forest rehabilitation in the Philippines[Scholarly project]. In www.rainforestation.ph. Retrieved from http://www.rainforestation.ph/resources/pdf/publications/Chokkalingam et al._2006_One Century of Forest Rehabilitation in the Philippines.pdf

Hughes, C., Ojendal, J., & Schierenbeck, I. (2015). The Struggle Versus the Song – The Local Turn in Peacebuilding: An Introduction. Third World Quarterly,817-824.

Neutel, A. (n.d.). Feedback loops: How nature gets its rhythms – Anje-Margriet Neutel. Retrieved February 4, 2019, from https://ed.ted.com/lessons/feedback-loops-how-nature-gets-its-rhythms-anje-margriet-neutel#watch

Reflecting on Peace Practice (RPP) Basics. A Resource Manual. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative

Learning Projects, 2016.

Sabaratnam, M. (2013). Avatars of Eurocentrism in the critique of liberal peace. Security Dialogue,259-278.

Permanent link to this article: https://peacebuilderscommunity.org/2019/05/learning-from-my-indigenous-elders-about-biodiversity/

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