Building local Indigenous Community Seed Banks

Safeguarding Biodiversity and Cultural Heritage

Community Seed Bank - First Nations

When I first came to the Central Deserts, Australia was in the midst of one of the driest seasons in recent memory. The weather people called it an 'El Niño', which has no direct translation in Pitjantjatjara, a dialect of the Western Desert language traditionally spoken by the people of Central Australia. Working in some of the most remote regions of the world with traditional bush foods and botanicals, I noticed there were few seeds for collection on the trees and grasses. In my mind I was immediately taken back to my seventh-grade science teacher Mr.Bliss, and the posters on the classroom wall featuring the Life Cycle of a Flowering Plant - most all plants need water for this process to occur. When I inquired to the elders about the lack of seeds, they pointed to the skies and replied simply, "something is broken".

"something is broken..." - Indigenous Elders

I didn't have a term for it at the time, but this was the start of my journey into nature restoration & regeneration. It seems an obvious life path when one considers that how we are operating in a capitalist system is destroying the foundations of our natural world. When working in Indigenous communities I started to understand the whole concept of building a restoration economy - taking the situation that's been damaged and working together to bring it back to more of its natural state. Using our greenhouses to plant trees for restoration, and bush foods and traditional medicine plants for essential oils, the opportunity for small-scale enterprises started to form the beginnings of a localized sustainable economic model as a key element of this restorative process - one that put people, food, culturally-aligned employment and the planet at the heart of a healthy economic engine.

“Native plants are also first foods, which goes back to the historical land management practice. These are the plants that kept us alive on the landscape. They can be used for restoration, used for food, used for culture.”

  • Jeremiah Pinto, U.S. Forest Service Research Plant Physiologist and Tribal Nursery Specialist.

Typically when you talk about restoration, people think of trees. What is equally important is the biodiversity found in the understory. There are degraded lands all over the world that are located in a wide variety of bio-regions - this restoration work needs more than trees. What species are native and culturally important to these places?

In today's rapidly changing world, the preservation and restoration of biodiversity have become crucial for the survival of our planet. One effective approach that has gained recognition is the establishment of Indigenous community seed banks. These seed banks play a vital role in safeguarding traditional knowledge, preserving native plant species, and promoting ecological restoration.

Indigenous communities have long been the custodians of their lands and have developed a deep understanding of their local ecosystems. They possess valuable knowledge about the diverse plant species that are native to their regions and have traditionally used these plants for various purposes, including food, medicine, and cultural practices. However, with the increasing threats of climate change, deforestation, mining, and industrial agriculture, many of these native plant species are at risk of extinction.

To combat this loss of biodiversity, Bush Botanics has been working with Indigenous communities to establish localized community seed banks. These seed banks serve as repositories for storing and conserving seeds of native plant species. By collecting and preserving these seeds, Indigenous communities ensure the availability of locally adapted plant varieties that are resilient to changing environmental conditions.

The indigenous people have a deep connection to the existing plants, and for centuries have been managing them through their natural nurseries, controlled burning, seed-saving, and transplanting specific varieties. How can we integrate this ancient traditional ecological knowledge into our restoration efforts while maintaining cultural ties?

The seed banks not only act as conservation centers but also serve as educational hubs. Indigenous communities actively engage in seed-saving practices, passing down traditional knowledge from one generation to another. At our seed banks we conduct workshops, community engagement and training sessions to educate community members about the importance of seed diversity and sustainable land management practices. This knowledge exchange fosters a sense of pride in cultural heritage and strengthens community resilience.

Harvesting native seed

Wild-collected native seeds, which are seeds obtained from their natural habitats, play a crucial role in preserving the evolutionary history and cultural legacy of specific environmental genes. These seeds are often subjected to harsh environmental conditions, ensuring that the genetic diversity and adaptability of these seeds are maintained, allowing them to thrive in various environmental conditions. This approach not only safeguards the long-term survival of these plant species but also contributes to the conservation of their unique genetic traits.

Indigenous community seed banks prioritize the use of organic and traditional growing methods and promote agro-ecological practices that are in harmony with nature, such as intercropping and natural pest control. By doing so, they contribute to the overall health of ecosystems while eliminating the use of chemical inputs that can cause long-term harm to biodiversity, people and to the planet.

The benefits of Indigenous community seed banks extend beyond conservation efforts. They also play a crucial role in supporting food security and sovereignty. By preserving a wide range of plant species, these seed banks ensure access to diverse and nutritious food sources and small-scale income in the native food and botanicals marketplace. Additionally, they empower Indigenous communities by giving them control over their biodiversity resources and reducing their dependence on external sources for seeds and food.

In recent years, the importance of our approach to Indigenous community seed banks has been recognized with the First Nations Seed Bank having been awarded the Environmental Action award in the Northern Territory. Government and partner organizations are helping to support our efforts in seed conservation and restoration work in Indigenous communities. Funding and technical assistance are being provided to strengthen the infrastructure of these seed banks and expand their reach.

Mulga seeds in the Northern Territory, Australia - gathered and cleaned by Aboriginal women.

Indigenous community seed banks are an essential tool for the restoration of biodiversity. They not only conserve native plant species but also preserve traditional knowledge and promote sustainable farming practices. By empowering Indigenous communities to take charge of their genetic resources, these seed banks contribute to food security, cultural resilience, and the overall well-being of our planet. It is crucial that we continue to support and learn from these initiatives to ensure a sustainable future for all.