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Bernard Q. Nietschmann was a pioneering environmental scholar and indigenous rights activist. Throughout a professional career that spanned three decades, Nietschmann demonstrated that cultural and biological diversity are inextricably linked, but that the future of both was under threat from global markets and state-centered geopolitics.
Born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1941, Nietschmann received a doctorate in geography under the guidance of William Denevan at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1970. After teaching at the University of Michigan for seven years, Nietschmann moved to the University of California at Berkeley in 1977 and remained there until his death from esophageal cancer in 2000.
The publication of Nietschmann’s 1973 book Between Land and Water: The Subsistence Ecology of the Miskito Indians, Eastern Nicaragua, and his follow-up marine work among both the Miskito and indigenous peoples in Torres Strait, Australia, brought him to the attention of society-environment scholars around the world. Based initially on his doctoral field study in the late 1960s, Nietschmann’s seminal work examined how the Miskito adapted seasonally and spatially to resource availability. His scholarship was ground-breaking and contributed greatly to the vibrant field of cultural ecology.
Nietschmann’s study of the Miskito and their coastal-marine habitats made at least five important contributions to our knowledge of society-environment dynamics. First, while some societies might be remote, neither they nor their ecosystems have been isolated from world market forces for at least several centuries. Second, subsistence groups respond to social and environmental change by making cultural adaptations to remain viable; indeed, many social practices result from successful cultural adaptation. Third, subsistence ecologies exploit a diverse resource base that makes them efficient, flexible, risk averse, and sustainable. Fourth, for the Miskito-and by extension all subsistence peoples-social relationships and economic exchange are inseparable. And fifth, it follows that accelerated market integration disrupts adaptive dynamics and social obligations, and can lead people into an economic and ecologic cul-de-sac that they are powerless to influence directly. As Nietschmann described it, many subsistence societies have had to “change to remain unchanged,” to alter some lifeways in order to retain others.
“Map or be Mapped”
Beginning in the 1980s, Nietschmann’s work tended toward human rights, geopolitics, and participatory mapping among indigenous, or what he called Fourth World, peoples. During the civil conflict in Nicaragua in the 1980s, for example, he wrote passionately about how Miskito ideas of their past underscored their armed resistance to the Sandinistas. His work advocated indigenous autonomy in Nicaragua’s Caribbean half, and while rarely popular, this position proved to be the solution to the conflict in 1987. After the war, he promoted what he called “conservation through self-determination.” To these ends, he helped Miskito turtlers map their marine territories and establish baseline environmental data on their fisheries. An outspoken environmentalist, Nietschmann became vocally opposed to top-down and outsider-led conservation initiatives that disregarded local indigenous knowledge and resource management practices.
In the 1990s, Nietschmann helped form GeoMap, a small group of Berkeley cartographers, to assist Mayan communities of Southern Belize to produce a first-ever indigenous atlas. In writing about this mapping experience, Nietschmann argued that indigenous peoples must “map or be mapped.” Through his fieldwork and writing, Nietschmann sought to empower indigenous people by helping them to defend their ancestral homes and sustain their ecosystems and livelihoods.
- Bernard Q. Nietschmann, Between Land and Water: The Subsistence Ecology of the Miskito Indians, Eastern Nicaragua (Seminar Press, 1973);
- Bernard Q. Nietschmann, “Hunting and Ecology of Dugongs and Green Turtles, Torres Strait, Australia,” National Geographic Society Research Reports (v.17, 1976);
- Bernard Q. Nietschmann, Caribbean Edge: The Coming of Modern Times to Isolated People and Wildlife (Bobbs-Merrill, 1979);
- Bernard Nietschmann, The Unknown War: The Miskito Nation, Nicaragua, and the United States (Freedom House, 1989);
- Bernard Nietschmann, “Protecting Indigenous Coral Reefs and Sea Territories, Miskito Coast, RAAN, Nicaragua,” in Stan Stevens, ed., Conservation Through Cultural Survival. Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas (Island Press, 1997);
- Toledo Maya Cultural Council, ed., Maya Atlas: The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize (North Atlantic Books, 1997).