Why indigenous communities are the key to India's sustainable future
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In the rich tapestry of India’s diverse cultural landscape, indigenous communities, often referred to as Adivasis, play a vital role in protecting India’s rich biodiversity. As we celebrate World Nature Conservation Day, it is important to recognize the role that indigenous communities have been playing in conserving and creating deep connections with the environment. 

With an estimated population of 104 million, they comprise 8.6% of the nation’s total population and 705 officially recognised ethnic groups by Government of India data. Despite their diversity, they share commonalities in their way of life and hold an oppressed position in Indian society.

Living primarily in forests, mountainous and hilly areas, they have developed a profound understanding of their natural surroundings and have traditionally relied on sustainable practices that harmonise with the environment. This connection with nature not only shapes their livelihoods but also influences their cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs, creating a sustainable future for all. 

Indigenous Peoples’ Connection to Nature

Indigenous peoples live in close harmony with nature, adopting sustainable practices that have been passed down through generations. Their connection to the land, forests, water, animals and mountains is deeply ingrained in their cultural identity. They rely on traditional knowledge to sustainably manage natural resources, ensuring their continuity for future generations.

Communities like “Adis” in Arunachal Pradesh use herbal medicines to cure ailments like fever and malaria and the Bonda community adopts natural pest control methods, relying on birds, insects, and snakes, respecting nature’s balance as they believe they all are a part of mother nature. Indigenous communities have a profound understanding of the ecosystems they inhabit, which allows them to coexist with nature without causing significant harm.

They respect the balance of ecosystems and wildlife. Moreover, their social structures and customs often revolve around sustainable living, fostering a strong sense of community and shared responsibility for the environment. By preserving their cultural heritage and traditional practices, indigenous peoples continue to demonstrate a model of sustainable living that serves as an inspiration for modern societies in the quest for a more environmentally balanced future.

Emerging Challenges 

In recent years, however, indigenous communities have faced increasing threats to their land and resources. These challenges include inadequate recognition and protection of their rights, exclusionary policies, deforestation, mining and climate change impacts. As a result, many indigenous communities are now struggling to maintain and conserve their traditional ways of life.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a crucial chance to address these challenges, ensuring that indigenous peoples are not left behind in the pursuit of a more equitable and sustainable future. They also have valuable knowledge and skills that can be used to develop sustainable conservation practices.

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into India’s Knowledge System

Indigenous communities possess valuable knowledge and practices that are often insufficiently documented, creating a challenge in understanding their way of life for sustainable living. Recognizing the significance of indigenous knowledge, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) in India seeks to incorporate it into the Indian Knowledge System (IKS).

To achieve this, there is a strong push for “re-documentation” of the cultural and social practices of indigenous and tribal societies in the country. This new approach aims to involve more indigenous sociologists, anthropologists, researchers, and stakeholders from these communities to study and document their own cultural and historical practices.

Conservation Efforts and Sustainable Practices by Indigenous Communities

Indigenous communities are taking crucial steps to conserve their natural habitats. For instance, the Karbi people of Assam are working tirelessly to protect their forests from illegal logging. Meanwhile, the Nyishi people of Arunachal Pradesh are promoting sustainable fishing practices, such as fish farming, to conserve fish stocks in the region. The Apatani people of Arunachal Pradesh are dedicated to preserving their wetlands, which serve as a home to a diverse array of rare and endangered birds and animals.

Similarly, the Khasi people of Meghalaya are focused on safeguarding their sacred groves, crucial habitats for rare and endangered plants and animals. In Mizoram, the Mizo people are committed to protecting their forests from deforestation, recognizing the severe threat it poses to the region’s biodiversity. The Dimasa people of Assam take pride in conserving their traditional rice varieties, which are inherently resilient to pests and diseases.

The Chakma communities in Mizoram value their traditional weaving practices that employ natural dyes and materials, supporting sustainable craftsmanship. Meanwhile, the tribal communities in Nagaland are dedicated to the preservation of their sacred sites, which hold immense cultural and spiritual significance. The endeavours of these indigenous communities serve as a powerful example of how traditional knowledge and sustainable practices can contribute to conserving nature and cultural heritage. Their efforts align with the broader goal of promoting sustainable living and environmental conservation.

By recognizing, preserving, and integrating indigenous knowledge into our collective understanding, we can forge a path towards a more harmonious and sustainable future for both indigenous communities and the broader world. This approach fosters a deeper understanding of traditional wisdom, sustainable practices, and local solutions, which can be harnessed for community development and environmental conservation. 

Building Capacities of Indigenous Networks for Documenting Cultural Practices and Knowledge

It is very crucial to build capacities of indigenous networks to document their cultural practices and knowledge through digitization and new media. These practices will play a vital role in contributing to a more accurate and nuanced understanding of their history, traditions, and invaluable contributions to society.

Engaging indigenous researchers and scholars ensures the incorporation of indigenous perspectives and voices in the body of knowledge, promoting cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue, and a more inclusive approach to learning and research and a step towards environment conversation and sustainable living.

For example, Anamaya, the tribal health collaborative is the process of developing mobile film-making workshops for tribal youth in Arunachal Pradesh and Jharkhand, given that audio-visual documentation of tribal culture is essential for preserving heritage, fostering cultural pride, facilitating research, promoting cross-cultural understanding, empowering communities, raising awareness, and contributing to cultural revival.

By capturing the essence of tribal cultures on film, we ensure that their voices and traditions are celebrated and cherished for generations to come.

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Active Involvement of Indigenous Communities in Policy Development

Involving indigenous communities in policy development undoubtedly fosters the creation of holistic and sustainable policies that benefit biodiversity on a large scale. This approach ensures inclusivity and cultural sensitivity, empowering indigenous peoples to take ownership and responsibility for their natural heritage.

By preserving and integrating their traditional knowledge, these policies promote social cohesion and preserve the rich cultural heritage of indigenous communities. As policies align with indigenous values, they gain acceptance and trust, fostering collaboration between the government and these communities.

The result is a framework of effective, sustainable, and just policies that contribute to cultural preservation, social harmony, and the promotion of indigenous rights and well-being. Embracing indigenous culture in policy development ultimately fosters a more inclusive and diverse society that values the contributions of all its citizens. Every action we take to protect nature makes a difference and a sustainable future for our future generations.

Sadaan Ahmad Khan manages the Strategic Communications and Design at Anamaya, the Tribal Health Collaborative.

Tejas Pande leads Strategic Communications and Design at Anamaya, the Tribal Health Collaborative.

Madhu Raghavendra leads the Centre of Excellence for Culture, at Anamaya, the Tribal Health Collaborative.

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