Every year on August 9, the world celebrates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. TRiparian communities have been indispensable forces in maintaining ecosystems around the world. For centuries, indigenous tribes have helped preserve natural habitats and promote conservation through sustainable practices in agriculture, fishing, and wildlife living. Their rituals and beliefs further contribute to the protection of the environment. However, these communities today face risks of eviction that affect their livelihoods and the ecosystems they helped preserve for so long.
The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the impact of environmental change on human well-being and called for various actions for conservation. The report popularized the term ‘ecosystem services’ rather than the life-supporting services that ecosystems provide for human well-being. These include provisioning services such as food and medicine, regulatory services such as climate regulation and decomposition, cultural services such as aesthetic beauty, and supporting services such as the water cycle. At the crossroads of all these services are the interdependencies of the tribes and the ecosystem.
The tribal communities constitute about 9% of the Indian population with the majority residing in Central India. These communities have accumulated indigenous knowledge about agriculture and coexistence that have few consequences on forest ecosystems.
In areas such as the Ziro Valley, the Apatani tribes are known for their sustainable farming practices of wet rice cultivation where nutrient washes flow from the tops of the hills to allow the growth of crops. Irrigation of the land is facilitated by canals dug and connected to streams from the hills. Soil fertility is maintained through organic waste and recycling of crop residues. Similarly, populations of indigenous animals such as the Himalayan chipmunk are protected through a mechanism called ‘Dapo’where the head of the community establishes rules on hunting and extraction, non-compliance with which can lead to sanctions.
The Garasia tribes are known to have extensive knowledge about the ethnomedicinal plants in Sirohi district, many of which are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. To protect them, tribal communities have developed patches of forest called groves sacred to popular deities.
Other sustainable practices include collecting medicinal plants by inspecting for leaf maturity to prevent overharvesting by the Central Himalayan Bhotias. Members of the tribe also grow barley and buckwheat in the upper valleys during the summer for consumption. Once these crops are harvested, cattle and sheep can graze on the land. During this time, the upper valleys are prepared for the cultivation of crops that are then used once the product is harvested for grazing activities. This seasonal cycle of agriculture and grazing allows the use of pastures and is called transhumance.
In terms of wildlife protection, tribal communities often employ totem poles and religious beliefs that restrict the culling of animals and certain plants. For example, for the Adi tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, tigers, sparrows and pangolins are believed to be benefactors of humanity and therefore are not hunted. Equally, it is believed that cutting down banyan trees can lead to famine and death. Ultimately, this helps in the preservation of the species. Mount Vojo Phu is considered a holy mountain for the Akas, a tribal community from Arunachal Pradesh. For this reason, access to the mountain is restricted in an effort to help preserve the local flora and fauna.
In terms of agricultural practices, the Kadars of Tamil Nadu pluck fruits and vegetables only from the mature stems of the plant, which are then cut and replanted for future harvest. Irulas, Muthuvas and Malayalis farms follow a mixed farming system where various types of crops are grown simultaneously in a specific area. This prevents overexploitation of the water table and soil nutrients, as different crops have different requirements, and also prevents soil erosion.
The Gond, Pradhan and Baiga communities of Madhya Pradesh undertake uterine culture, a method in which the following seeds are sown in paddy fields before the primary crops are harvested to take advantage of existing moisture in the soil before the land dries out. These communities also follow the Badi cultivation system in which fruit crops and trees are planted on the periphery that serve as a barricade against droughts and intense rains and prevent soil erosion. Mulching, burning of leaves for residues, and retention of roots and stumps allow for soil fertility and nutrient cycling. .
Today, fishing involves a certain amount of agricultural pesticides, dynamite and chemicals. Unlike these harmful methods, tribal communities employ more sustainable techniques. For example, the Wancho and Nocte tribes of Tirap district create stream obstructions using bamboo, stones, coconut fiber and tree branches in which fish are trapped and then collected and distributed among the communities in a method known as Bheta.
Indian tribes like Adi and Galo employ Lipum Fishing Techniques in which large bamboo baskets lined with algae are built and placed at the bottom of streams. The algae attract small insects which in turn attract the attention of the fish. The caught fish are inspected and the juveniles are returned to the stream. This practice is done during the winter months to prevent people from fishing during the breeding season. In this way, fish stocks are kept intact while local needs are met..
What threats do Indian tribes face?
Despite the sustainable lifestyle of the tribes, their populations have dwindled with several communities migrating to the cities in search of lucrative jobs. Those that remain are under threat of eviction by government agencies and anti-poaching squads. The creation of protected lands by the government has led to several displacements and the Forest Rights Act of 2006 has been an inadequate response to address land rights, leading to the forced eviction of several tribal inhabitants.
Cases of harassment, bribery, delays in resolving claims and illegal evictions have also been reported. In addition to this, the conservation objective is not met.
Tribal life is largely an embodiment of conscious extraction without exhaustion and a sense of responsibility towards future generations. the Sunny Tribes of Karnataka take the honey from the combs and leave some on the forest floor for the tiger and bear cubs to consume. They also light controlled fires to avoid invasive plants that can destroy forests and thus affect animal life and the forest food chain.
The Chenchu, Baiga and Mising tribes consider tigers a companion and in the areas of their residence, tiger populations have increased. The evictions of these indigenous tribes imply considerable ecological damage to the forests. This day, lantana a species of invasive plant has destroyed several hectares of forests, highlighting those of Bandipur due to the prohibition of displacement techniques.
In the Sariska Tiger Reserve, located in the Alwar district of Rajasthan – the eviction meant adverse changes in the composition of the vegetation that in turn affected the bird population. In Pin Valley National Park there is competition between wild ibex and domestic goats and sheep for pasture, leading to overgrazing that was previously managed through transhumance. The villages within the forests have resulted in grassland formations that serve as grazing plots for herbivores which, in turn, allow the carnivorous population to maintain the food cycle. In some cases, as in Kanha National Parkthese grasslands also served as feeding grounds for endangered animals such as antelope and some species of deer
The importance of protecting Indian tribes
It is imperative to focus ecological protection on the enhancement of tribal communities as they are key stakeholders of indigenous knowledge. Their sustainable lifestyle makes them extremely capable of protecting and conserving the environment around them.
Some of their practices have helped formulate conservation policies. For example, Indian tribes in the Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh grow red gram along with rice to prevent soil erosion, these are exchanged with Mahua flowers and black gram to replenish soil fertility. This sustainable model was borrowed by the Regional Agricultural Station and further refined to propagate sustainable agricultural practices. Similarly, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) implemented the National Agricultural Technology Project to try utera culture system in 1999.
Tribal communities should therefore be encouraged to share their conservation knowledge and indigenous methods that empower researchers, policymakers and conservationists. This can only be done when tribal communities hold management positions and are stakeholders in the land they have farmed for centuries.
You might also like: Solutions to deforestation: indigenous communities as guardians of a greener society