Lessons for Sustainability: Indigenous People and Forests Go Hand in Hand

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Read Full article by Samitha Vasudevan and Kunal Sharma@Science the Wire Photo Credit: Simon Williams

With the world reeling under the effects of the coronavirus, there has been a sudden and renewed focus on the vulnerabilities of indigenous communities to foreign diseases. There have also been calls to slow down and take a closer look at the lifestyles of our country’s natural inhabitants. Often painted as obstructions to industrial development on the one hand and wildlife conservation on the other, indigenous people have a number of lessons to offer to India’s urban citizens.

Of the 650+ indigenous groups who reside in or depend on forests, few match the simple ways of the Baiga of Central India. Derided for their cults and shifting cultivation but acknowledged for their ancient customs of medicine, their hunting prowess and storytelling abilities, the Baiga hold many lessons that can be adapted to a post-pandemic world.

The Baiga have a very low ecological footprint. A piece of cloth serves as a turban and a dark half jacket makes them easily recognisable. They use leaves as plates, earthen pots to store water, a few aluminium utensils and some fishing nets to fish. They firmly believe in the philosophy of ‘less is more’.

A report published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem in 2019 said nature is declining less quickly on indigenous people’s lands than in other areas, and encouraged policymakers to draw lessons from the community stewardship of land.

The Baigas have a millennia-old relationship with their land and as a result of which their ethnobotanical knowledge is immense and diversified. Traditionally they have harvested plants based on a scheduled designed to minimise harm to the forest’s flora. No produce is over-exploited. So it’s not surprising that lands in Baiga protection are often more biodiverse compared to adjoining lands, especially in places where their reciprocal relationship with nature is still intact.

The Baigas can also teach us about the complex interdependence of life. Forests mean many things to many people: a source for food, a source of medicinal plants, a valuable economic resource for many. All these are traditional demands that have been met by forests for millennia. For the Baiga, the forest is an omnipresent altruist, always ready to give. In return, the Baiga seeks permission from the forest gods before extracting plants and ensure they never take more than what they need.

The Baiga can also effortlessly point out numerous herbs used to treat injuries from wild animals, venereal diseases and protection from ill omens as well, while protecting the rich Maikal landscape.

As for food: Baiga agriculture is opposed to ploughing the land because they believe it is akin to hurting Mother earth and tearing away at her breast. Instead, they prefer sowing a variety of pulses, coarse grains, vegetables and oilseeds, and supplement their diet with fish, hunted animals and an array of leaves and tubers from the forest. The Baiga have rarely been malnourished because the tribe’s members would have access to some coarse grain such as kodo and kutki, wild tubers or the nutritious liquid pej (made from ground millets) even during environmental crises.

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Posted on

April 28, 2020

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