Learning from the Environmentalism of the Poor

Our India office recently sent us the encouraging news that the Uttarakhand state government (India) will fully implement the Forest Rights Act 2006. As a result the tribal people of Uttarakhand will finally regain access to the land on which their livelihood and way of life has depended for centuries. Visit our website to read more.

This is an important development not only for tribal people but for all of us.

Deforestation, which causes almost a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, makes a significant contribution to climate change. As I have been reading recently many believe that by fully including tribal (indigenous) people in talks about climate change and by affording them full legal rights to the land on which they depend, we will be helping to secure the future of forests.

Custodians and managers of forest biodiversity

Respect for indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices contributes to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment.” The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The tropical and subtropical forest is home to 160 million indigenous people who are seen by many scientists as custodians and managers of forest biodiversity.

I recently read an interesting article in the New Internationalist by Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain. She writes that “the challenge is for us to find ways of learning from the environmentalism of the poor….they have a different relationship with their environment. They live on and off it – the land, the forests. The destruction of the environment affects livelihoods and lives and not just lifestyles.” For indigenous people then, “the non-felling of sacred trees and rules about harvesting of forest products were ingrained as religious rituals rather than understood as conservation methods.” (Aparna Pallavi, Down to Earth)

These observations are confirmed by a World Bank study ‘Forest Reform in India.’ The study found that, where governments had increased the rights of forest communities to use and manage forest resources, community incomes had not only increased, but forest cover had improved.

So where are the voices of indigenous people in climate talks?

A couple of days ago the former US vice-president Al Gore told the World Economic Forum at Davos that President Obama is serious about finding a successor to the Kyoto Protocol at a Copenhagen climate summit in December. This is encouraging news.

However the December 2008 UN climate talks in Poznan, an important precursor to Copenhagen, were met with widespread disappointment. Despite the fact that the UN climate convention is now deemed to be in a better position to disperse funds to developing countries that need to adapt to the effects of climate change, the lack of genuine inclusion of indigenous peoples in the talks was criticized.

According to Haider Rizvi at OneWorld.Net the world’s indigenous leaders at the 2008 World Summit of Indigenous Cultures, pointed out that global initiatives to reduce carbon emissions are failing to take into account the interests of indigenous communities. “This is occurring despite the fact that indigenous peoples are suffering the most from climate change and climate change mitigation projects that directly impact their lands.” Alfred Ilenre of the Edo People of Nigeria

The tools are there….let’s push for change!

In an article posted on Indigenous Issues today Bharti Chhiber writes that whilst frameworks are available for the “protection of this rare knowledge of indigenous communities…. it is always in the implementation part that we lag behind.(Bharti Chhiber)

Our partners in India showed that, by working together people can effectively call on government to carry out their promises.

My reading these past few weeks has led me to ask how we can work better together to push for change. As Jess Worth writes in an article in the New Internationalist: “Humanity has never faced such an all-encompassing crisis…..But, whilst daunting, this is also an enormous opportunity. Can a global movement for justice succeed?….We have no choice but to try.”


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