Learning from tribal communities: Ecology and health issues

Indigenous people represent only about six percent of the world’s population, but they inhabit around a quarter of the world’s land surface. And they share these regions with a hugely disproportionate array of plant and animal life. According to the UN and the World Bank, about 80 percent of our planet’s biodiversity is on land where indigenous people live.

“There is a need to explore the tribal consciousness in the backdrop of climate change, development, and deforestation.” – Deepanwita Gita Niyogi in “India’s Adivasi Identity in Crisis” Pulitzer Center May 27, 2021 | Learn more about climate change and illegal mining | United Nations on climate change | Find free publications on India’s hunter-gatherers in the Unesco Digital Library >>

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For a natural balance

A National Consultation on Wildlife Conservation and People’s Livelihood Rights stresses the need to work towards conservation projects that are equally sensitive to the needs of wildlife and local communities. […]

The venue of the workshop thus offered a good opportunity for the participants to look at the collaborative work of the VGKK, ATREE and the Karnataka Forest Department on the use of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) to ensure the livelihood security of the Soligas, while attempting to keep the conservation objectives of the BRT sanctuary in mind. It also provided abundant proof that adivasis and forests are inextricably linked. Where the sanctuary and the tribal people had protected the forests, it had helped protect their nutritional and health basis. Dr. Sudarshan gave various instances of diseases/conditions such as appendicitis, colonic cancer, vitamin deficiency, ischaemic heart disease, hypertension, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome ( AIDS), which were once unknown among the Soligas. Also caesarian deliveries and eyesight disorders were absent among them.

This real-life example of an alternative approach provided an ideal backdrop to discussions that dwelt on several critical national issues. At the outset, the context for the dialogue was set on the basis of the experience of conservation initiatives tak en in the past few decades in India.

IN an attempt to conserve the depleting forests and wildlife in India, the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA) was enacted in 1972. It made the creation of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries (protected areas) the main means for wildlife conservation. Th ere were significant initial successes. […]

Calculations based on surveys conducted in the mid-1980s by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), Delhi suggest that over three million people live in areas that are designated as national parks and sanctuaries and millions are dependent on the resources from them. Conservation efforts did not take into consideration these people, their rights or even needs. The conflicts were waiting to happen. Yellappa Reddy, retired forest officer and former Secretary, Environment and Forests, Karnataka, pointed out that the traditional harmony between tribal people and forest officers at the Nagarahole National Park was spoilt by a recent move to shift the tribal people out of the part. “If the government does not change its attitude, many more Veerappans will be created,” he said.

But the fault lies not only with the government. The increasing politicisation and commercialisation of the rural areas, the breakdown of traditions, and demands made by the growing human and livestock populations have all contributed to the present situation. The net result: wildlife, wildlife habitats, and the resource base of rural and tribal communities continue to be destroyed. […]

The Consultation suggested that a code of conduct that would make tourism an environmentally and culturally sensitive activity be formulated and enforced strictly. This would often happen only if local communities and wildlife officials/NGOs are empowered to manage and earn revenue from tourism. The major part of the revenue generated should go back to the management of the wildlife habitat. The Periyar Tiger Reserve (Kerala), the Morjim beach (Goa) and the Khanchendzonga National Park (Sikkim) – where locals benefited and ecological principles were applied – were cited as alternative models in this regard. […]

Source: “For a natural balance” by Pankaj Sekhsaria and Ashish Kothari,
Frontline Magazine, Volume 17 – Issue 11, May 27 – Jun. 09, 2000
Address : http://www.hindu.com/fline/fl1711/17111210.htm
Date Visited: Sun Sep 04 2011 13:11:28 GMT+0200 (CEST)

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

India has committed US $50 million towards strengthening the institutional mechanism for biodiversity conservation in the country during its presidency of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). Called the Hyderabad Pledge, the amount was announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while inaugurating a three-day, high-level ministerial segment of CBD on October 16. [2014]

[…] The funds will be used to enhance technical and human capabilities at the national and state-level mechanisms to attain the CBD objectives

Source: M Suchitra, Down to Earth, 4 July 2015: Hyderabad biodiversity pledgeUS $50 million to protect biodiversity in India
URL: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/us-50-million-to-protect-biodiversity-in-india-39358
Date visited: 17 April 2019

Find up-to-date information provided by, for and about Indian authors, researchers, officials, and educators

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Shodhganga (a reservoir of Indian theses) – https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in

Survival International – www.survivalinternational.org

Unesco – https://en.unesco.org

Unesco digital library – https://unesdoc.unesco.org

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[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)
URL: https://www.indiatoday.in/history-of-it/story/ambedkar-gandhi-caste-system-poona-pact-1932-reservation-2445208-2023-10-06

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“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)
URL: https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/discipline-notion-particular-government-interview-romila-thapar 

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Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)
URL: https://theprint.in/opinion/oprah-winfrey-wilkerson-caste-100-us-ceos-indians-wont-talk-about-it/487143/

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“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2
URL: https://www.academia.edu/49963457

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“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)
URL: https://vsanthakumar.wordpress.com/2024/04/13/on-the-so-called-north-south-divide-in-india/

Learn more

Atree.org | Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (posts)

Biodiversity | Hyderabad biodiversity pledge | Nilgiri Biosphere

Climate change | Audio | The Climate Question (BBC Podcast)

Ecology and environment

eJournals & eBooks | Background guide for education

eLearning: Center for World Indigenous Studies

Ethnobotany & ethnomedicine

Forest Rights Act (FRA) | Hunter-gatherers | Legal rights over forest land

Gandhian social movement

Health and nutrition | Recommendations by the Expert Committee

Indigenous knowledge systems

M S Swaminathan

Native science

Nature and wildlife


Revival of traditions

Rural poverty

Sacred grove

Shola Trust

Success story

Tagore and rural culture

“The tribal food basket has always been ­diverse and nutritious”

Tribal culture worldwide

United Nations on climate change

Vandana Shiva


Wildlife tourism

What is the Forest Rights Act about?
Who is a forest dweller under this law, and who gets rights?