3 lessons from Indian tribes on ecosystem conservation


Every year on August 9, the world celebrates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. JTribal communities have been indispensable forces in maintaining ecosystems around the world. For centuries, Indian tribes have helped preserve natural habitats and promote conservation through sustainable farming, fishing and wildlife cohabitation practices. Their rituals and beliefs further contribute to the protection of the environment. However, these communities often face forced evictions and other threats that affect their livelihoods as well as the ecosystems they have helped preserve for so long.

The UN-led Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the impact of environmental change on human well-being and called for several conservation actions. The report popularized the term “ecosystem services” instead of the vital services that ecosystems provide for human well-being. These include provisioning services like food and medicine, regulating services like climate regulation and decay, cultural services like aesthetic beauty, and supporting services like the water cycle. At the crossroads of all these services are the interdependencies of tribes and the ecosystem.

Tribal communities are about 9% of the Indian population the majority residing in central India. These communities have accumulated indigenous knowledge about agriculture and cohabitation that has little impact on forest ecosystems.

In areas like the Ziro Valley, the Apatani tribes are known for their sustainable agricultural practices of wet rice cultivation where nutrient leaches from the hilltops flow in to allow crops to grow. The irrigation of the land is facilitated by dug canals connected to the watercourses of the hills. Soil fertility is maintained by organic waste and the recycling of crop residues. Likewise, native animal populations such as the Himalayan squirrel are protected by a mechanism called ‘Dapo’where the community leader lays down rules for hunting and extraction, non-compliance with which can lead to penalties.

The Garasia tribes are known to have extensive knowledge of 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 sacred groves for folk deities.

Other sustainable practices include collecting medicinal plants by inspecting the maturity of the leaves to avoid overexploitation by the Bhotias of the central Himalayas. The tribesmen also grow barley and buckwheat in the high valleys during the summer for consumption. Once these crops are harvested, cattle and sheep are allowed to graze on the land. During this time, the high valleys are prepared for crops which are then used once the products are harvested for grazing activities. This seasonal cycle of agriculture and grazing allows the use of pastures and is called transhumance.

1. Wildlife Protection

In terms of wildlife protection, tribal communities often use totems and religious beliefs that restrict the killing of animals and certain plants. For example, for the Adi tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, tigers, sparrows and pangolins are considered sympathizers of humanity and are therefore not hunted. Likewise, it is believed that cutting down banyan trees can lead to starvation and death. This ultimately contributes to the preservation of the species. Mount Vojo Phu is considered a sacred mountain for the Akas, a tribal community in Arunachal Pradesh. For this reason, access to the mountain is restricted in an effort to help preserve the local flora and fauna.

2. Farming

In terms of agricultural practices, the Kadars of Tamil Nadu only pick fruits and vegetables from the mature stems of the plant, which are then cut and replanted for future harvest. Irulas, Muthuvas and Malayalis farms follow a mixed cropping system in which several types of crops are grown simultaneously in a specific area. This prevents overuse of groundwater and soil nutrients, as different crops have different requirements, and furthermore prevents soil erosion.

Gond, Pradhan and Baiga communities in Madhya Pradesh get involved Womb breeding, a method where subsequent seeds are sown in paddy fields before primary crop harvest to utilize existing soil moisture before the land dries out. These communities also follow the Badi cultivation system in which fruit crops and trees are planted along the periphery serving as a barricade against droughts and heavy rains while preventing soil erosion. Mulching, burning leaves for residues and retaining roots and stumps allow soil fertility and nutrient cycling .

3. Fishing

Fishing currently involves a certain amount of agricultural pesticides, blasting and chemicals. Unlike these harmful methods, tribal communities employ more sustainable techniques. For example, the Wancho and Nocte tribes in Tirap district create obstructions in waterways using bamboo, stones, coconut and tree branches in which fish are trapped and then collected and distributed among communities in a method known as Bheta.

Indian tribes like the Adi and the Galo employ Lipum fishing techniques where large bamboo baskets lined with seaweed are constructed and placed at the bottom of streams. Algae attract small insects which in turn attract the attention of fish. Captured fish are inspected and juvenile fish are released into the stream. This practice is practiced during the winter months to prevent people from fishing during the breeding season. In this way, fish populations are kept intact while local needs are met..

What threats do Indian tribes face?

Despite the tribes’ sustainable way of life, their populations dwindled and several communities migrated to cities for lucrative jobs. Those who remain are threatened with eviction by government bodies and anti-poaching teams. The creation of protected lands by the government has resulted in several displacements and the Forest Rights Act 2006 was an inadequate response to address land rights, resulting in the forced eviction of several tribal inhabitants.

Cases of harassment, bribes, delays in resolving grievances and unlawful evictions have also been reported. In addition, the conservation objective is also not achieved.

Tribal life is largely an embodiment of conscious extraction without exhaustion and a sense of responsibility to future generations. The Soliga Tribes of Karnataka take the honey from the combs and leave some on the forest floor for the tigers and cubs to consume. They also set controlled fires to prevent invasive plants that can destroy forests and thus affect animal life and the forest food chain.

The Chenchu, Baiga and Mising tribes consider tigers as a companion and in the areas of their residence, tiger populations have increased. The expulsions of these Indian tribes involve considerable ecological damage to the forests. Today, lantana an invasive plant species has destroyed several hectares of forests, including those of Bandipur due to the prohibition of displacement techniques.

In the Sariska Tiger Reserve – located in the Alwar district of Rajasthan the expulsion meant adverse changes in the composition of the vegetation which, in turn, affected the population of avifauna. In Pin Valley National Park there is competition between wild ibex and domestic goats and sheep for pasture leading to overgrazing which was previously managed through transhumance. Villages inside the forests have given rise to grasslands that serve as pastures for herbivores which in turn allow the carnivorous population to maintain the food cycle. In some cases, as in Kanha National Parkthese grasslands have also served as feeding sites for endangered animals like antelopes and some species of deer

The Importance of Protecting Indian Tribes

It is imperative to focus ecological protection on the improvement of tribal communities, as they are the main 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 Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh grow red gram 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 refined to propagate sustainable agricultural practices. Similarly, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) implemented the National Agricultural Technology Project to test Utera cropping system in 1999.

Thus, an impetus should be given to tribal communities to share their knowledge on conservation and indigenous methods that empower researchers, policy makers and conservationists. This can only happen when tribal communities are given stewardship positions and ownership of the land they have cultivated for centuries.

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