While global climate change movements make headlines and ”highly-educated people in far-off cities make policy”, the role of the indigenous communities in mitigating the climate crisis goes unnoticed, a new report claims. Until recently, indigenous communities, to whom the “connection between forests and life is clear”, were rarely regarded as ‘agents’ of environmental conservation. However, the People’s Climate Report, claiming to be the first of its kind, attempts to upend this top-down narrative of the climate change movement by “amplifying voices from the grassroots”—specifically from Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh.

Many instances of locals, particularly women, leading the change on ground with their “holistic” view of the forest ecosystem are mentioned in the first People’s Climate Report, published by the People’s Climate Network (PCN)—a newly formed and still evolving alliance of activists, scholars and citizens across India and other parts of the world.

The coexistence of forests, wildlife and local communities is highlighted to provide a bottom-up perspective to climate change. To reveal a “major blind spot of the mainstream discourse about climate solutions”, the report begins with the tale of Parvati Devi.

Witnessing Jharkhand’s desertification due to rapid deforestation in natural resource-rich areas, Parvati Devi, two decades ago, realised the inextricable link between rapidly disappearing forests and everyday problems faced by the community, including depleting water supply and extreme weather conditions.

The report argues that the loss of forest cover, mostly for the “violent industry” of extractive mining, has led to a host of problems—depletion of groundwater, increase in net-carbon emissions, changes in local weather patterns, loss of traditional tribal livelihoods and a collapse of various plant and animal species—all in the name of ‘development’.

Devi, with other village women rallying behind her, took the lead in nurturing the forest ecosystem back to health. The women today patrol forests in groups of three, beginning at the crack of dawn. After convincing the locals and the forest department to allow them to lead the change, the women have also dug pools and made mud dams to conserve water.

Twenty years later, a verdant forest with abundant resources are evidence of the women’s success. Now assured of a steady supply of food and water, even the animals have returned.

“These natural resource dependent communities are among the poorest of the poor,” states the report. “They have not had a single day of formal education. And yet they have been the ones protecting this 200-hectare forest for the past twenty years or so.”

According to a member of the People’s Climate Network, the motivation of the local movements at the grassroots, mostly led by women, does not directly address climate change, but is more to do with efforts to restore food and ensure water security, especially “at a time and in a region where massive destruction of natural resources” has become the norm.

“These women understand that their wellbeing is intimately connected with the wellbeing of the forest, including its wildlife. They see things holistically - the water, the temperature, the animals and trees are not separate from their lives,” he told The Citizen.

He explained that women are “disproportionately” affected by the loss of forests. They also seem to have “deeper insights” about the link between forests and water, nutrition, livelihood and temperature moderation. In many cases, then, women seem to be taking the lead in conserving forests and replanting new ones.

“The sad reality of rural India is its dependence on distress migration and the resulting absence of menfolk, so in many of the places women were in the forefront of decision making about the protection of the forest. In places where men migrate less, men seemed to be involved as well,” he stated.

While the local populace might have solutions to immediate problems, the threat of displacement due to loss of forest cover still hangs heavy. Apart from losing their land and their livelihood, local conservation efforts to reclaim barren land razed for development projects will also be drastically impacted and disappear with the eviction of forest dwelling communities.

As the community leader of Buxa Fort told the People’s Climate Network, “If you observe carefully, places which still have villages, have forest land, but places from where villages have been removed, don’t have much forest left… if these communities are displaced, not only the people, but also the wildlife and biodiversity will be endangered and none may survive.”

“The Forest Department seems to be missing in action where it is needed the most,” the Network told The Citizen, adding that the relationship between the forest department and forest dwelling communities has been one of “oppressor-oppressed.” “Not in one place did we find the Forest Department to be benign in the eyes of the people.”

With the loss of forest cover come a host of other unavoidable disasters. According to the Network, many forest-dwelling communities have lost cattle and even their relatives to animal attacks, but still harbour no hatred towards wildlife. “They understand this as a natural cycle and how things work. Many expressed concern that increasing deforestation leads to an increase in human-animal conflict,” the PCN member said.

Deforestation also leads to an erasure of indigenouse knowledge systems. He explained that these knowledge systems “don’t exist in a vacuum and unfortunately, the loss of forests leads to erosion of knowledge systems.”

He recounted a conversation with a village elder in Koderma, Jharkhand who explained the community’s reliance on forest produce for medicines. With their area having been removed of tree cover, the people of the village have now become reliant on western medicine and lost “good health”. He further added that many people in the Dumka area of the state are still “deeply conversant with the herbs because a patch of the forest is alive.”

“Healthy forests lead to healthy knowledge traditions - which shouldn’t surprise anyone; after all, robust investment in laboratories and scientific institutions is needed for widespread knowledge of modern science as well,” he told The Citizen.

By bringing the symbiotic relationship between communities and forests to light, the People’s Climate Report explains the crucial link between people on the frontlines and climate change mitigation. The report also highlights the global attention that indigenous conservation efforts are slowly receiving.

As a 2018 report by the Rights and Resources Initiative, in collaboration with global indigenous and environmental organisations states, “Indigenous Peoples and local communities manage at least 17 percent (293,061 Mt) of the total carbon stored in the forestlands”, equivalent to 33 times the global energy emissions of 2017. It further highlights that one-third of community managed carbon lies in forest lands where indigenous people and local communities lack legal recognition of their tenure rights.

The People’s Climate Report thus advocates climate justice that is centred on “the knowledge and agency of the people who are at the forefront of both climate impacts and ‘development’ projects.”

As the PCN member told The Citizen, “Seeking climate justice at the grassroots - where people are most affected - is a complex challenge. They are not just oppressed by a single cause but by multiple dimensions of loss of livelihood, human-animal conflict, uncertain agriculture, loss of land due to natural causes, land grabs, deteriorating health and deforestation...and others.”

“Climate change or not, tribal communities have always worked to protect the forests and understand the complex web of life.”

(Cover Photo: A People's Climate Report. People's Climate Network. December 27, 2019)