One Earth: Why the World Needs Indigenous Communities to Steward Their Lands

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An ethnic matriarch in India’s biodiversity-rich Sikkim State in the Himalayan foothills. She is a repository of traditional knowledge on plants both for food and medicinal properties. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS


09 August 2017 | Manipadma Jena | InterPress News

BHUBANESWAR, India, Aug 7 2017 (IPS) – “Showing them a picture-book crow, I intone ‘kaak’ in Bengali, the State language. While others repeat in chorus, the tribal Santhali first-graders respond with a blank look. They know the crow only as ‘koyo’. They’ll happily roll out glass marbles to count but ask them how many they counted, they remain silent because in their mother tongue, one is mit, two is bariah – very different sounding from the Bengali ek and du.”

Teacher Ramakrushna Bhadra faced a formidable challenge at the rural Hatrasulganj Santhal primary school in India’s eastern West Bengal state, until he decided to learn the tribal language himself.

Out of 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide, India holds as many as 700 different ethnic groups, adding up to 104 million people.

For Santhals, the largest tribal community in West Bengal, Bengali is a foreign tongue. Hence at school, the new entrants learnt nothing, lost interest, dropped out of classes and joined their parents in seasonal migration. Generational illiteracy has only perpetuated the poverty cycle.

India even passed a law declaring education as a constitutional right for all children 6 to 14 years old, and to reduce the drop-out rate of ethnic minorities, it provided for mother-tongue primary education and set up free residential schools in tribal pockets.

With a precarious demographic total of around 8,000, and a female literacy rate of 3 percent, the Dongria Kondh tribal community in neighbouring Odisha state has an exclusive girls-only free residential school in Rayagada district set up by the government in 2008.

While enrolling and retaining the girls demands continued effort, teachers say older girls who have been in the school for some years have now distanced themselves from their roots, viewing their unique traditional costume and hair-dress as embarrassing.

Retaining unique indigenous cultures, their traditional knowledge systems and sustainable management of natural resources, even while aiding them to access, choose and prioritize from the development pathway so that they are not left behind, has been a challenge for governments around the world.

Out of 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide, India holds as many as 700 different ethnic groups, adding up to 104 million.

Central to this challenge and offering the closest solution is granting their right to customary land and the resources within it.

Their ancestral land and natural resources have a fundamental importance in their livelihood, ways and of life, culture and religion and, in fact, in their collective physical and cultural survival as communities.

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One of the Indian tribes least in contact with the outside world, the Bonda community’s remote settlements are part of the left-wing extremists Red Corridor, where government education, health and sanitation schemes have had little impact. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS


The government has several specific programmes for indigenous communities such as in education, livelihoods, quotas in educational institutions and jobs, and food security at huge funding expense, whose aim has been to bridge the conspicuous economic gap between them and the mainstream population.

“Poor implementation of existing schemes in the tribal regions has meant that not only poverty

continues at exceptionally high levels in these regions, but the decline in poverty has been much slower here than in the entire country,” according to an earlier national report by the Planning Commission, now Niti Aayog.

Discrimination, official apathy, and insensitivity to tribal ways of life, rampant corruption, denial of justice and human dignity, and political marginalization has led to entrenchment of left-wing extremism is several tribal regions in India.

In India, most of the indigenous groups live in deep natural forests that sit atop rich deposits of iron, bauxite, chromites, coal and other minerals. The government and corporate miners want to get their hands on as much of this as possible.

But the Indian Constitution has given powers of self-governance and autonomy to tribal communities over their habitat, where the village council holds the last word in decisions, even over government’s, on the use of its resources, specifically in the context of the Forests Rights Act 2006 and the Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013.

Still, this power of the village council has been subverted time and again by government agencies and corporate, as numerous studies and reports have established.

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