The present day global concerns for sustainable development and conservation of natural resources spanning the two decades between the Stockholm Conference of Environment in 1992 and the United Nations Conference on Human Environment and Development (Earth Summit) at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 are of recent origin in comparison to the long tradition and cultural ethos of nature conservation among the indigenous people around the world.
They may be poor, illiterate, and disadvantaged in many other ways, but they have a tremendous understanding of ecosystems and the factors that sustain them. Their traditions, festivals, rituals and belief systems corroborate that they regard nature with deep respect, and they have a strong sense of place and belonging.
The Hornbill Festival, held in Nagaland, is an important environment related tribal festival in India. Celebrated on Nagaland’s State Formation Day on December 1st, this festival is named after the Hornbill in collective reverence to the bird enshrined in the cultural ethos of the Nagas, carries an important message of environmental conservation along with reviving and protecting the cultural heritage of Nagas.
In the three day Tamla-Du festival celebrated in Arunachal Pradesh, prayers are offered to the nature as it is believed that only nature that can prevents them from any nature’s fury.
The worship of Mother Earth is a universal phenomenon in many indigenous cultures. There are innumerable examples of festivals, rituals, songs, and myths that celebrate the gifts of Mother Earth all over the world, revealing the intimate sense of togetherness and harmony that exists between man and nature in tribal societies. An American – Indian community, the Sioux Indians, refused to till the soil because they did not want to wound the body of their mother, the Earth.
Sarhul is another example where tribes worship trees over a week-long festival. Sarhul festival is celebrated with great fervor by the Santhal, Oraon, Ho and Munda tribe of Jharkhand. This festival marks the beginning of New Year for the tribe. Sarhul literally means ‘Worship of Sal’. Sal is valued by all members of the community and great care is taken to preserve the trees. Local people believe that trees are the abode of the deity, and therefore, cutting them is like committing a sin.
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In the Ba’Aka pygmies of Central Africa, minimal trapping of animals during the rainy season and sparing of young animals are meant to allow animal populations to increase.
The Mullu Kurauma tribe of Kerala uses ‘Panam Kenis’- special type of wells exclusively used for cooking and drinking purpose. To prevent the Keni water from getting polluted, it is never used for bathing or washing clothes. Even wearing footwear near them is considered a sinful practice.
In another instance, women of Chakulia district, Jharkhand tie Rakhi to Sal trees in a nearby forest and establish a bond of being a custodian of their existence.
The Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh follows the paddy cum pisciculture cultivation instead of Jhum cultivation, thus saving the soil fertility. A ritual named Myokung is performed for the fertility of soil in the month of March. The Apatanis make use of different types of plant species during such ritualistic performances. These plants are given due preferences and conserved because of such ritualistic importance placed on them.
The Tonga tribe- believed to be inhabited by the first Bantu-speaking people to live in Zambia- has generally ensured that fruit trees are left intact whilst other trees are cut to prepare fields for crops as they serve as wind breakers and minimize the impact of storms on their crops. In the extraction of nature-based medicines, the entire plant is not uprooted under the superstition that the species would relocate to places far from the local community, thus being inaccessible and resulting in deaths locally.
Even killing scavenger birds is a taboo amongst the Tongas. These birds are extolled for cleaning the environment as they feast on carcases of cattle which die of foot and mouth disease almost annually.
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While, many towns and cities, worldwide, have still not succeeded in being free from open defecation, Tongaland has been designated as a ‘No Open Defecation Zone’ by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2013. It is, undoubtedly, a big achievement that simultaneously proves that that these tribes care more for the environment than we think they do!
Thus, rather than isolating these communities, they must be engaged in environment conservation in such a way that their cultural values are infused with scientific management. Empowerment of these groups combined with their knowledge and long-term planning skills, is essential to ensure the survival of future generations – of both humans and wildlife. Facilitating such partnerships will fulfill the dual motive of uplifting tribes as well as help in achieving several Sustainable Development Goals.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that decent work is both a means and an end to achieve sustainable development and eradicate poverty. Accordingly, the ILO Decent Work Agenda has a fundamental role to play in mitigating the specific social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples, and tackling their high levels of poverty.
Governments, policymakers and environmentalists need to give the conservation strategies employed by indigenous people the prominence they deserve for environmental sustainability.