Rituraj Phukan in conversation with denkhausbremen on the way indigenous people are affected by climate change and how their cultures and management practices can help to restore and preserve degraded natural lands. Rituraj Phukan is an environmental activist and writer based in Assam (India) and the founder and president of the Indigenous People’s Climate Justice Forum.
denkhausbremen: When you think about climate justice, what are the first thoughts coming to your mind?
Rituraj Phukan: Well, first I would say that by default, climate justice is crucial to social justice. Indigenous people and the poorest of the poor are some of the worst affected by climate change and they don’t have the means to do anything about it. They have contributed very little to the accumulation of greenhouse gases. To make sure they have the resources to live a humane life – I think that defines the aspect of climate justice.
For indigenous communities this is also very much connected to the way they live. I belong to the Tai-Ahom community in Assam in the Eastern Himalayas. If you look at the indigenous communities in this region, all of us are deeply connected to nature, our lives and our cultures are dependent on the biodiversity around us. Food security, water security, health and immunity are all connected to biodiversity. To make sure that indigenous people all over the world have access to these resources, to the food that their ancestors had access to – I think this should be part of the climate justice narrative.
Can you say something about the way that indigenous people like the Tai-Ahom are affected by climate change?
The Eastern Himalayas are one of the early and fastest warming regions of the world. According to recent projections we might loose up to 95 percent of the glaciers by the turn of the century if warming continues at the current rates. Even if the international community manages to mitigate a warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius – which looks very unlikely – we still loose about 2/3 of the glaciers by the turn of the century. And the region has already warmed by at least 1.3 degrees Celsius.
As a river, the Brahmaputra carries at least 30 percent of glacial melt water. So, in the short term, we are going to see more floods, more erosion, and more displaced people. This might lead to further conflicts, loss of livelihoods, agricultural land and food security. Once the glacial meltwater runs out – along with the changes in rainfall, which has already been decreasing by 20 percent over the last two or three decades – this region might turn from a water-abundant area to a water-scarce area. This is why studies name the Brahmaputra region as one of the areas, where future water wars are likely to happen.
The Tai-Ahom have historically been the rulers of the land for around 600 years. Before that, our ancestors migrated across the border from Thailand via Myanmar and then settled in the biodiversity-rich Brahmaputra valley.
The indigenous people including the Tai-Ahoms, the Mishings, the Bodo people, Tiwa, Adivasi, Deori, Rabha, Karbi, Naga, Garo, Khasi and many other local communities of the region are largely dependent on farming and agriculture. The consequences of these cascading impacts that I described are already affecting lives and livelihoods. And future projections are gloomy with the potential of widespread water scarcity, biodiversity loss, risk of food security and conflicts.
You are the founder and president of the Indigenous People’s Climate Justice Forum. What is the purpose, what are the political goals of this forum?
Many years back I used to be in government service before I quit to work for nature. My projects used to be on the conservation of birds and on the coexistence of humans and elephants. Assam is probably the area in the world with the maximum number of casualties due to human-elephant conflicts. Then I got exposed to the potential of climate change aggravating these issues and I was convinced that almost all these problems that we see in Assam – floods, erosion, human-elephant conflicts – can be attributed to climate change.
I have seen it with my own eyes that the intensity and frequency of floods have increased. Human-elephant conflicts used to be seasonal, now they arise throughout the year and in a broader region. All of this can be connected directly to changes in precipitation and other effects of climate change. And the people who are suffering from all of this did not contribute anything at all to the emission of greenhouse gases. We still live a very low-technology and low-carbon footprint life, especially the people in the rural areas – but they are right at the front lines of climate change, as are indigenous people all over the world.
Going to global political gatherings and regularly attending the UN climate negotiations, I found that we do not have any representatives from the indigenous communities in these forums. Even though there are over 700 indigenous peoples and local communities in India, who are all – without exception – suffering from climate change driven disasters. There is no voice that is representing them at negotiations. So when climate justice will be implemented, when the funds are available for loss and damage and adaptation, these will not be available for our communities, because we have not been represented. That is the reason why I set up this forum.
You are giving indigenous communities a voice in these political processes…
Yes, as I believe that as guardians of the remaining natural places on the planet indigenous people should be sharing best practices and leading the transitions for a sustainable future. Therefore we are also documenting the possibilities of natural adaptation in these region and collaborating with other indigenous people and local communities around the world. For example, here in Assam the Mishing community build their houses on stilts. Since they have very well-equipped kitchens, these super-resilient people can survive inside of their houses, even if we have a few weeks of flooding. They have boats to move around and they also have certain varieties of rice paddy, which have been developed, that are resistant to inundation. This kind of resilience can provide a kind of replicability in other areas.
So, knowledge and traditions of indigenous communities are important for them to tackle the impacts of climate change. What can modern societies learn from this?
I don’t think there is one methodology that is applicable for all, but all the indigenous communities around the world are very much connected to the natural world around them – whether it’s coastal communities who live of the sea or montane peoples who live of the mountain resources. Their life and culture, their food and medicine, everything is derived from nature. Western societies could learn how to live with nature, because that is the definition of resilience.
These communities have been living peacefully coexisting with nature for millennia, because they consider themselves to be part of nature. I think that is the key. 80 percent of the remaining natural places on Earth are still owned or managed by indigenous communities. Therein lies the answer. The indigenous way of managing natural lands should be used to restore degraded areas and add to reforestation efforts.
I work with my friend Jadav Payeng from the Mishing community, who is known as “the forest man of India”. His methodology is to replicate nature with native species. He creates forests, not tree-plantations. He is asking himself: How would an elephant plant this? How would a bird plant it? In what season should we plant? The success of his methodology can be seen from the fact that this forest is now home to Royal Bengal tigers, rhinos, Asian elephants and hundreds of bird species. All studies point to its success as one of the most effective models for carbon sequestration over the last 40 years in which the forest has existed.
What concrete measures with the highest priority would you suggest from an indigenous perspective?
Firstly, I think it is very important to understand that all the nature-based solutions should be placed in the hands of the indigenous communities. The mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage funds established by international climate negotiations should include restoration of degraded lands as well as reforestation efforts in areas owned or managed by indigenous communities. One of the ways we could do that is by aligning the targets and approaches with the 30/30 target of the Global Biodiversity Framework. The goal is to restore and preserve 30 percent of all land and sea by 2030. The local indigenous communities would play a central role here: The efforts should be community-led and indigenous people should have the funds and the power to decide how to restore and what to do when – so they can restore and revitalize what was once their land.