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Protecting Indigenous Heritage is Protecting the Environment

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

By Chao Hemajit Dewdhai Phukan, Tai-Ahom Indigenous Community, India


Story of Resilience: Protecting Indigenous Heritage and the Environment in India and the Asia-Pacific Region

indigenous young man from india

In India and the Asia-Pacific region, there is a pressing challenge – a challenge that goes beyond borders and time. It revolves around preserving Indigenous heritage, protecting the environment, and combating the threat of climate change. This is a story of resilience, of the Indigenous communities that have worshiped their ancestors and revered nature for centuries. Meanwhile the rapidly changing climate and modernization are putting their cultural practices, beliefs, and very existence at risk.


A Sacred Bond with Nature


In the lands of Assam, the Tai-Ahom Peoples have forged an intimate bond with the natural world. Their worship of the holy plant called "Sinkora" has been central to their religious ceremonies and traditions for generations. But today, the scarcity of Sinkora serves as a painful reminder of the impacts of climate change. The loss of hundreds of herbs, once used in traditional medicine and drinks, paints a picture of cultural erosion. As these Indigenous Peoples face the disappearance of their natural resources, their heritage remains in the critical stage.


Guardians of the Forest


Indigenous communities across the region have long served as the guardians of forests and biodiversity. Though they make up less than 5% of the world's population, they manage a staggering 33% of the planet's forests and protect 80% of global biodiversity. However, their noble efforts are being harmed. Harmful policies, relentless mining activities, and the spread of monocropping threaten their lands and the delicate balance of their ecosystems. The impact of these intrusions reaches far beyond the Indigenous communities; it is a blow to the very heart of our environment too.


Landscapes Shattered by Progress


As urbanization sweeps across India, roads sprawl in all directions, including through the lands of Indigenous Peoples in Assam. The construction of these roads often comes at a heavy cost – displacing communities, severing intergenerational connections, and fragmenting their heritage. Patkai hills and districts like Karbi Anglong and Dima-Hasao, open coal mining expedites the consequences faced by Indigenous communities, against nature and their traditional way of life. This ongoing progress leaves a trail of devastation in its wake, threatening the delicate ecosystem that sustains both Indigenous heritage and the environment.

natural landscape in india

Voices Unheard, Rights Unrecognized


For Indigenous communities, the battle extends beyond the environment. They also face land loss, human rights violations, and limited political representation. Across Assam, many Indigenous groups have been marginalized, their voices absent from the legislative assembly. As a result, these communities struggle for political and economic rights, a struggle that often goes unnoticed amidst the chaos of modern society.


Uniting for a Shared Future


The problems encountered by Indigenous communities in the face of climate change and modernization are the tip of the iceberg. Yet, hope remains. It is in the collective action, the unity among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples that reminds us positive change is coming.


Indigenous communities in India are taking climate action. Embracing a net-zero lifestyle and implementing community-driven initiatives for biodiversity conservation, they showcase their resilience in adapting to environmental challenges.


Across Ladakh, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Northeast India, Indigenous communities are blending traditional practices with modern technology to promote sustainability.


In Northeastern India, the use of bamboo in constructing houses not only embraces traditional wisdom but also showcases an eco-friendly approach. These bamboo houses not only serve as a testament to cultural preservation but also attract tourists, boosting local tourism and promoting the region's unique heritage.


Meanwhile, in Maharashtra, a green housing concept is gaining momentum as people creatively repurpose scraps to build environmentally friendly homes. This initiative reflects the community's commitment to reducing waste and embracing sustainable living practices.


In Ladakh, where resources are limited, Indigenous Peoples are coping with climate change through traditional agricultural practices. Despite the challenges, they continue to demonstrate how to thrive amidst a changing environment.


On the shores of Kerala, Indigenous fishing communities are leading initiatives focused on life below water and marine conservation. Their dedication to cleaning the seas sets a precedent for sustainable practices that benefit both their livelihoods and the marine ecosystem.


In the Assam region, the Tai-Ahom and Tai Indigenous Peoples have upheld the tradition of using Peace silk and Muga silk for over a millennium. Embracing traditional handloom techniques and Peace silk products, they not only preserve their cultural heritage but also foster small-scale entrepreneurship. Moreover, these communities have opted for bamboo water bottles as an alternative to plastic bottles to commit to environmental consciousness.


By raising awareness, fostering understanding, and advocating for political representation, we can secure a better, more sustainable future. As we work to protect Indigenous heritage, we are, in turn, safeguarding the environment for generations to come. Let us weave a story of resilience, where no Indigenous legacy goes unnoticed, where voices of Indigenous Peoples are heard, and their rightful place in climate decision-making is recognized.

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