NEW DELHI—Adivasis will be able to enjoy true freedom only when they feel secure physically, culturally and economically, Odisha-based climate activist Archana Soreng told HuffPost India in an interview.
“It is very important that the community members are feeling secure. Only when they feel secure, they will be able to enjoy freedom to practise traditional knowledge and make eco-friendly products like leaf plates or mats out of the leaves,” said the twenty-four-year-old Soreng, who was born into the Odisha’s Kharia tribe.
The young climate activist, who works with the Bhubaneswar-based not for profit organisation Vasundhara, was recently nominated to a new seven member Youth Advisory Group set up to advise United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres on climate change.
A UN statement referred to her as being “experienced in advocacy and research” and noted that, “she is working to document, preserve, and promote traditional knowledge and cultural practices of indigenous communities”.
Speaking with HuffPost India, she underlined the importance of securing rights over land for Adivasis.
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“I feel when rights are secured over land and forests, they will be economically, culturally and physically secure,” Soreng said.
“If these are secured, they will be able to continue their practises which they have been doing—which is using alternatives to plastic which causes pollution, water rejuvenation or forest fire protection so that is how I feel that the emphasis should be on making them secure and enabling them to contribute what they have been doing since ages,” she added.
Soreng described what freedom means to her. “And so when I see myself, what freedom means to me...it is to speak for my community; having known that because of their struggles I have reached here. And then also to work for sustaining the environment and nature because that is the essence of my community.”
The young activist also shared her thoughts about the controversial draft environment impact assessment notification 2020 (EIA 2020).
“It is very important that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent is there. But I feel the draft EIA notification 2020 undermines that because it has a provision for post-facto clearances which, I think, needs to be reconsidered,” she said.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q) What does it mean for you to be an Adivasi woman in today’s India and how do you consider the idea of freedom?
My ancestors, who were also doing forest conservation, felt education is important for liberation and freedom. My grandfather was a pioneer in my village who created schools. Not formal schools but a house basically, with clay and hay, in which the students are taught how to do farming and things like that. At the time, the concept of formal education had not yet come there.
When I say education, it’s both formal and informal. Formal education is one thing but when I am talking about informal education, it is also about knowing our culture, tradition, it’s a merger of both.
So the idea of liberation through education came from them. It was passed on to my father’s generation and then it has come to us.
Then if I see my context, that is what has pushed me towards good education even though my parents had limited resources. We did not have food to eat at one particular point of time. But they prioritised good education for their children because that is liberation and source of freedom and also right. And so when I see myself...what freedom means to me...it is to speak for my community; having known that because of their struggles, I have reached here. And then also to work for sustaining the environment and nature because that is the essence of my community.
Q) While personal initiative is, of course, one reason why people are able to access education, but in terms of creating an enabling environment or creating the infrastructure for accessing education, how has the state performed in your view?
I think there are two things. One thing is that, yes, there have been efforts made by the state in terms of education. But I think there are two things which are important and I would like to push them forward.
It is that it’s very important to create an enabling environment for spreading education in the traditional language as well, and to promote both in terms of, not just the formal education which we have currently, but also culture and practises.
So about education I feel what needs to be done and taken into consideration is that it has to be in regional languages because language is a very important source of expression. Entire identity is in language and I also feel that education should not be restricted to the formal subject but also it should be in terms of arts of expression—dance, art, painting—as well as taking into consideration the culture and tradition specifically when I talk about the adivasi and forest dwelling communities.
Q) What would be your wishlist for education—which as you point out helped several Adivasis attain liberation and freedom—and environmental justice on the occasion of yet another independence day?
I will be able to feel my freedom only when I am aware about my roots and my practises and that is why I feel it is very important to know how the transition of knowledge from my ancestors can be done to the younger generations. When that transition is facilitated, I will feel more free to embark towards climate action. First is that.
...it is very important that the community members are feeling secured. Only when they feel secure, they will be able to enjoy freedom...
Second is, I again feel, it is very important that the community members are feeling secure. Only when they feel secure, they will be able to enjoy freedom to practise traditional knowledge and make eco-friendly products like leaf plates or mats out of the leaves.
Q) When you say secure, do you mean from physical, economic or cultural standpoints? In what sense are you using this word?
It is a holistic thing. I feel when rights are secured over land and forests, they will be economically, culture and physically secure. If these are secured, they will be able to continue their practises which they have been doing—which is using alternatives to plastic which causes pollution, water rejuvenation or forest fire protection so that is how I feel that the emphasis should be on making them secure and enabling them to contribute what they have been doing since ages.
Third thing is that the youth of the tribal community should realise, and the COVID pandemic has taught us how the market is, as of now, not secure. If we want to get employment or sustain ourselves, it is very important for us to go back to the communities, adopt their practises and create our own ecosystem of adopting those farming techniques etc. I want them to go back, learn and adopt those practises which will help us in sustainable living.
Q) What are your thoughts on proposals in the draft National Education Policy? Do you feel they expand freedom or constrict it?
I have not gone through the draft of the national education policy so I cannot comment on it. But I will speak of what I believe in. I believe that education should be inclusive in nature, and when I talk about inclusion, language plays a very important role. Because if the language aspect is not taken into consideration, it may also turn into exclusion of a community. That is why I feel it is very important.
Since I belong to the adivasi community, I feel the tradition and knowledge which our communities have been practising in terms of forest protection and in terms of the way of living which they have, if a person forgets or is not able to get that education, but is only receiving a mainstream, bookish education, somewhere or the other we would be failing to get the essence of practical knowledge.
Q) One of the contentious points in the draft National Education Policy has been regarding languages which should be the ‘medium of instruction’ in schools. The draft policy proposes that this should be the mother tongue. What is your opinion?
So I personally think that both should go hand in hand. If you take a broader perspective, it is very important that the traditional language or mother tongue is also promoted as well as the other languages which are being spoken widely so that it should not be that you are not aware or unable to speak a language that is spoken widely.
Q) Do you think the current policy considerations of the Indian government help contribute positively to the global fight against climate change?
I feel, if we look at the Indian context, it is very important to go towards a greener economy. Post-COVID reform has to be in terms of green economy or sustainable development because we see that this pandemic is because of a disbalance towards nature.
Q) So if we were to consider specific policies and changes to environmental laws, for instance the draftenvironment impact assessment (EIA 2020) notification and a new forest policy which has been in the works for at least two years now, what do you think about them?
When I talk about the draft EIA, one of the issues is that, I feel, if there is to be a developmental project which needs to be set up in the land of the Adivasi and forest dwelling communities, it is very important to take free, prior and informed consent.
It is also there in the constitutional safeguards, under PESA, Forest Rights Act, International Covenants UNDRIP and also ICECR. It is very important that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent is there. But I feel the draft EIA notification 2020 undermines that because it has a provision for post-facto clearances which, I think, needs to be reconsidered.
It is very important that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent is there. But I feel the draft EIA notification 2020 undermines that because it has a provision for post-facto clearances which, I think, needs to be reconsidered.
Having said that, I also want to say that land and forests is not a commercial commodity as it is seen by others. But for adivasis and forest communities, land and forests is their source of life and identity. A flurry of clearance will have very adverse effects on their land tenure security and it will also pose a major challenge to wildlife.
Q) This answers one part of the question. But the forest policy part got left out. What kind of provisions do you think the forest policy must contain?
What is very important when we talk about forest policy is that the management or the authority in terms of governance should be given to the community members because they have been living with the forests and protecting the forests since ages.
And as even the UN and other international organisations say, the indigenous people protect nature and contribute towards climate action, so why not give some governance authority to them? I think the approach should be bottom up.
When we talk about the forest policy, it is important that we acknowledge duly the existence of the natural forest. The aim should be to preserve and protect this natural forest, because many times when we talk about afforestation, it tends to be monoculture. We have to make sure that we are preserving the natural forests and preserving the different multi-cropping patterns which are there in the natural forests.
Overall, I would say three things should be there in the forest policy. First would be my point above giving governance authority, second is security and recognition of rights and third is ecological restoration should be from the community members and more should be done for natural forests.
Q) In this conversation about traditional knowledge, there is also a question raised by one perspective which, while understanding the value of traditional wisdom, also asks what will you weigh in favour of on occasions when there is tension or conflict between science and tradition? I want to understand where you stand.
I strongly feel and believe in the merger of science and traditional knowledge and that is how we will be much stronger. The innovation and research part of science to be used with traditional knowledge.
From my experience of working with community members and my own research so far, I feel what they have been doing is an exceptional work which needs to be amplified, and that is why I feel this needs to be retained and preserved, and at the same time we can see how science can help elevate this. Traditional knowledge should be the base on which this is built.