In July 2020, indigenous climate activist Archana Soreng was named as one amongst seven young, global leaders selected to the United Nation’s new Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. In conversations over email and phone with Heeta Lakhani, Archana shares her vision for climate resilience, indigenous knowledge and environmental protection.
Tell us about your childhood years and early inspirations? What led you to pursue a Masters in Regulatory Governance?
In my tribe, my surname Khadia means “rock”. Many indigenous communities have surnames related to Nature. It shows that these communities are so intertwined with nature that we have elements of nature in our names.
My grandfather was the pioneer of forest protection in our village in Odisha’s Sundergarh district. He started a village committee on how to use forest resources judiciously, and promoted collective decision making for access to forest resources. This is what I have seen since my childhood. My father was an advocate of indigenous healthcare. People would come to our home, and he would treat them with local medicines.
During my school days, my mother made sure that I participated in all events that took place in my village school, whether it was a fancy dress competition, or singing and dancing. She enrolled me for everything. Any trace of stage fright disappeared at an early age thanks to my mother. I realise now that my childhood experiences taught me to harbour relationships, and care about nature.
When I did my Bachelor's in Political Science from Patna Women’s College, I remember my father telling me that if you really want to contribute to society, you need to engage with policy making. That stayed in my mind. I then went on to Tata Institute of Social Sciences to do a Masters in Regulatory Governance. When I began to study environmental regulations, I found that many of the practices and ways of life of my community members is recorded in textbooks. But I also realised that these textbooks are very rarely written by my community members. I realised that it is important to write.
In 2017, while I was studying at TISS, I lost my father. His death made me accept that the leaders and elders of our community will not be around forever. It triggered in me an urgent need to learn traditional practices and document them. It is only through documentation that upcoming generations will know about these practices. This motivated me to delve deeper into writing and documentation.
I had gone to multiple states to study, but following my father’s death, I decided to return home. That is how I landed up working with the TISS Forest Rights & Governance Project Odisha, and then with Vasundhara in Odisha.
Through the years I have interacted with numerous tribal communities in the state. I now know that every tribe is unique. But there is one constant. Their cultures are sustainable and respectfully intertwined with nature. Each tribe protects nature, but they have their own norms, rules and regulations.
Archana during a visit to Ambapadia village, Khordha district, Odisha. She accompanied the indigenous people into their forest lands for which they had applied for recognition of Rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006. Courtesy: Archana Soreng.
You are currently working to document, preserve and promote traditional knowledge and cultural practices of indigenous communities. Can you tell us how?
Let me give you a few examples. In Nayagarh district of Odisha, there is a women-led forest protection committee. It is known as Thengapalli. Thenga means “stick” and palli means “turn”.
In the 1980s, when there was massive logging by timber mafias because of privatisation and increased economic activity, a lot of village lands and forests were destroyed. Village men would go to protect the forests and would get into fights with the timber mafia. They then started calling for women from the village to join them. Women were used as a defence strategy. If there was any harm done to the women during such confrontations, the timber mafia could be booked under law. This is how women started patrolling the forests. Eventually, the women realised their importance and asked for decision making powers for forest protection in the village.
Since then, four women patrol the forest every day. If anyone is caught illegally logging, they are brought to the village and are punished according to societal law. For example they may be asked to write an apology or fined. The four patrolling women carry sticks and make noise while patrolling. After they return, these sticks are then kept in front of the house of four other women, so that they know that it is their turn to patrol next. In this way, all the women of the village are involved in protecting the forest.
Now, people may ask, why do the women spend their time patrolling the forest? Don’t they have other things to do? Ofcourse they do, but these women are dedicated to their forests. They wake up at the crack of dawn every day, clean their homes, cook food, feed their families and then go out to patrol. It is an enormous amount of unpaid and unrecognised labour that they undertake. This is their relationship with nature, they see the forest as a family member.
This relationship does not exist in the city. Urban dwellers cause the majority of pollution and destruction of natural resources. Yet, when a crisis hits, it is the indigenous communities that are the most vulnerable. So one must ask then: why are the land and forest rights of indigenous communities not recognised? This is an important theme of my work.
Apart from such practices, there are a lot of products which tribal communities make, for example, leaf plates, chairs and tables made of grasses, carpets woven from sal and siali leaves, and so on. These products are sustainable and valuable, but they are not part of mainstream markets. Those products that are, have borrowed indigenous ideas but seldom benefit indigenous communities. My goal is to highlight such communities as front runners in sustainability. They need to be taken seriously and their traditional knowledge, skills and practices need to be preserved and propagated.
Archana while conducting evidence-based research on the implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006 at Ambapadia village, Khorda District, Odisha. Courtesy: Archana Soreng.
Indigenous rights are inextricable from environmental protection, but India has a complicated history in this regard. Do you see environmental organisations and community rights organisations finally beginning to work together? If so, can you share some examples?
In my opinion environmental organisations and community rights organisations have started to come together over the past decade. There is increasing acknowledgement that indigenous communities contribute substantially towards forest protection and conservation. The Forest Rights Act too has been supported by both environmental and community rights organisations. Ofcourse much more needs to be done. There are still some wildlife organisations that appear to be ignorant of the situation on the ground, but the truth is that without community support, conservation is impossible. We need to work together more strongly.
In your opinion, what are the major steps the Indian government needs to take to combat the climate crisis?
The first thing would be to recognise youth groups at all levels, and formalise their participation in the decision making process. Though climate change effects all of us, the impacts are not felt equally in our society. Already vulnerable groups are being affected in a disproportionate way. The views, concerns and experiences of these stakeholder communities need to be heard, and a common and concientious strategy to address the crisis be developed.
Archana speaks about the revival of traditional knowledge and practices of tribes during an annual gathering of Athkosia Adivasi Ekta Manch, Sundergarh district, Odisha. Courtesy: Archana Soreng.
COVID-19 has shown us that the world is not prepared to deal with a global crisis. What do you think governments should focus on while recovering from this pandemic?
We need to understand that this pandemic is a result of our disrespect of nature. When we talk about post-COVID recovery we need to focus on policies that protect and preserve our natural resources.
While interacting with women's collectives during the lockdown, I was told, “We are pained to see the conditions of our own community members who had moved to the cities. They are struggling for food and shelter. Here we feel safe only because of the forest, as the forest has provided us food and shelter.” Our government needs to focus on ensuring that adivasi and forest-dwelling communities are not deprived of their lands and forests, as it is their source of livelihood and security. Only when they are secure will they be able to continue their traditional conservation practices. This pandemic has proved that a sustainable way of living and green economy is the only way forward. The forest-based livelihoods of adivasi and forest-dwelling communities should be promoted and emphasised in the recovery plan. Our economic policies should prioritise protection of existing natural forest cover rather than artificial plantations.
You've recently been selected as one of the seven members of the United Nations Secretary General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. What do you hope to achieve during your mandate?
My priority is to amplify and unite the voice of the youth. Youth who have received formal education and those who haven’t, but are knowledgable in other ways, need to brought together at the decision-making level.
We also need to learn from our elders, and I believe we need to give a platform to indigenous leaders from across the globe. This way we can facilitate dialogues between the youth, indigenous leaders and global policymakers. Here are three other points I wish to pursue:
1. To ensure that indigenous communities are made integral stakeholders of the Climate Action Strategy.
2. To facilitate inclusiveness of youth from different ethnicities, and specifically of the differently-abled youth. To bring together, recognise and formalise upcoming and existing youth groups, specifically those who are directly impacted by the climate crisis.
3. To promote dialogue between the older and younger generations. Thus enabling dissemination of knowledge and experience that will inform the Climate Action Strategy.
Imagine there is a highschool student reading this interview. What is the advice you would give them as they choose their life path?
Happiness is very important. Only when you are happy, can the people around you be happy too. Choose a career or path that you are interested in. Identify your own strengths. After identifying your strengths, keep developing these. There will be ups and downs in life, but self-belief is key, and will guide you on your journey.
Heeta Lakhani is a climate educator from Mumbai, India. She is a firm believer in the power of the youth in grassroots as well as international processes and policies. Heeta is the Focal Point from the Global South for YOUNGO, the official youth constituency of the UNFCCC.