Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘culture

Environmental law and the dharmic principle

leave a comment »

RG_tree_om_blog_20160829The recent history of “global” approaches to the environment has shown that they began full of contradictions and misunderstandings, which have continued to proliferate under a veneer of internationalisation. To provide but a very brief roster, there was in the 1970s the “Club of Rome” reports, as well as the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in 1972 (which produced the so-called Stockholm Declaration). In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro) was held and was pompously called the “Earth Summit,” where something called a “global community” adopted an “Agenda 21.” With very much less fanfare also in 1992 came the Convention on Biological Diversity, and signing countries were obliged to “conserve and sustainably manage their biological resources through global agreement,” an operational conundrum when said resources are national and not international.

In 2000 came the “Millennium Summit,” at which were unveiled the Millennium Development Goals, which successfully incubated the industry of international development but had almost nothing to do with the mundane practice of local development. In 2015 came the UN Sustainable Development Summit, which released a shinier, heftier, more thrillingly complex list of sustainable development goals. During the years in between, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its associated satellite meetings (three or four a year) spun through every calendar year like a merry-go-round (it is 22 years old, and the very global CO2 measure for PPM, or parts per million, has crossed 400).

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

The visarjan (immersion) of Shri Ganesh. The idol is accompanied by huge crowds in Mumbai. Photo: All India Radio

Looking back at some five decades of internationalisation as a means to some sort of sensible stock-taking of the connection between the behaviors of societies (ever more homogenous) and the effects of those behaviors upon nature and environment, I think it has been an expensive, verbose, distracting, and inconclusive engagement (but not for the bureaucratic class it sustains, and the “global development” financiers, of course). That is why I find seeking some consensus between countries and between cultures on “ecocide” is rather a nonstarter. There are many differences about meaning, as there should be if there are living cultures left amongst us.

Even before you approach such an idea (not that it should be approached as an idea that distinguishes a more “advanced” society from one apparently less so), there are other ideas, which from some points of view are more deserving of our attention, which have remained inconclusive internationally and even nationally for fifty years and more. Some of these ideas are, what is poverty, and how do we say a family is poor or not? What is economy and how can our community distinguish economic activity from other kinds of activity (and why should we in the first place)? What is “education,” and what is “progress”-and whose ideas about these things matter other than our own?

That is why even though it may be academically appealing to consider what ecocide may entail and how to deal with it, I think it will continue to be subservient to several other very pressing concerns, for very good reasons. Nonetheless, there have in the very recent past been some efforts, and some signal successes too, in the area of finding evidence and intent about a crime against nature or, from a standpoint that has nothing whatsoever to do with law and jurisprudence, against the natural order (which we ought to observe but for shabby reasons of economics, career, standard of living, etc., do not).

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

Clay cooking pots and decorative terracotta. A craftsman and his wares at a weekly market in Kerala.

These efforts include Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, whose elaborate elucidation in 2010 gave environmentalists much to cheer about. They also include the recognition by the UN Environment Programme, in incremental doses and as a carefully measured response to literally mountainous evidence, of environmental crime. This is what the UNEP now says, “A broad understanding of environmental crime includes threat finance from exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, oil, timber, charcoal, marine resources, financial crimes in natural resources, laundering, tax fraud and illegal trade in hazardous waste and chemicals, as well as the environmental impacts of illegal exploitation and extraction of natural resources.”  Quite frank, I would say, and unusually so for a UN agency.

Moreover, there is the Monsanto Tribunal, which is described as an international civil society initiative to hold Monsanto-the producer of genetically modified (GM) seed, and in many eyes the most despised corporation ever-“accountable for human rights violations, for crimes against humanity, and for ecocide.” In the tribunal’s description of its rationale, ecocide is explicitly mentioned, and the tribunal intends to follow procedures of the International Court of Justice. It is no surprise that Monsanto (together with corporations like Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and DuPont) is the symbol of industrial agriculture whose object and methods advance any definition of ecocide, country by country.

This ecocidal corporation (whose stock is traded on all major stock markets, which couldn’t care less about the tribunal) is responsible for extinguishing entire species and causing the decline of biodiversity wherever its products are used, for the depletion of soil fertility and of water resources, and for causing an unknown (but certainly very large) number of smallholder farming families to exit farming and usually their land, therefore also exiting the locale in which bodies of traditional knowledge found expression.  Likewise, there is the group of Filipino investigators, a Commission on Human Rights, who want forty-seven corporate polluters to answer allegations of human rights abuses, with the polluters being fossil fuel and cement companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP, and the allegations include the roles of these corporations’ products in causing both “global warming and the harm that follows.”

A 'gudi' and 'bhagwa dhvaj' hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

A ‘gudi’ and ‘bhagwa dhvaj’ hoisted by a home in Goa for Gudi Padwa, the festival which marks the beginning of the new year.

Such examples show that there is a fairly strong and active manifestation of the movement to recognise ecocide as a crime under international law. However, to find such manifestations, one has to look at the local level. There, the questions pertain more tangibly to the who, what, and how of the ecological or environmental transgression, and the how much of punishment becomes more readily quantifiable (we must see what forms of punishment or reparation are contained in the judgments of the Monsanto Tribunal and the Philippines Commission).

Considering such views, the problem becomes more immediate but also more of a problem-the products of industrialised, mechanised agriculture that is decontextualised from culture and community exists and are sold and bought because of the manner in which societies sustain themselves, consciously or not. It is easier to find evidence for, and easier to frame a prosecution or, the illegality of a corporation, or of an industry, than for the negligence of a community which consumes their products. So the internationalisation (or globalisation) of the idea of ecocide may take shape in a bubble of case law prose and citations from intergovernmental treaties but will be unintelligible to district administrators and councils of village elders.

My view is that searching for the concept which for the sake of semantic convenience we have called ecocide as an outcome of an “internationally agreed” idea of crime and punishment will ultimately not help us. I have such a view because of a cultural upbringing in a Hindu civilisation, of which I am a part, and in which there exists an all-embracing concept, “dharma,” that occupies the whole spectrum of moral, religious, customary, and legal rules. In this view, right conduct is required at every level (and dominates its judicial process too), with our literature on the subject being truly voluminous (including sacred texts themselves, the upanishads, various puranas, and works on dharma).

Perhaps the best known to the West from amongst this corpus is the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a remarkable legal treatise dealing with royal duties which contains a fine degree of detail about the duties of kings (which may today be read as “governance”). This treatise includes the protection of canals, lakes, and rivers; the regulation of mines (the BCE analogue of the extractive industries that plague us today); and the conservation of forests. My preference is for the subject of ecocide and its treatment to be subsumed into the cultural foundation where it is to be considered for, when compared with how my culture and others have treated the nature-human question, it becomes evident that we today are not the most competent arbiters, when considering time frames over many generations, about how to define or address such matters. The insistence on “globalising” views in fact shows why not.

(This comment has been posted at the Great Transition Initiative in reply to an essay titled ‘Against Ecocide: Legal Protection for Earth’.)

A 68th Independence Day in our Bharat

leave a comment »

INDEPENDENCE DAY - 2014 REHEARSAL

On 15 August 2014 it is the 24,473rd day that Bharat and India has been an independent country. During that time we have had 15 Lok Sabha and the 16th now sits in Parliament, having been placed there by 814,500,000 electors who cast their votes in 543 Parliamentary constituencies in a general election that has long been the largest and most complex in the world. We’re good at elections. We’re also good at reading newspapers – we have 10,908 daily newspapers – and 26,552 monthly magazines (far too many about films, far too few about farmers). Many of these get delivered thanks to the efforts of the dedicated staff of 154,822 post offices who deliver some 6,371,800,000 pieces of mail (including money orders and greeting cards). Schoolchildren like seeing postmen on their rounds and we have some 243,360,000 who learn from our heroic teachers in 1,314,633 schools.

Many of those schools (some under mango trees) are in our villages, of which there are 640,930 and these are run (quite well, on the whole) by 232,855 panchayats which noisily elect 2,645,880 panchayat members (a good number of them women, who care about how many children go to school). Our panchayats have lots on their weekly agenda, and between them manage 100,293,000 hectares of land that are planted with cereals that help feed Bharat (rotis and kheer, idlis and bicuits). All our villages keep a great number of animals – for ‘kisan’ households they are extended family – and our fields and festivals are attended by 199,075,000 cattle (whose horns are gaily painted) and 105,343,000 buffaloes (who enjoy a good scrubbing). When they’re at work, our cows and buffaloes are tramping around 138,348,461 farm holdings spread over 159,591,854 hectares – of which 117,605,129 are small and marginal holdings on 71,152,325 hectares, but cows and buffaloes aren’t choosy about farm size.

Our rice and wheat (and pulses) is moved carefully around Bharat by rail and by road. When it is moved by rail, this valuable foodgrain enters a system that is 65,436 kilometres long, rail tracks over which 9,956 locomotives (electric, diesel and still a few steam) smoothly pull 48,037 passenger bogies and 244,731 goods wagons past 7,172 stations (and their ‘chai’ stall), for which our farmers (and postmen) thank 1,307,000 railway employees (who are also some of our best sports persons). From Kaniyakumari to Leh, and from Bhuj to Kohima, our 1,325,000 jawans and 1,155,000 reservists rely on our trains (most are humbler than the well-appointed Shatabdis) to take them home to family. Usually outnumbering the jawans in railway bogies are managers and salesmen, accountants and technicians who work in our 738,331 companies and 211,660 factories.

They keep the wheels of industry and commerce turning  (they are usually small and nimble, 23,447,361 in cities and towns and 35,022,735 in rural districts). Their enterprise gives the jawan his sturdy trunk and the schoolgirl her satchel, stationery for the teacher and toolkits for the panchayat plumber. Somewhere between Ratlam junction and Nagpur, the engineer may proudly mention the 12,694,853 people (most of them workers) employed in our factories, at which the accountant will murmur that Rs 501,560 crore is the paid-up capital of Bharat’s many companies. Jawan or kisan, factory worker or manager, all must deposit their wages and salaries in a bank, and we have 109,811 bank branches (39,439 are rural and 41,681 are in cities and towns) in which savings are happily collected (Rs 56,380 per head) and against which credit is dispensed (as happily, we hope, at Rs 44,028 per head). Our bank branches are also the staging posts for the 11,756 billion currency notes in circulation (no more staples and the new series will come printed with braille) but with 933 million quick-fingered mobile phone subscribers (549 million in cities and towns) we may see fewer real notes and more ‘mobile’ payments.

Village and factory, trains and cattle, and 1,250,000,000 of us. This is our Bharat on our 68th day of Independence.

Written by makanaka

August 14, 2014 at 21:09

The Law of Mother Earth, by Bolivia

with 18 comments

Bolivian indigenous people celebrate sunrise during a winter solstice ceremony in Tiwanaku, about 70 kilometers from the capital of La Paz, on Monday. The winter solstice coincides with the start of the New Year for South America's Aymara Indians. Photo: National Geographic/ David Mercado, Reuters

A consensus translation of the Law of Mother Earth has appeared on a number of websites and blogs now, no doubt a result of much collaboration between Spanish and other language speakers. Here it is, with thanks to Mother Pelican, A Journal of Sustainable Human Development and to No Unsacred Place.

Legislative Assembly of the Multi-National State of Bolivia

DECREE

Law of Rights of Mother Earth

Chapter 1 – Objective and Principles

Article 1. (Objective). The present Law has as its objective the recognition of the rights of Mother Earth, as well as the obligations and duties of the Multi-national State and of its Society, to guarantee respect of these rights.

Article 2. (First Principles). The First Principles which govern the current law, and with which compliance is an obligation, are:

1. Harmony. Human activities, in the framework of plurality and diversity, should achieve dynamic balance with the cycles and processes inherent to Mother Earth.

2. Collective Good. Societal interests, in the framework of the rights of Mother Earth, prevail in all human activity and over any other acquired rights.

3. Guarantee of Regeneration of Mother Earth. The State, at its varying levels, and society, in harmony with the common interest, should guarantee the conditions necessary for the diverse living systems of Mother Earth to absorb damages, adapt to disturbances, and regenerate itself without significant alteration to its structure and functionality, realizing that living systems have limits in their abilities to regenerate themselves, and that humanity has limits in its ability to reverse its effects.

4. Respect and Defense of the Rights of Mother Earth. The State and any other individual or collective persons shall respect, protect and guarantee the rights of Mother Earth for the well-being of existing and future generations.

5. No Commercialization. That life systems cannot be commercialized, nor the processes that sustain them, nor form part of the private inheritance of anyone.

6. Multi-cultural. The exercise of the rights of Mother Earth requires the understanding, recovery, respect, protection and dialogue of the diversity of sensitivities, values, knowledge, understandings, practices, abilities, transcendences, sciences, technologies and standards, of all the world cultures that seek harmonious coexistence with the natural world.

Chapter II – Mother Earth, Definition and Characterization

Article 3. (Mother Earth) Mother Earth is the living dynamic system comprised of the inter-related, interdependent and complementary indivisible community of all life systems and living beings that share a common destiny.

Mother Earth is considered to be sacred, as per the cosmologies of the nations of rural indigenous peoples.

Article 4. (Life Systems) They are complex and dynamic communities of plants, animals, micro-organisms and other beings in their entirety, in which human communities and the rest of nature interact as a functional unit, under the influence of climatic, physiographic and geologic factors, as well as the productive practices and cultural diversity of Bolivians of both genders, and the cosmologies of the nations of rural indigenous peoples, the intercultural communities and the Afro-Bolivians.

Article 5. (Legal Character of Mother Earth) In order to be protected and for the teaching of her rights, Mother Earth adopts the characteristics of collective rights of public interest. Mother Earth and all its components, including human communities, are owners of the rights inherently understood in this Law. The application of Mother Earth’s rights shall take into account the specificities and particularities of its diverse components. Those rights established in this Law do not limit the existence of other rights of Mother Earth.

Article 6. (Exercise of the Rights of Mother Earth) All Bolivians of either gender, as part of the community of beings which comprise Mother Earth, exercise the rights established in this Law, in a manner that is compatible with individual and collective rights.

The exercise of individual rights is limited by the exercise of collective rights of the living systems of Mother Earth, any conflict among these shall be resolved in a manner that does not irreversibly affect the functionality of those living systems.

Chillies on sale at a market in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine

Chapter III – Rights of Mother Earth

Article 7. (Rights of Mother Earth)

I. Mother Earth has the following rights:

1. To Life: It is the right to the maintenance of the integrity of living systems and natural processes which sustain them, as well as the capacities and conditions for their renewal.

2. To the diversity of life: It is the right to the preservation of the differentiation and variety of the beings that comprise Mother Earth, without being genetically altered, nor artificially modified in their structure, in such a manner that threatens their existence, functioning and future potential.

3. To Water: It is the right of the functionality of the water cycles, of its existence and quantity, and the quality necessary to sustain living systems, and their protection with regards to contamination, for renewal of the life of Mother Earth and all its components.

4. To Clean Air: It is the right of the preservation of the quality and composition of air to sustain living systems and their protection with regards to contamination, for renewal of the life of Mother Earth and all its components.

5. To Balance: It is the right to maintenance or restoration of the inter-relation, interdependence, ability to complement and functionality of the components of Mother Earth, in a balanced manner for the continuation of its cycles and the renewal of its vital processes.

6. To Restoration: It is the right to the effective and opportune restoration of its living systems affected by direct or indirect human activities.

7. To live Free of Contamination: It is the right for preservation of Mother Earth and any of its components with regards to toxic and radioactive wastes generated by human activities.

Chapter IV – Obligations of the State and Social Duties

Article 8. (Obligations of the Multi-national State) The Multi-national State, at all its levels and all its territories, and across all its institutions and authorities, has the following obligations:

1. Develop public policies and systematic preventive actions, early alert, protection and prevention, to avoid human activities that lead to extinction of populations, the alteration of cycles and processes that guarantee life, or the destruction of living systems, including the cultural systems that are part of Mother Earth.

2. Develop balanced forms of production and patterns of consumption for the well-being of the Bolivian peoples, safeguarding the regenerative capacities and integrity of the processes and vital balances of Mother Earth.

Pachamama on Condoriri. Scratchboard drawing by Janet Morgan. Evocation of Bolivian indigenous people's Earth Mother Goddess.

3. Develop policies to defend Mother Earth, in the environment of multi-national and international over-exploitation of components, against the commercialization of living systems or the processes that sustain them, and of the structural causes of Global Climate Change and its effects.

4. Develop policies to ensure the sustainability of power generation in the long run by means of saving, increases in efficiency and the gradual incorporation of clean and renewable alternative sources of power.

5. Demand in the international arena the understanding of the environmental debt by means of financing and technology transfer of clean technologies that are clean, effective and compatible with the rights of Mother Earth, as well as other mechanisms.

6. Promote peace and the elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

7. Promote the understanding and defense of the rights of Mother Earth in arena of multilateral, regional and bilateral international relationships.

Article 9. (Duties of the Persons) It is the duty of public or private natural and juridical persons:

1. To defend and respect the rights of Mother Earth.

2. To promote harmony on Mother Earth and in all its relationships with the rest of the human communities and natural living systems.

3. To participate in an active form, personally or collectively, in the generation of proposals aimed at the respect for and defense of the rights of Mother Earth.

4. To take up production and consumption practices in harmony with the rights of Mother Earth.

5. To ensure sustainable use and exploitation of Mother Earth’s components.

6. To denounce all acts against the rights of Mother Earth, its living systems and/or its components.

7. To attend meetings of competent authorities or civil society oriented at conservation and/or protection of the rights of Mother Earth.

Article 10. (Ombudsman of Mother Earth). The position of Ombudsman of Mother Earth is created, whose mission is to watch over the applicability to, promotion and diffusion of, and compliance with the rights of Mother Earth established in this Law. A special law will establish its structure, function and attributes.

Remitted to the Executive Agency, for constitutional ends.

Given in the Sessions Chamber of the Multi-National Legislative Assembly, on the seventh day of the month of December, 2010.

Written by makanaka

June 6, 2011 at 23:15

Knowledge and change, the intangible and development

leave a comment »

The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo

The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo: This cultural landscape extends into neighbouring Benin, is home to the Batammariba whose remarkable mud tower-houses (Takienta) have come to be seen as a symbol of Togo. In this landscape, nature is strongly associated with the rituals and beliefs of society. The 50,000-ha cultural landscape is remarkable due to the architecture of its tower-houses which are a reflection of social structure; its farmland and forest; and the associations between people and landscape. Picture: UNESCO

Energy Bulletin, the website which discusses transition, peak oil and ideas of adaptation, has carried an article I have written about intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development.

Before sustainable development came to assume an academic formality (the new ‘earth systems’ science is built around the concept), it drew heavily from intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as expressed through the customs and practices used to transmit traditional knowledge.

That is why there has been a multiplicity of terms used in the field of sustainable development to designate this concept: indigenous technical knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge, rural

Whatever the preference, this is a body of knowledge that has been nurtured and built upon by groups of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It is usually specific to the local environment, and therefore highly adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. At the same time it is creative and experimental, constantly incorporating influences from outside and innovating from within to meet new conditions. UNESCO’s 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage states this explicitly in Article 2:

“This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil: the Samba de Roda, which involves music, dance and poetry, is a popular festive event that developed in the State of Bahia, in the region of Recôncavo during the seventeenth century. The Samba de Roda was eventually taken by migrants to Rio de Janeiro, where it influenced the evolution of the urban samba that became a symbol of Brazilian national identity in the twentieth century. Picture: UNESCO

These three examples [these are available in the Energy Bulletin article] illustrate the value of intangible cultural heritage to the evolving crises of our times: food, energy and climate change. In the communal rice-growing, locally irrigated societies of Sri Lanka are to be found the lessons of the local self-reliance which has today become a community movement in many countries.

The ‘transition’ movements in North America and Western Europe, which are contributing greatly to a wider and participatory understanding of sustainable societies, now embody ideas and practices that have been at work for centuries in the rice-growing communities of Sri Lanka (as also elsewhere in South and South-East Asia). The water tribunals of Valencia and Murcia (which is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) serve as an inspiring testament to the strength and validity of an ancient system of adjudicating rights and resources.

In an increasingly water-scarce and water-stressed world, it is community-based systems such as this one that promise equity with an authority that is easily accepted because of its cultural roots. Here too, the implication of the Water Tribunals’ inclusion on the Representative List is that generic legal systems may provide protection in law and relief in statute, but it is local authority that rest on knowledge-based tradition that provides the most relevant solution.

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt: this oral poem, also known as the Hilali epic, recounts the saga of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the tenth century. As one of the major epic poems that developed within the Arabic folk tradition, the Hilali is the only epic still performed in its integral musical form. Picture: UNESCO

Climate change has altered weather patterns and crop seasons, and in regions where land is suitable neither for dryland agriculture nor irrigation, it is the thoughtful management of rangelands that is the only long-term conservation technique. The extraordinary flexibility of the Qashqai derives equally from their dense store of botanical and livestock knowledge, and serves as an example of the durability of a society in a difficult landscape.

One of the strengths of the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage is that it widens the scope of recognition to traditional knowledge by revealing its cultural roots, which is respected and transmitted through customary systems and expression. How is traditional or indigenous knowledge an invaluable aspect of intangible cultural heritage? Just as ICH is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals, unique to a particular culture and society, traditional knowledge is the basis for decision-making in that culture or society concerning matters of agriculture, health, natural resource management and community organisation.

A great deal of it is tacit knowledge and may not readily be coded. Indigenous knowledge provides the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the monetarily poor and those communities outside formal (usually urban-denominated) systems of labour and production. This aspect of ICH represents a critically important component of global knowledge on development issues, yet it is an underutilised resource in the development process.

The last stand of the Dongria Kondh

with 4 comments

Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International

Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International report, 'Don't Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India' .

It’s a measure of the desperation of people that they must be compared to a fictional community in a film – no matter how good the film – in an attempt to be heard. The Dongria Kondh have been represented by Survival International as the real-world analogy of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned indigenous folk of the box office hit film Avatar.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry says, “Just as the Na’vi describe the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything’, for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected. The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa, India.”

And so Survival International, an international organisation supporting tribal peoples worldwide, set up inspired piece of campaigning. The organisation has filmed and produced a short and stirring video on the lives of the Dongria Kondh, who with other local Kondh people are resisting Vedanta Resources, a Britain-registered company determined to mine their sacred mountain’s rich seam of bauxite (aluminium ore). The Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-strong adivasi (indigenous) community spread over 90 villages in and around the hills, are determined to save Niyamgiri from becoming an industrial wasteland.

Other Kondh groups are already suffering from a bauxite refinery, built and operated by Vedanta, at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills. These hills are home to the Dongria Kondh, who consider the Niyamgiri Hills as sacred and do not cut trees or practice cultivation on top of the Hill as they worship Niyam Raja Penu, who they believe lives on top of the Niyamgiri Hills. Their identity is closely tied to the Niyamgiri Hills, which they believe are essential to their culture, traditions, and physical and economic survival.

“The Dongria Kondh are at risk, as their lands are set to be mined by Vedanta Resources who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims,” said Corry. “The mine will destroy the forests on which the Dongria Kondh depend and wreck the lives of thousands of other Kondh tribal people living in the area. I do hope that (Avatar director) James Cameron will join the Dongria’s struggle to save their sacred mountain and secure their future.”

The outcry over mining and mineral ore extraction in Orissa has been growing steadily for over four years, with Indian and transnational mineral resources companies getting permissions to mine and build refineries. The victims have been small farming hosueholds and indigenous communities like the Dongria Kondh, who have lived on and around the hills for centuries. The Dongria Kondh depend entirely on the hills for their food, water, livelihoods and cultural identity.

Late in 2009, Amnesty International placed the matter squarely on top of its global agenda with a first report. “The proposed mine could have grave repercussions for their human rights to water, food, health, work and other rights as an indigenous community in respect of their traditional lands,” said the Amnesty International report. “International law requires that governments seek their free, prior informed consent before beginning such projects. Vedanta Resources and its subsidiaries have failed to take action to adequately remedy the problems identified above. The companies involved have also failed to abide by internationally-accepted standards in relation to the impact of business on human rights – to provide information, consult with people and refine plans to ensure rights are not harmed.”

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Alarmed by the scale of the outcry – and possibly by the growing evidence of the mercenary destruction of land and peoples being carried out jointly by the Indian state and mining companies – the Church of England decided to take some action. It has decided to sell the shares it held (as the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board) in Vedanta Resources on the advice of the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG). “We are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the Church investing bodies hold shares,” was part of the Church’s reason for dropping its Vedanta investment.

For its miserable part, Vedanta Resources has no qualms about using the typical corporate ‘responsibility’ jargon in vogue today in a sickening effort to explain how it works: “We believe that businesses will increasingly play a significant role in tackling and driving the sustainability challenge. Our focus on sustainability drives our conviction to pursue value creating projects and at the same time achieve positive environmental, social and health and safety outcomes.”

Its bauxite mining project will cover 700 hectares of land on top of the north-western part of the Niyamgiri Hills and involve excavation of a large section of the hill to a depth of about 30 metres. In May 2009, some members of these communities submitted an appeal to the National Environmental Appellate Authority within India’s central Ministry of Environment and Forests, to challenge the environmental clearance granted by the ministry for the proposed mining project. This appeal is now pending.

“Communities living in south-west Orissa in eastern India – already one of the poorest areas of the country – are at threat from the expansion of an alumina refinery and plans for a new bauxite mining project,” says Amnesty International’s hard-hitting report on the matter, ‘Don’t Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India’ (Amnesty International, 2010). “They have been effectively excluded from the decision-making process, and the land these people live on is or will soon be used to make profit for others.”

“The people living next to the refinery have already suffered violations of their human rights to water and health, including a healthy environment, because of pollution and poor management of waste produced by the refinery. The mining project will be located on the traditional lands of the Dongria Kondh, an indigenous community, which is considered endangered. They now live under the fear of losing their way of life and their sacred hills, as well as having their rights to water, food, livelihoods and cultural identity undermined.”

The advance guard of climate change

leave a comment »

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

From late 2003 to early 2005 I was part of a small group in south Nagaland (in India’s north-east region) conducting a study on natural resource management and the prospects for tourism in the region. The study was funded by a Indian central government ministry, was ‘supervised’ by the state government and was made possible by the village community of Khonoma, in the Naga hills.

At around the mid-point of our study, when the time had come for the paddy seedlings to be transplanted, that the convergence of climate change and scarce labour resources became obvious. The seedlings were not ready to be moved at the time of year they were usually expected to be. By the time they were, the extra labour each rice farming family had mobilised in preparation for the hard work ahead, had their regular jobs and occupations to return to. The hill villages were in turmoil. Practically every single family that had a plot of terraced rice field to attend to was caught in a dilemma.

If they insisted that those who had come to the villages to help them – daughters, sons, cousins or aunts – stay back to complete the work, those helpful souls would certainly lose salaries and wages. If they let them return, they would have to look for very scarce hired labour, whose per day wage was high and which would certainly rise given the scarcity of hands available and time. It was for most families a Hobson’s choice, and by either reckoning only made the socio-economic cost of rice cultivation dearer. This was the most dramatic impact of climate change that I saw at the time, for the shift in transplanting season was considered very odd indeed by the villages, almost unprecedented.

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

We know now that local observations of direct effects of climate change by tribal populations and indigenous peoples corroborate scientific predictions. In a very real sense, indigenous peoples are the advance guard of climate change. They observe and experience climate and environmental changes first-hand, and are already using their traditional knowledge and survival skills – the heart of their cultural resilience – to respond. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant stresses not only due to the environmental changes from climate change, but from the localised pressures and economic impulses of global trade and movement of capital.

The United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Study has just released an advance copy of what promises to be a goldmine of such observation. The volume is entitled ‘Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies’. The 402 case studies summarised in this densely packed volume mention a host of specific vulnerabilities and early effects of climate change being reported by indigenous peoples (and these include cultural and spiritual impacts): demographic changes, including displacement from their traditional lands and territories; economic impacts and loss of livelihoods; land and natural resource degradation; impacts on food security and food sovereignty; health issues; water shortages; and loss of traditional knowledge.

: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples

The cover graphic of the UNU-IAS compilation 'Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples'

Impacts are felt across all sectors, including agriculture and food security; biodiversity and natural ecosystems; animal husbandry (particularly pastoralist lifestyles); housing, infrastructure and human settlements; forests; transport; energy consumption and production; and human rights. The entire range of effects on habitats and their biomes are supplied: temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice-capped mountains.

“In spite of these impacts,” states the UNU-IAS compilation, “indigenous peoples also have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development.”

From Asia, I’ve picked out three cases which illustrate just how important it is to observe and learn from these responses:

BANGLADESH | Indigenous forecasting in Maheshkhali, using meteorological indicators and animal behaviour to predict cyclones. Maheshkhali Island is situated off the Bay of Bengal coast with an area of approximately 60 square km. Cyclones are the greatest disaster threat of coastal people. Research has revealed that certain indigenous prediction capacity possessed by the local people always helped them to anticipate cyclones and take necessary precautions. The indigenous cyclone prediction is even more important as it was revealed during interviews with the Maheskhali islanders that they do not understand the modern warning system with its different numerical codes (1-10) and elaboration on wind direction, as explained in the warning bulletins.

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

INDIA | Indigenous forecasting in India using meteorological indicators, plant features and animal behaviour. Researchers from Gujarat Agricultural University have evaluated eight indigenous forecasting beliefs between 1990 to 1998. For each year, the data was tabulated and analysed on the basis of Bhadli’s criteria. Based on the findings the researchers concluded that many of the beliefs are reliable indicators of monsoon. The study has helped to restore the people’s confidence in their own traditional knowledge and skills. As climate change occurs, these traditional forecasting indicators may change. Locals have to continue their observations and adjust their predictions accordingly to ensure that correct coping mechanisms will be applied.

INDONESIA | Customary Iban Community. This study examines the social and institutional practices of a sedentary Iban sub-tribe in the upstream part of the Kapuas system in governing their life. In 2008, the Sungai Utik community acquired a formal, recognition of their institutional capacity to live at the center of one of the most complex ecosystems that is the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan. The Indonesian Eco-label Institute provided the community logging practice of the Sungai Utik Ibans its “seal of ecological appropriateness”. The Sungai Utik life-space is part of the bigger climatic zone just north of the Equator that has been predicted to experience higher precipitation over the course of climate change in this century, particularly in comparison with the last three decades of the last century. It means that the community should learn to adapt to a transformed rainy season—the duration of which and the timing of its start and ending are also subject to change—for the crucial nugal (planting) rituals.