Indigenous Climate Activist in India / South Asia | Earth Day 2022


“Are we able?” 


“Are we willing?”

“That’s the unanswered question.” 


Those were the two questions proposed by Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin (State in the US) regarding our ability to fight for climate change, who originated the idea to celebrate Earth Day. This idea came through when the Senator witnessed massive oil spills in Santa Barbara, California. 


To bring public attention to air and water pollution, Nelson targeted college students and formulated teach-in on college campuses. They marked April 22 as the date, since it falls after the summer break and before exams. This ensured maximum participation from students. 20 million Americans took to the streets to protest against environmental degradation on that day.     


In 1992, the day garnered support not only from the US but from 141 countries that put environmental issues on the global stage. This also prompted the United Nations to host its first international Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Ever since Earth Day is observed every year. 


Theme For Earth Day (2022)  

The theme for this year’s Earth Day is ‘Invest in Our Planet’. Climate Change needs investment from every individual, whether or not they consider themselves an activist. The investment can be as small as switching to sustainable ways of life or as big as demanding our government leaders to make a switch from fossil fuel energy to sustainable energy methods and holding industries responsible for the waste they generate.       


Indigenous People and Climate Change 

The population of indigenous people is estimated to be 476 million worldwide, which is a 6%  share of the world population. They also hold about 25% of the world’s surface, taking care of 80% of the world’s biodiversity. 


Indigenous people have the ancestral knowledge to understand the effects of climate change and they can help find solutions to mitigate them. They are also the ones who bear the brunt of climate change’s adverse effects. The onslaught of oil companies and developmental projects in indigenous regions puts the livelihood of these people in danger. This not only causes harm to our environment but also infringes on the human rights of indigenous people. 


Taking this into consideration, in COP21 in 2015, a group named Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform were formed to give representation to this community. This is the first step toward inclusivity to fight climate change, recognition of indigenous rights, and their ancestral knowledge.


To further bolster this, we have formulated a list of Indigenous people who are fighting for climate change in South Asian countries. 


Archana Soreng 

Born into a Khadia tribal community from Odisha, 26-year-old Archana Soreng voiced her climate concerns at the UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. She believes that tribal communities should be included in every step of the decision-making process as they live in proximity to nature.  


Soreng did her Masters in Regulatory Governance from TISS. She is now a Research Officer at TISS Forest Rights and Governance Project. She works to document indigenous knowledge and the cultural practices to preserve this knowledge. She also wants this knowledge to be available in different formats so that it can be easily accessible to people. Tribal communities are becoming victims of climate policies and Soreng believes they need to be leaders of climate change. 


Dayamani Barla 

Dayamani Barla is a climate activist and journalist. She hails from an Indigenous community in Jharkhand. Barla’s first protest was when she was an MCom student. She fought against the Koel-Karo dam project of the state government that could have drowned the villages near the rivers including the 27,000 acres of forest and 55,000 acres of land. 


But the biggest victory she fought was against the steel giant Arcelor Mittal in 2008 which was proposed to construct a plant in their village. This project could have grabbed the tribal land of 12,000 hectares while also hampering their water sources. 


She works for a Hindi newspaper Prabhat Khabar to bring the problems of tribal communities to the forefront. She has also been a recipient of the Counter Media Award for Rural Journalism. 


Prakash Bhoir 

Prakash Bhoir belongs to the Warli Community living in Aarey Forest Region. Aarey is the only green cover for the Mumbai region that is otherwise usually covered in skyscrapers with minimal recreational spaces. 


Aarey region is the home and space of livelihood for the Warli Community. In the years, Aarey has faced an onslaught of many developmental projects. Bhoir has been instrumental in voicing the issues of the community and protecting the forest area. The recent protest by Bhoir and his community was for the Metro Car shed that was proposed to be built in the Aarey region. The protest proved instrumental in changing the location of the Car Shed to another area. 


Bhoir has to balance between his job in the water department in the civic body of Mumbai and being the deputy chief of Shramjeevi Sanghatana which fights for indigenous rights in Mumbai. 


Mina Susana Setra 

Mina belongs to a Dayak community from Bornea. She is Deputy Secretary-General of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago. It is an alliance of Indonesian tribal communities that works for tribal rights.  


Mina’s childhood home was converted into an oil palm plantation by the Indonesian government. The conversion to the single plantation had made the diverse forests into a monoculture which limits the incentive for the indigenous people. These people either fall out of this type of agricultural farming or had to do subsistence farming to feed themselves. 


Setra was instrumental in lobbying the Indonesian government to recognize the customary rights of indigenous people in the Indonesian forests. She and her allies won this constitutional court case in 2012. 


She is also of the opinion that climate policies will not succeed if the rights of tribal people are not taken into consideration. She also runs a television outlet called Ruai TV to give voices to her community members in the form of citizen journalism.   


Minnie Degawan 

Minnie Degwan is from the Kankanaey-Igorot community in the Philippines. Belonging to that community, she has always been vocal about the rights of indigenous people since childhood.  


She worked as a community organizer and educator in Cordillera Peoples Alliance, an organization working for indigenous people. As a representative of this alliance, she also worked for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in Geneva. 


For the advocacy of indigenous rights in the global south region, she with other activists formed the International Alliance of Indigenous Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests. She is the Executive Director of Dinteg, a resource center with lawyers and law students who analyze the impacts of laws on indigenous communities. 


To answer Senator Nelson’s question, indigenous people’s answers are in affirmation. They are willing to take the plunge but ‘Are our leaders willing to hear them and protect their rights?”. Well, that’s the unanswered question now.

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