India’s Climate Justice Movement : An intersectional
exclusion of Indigenous Communities?

The growing youth climate justice movement should not leave anyone behind.

– by Dev Nagar

In the journal article titled ‘Taking Up Space: Men, Masculinity and the Student Climate Movement’ the authors Jody Chan & Joe Curnow, talk of the mainstream environment movement as “A White Man’s Space”. Has the youth climate justice movement in India similarly become an exclusive club of affluent, English speaking, urban millennials?

Mainstreaming the ‘Less Visibles’

The role of indigenous communities in protecting the local eco-systems is well established & scientifically researched. They are responsible for protecting around 80% of the world’s biodiversity, despite being in a numerical minority. Since time immemorial such communities have used traditional knowledge to protect their natural habitats while sustaining a healthy balance between resource consumption & conservation. However, due to incessant & poorly planned developmental activities, the indigenous conservation cultures & knowledge is dying out. Despite being situated at the epicentre of any environmental catastrophe, the adivasi voices have long been ignored, deterring them from becoming a part of the popular political discourse. In such a plight, it becomes vital to mainstream adivasi voices in India to help make the youth climate justice movement more powerful & inclusive to all.

Learning from their Stewardship

As per UN backed report furnished by IPBES, the ecological decline rate is much slower on indigenous people’s lands. This is because the indigenous people have been protecting their local biodiversity through their traditional knowledge and practices and resisting extensive damage to forest lands in the name of development.

India has witnessed many world-renowned environmental movements originating on its land. Such movements have predominantly been led by the ‘adivasi’ people. Whether it be the ‘Chipko’ movement of the 1970’s where the local villagers, specifically women took active part or be it ‘Jungle Bachao Andolan’ of the 1980’s where the tribal leaders from the Singhbhum region of Bihar undertook positions of power, most of such powerful movements have one element in common – the Indigenous leadership.

Green Lens Isn’t Enough

For the ‘adivasi’ people of India, environment conservation isn’t an isolated issue. Their struggle for conserving biodiversity is deeply intertwined with recognition of their rights to self-determination, community ownership, livelihood and preserving culture. Unfortunately, despite the constitutional protection which the adivasi or the tribal population gets under the Indian Constitution, the loopholes in the system often allows for abuse of power by state machineries. As per Land Conflict Watch, at least 1,90,000 adivasi people had been forced to flee their ancestral lands without proper compensation or rehabilitation, since 2005, in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In a 2019 judgement by the supreme court, the court ordered eviction of approximately 12,00,000 tribal people, making it the largest legally enforced exodus of tribals in independent India. Over the years this predicament has placed India’s adivasi community in a quagmire rigged with ‘bad’ politics, power-play and systemic exploitation. Hence, when it comes to indigenous people, the green lens isn’t enough.

Inclusion, Acceptance & Transferring Power

The recently proposed diamond mining project in the Buxwaha forest region of Madhya Pradesh happens to be one such case where the state has prioritised development & wealth generation over ecology and adivasis. The proposed project has a potential to cause environmental havoc in the region, by felling down at-least 2,00,000 mature trees, pulling out enormous amounts of underwater and ruining the local habitat spread in 364 hectares of forest land. This project has faced very stiff opposition from all corners, but, yet again, the locals are in the vanguard, resisting with the help of all possible means.

The nascent yet rapidly growing youth climate justice movement should tread with caution and make sure not to exclude our indigenous people. Bringing the tribal voices to the forefronts would only make the movement more powerful while giving greater representation to the indigenous populace in the mainstream politics. Having a climate change mitigation discourse just from an environment conservation perspective would not lead to sustainable solutions. We need to bring in more parameters in the conventional practice to save the climate justice movement from being white-washed to become a reclusive entity. Alienating tribal people from their ancestral lands, promoting poorly planned developmental activities, and then blaming climate change as the sole cause of the repercussions, would lead us nowhere.

The youth of this country has the onus to allow for representation from different intersections of gender, caste, class & region. Will the indigenous communities get the credit for their long drawn struggle for protecting their native lands, in the contemporary climate discourse? Only the time would tell.

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