Many countries celebrated World Environment Day on 5th June. This year, per usual, politicians, actors, sportspersons, citizens and organizations celebrated this day with much fervor. However, the environment is not something that can be celebrated only on one day and then forgotten about thereafter. This World Environment Day, we take a look at those people who have made it their everyday mission to care about and stand for the environment.
If not for these environmental defenders, the Government and corporations would ensure that we do not have a healthy environment in the coming years. From Kerala to Odisha, from Mumbai to Meghalaya, from Jharkhand to MP, these are the people who have stood against projects that damage the environment, project that grab land, safeguarding not only the environment but also the rights of the forest dwelling and indigenous communities, along with the wildlife and biodiversity that inhabit these environments. According to this article in the National Geographic, less than 5% of the world’s population of indigenous people is safeguarding 80% of global biodiversity. Here in India, 200 million forest-dwelling communities which include 105 million Adivasis are the line of defence between environmental conservation and the greedy Government and corporates.
When we celebrate World Environment Day, it is imperative to recognize and celebrate the champions of the environment, i.e. the indigenous people or Adivasis/tribals of India.
Here are five Adivasi environmental defenders that you must know about –
Prakash Bhoir is a fiery Adivasi activist from Aarey, whose consistent initiatives have helped shed light on the condition of Adivasis in this forest. The Aarey forest, located in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai, is the only green cover in the area, and is known for its lush greenery, with tall trees, grasslands and rocky hills. The Aarey land has consistently faced onslaughts from many development projects, and is home to Warli Adivasis who are on the brink of getting displaced from their land, and losing their livelihood.
“Sometimes the trees come in my dreams. They say, ‘you gave us life, but will you be able to keep us alive?’ Will I be cursed if these trees die?” – Prakash Bhoir
Text: Sabrang India
“We will not beg, we will claim our lands back. It is clear to us that the Government is not supporting us. Our movement will win our rights back, I am sure!” says Sukalo Gond while tying her cattle as dusk approaches. Sukalo, in her fifties now, is an Adivasi leader from Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. Marching almost rhythmically in a forest rights rally in 2006, her first such experience, Sukalo realised that the possibilities were many and things were bound to change for many like her in the days to come. Little did she know at the time that soon after, she will become one of the leading women activists of the forest struggle of Adivasis in Sonebhadra empowering other women through her own lived experience and life-struggles.
Sukalo is the living witness to a time when there was no awareness among the forest dwellers about their rights and claims on forest land. Atrocities and violence against them was rampant. The police would often barge into their houses and destroy their hutments or physically abuse them with impunity.
Her initiation in the movement to demand the implementation of forest rights in 2006 and the involvement thereafter in various struggles strengthened Sukalo’s belief that rights had to be fought for and that the Adivasis will not beg! Sukalo is not only a leader, a treasurer with the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP), but also takes cares of her family, her cattle.
Text: Sabrang India
“A total lack of access to and control over any resource. Adivasis are denied access to any land – be it for cultivation, or forestland from which they collect most of the things they need for their survival. The lands we used to cultivate have been taken away from us. The forestlands we used to live on have been usurped by the Forest Department and the moneyed mafia lords. Nowadays, those who own the lands do not give us jobs. There are no jobs in the fields and in the plantations. As a result, Adivasis are pushed into poverty and starvation deaths. We had launched the ‘Refugee Camp struggle’ in Thiruvananthapuram in August 2001 after more than 20 Adivasis died of starvation. This is the situation everywhere – in Wayanad, Palakkad, Attappady, Idukki. Kasaragod, you name it. Starvation deaths have ceased to make news in the state. There are thousands of Adivasis in the grip of several diseases. The Government says Adivasis are dying because they drink arrack and unclean water. But the real cause is poverty, lack of food. How can we eat food if we don’t have an inch of land to cultivate?” says CK Janu in an interview with Down To Earth magazine.
Chekkottu Kariyan (C K) Janu is an Adivasi leader in Kerala. C K Janu was born in Vellamunda village in Wayanad district in 1970. She belongs to the Adiya tribe. Janu served as domestic help from the age of seven. From the age of 12 onwards, she worked as an agricultural labourer on daily wages. Now, she is an active advocate for Adivasi rights in her state.
Text: Down To Earth
Ashish Birulee is a young photojournalist and activist from the Ho Adivasi community, living in Jharkhand. He, along with his father and others, have been talking to the Government about the ill effects of Uranium mining and radiation poisoning in and around Jadugoda, home to India’s first Uranium mines.
“In 2013, I got the chance to exhibit my yearlong work at the International Uranium Film festival (IUFF), Ranchi. My work was appreciated and well received and was further exhibited at the Museum of Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013. I had even more opportunities to exhibit my photos in Canada, Japan and in different regions of India. It has always been my motive to spread more awareness in all possible ways, that whatever suffering we, the Jadugoda people are going through, shouldn’t be faced by any other communities and groups. I also know this isn’t enough, I still have a lot to experience, learn and a lot to offer to the society as an activist and a photojournalist.”
Sobha Madhan is a young Adivasi activist from one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) of the Nilgiris. The nomadic Betta Kurumbar Adivasis number around 6,000 today and are present across the Nilgiris region in Tamil Nadu.
“I didn’t think I’ll become like this and all. Till standard X, I studied right here at the Ambalamoola Government Higher Secondary School.”
Madhan heads the Adivasi Youth Forum (AYF), a collective she set up in 2016 to serve as a voice for the indigenous people of the Nilgiris. She is a rare Adivasi woman in this region who is vociferous about her people’s dire situation. She articulates her ideas and demands in fluent Tamil, Malayalam and English, enabling her to reach out to a wide cross-section of people.
Madhan says, “I’m now working strongly to use the FRA effectively, because that’s the only thing we have to get our land back. Our communities have lost many of our ways of living and traditions. This is what we are trying to revive. I believe it’s only with empowerment and self-respect that this will happen.” She then adds meaningfully, “All of this has to come from within our Adivasi community. It shouldn’t be imposed from outside. That will never last.”
Text: The Hindu Businessline
Jadav Payeng is one of the most well known tribal conservationists in India. He single-handedly went on to plant saplings and seeds along a dry sandbar by the Brahmaputra in Assam, creating a forest that stands at 550 hectares today on the island of Majuli near Jorhat. He is known as the ‘Forest Man of India’, a moniker that was conferred on him in April 2012 by Jawaharlal Nehru University.
People travel from across the globe to see his forest that is visited by 120 species of birds, including migratory ones; and elephants, rhinos, and tigers that visit from Kaziranga National Park.
Jadav has a simple solution to the global problem of depleting forest cover: teach our children to love Nature. “The rest will happen on its own,” he feels. Although he fears for his forest’s safety, he knows it will survive. The trees he walks past every day talk to him. “They call out to me, saying ‘Come, come, now; enough of walking in the sun. Sit under our shade and rest a bit’,” he says.
There are many more environmental defenders working tirelessly to protect the natural resources most of us find so easy to exploit. We salute their tireless efforts and their compassion towards Planet Earth and hope people will take inspiration from them and attempt to save the only planet we have to call home.