Sunday, July 21, 2024

Earth Care: Learning from Tribal Communities


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By Barnes Mawrie

We all know that tribal communities maintain a close relationship with nature whom they revere as their mother. The famous movie Avatar demonstrates the elemental relationship that the Navi tribe had with their natural environment. In fact, the director, James Cameron wanted the movie to be pro-environmentalist. In an interview he said, “because that was my purpose in making the film. I wanted to make an environmentally conscious mainstream movie. And to be fair to 20th Century Fox, any of the other studios would have said the same thing. Fox ended up being enormously supportive and wrote this huge check. But they would have been much more comfortable if I had eliminated what they called the ‘tree-hugging’ elements.” Of course, the movie depicts an imaginary Navi world, but the message is clear that we human beings are primarily connected to our natural world. Unfortunately, modern civilization has distanced humans more and more from the rest of creation. The tribal people are always aware that they live in the bosom of Mother Nature and therefore they would do nothing to hurt her. Some of the most evident factors that prove this traditional attitude of tribal people towards nature are:
a) Communion with nature – The tribal people cannot imagine an existence outside their natural environment. Damage to Mother Nature causes grief to them. In the words of Wangari Maathai, founder of the Kenya Green Belt Movement, “I am concerned about the wounds and bleeding sores on the naked body of the earth. Have we not seen long-term effects of these bleeding sores? The famines? Poverty? Chemical and nuclear accidents? We are responsible directly or indirectly. We are strangling the earth.” This is the feeling of tribal communities all over the world as they witness the ruthless exploitation of nature.
b) Man-nature interdependence – The tribal people are always conscious that they depend so much for their survival on Mother Nature. They believe in a mutual interdependence between humans and nature. Tribal communities are agrarian by occupation and so they depend largely on the bountifulness of nature. Tribal myths and folktales speak of the interaction between plants, animals and people as well as with their natural relief and they affect each other constantly. The awareness of this interdependence inspires respect and love for nature. Thus tribal people would always converse and seek permission from nature for anything that they require from her.
c) Sacredness of nature – It is a universal belief among all indigenous tribes of the world that nature is sacred and ought to be respected and revered. The tribes of Northeast India for example, believe in the existence of nature spirits who reside on mountains, in rivers, forests, caves, lakes etc. Such perception makes them revere nature all the more. In fact, among the tribal people, nature plays a sacramental role. This is evident in the many myths and stories where things of nature, animals, birds, insects, trees, plants, etc., become God’s agents to rescue humanity especially among the tribes of Northeast India. For the Cherokee Indians the eagle is considered a sacred bird because it flies high and delivers the prayers to the creator. For the Tlingit of Alaska the raven is a sacred bird and is considered the creator of the stars and the moon. The Santals of India consider the tortoise as the creator of land in their creation myth. The practice of instituting sacred groves among many tribes of India, is another manifestation of the sacredness of nature. Our Khasi ancestors were also wise and realized the necessity of preserving the natural resources and nature’s biodiversity for future generations. They did this by instituting these groves and declaring them as sacred and inviolable. Everything that are found in these groves, the flora and fauna etc., are never to be violated in any manner.
d) Sense of ecological justice – The tribal people in general maintain a very just and upright attitude towards their natural environment. They treat things of nature as they would treat their fellow beings. Thus the sense of fundamental equality with other beings in nature is very strong in them. They communicate with elements of nature as if with fellow humans. Among the Khasis of Meghalaya there is a belief that in the age of innocence, both men and beasts spoke the same language and even kept a common market (Iewluri-lura). Tribal people still maintain a mutual respect with the animal world and there was no encroachment into the other’s territory. There was never a wanton destruction of the natural environment. The Nagas for example, maintain a harmonious relationship with nature and they would cut down trees or hunt animals just for what they need and not for commercial purposes. Today the ecological crisis of climate change can be largely ascribed to the weakening of ecological justice.
e) Protectors of the environment – All around the world, the indigenous tribes continue to be protectors of the ecology. However, it is a war waged against the powerful economic players. Through legal processes many of them have been able to safeguard their habitats. In India, tribal communities, through the constitutional provisions under the Fifth and Sixth Schedules, are able to protect their lands from encroachment by outsiders. It is true that tribal communities all over the world have been protectors of the natural environment since times immemorial. Their symbiotic existence with their natural environment, is still an inspiration for the world today in fighting the adverse impacts of climate change. However, the encroachment of the so-called “civilization” has corroded tribal values like termites. Today, many tribal people have fallen victim to materialism and consumerism and in exchange, they have destroyed the integrity and purity of Mother Nature.
In conclusion we can ask the question: Can tribal communities still boast of their communion with Mother Nature and can the world look up to them for inspiration? In the face of threats from climate change like surging temperature, flash floods, drought and famine, tribal communities can play a very positive by showing the world how “humans are elementally connected to Mother Nature and that maintaining a healthy and respectful relationship with her, is the only way out of this existential danger.”


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