To achieve the target of restricting the rise in global warming to not more than 1.5o C by 2030, the emission of greenhouse gases all over the planet needs to come down by 7.5% annually for a decade, starting in 2020, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In November 2021, member nations gathered in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to reiterate their commitment to curb climate change. While the bold statements by the world leaders generated enough headlines, there wasn’t much available in terms of a concrete action plan for achieving the target.
Another conspicuous omission from the discussions at COP26 was the restoration of Earth’s biodiversity which is crucial for the survival of life on the planet. That’s not surprising, because they had left out of the discussion perhaps the most important group who could help in this endeavour — the indigenous people and forest dwellers of the world.
Over millennia, indigenous peoples and nomadic groups have helped maintain the delicate balance in ecosystems called the biosphere — a thin envelope around Earth’s surface that ensures the continuation of all forms of life. This is the layer that stabilises and moderates climate, renews soil fertility, and purifies the air and water that are the basis of life. And biological diversity is key to the ability of the biosphere to do all of this. But when it comes to strategies for tackling major environmental problems, nobody thinks of inviting the representatives of these people, who form around 7% of the world’s population and are rich repositories of centuries of native knowledge and experience.
Over millennia, indigenous peoples and nomadic groups have helped maintain the delicate balance in ecosystems called the biosphere, — a thin envelope around Earth’s surface that ensures the continuation of all forms of life. This is the layer that stabilises and moderates climate, renews soil fertility, and purifies the air
Modern civilisations started paying serious attention to Earth’s atmosphere only a few decades ago when the ozone hole and the dangers it posed to humanity were discovered, which was followed by the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987. The dominant international community had woken up to the importance of conserving the environment, which led to the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Convention on Biodiversity in 1993. For the first time it was realised unbridled development could not be allowed to continue. It had to be balanced with environmental protection, giving rise to the concept of sustainable development.
What modern science discovered just about four decades ago was already well understood by the indigenous peoples and forest dwellers for ages. Traditions and rituals of all ancient civilisations such as the Mayan, Indus Valley, Sumerian, Egyptian and so on were steeped in respect for and worship of nature and its elements. However, with the dawn of the industrial age the acquired knowledge of the indigenous people, distilled through the filter of time, was relegated to a forgotten corner of the modern mindset. This despite the fact that biodiversity conventions have time and again called for their involvement. India too passed through the development dilemma, taking one step forward and two steps back. For example, the Compensatory Afforestation Act (CAMPA), 2016 is one such effort to undermine the Forest Rights Act (FRA), passed 10 years earlier, giving primacy to the indigenous peoples and forest dwellers in conserving biodiversity, who had been completely left out of the equation previously.
The plight of the Van Gujjar cattle herders of Uttarakhand is a case in point. They face continuous threats of eviction from the forests though they fit the definition of traditional forest dwellers. The forest department, and some environmentalists, view them as encroachers despite these nomadic people living in the forests of Uttarakhand in perfect harmony with nature for more than two centuries.
For the Gujjars, on the other hand, just maintaining their identity and way of life is a daily struggle. Traditionally, they migrate seasonally with their cattle, chasing green pastures — the bugyals or alpine meadows of the Himalayan highlands in summer and the grasslands in the forests in the foothills in winter. Since 2000, many restrictions have been placed on their movements, owing to the establishment of biosphere reserves across the state.
For the Gujjars, just maintaining their identity and way of life is a daily struggle. Traditionally, they migrate seasonally
with their cattle, chasing green pastures — the bugyals or alpine meadows of the Himalayan highlands in summer and the grasslands in the forests in the foothills
So, are they friends or foes of the forests? The picture that emerges at Van Gujjar deras (camps) in Gohri Range of the Rajaji National Park near Rishikesh establishes them as friends. Far from being encroachers, they lead lives closely linked to nature — to trees, animals and insects. They live in simple but aesthetic mud huts. Roughly square in shape, themud walls of the huts rise about five feet. Four wooden poles at the corners support a thatched roof that is square at the base but tapers towards the top. The thatch is made from jungle grasses — known in the Gojri lingo, a dialect of Dogri, as kai, seer and dab — that expand in rain, making it leak-proof.
Between the walls and the roof a window-like opening with bamboo lattice running around the hut provides ventilation. “It keeps out the cold in the winters and the heat in the summers,” explains Ameer Hamza, a young Van Gujjar activist, who lives in one such hut with his wife and two children. The role of nature is apparent. Their meals are simple, usually comprising rice with karhi (a curry made of butter milk, turmeric powder, and onion) cooked on an earthen chulha (oven) that uses firewood. The spices they use are usually herbs gathered from the forests. The Gujjars are vegetarians.
A second hut serves as a cattle shed while another family belonging to the same clan lives in a third. Water comes from a stream that flows nearby while their cattle graze on the pastures in the forests to the north. Ameer, a thin and wiry young man, takes me on his motorcycle to another dera about a kilometre away in a denser part of the forest closer to the bank of the Ganga. There we meet Ghulam Nabi Chauhan. While Ameer is educated, pursuing a master’s degree in social work, Nabi is unlettered but very articulate and is the informal sarpanch of the Gujjars of this area.
Respect For Nature
About 5’8’’in height, Nabi is a strongly built man with a deeply tanned face and a henna-dyed white beard. A white pag (headgear) rests on his head. He says that he is 62, recalling that his mother told him that he was born 10 years after the gadar, referring to the disorder during India’s independence. He is a cheerful person with a hearty laugh but also many grievances. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to carry on with our way of life,” he laments, referring to the nomadic ways of the cattle-herding Gujjars, who are now being forced by circumstances to settle down. The Van Gujjars have been living in Uttarakhand ever since they migrated from Jammu in the late 18th or early 19th century.
Just as he settles down on a cot in a clearing among the trees to talkwith a cup of milk tea in hand, drawing on a bidi, there is a commotion in the distance. A buffalo has got mired in the quicksand on the river bank. Nabi rushes off to help his sons and daughters-in-law pull it out. He returns after a few minutes, task accomplished. The community has a great deal of confidence in his medical acumen for he knows the secrets of the forest and his formulae of herbs can heal man and animal alike. Ameer, on the other hand, belongs to the younger generation of Van Gujjars, and has remained traditional with a foot planted in the literate world. He combines his ‘natural’ knowledge with the disciplines of ecology, environment and ornithology.
While modern science looks at termites as a pest to be wiped out, the Van Gujjars see them as a boon that plays a key role in not just preserving the environment but also in maintaining biodiversity. The wood eaten by the termites acts as a fertiliser for the soil
Sample his views on termites acquired from ‘traditional’ research — based on observations over hundreds of years by his ancestors, but presented with a modern outlook. While modern science looks at termites as a pest to be wiped out, the Van Gujjars see them as a boon that plays a key role in not just preserving the environment but also in maintaining biodiversity. The wood eaten by the termites acts as a fertiliser for the soil on which the powdery remains fall. Not just this, termite hills attract various kinds of birds like red jungle fowl, pheasants and peacocks, who eat them. These birds in turn play their own diverse roles in the ecosystem. The termite hill has a medicinal value as a paste made of the mud of termite hills is used to treat udder tumours in pregnant buffaloes. The Gujjars actually have an annual ceremony celebrating the termite — a sort of termite day during which termite hills are worshipped in the belief that they are the home of the nag or the holy serpent.
Ameer provides other examples. Water holes dug by the Van Gujjars inside the forests for their cattle also meet the water requirements of other animals of the forests. Even when they lop off branches, it serves to regreen the forests with already existing species. This happens as the seeds fall off when the branches are lopped, and become embedded in the soil by the heavy tread of the cattle, which prevents them from being washed away in the rains. Besides, deer and other foragers also eat the leaves that are lopped off.
While the traditional knowledge of the Van Gujjars can certainly help preserve the forests and biodiversity since their livelihood depends on it, their culture and way of life are in danger of being lost forever as they settle down in increasing numbers, acquiring the tastes and lifestyles of settled peoples. This is particularly affecting the younger generation, both among those who have settled down and those who roam the forests. “For example, 1,390 Van Gujjar families have been settled in the Haridwar region… their youngsters no longer want to lead the migratory life, preferring the comforts of the city. Even our youngsters have started to look up to them. If this continues, there won’t be any Van Gujjars left and the question of traditional forest dweller rights will simply disappear,” says Ameer.
The Vangujjars Tribal Yuva Sanghatan (VTYS) has established schools for Van Gujjar children that follow a curriculum combining Van Gujjar culture with a regular school syllabus. The Hindi alphabet is illustrated with pictures of vegetables, fruits and animals along
with their Gojri names
Showing maturity beyond his 27 years, Ameer has realised that the only way out of this Catch-22 situation is to preserve the culture of the Van Gujjars, which in turn will help conserve biodiversity. To achieve this, he has started the Vangujjars Tribal Yuva Sanghatan (VTYS). The VTYS has established schools for Van Gujjar children that follow a curriculum combining Van Gujjar culture with a regular school syllabus. The Hindi alphabets are illustrated with pictures of vegetables, fruits and animals along with their Gojri names and the traditional knowledge associated with them.
In addition, the VTYS aims to cultivate traditional cultural practices relating to clothes, food, kitchenware, music, folklore, medicinal herbs, and sports. But to help them earn a living in addition to the traditional occupations, VTYS trains youth in bird watching and teaches them to be nature guides with eco-tourism gathering pace. This alone can help preserve their identity as nomadic pastoralists as well as their alternative development model.