Young Baiga women. Photo: Simon Williams/Ekta Parishad.
With the world reeling under the effects of the coronavirus, there has been a sudden and renewed focus on the vulnerabilities of indigenous communities to foreign diseases. There have also been calls to slow down and take a closer look at the lifestyles of our country’s natural inhabitants. Often painted as obstructions to industrial development on the one hand and wildlife conservation on the other, indigenous people have a number of lessons to offer to India’s urban citizens.
Of the 650+ indigenous groups who reside in or depend on forests, few match the simple ways of the Baiga of Central India. Derided for their cults and shifting cultivation but acknowledged for their ancient customs of medicine, their hunting prowess and storytelling abilities, the Baiga hold many lessons that can be adapted to a post-pandemic world.
The Baiga have a very low ecological footprint. A piece of cloth serves as a turban and a dark half jacket makes them easily recognisable. They use leaves as plates, earthen pots to store water, a few aluminium utensils and some fishing nets to fish. They firmly believe in the philosophy of ‘less is more’.
A report published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem in 2019 said nature is declining less quickly on indigenous people’s lands than in other areas, and encouraged policymakers to draw lessons from the community stewardship of land.
The Baigas have a millennia-old relationship with their land and as a result of which their ethnobotanical knowledge is immense and diversified. Traditionally they have harvested plants based on a scheduled designed to minimise harm to the forest’s flora. No produce is over-exploited. So it’s not surprising that lands in Baiga protection are often more biodiverse compared to adjoining lands, especially in places where their reciprocal relationship with nature is still intact.
The Baigas can also teach us about the complex interdependence of life. Forests mean many things to many people: a source for food, a source of medicinal plants, a valuable economic resource for many. All these are traditional demands that have been met by forests for millennia. For the Baiga, the forest is an omnipresent altruist, always ready to give. In return, the Baiga seeks permission from the forest gods before extracting plants and ensure they never take more than what they need.
The Baiga can also effortlessly point out numerous herbs used to treat injuries from wild animals, venereal diseases and protection from ill omens as well, while protecting the rich Maikal landscape.
As for food: Baiga agriculture is opposed to ploughing the land because they believe it is akin to hurting Mother earth and tearing away at her breast. Instead, they prefer sowing a variety of pulses, coarse grains, vegetables and oilseeds, and supplement their diet with fish, hunted animals and an array of leaves and tubers from the forest. The Baiga have rarely been malnourished because the tribe’s members would have access to some coarse grain such as kodo and kutki, wild tubers or the nutritious liquid pej (made from ground millets) even during environmental crises.
Ultimately, the Baiga can teach the modern world – currently under lockdown – about community living and togetherness. Baiga deities live in the forests, and their communities nurture large tracts of land as sacred groves. The rules for the use of such forests are strictly governed by the community. Herbs used to prepare medicines are never over-extracted to ensure their use is sustainable. They celebrate festivals related to harvesting forest resources and conserving seeds, and they share their offerings with all members of the community.
But for all their virtues, the Baiga find themselves in an unfortunate position today. Instead of being respected as custodians of forests, they’re often blamed for degrading a forest’s resources, and the tribe’s members are uncertain of their future. Their material poverty is no secret but many of its members often blindly follow in the ways of the dominant, often richer communities in neighbouring lands, with adverse effects on their culture, food and of course way of life.
Their loss of tenurial rights over their forests, and subsequent loss of food security and high dependency on daily-wage labour has precipitated a breakdown in their community governance systems and increased debt to moneylenders. It’s a catch-22 situation: their already tenuous links with the forests are becoming rapidly weaker even as they’re ill at ease with the industrialised world.
The Forest Rights Act 2006, which includes the community forest rights and habitat rights, has been heralded as a step in the right direction by restoring to the Baiga their habitats and acknowledging them as custodians of forest resources. While the implementation of rights and post-rights management of forest are far from ideal, we can only hope that the Baiga are able to sustain a way of life which if replicated by the mainstream will protect resources and cause least damage to the environment. The world needs to create the space and appreciation for their knowledge to save itself.
Samita Vasudevan is a development practitioner. Kunal Sharma is a researcher at Azim Premji University who works on issues of sustainability and conservation in Southern and Central India. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.