A Santhal woman embarks on a quest to understand her identity and what makes biocultural diversity thrive.
Reverence, respect, reciprocity: are there any alternatives to these fundamental principles for the survival of biocultural diversity?
The answer is negative. One of the take-home messages of COVID-19 is that, for nature, the world is without borders, with all life forms sharing this one earth. “Corona is a virus, but a pandemic is manmade,” says Rabi, a member of the Vasudev nomadic tribe in Maharashtra, western India. “Our lakes, rivers, forests, flora and fauna, food, including millions of microbes, coexist, flowing in and out without boundaries. During a pandemic, we should be kanava and dayadu (compassionate and kind). Our contemporary world, however, taught us to distance ourselves from those who are struggling for survival.” Indeed in 2020, during the national COVID-19 lockdown in India, the livelihoods of the Vasudev were affected, like those of many other nomadic and Indigenous communities across the globe.
Early on Saturday mornings, Vasudev men like Rabi walk barefoot through the villages, towns, and suburbia of Mumbai, singing traditional songs and making music with their handheld instrument, a wooden clapper called khartal, and ghungroo bells tied to their feet. Going door to door, Rabi sings Marathi-language bhakti (devotional) poems that have been orally passed down through generations of Vasudev people. These songs remind us to be respectful of the rights of nature and our responsibilities toward it and to devote ourselves to doing good deeds for others. Vasudev men lead a minimalist life. Rabi says, “People give us rice, lentils, millet, fruits, and these days small change, as a token of reciprocity for the knowledge we spread. We are not beggars, but messengers of traditional knowledge and folk culture.”
Rabi adds, “My children are ashamed of our rich culture. I send my children to school to give them an opportunity, but this education taught in another language distanced them from their own Indigenous roots. They are ashamed of folk culture instead of being proud of how our ancestors took responsibility for keeping it alive. Many young people prefer to be taxi drivers and speak mainstream languages to gain a ‘new’ identity.” I ask him what the panacea is for biocultural diversity to thrive. Rabi replies with a single word: “Recognition.”
Just like Rabi’s children, I struggle between the two worlds. In the first world, I follow the teachings of my late mother, a Santhal Adivasi from Bankura in West Bengal, that all beings are equal and coexist with nature — a typical way of thinking and living of Indigenous Peoples. My second world is based on my formal schooling in English, a non-native language to me. That schooling taught me about ubuntu, a word from the Nguni languages spoken by Zulu and Xhosa peoples in South Africa, which broadly translates as “the essential human virtues of compassion and humanity,” or “I am because of you.” It did not, however, teach me how ubuntu is practiced in the real world, nor did I learn my direct responsibilities to protect nature.
These two worlds are apart from each other. To bridge these two worlds, we choose to speak languages of wider communication to connect to culturally diverse people. Of the twelve or so languages I speak, it is only four — English, Hindi, Bengali, and Spanish — that help me communicate with half of the world’s population. My maternal Santhali Indigenous language is one of the 7000 languages spoken by the other half of the world’s population.
My Santhal maternal grandfather lived in a traditional forest-dependent hunting-gathering Indigenous community. In the 1950s, when my mother was a child, she witnessed her family lose their ancestral forest land due to a lack of recognition of Indigenous rights. Moreover, she was denied a formal education because of her Indigenous Santhal identity.
My mother’s decision to marry my father, a non-Indigenous Bengali from the outskirts of Mumbai, meant renouncing her Indigenous identity. Her escape in search of a “new” identity was also a way to secure a “good life” and recognition for her own children. Yet, she inculcated the principles of reverence, respect, and reciprocity in them. As a child, I grew up learning things such as how it is our responsibility to ensure that cows are allowed to feed their newborns for a month, which in today’s commercial world is unthinkable because milking a cow is a business. Her bedtime stories were from the oral tradition of Santhal Adivasis: that trees communicate with one another and protect natural resources, that animals — both prey and predator — learn to survive within the web of life.
How does the younger generation deal with these contradictions? After my mother passed away, my quest became to understand whether and how biocultural diversity survives in different biodiversity hotspots. I packed my bag and traveled to remote Indigenous places to listen to stories. The first stop was Ladakh in northeastern India. I spent time learning about biocultural diversity from the Changpa, a nomadic Indigenous people living in the Changtang, which is a part of the Tibetan plateau. For generations, the Changpa have managed to preserve their diversity, learning to adapt to a harsh climate, living with snow leopards, and rearing goats that produce some of the world’s most expensive wool, the pashmina cashmere.
One of the Changpa Elders explained, “We are traditionally nomads. We believe all living beings are one family. The snow leopard hunts and eats our domestic goats sometimes, but it also allows us to use the pastureland. We respect its territory, and it reciprocates by letting us live here. Our land is biodiversity rich, and this is possible because we recognize that only when we give to nature, we then reap its fruits. Wool from our region is expensive because we know which kind of grasses and herbs is the best for our goats and sheep. We have names for each plant and animal in our language, which also helps us identify each species’ location, season, and use. You take away our language and all this knowledge is lost.”
The outside temperature was minus thirty-five degrees Celsius, and my best mountaineering sleeping bag was useless. I moved into a warm rebo, a tent handmade from yak wool, a skill passed on from generation to generation. A rebo tent is part of the web of life. One cannot just learn how to weave it without knowing how to take care of the yak.
This complexity is part and parcel of recognition: recognition of Indigenous identity, languages, food, clothes, traditional knowledge, education, and way of life — all of which makes up biocultural diversity. The human–nature relations of reverence, respect, and reciprocity are today, more than ever, dependent on the recognition by the state, by society, and by the people themselves.
The human–nature relations of reverence, respect, and reciprocity are dependent on the recognition [of Indigenous identity] by the state, by society, and by the people themselves.
My next stop was in the forest area in Assam, northeastern India. Sunita Itipi, a Karbi Indigenous woman I went to forage within the dense, moist tropical forest, paused to show me a spider and said, “My mother taught me how to identify a spider when it has eggs in its sac; that’s the best time to collect spiders, as they are delicious food.” My GPS didn’t work in the thick forest, but Sunita was leading our walk, navigating like a pro and explaining the cultural value of flora and fauna and the role of rivers and marshlands in food security.
Later, we sat in her bamboo thatched house with a clean veranda nicely plastered with clay, while her children and their friends enjoyed eating raw tara (Alpinia nigra) rhizomes that we harvested from knee-deep water inside the forest. “This,” she said, pointing to the tara, “is our natural candy for children. In our Karbi Indigenous community, which is patrilineal, we women play a crucial role in leading all traditional customs and rituals. Our rich oral folklore songs in our Karbi language are intertwined with nature — trees, rivers, and wildlife that exist around us and that guide us to protect them, our creators. Therefore, we are constantly struggling for recognition of the Karbi language and its many dialects to continue our Indigenous identity.” The Karbi community believes that dialects are essential elements for the survival of languages because they are closely adapted to local people’s relationship with nature.
Like the Karbi, the Quechua Indigenous people in the Andes, whom I visited years later, are struggling to get recognition. Maria, a Quechua youth, asks, “We are expected to study in Spanish in school and college. Why? The words of our language have deep meanings that convey our relationship to nature and Mother Earth. It is a vulnerable language, and the state is trying to ‘integrate’ and ‘assimilate’ us because they don’t want to learn our culture. We youths are rebelling for recognition, and hope to keep our Indigenous tradition alive.”
I walk with Maria to a local market in Cochabamba, which features a diversity of potatoes. She says, “Today our knowledge is taken from us and published in scientific papers. Our knowledge is learnings from our ancestors — how to listen to Mother Earth through our soul to understand what our soil, weather, and insects want from us. We should show our respect to all elements of earth before planning which type of potatoes will best grow in which part of the field.”
A common thread that runs through Indigenous communities like the Vasudev, Changpa, Karbi, and Quechua is their ability to resist and uphold their traditional cultural values to respect and be responsible for biocultural diversity. We create political boundaries around our country, or build a wall around our house — and avoid responsibility for the oil spill in a river in Ecuador, or the loss of biodiversity due to oil palm plantations in Indonesia, or deforestation caused by mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We endeavor to make our room, our house, our garden, our city, our country beautiful — all our imaginary boundaries, which make us forget that, unless we take care of everything that exists around us, we are not safe.
A common thread that runs through Indigenous communities is their ability to resist and uphold their traditional cultural values to respect and be responsible for biocultural diversity.
Looking back, I think we all have our own two worlds — the one in which we are striving to be, and the one in which we are. Bridging these two worlds does not happen by assimilating into one language or culture; rather, it happens by embracing the biocultural diversity of languages, ways of life, flora and fauna, foods, and folklore. Recognizing the rights of others is our responsibility.
View Purabi’s self-funded films at landingtogether.weebly.com
Purabi Bose, PhD, a citizen of India, is an author, filmmaker, and social scientist working with Indigenous Peoples in tropical forests. Her maternal family is Santhal Adivasi. As a senior lecturer in forest policy at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Purabi studies forest- and land-use changes among Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.