Why growth of tribal communities is critical to achieve the goal of sustainable development
As the world further plunges into the grip of climate change and myriad other crises, thanks to ‘modern civilisation’ and its unsustainable ‘linear economy,’ we are beginning to realise that there is much we can learn from indigenous communities regarding sustainable development.
In India, indigenous populations, known as Adivasi or Scheduled Tribes (STs), are among the poorest and most marginalised groups. According to the UN, they represent some of the estimated 476 (370) million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries worldwide, accounting for 6.2 per cent of the global population.
Sadly, their traditional livelihood strategies, which are based on a unique relationship with their lands and natural resources, are under severe pressure. The result? Impoverishment, increasing social, economic and environmental vulnerability, and food insecurity.
However, as the world further plunges into the grip of climate change and myriad other crises, thanks to ‘modern civilisation’ and its unsustainable ‘linear economy,’ we are beginning to realise that there is much we can learn from indigenous communities regarding sustainable development. It is crucial to protect and enable indigenous peoples sustain their unique ways of life.
Indigenous peoples' reciprocity and collaboration with nature
According to the World Bank, the below figures provide an interesting highlight of the intrinsic relationship between indigenous peoples and nature.
For indigenous peoples, the term ‘sustainable development’ does not exist because they have always lived sustainably, feeling connected with nature where natural resources are considered and respected as shared property.
Indigenous communities have internalised the idea that if they exhaust resources, their children and grandchildren will not have anything to eat or anywhere to live. They know that if they hunt all the elephants or eat all the fruits on the trees, there will be nothing left for future generations. Therefore, indigenous peoples and sustainable development always go hand in hand.
Sadly, the ‘linear economy,’ where resources become waste once used or consumed, has taken over the world, and our city lifestyles, have distanced the majority of us from nature and severed the knowledge and respect that natural resources are, in fact, finite. Today we need natural parks and protected spaces to guarantee their survival, and even still, these protected parks are being encroached upon – threatening trees, wildlife and the biodiversity that holds entire ecosystems together.
In India, there is the added pressure of poverty, where poor people - driven by sheer necessity - become perpetrators of environmental degradation. Living from hand-to-mouth, trying to meet the needs of the present, at the cost of the future, they destroying their immediate environment for their present survival and further spiral downwards into poverty.
And that is what indigenous peoples can teach us, that we can live by respecting nature, living off it, while doing so in a way that allows for abundance, but at the same time, protecting the future of the next generation.
The vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples
But the valuable, traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples is under threat due to various vulnerabilities. Despite their cultural differences, Indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.
For many indigenous peoples, climate change is already a stark reality that threatens their livelihoods and way of life. They are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change as their life and livelihood so heavily depend on natural resources and the environment.
Incorporating the traditional knowledge and ways of life of indigenous peoples into climate mitigation and adaptation measures is essential if climate action is to succeed, for instance in the management of natural resources. However, exclusionary public policies, a lack of targeted focus and weak human and institutional capacities of indigenous peoples pose severe challenges to integrate their knowledge and practices in climate action.
Indigenous peoples face many challenges.
- a denial of their right to control their own development based on their own values, needs and priorities
- a lack of political representation
- a lack of access to social services
Often, indigenous peoples are excluded or poorly represented in decision-making processes on matters that directly affect them and are not consulted about projects affecting their lands or the adoption of administrative or legislative measures that may affect them.
Indigenous and tribal peoples are critical agents of change for achieving sustainable development and combating climate change; however, there is a need to proactively protect their traditional way of life, whilst enabling them to live in the modern world that has encroached upon them.
Protecting and enabling indigenous communities
Indigenous and tribal peoples often find themselves caught between two worlds – one where their traditional way of life and livelihoods are increasingly under threat, whilst at the same time facing barriers in accessing decent work opportunities due to limited access to training and skills, along with ongoing discrimination and exclusion, and exploitation and rights violations in both the formal and informal economies.
Globally, there are inspiring stories of tremendous contributions by indigenous peoples in key ‘green’ areas like eco-tourism, sustainably managing natural resources, and supporting resilient agricultural production - all grounded in their traditional knowledge. By forming cooperatives and other social enterprises and organisations, and with support and guidance, they are uniting and finding ways to capitalise on, and retain their precious traditional knowledge in relation to natural resources.
Of course, indigenous peoples wish to be the actors of their own development rather than ‘recipients’ of assistance. The need of the hour therefore, is for development organisations to work alongside tribal groups – enabling them to access livelihood opportunities that not only help preserve and harness their traditional knowledge, but helps catapult them out of poverty and vulnerability.
By respecting and harnessing their traditional practices and knowledge, which coexist harmoniously with the natural environment, indigenous and tribal peoples can teach us a great deal about living sustainably, so that we can achieve the goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.