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Indigenous Communities, Traditional Knowledge and Resilience to COVID19

In this podcast, Nimita talks about ‘Indigenous Communities, Traditional Knowledge and Resilience to COVID19’ on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples celebrated on 9 August, 2020


While the COVID 19 Pandemic has brought in socio-economic upheavals, uncertainties of the future, illness and death, it is unanimously highlighted that there exists a relation between environmental damage and pandemics. Governments, institutions, various experts and practitioners from different walks of life are developing strategies and roadmaps to sustain and overcome the impacts of covid19. Interestingly, there is another set of people, spread across the world, who have been nurturing sustainable life and living, since generations. Yes, I am talking about the indigenous and tribal communities across the globe, who have shown immense courage, perseverance and resilience to the ‘new normal’.

Today, August 9, is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. We take this opportunity to commemorate indigenous peoples, their knowledge, culture, and ongoing contributions towards creating sustainable societies in preserving the world’s biodiversity and ecosystems.

There are approximately 476 million Indigenous Peoples worldwide, in over 90 countries. Globally, these communities own, occupy, or use merely 22 percent of the world’s surface area. However, they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. As per the United Nations estimates and definition, almost 8.6 percent of India’s national population is considered indigenous. These communities are characterised by their geographical isolation, peculiar traits and distinct culture and traditions. The Largest concentration is found in North Eastern and Central parts of India, which include Khasis, Dimasa communities in Assam, the Gond, Muria and Agariya Tribes of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, The Santhals in Jharkhand and Odisha, to indicate a few. Even Western and Southern India has a considerable presence of tribal communities like Warlis, Khond, Bhaina (Maharashtra); Bhil and Koraga (Karnataka), Uralis and Kurumbas (Kerala); Bhagatha, Rona and Kolam tribes (Andhra Pradesh) and Irular, Kanikar, Kurumans (Tamil Nadu).

The country does not consider the concept of indigenous peoples, as it voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, stating that all Indians would be considered indigenous, post-Independence. However, tribal communities and groups in India, closely fits the globally accepted definition of ‘Indigenous peoples’. Indigenous Peoples help protect our environment, fight climate change, and build resilience to natural disasters: practices of the Soliga tribe to prevent forest fires, Aka tribe’s contributions in preserving forest resources and other indigenous methods to cultivate crops, predict weather and rainfall and preserve biodiversity; yet their rights aren’t always protected. They have been denied access to resources, basic necessities, including education, healthcare, employment as well as justice and participation in decision making. While some efforts are made, Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities continue to face exclusion and marginalization. Vulnerabilities to the pandemic are aggravated with the lack of access to national health systems, food insecurity due to shutting down of markets, and mobility restrictions. They are suffering from higher infection rate and expropriation of land and human rights violations.

Amid these challenging times, traditional knowledge and practices offer the best entry point into addressing issues related to new diseases and even the pandemic threats. The customary rituals of the Galo tribe in Arunachal Pradesh are equivalent to quarantining the community. Similarly, the Tribes in North Karnataka’s Joida district and communities of Bastar in Chhattisgarh have been practicing isolation and physical distancing, as they are rooted in their community values and socio-cultural way of life. Some of the age-old Traditional practices of isolation and quarantine and symptom-based treatment are significant to tackle any new disease. Various tribes in North-Eastern, Central and Southern India are practising it to remain COVID-free. Traditional medicines, use of ethono-botanical plants and wild spices, are scientifically proven to possess remedial properties and boost immunity. Various traditional and folk healing practices like The Chakma, the Mandi Khamal, the Manipuri Meiba-Meipa, and practices of the Mishing community in Arunachal Pradesh, Ashtavaidya Ayurveda in Kerala and use of medicinal plants by the Jaintia tribes in Assam, are some examples worth mentioning. Similarly, Indigenous practices in agriculture, including traditional seeds systems and varied types of cultivations, techniques of water harvesting, afforestation and biodiversity conservation, are getting momentum to address bare minimum needs for survival.

Some initiatives are undertaken by Government bodies, particularly the Ministry of AYUSH, which is established to develop education, research and propagation of indigenous alternative medicine systems in India. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) is one of its kind Indian digital knowledge repository of the traditional knowledge, especially about medicinal plants and formulations used in Indian systems of medicine, to recognize and value indigenous practices. Grassroots innovations emanating from such practices are found useful in addressing societal problems. And the National Innovation Foundation is taking a lead in this endeavour.

Although industrialization, over-exploitation of natural resources, deforestation and other environmentally hazardous activities have distorted human-nature interactions across millennia, these indigenous communities are nurturing the planet. More miles are to be covered in providing equitable ownership and representation to indigenous peoples. It is time to recognize them and their rights and integrate traditional communities and knowledge systems into our education, research and innovation.

In order to protect these vulnerable communities from COVID19, youth-led communication and dissemination of COVID-19 related information, Engagement of civil societies and NGOs for the last mile connectivity and strengthening local governance platforms are some of the activities which are being undertaken. Adequate provisions for funding, infrastructure and healthcare resources will be a way forward to save the indigenous people from the threats of the pandemic. It is important to work collectively in building the global response to COVID-19 by creating inclusive, equitable and enabling environments, based on universal solidarity and mutual learning.


Acknowledgement: The Podcast is an outcome of my work on ‘Role of Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous Communities in the COVID 19’ at UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office. I am thankful to Mr. Guy Broucke (Programme Specialist and Chief of Section – Natural Sciences, UNESCO New Delhi) and Ms. Manvi Ranjan Seth (Intern, UNESCO New Delhi) for their valuable inputs and suggestions, in developing this script.

About the author

Nimita Pandey

Nimita is a Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy Fellow at the Department of Science & Technology – Centre for Policy Research, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. She is hosted jointly at Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA), Government of India and UNESCO New Delhi cluster office. A master’s in Business Administration, she holds a Ph.D. in Science Policy from the Center for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

She has been a part of various projects in the area of Science Policy, Technology Foresight, Responsible Research and Innovation, Science Diplomacy supported by national and international organizations, including DST, FAO, European Commission, Australian National University, and others. Some of her associations include Member, Global Network for Economics of Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems (GLOBELICS); Associate Member, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) and Associate Editor, Science Diplomacy Review.

Her research interests include Gender and Science, STI for sustainable development, Globalisation of Innovation, Governance of Emerging Technologies, Biotechnology clusters, and Biodiversity, to name a few. She has published on related topics and participated in many conferences and workshops, of national and global repute.

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