Access to food should be at the heart of Cop26 reforestation goals, says Rituraj Phukan, founder of the Indigenous People’s Climate Justice Forum.
Projects should be driven from the ground up, he adds, by those, often indigenous communities, who will be affected by the UN-led goals.
He is concerned that unless Indigenous Peoples are brought into decision-making, rewilding and reforestation will contravene their human rights, particularly their access to food.
Based in Assam in India, Rituraj Phukan trained as a Climate Leader under former US Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore.
He was at Cop26 in Glasgow, when November’s UN Climate Change Summit produced a multinational commitment to end deforestation by 2030 including a Global Forest Finance pledge.
In addition, 14 government and private donors committed £1.3 billion to “support the advancement of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ forest tenure rights”. The commitment is designed to recognise and reward the role of Indigenous Peoples as guardians of forests and nature.
“Each indigenous tribe has its own food habits – best managed by the communities themselves”
But uncertainty remains over how the funds will be disbursed and whether the commitments allow replanting for, say, wood pellets, which would not preserve biodiversity.
“Nature-based solutions are fine, as long as they are community led,” Rituraj Phukan says.
“We don’t want civil society to put in a plant that isn’t native or to start creating forms of monoculture in mass re-planting.
“These decisions can only be made by the community that lives in and around that particular area. So that we have the entire ecosystem restoration in place, not just a random operation.
“There cannot be one global yardstick to implement the solutions that are suggested. Each indigenous tribe has its own unique traditions, cultures, food habits and all of them can be best managed by the communities themselves.
“Indigenous institutions exist. Every village has a council or elders group. These community-led institutions and groups could be the implementing agency.
“Talking about food helps them on the road to protecting biodiversity”
“For Assam, reforestation and rewilding is important, not just to address climate change but also to give more power to indigenous communities. We have over 100 Indigenous Peoples in the north-east of India and most of us have very unique cultures.
“Many indigenous people and local communities might not be conversant with sustainable development goals, but talking about food is a uniting factor.
“It is very easy to make that connection because most people would agree that home is where their food is grown, especially for indigenous people.
“That would help them on the road to acting on climate change and stopping biodiversity loss at the same time.
“Our culture is intertwined with the biodiversity around us. Biodiversity laws, climate change, these all have consequences that affect food and culture. Our culture, food and traditions are all part of our human rights.
“Protecting biodiversity is linked to protecting natural areas that Indigenous Peoples occupy or manage historically.
“They are maintaining the sources for these 110 ingredients”
“Here’s just one example, every indigenous community in my region makes its own version of rice beer. For the Mising tribe – an agrarian community – their country liquor requires 110 herbs, roots and shoots to prepare. Imagine the biodiversity this represents and what those plants support – a huge amount of wildlife, birds, beetles, reptiles, insects. It’s an entire ecosystem that this tribe maintains.
“Traditionally every village will have access to the forest and combined with their own village gardens, they are maintaining the sources for these 110 ingredients. And that is what we are trying to protect when you talk about nature-based solutions which are better for the community.”
Based in Nagaon in Assam, Rituraj Phukan, has worked in elephant conservation for more than 20 years. The impact of climate change on their access to food is causing hunger for humans.
“Assam has the second largest population of elephants in India. The area I’m working in has about 600 elephants,” he says. “These elephants could walk from Burma to India.
“The Eastern Himalayan glaciers are melting very fast and we are projected to lose two thirds of them by 2100, even if we keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Warming has left the grasslands on the foothills overrun by invasive creepers and shrubs.
“Losing their paddy fields leads to hunger”
“Elephants eat 100 types of fruits and plants, but the staple food is grass and the grass itself is disappearing from many of these foothills.
“We’ve seen land use change as well, with tea plantations going up along traditional elephant corridors, making the corridors fragmented.
“So elephants have to now walk through tea plantations to reach the forest, or sometimes even through villages and paddy fields. Elephants have started eating crops in the paddy.
“In most cases people are impoverished and losing their paddy fields leads to hunger. Imagine, when they have done all the hard work for months, tilled the land, you know. Then, one night, one elephant herd passing through can destroy everything.
“Government officials do their best to help with the compensation system, but many of these villagers are illiterate and unable to fill out the forms or go and make the claims in the office.
“Unfortunately, most of the Indigenous Peoples living in mountains and coastal areas, have not contributed much to greenhouse emissions but are suffering the worst impacts and are unable to do anything about it because they lack the resources. Many of them are living a hand to mouth existence.”
“For people in the global south, climate change is a matter of life and death”
First-hand experience of climate change is not new to Rituraj Phukan, who grew up in a period of civil war in the 1980s, when, “We had a lot of conflict between people who identify themselves as local to the region and displaced people,” he explains.
“Looking back these were early climate refugees who were forced to abandon their crop fields and homes in low lying areas of Bangladesh, because of sea levels rising. Back in those days in the 70s and 80s we didn’t know what was happening.”
In the meantime, it has become a mission to ensure more indigenous voices are heard in government negotiating teams and other international forums.
“I was very surprised to see so many indigenous representatives inside the Blue Zone at Cop26 [the UN-managed space hosting the negotiations],” he says. “Twenty-eight indigenous tribes were given a place in the negotiation.
“I kept looking for people from India and I couldn’t find them. We have 700-plus Indigenous Peoples across India. And many of them are demanding climate justice more than anything else.
“But I came away with a lot of hope. The fact that there’s talk about loss and damage and it’s starting to gain momentum is a good thing.
“The people of Glasgow were just fabulous hosts”
“At Cop27 there’s going to be a lot of focus on loss and damage as well, so it’s vital that we bring in indigenous impacts.
“The global north must realise that for the people in the global south, climate change is a matter of life and death.”
But whether Rituraj Phukan is at Cop27 remains undetermined.
“At least 4,000 people were hosted by climate justice activists in Glasgow and towns around it. That made it possible for a lot of people to travel,” he says.
“Our host took care of a lot of things. They came to pick us up at the airport, there was food in the kitchen. The people of Glasgow were just fabulous hosts. I don’t think this will happen in Sharm el-Sheikh because it’s a very commercial resort town.
“It might have been possible in Cairo or some other city in Egypt but I’m not too sure about Sharm el-Sheikh. The price of the hotels is just unaffordable.”
Rituraj Phukan is joining the next virtual gathering of The EA Project (Events for Action) and its Circular Society Network, “Climate Justice and Unheard Voices” on March 24th. Registrations close on March 22nd.
These monthly events highlight circular and sustainable solutions, matching participants in intimate groups designed to accelerate achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, while also unlocking new business opportunities.
Register using this link for a 50 per cent discount on tickets and special offers.
A second part to this event will take place in April to highlight OmniAction.
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