A dollop full of honey, a little offering to the forest god, some vermilion and a deep chanting of folklore. And then, from the cliff high above, a basket load of honey came sliding down, and here we were, fascinated by it all.

That evening, as several people sat around a small yet tenacious fire, the question of the adivasi universe came alive. And also, the recurring question of the right road to sustainability and whether learnings from this simple universe of the adivasi, often romanticised but at its very essence, deeply connected to nature, can still offer us simple solutions.

The most urgent reset that the planet requires is to reconnect back with nature and it is here that adivasi culture can provide a simple guidance. An Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IBPES) report from earlier in 2019 points out that nature is declining less rapidly on indigenous land than in other areas and encouraged policymakers to draw lessons from community stewardship of land. It is indeed true that several adivasi communities continue to hold on to the ethno-botanical knowledge of the land, members harvest plant parts based on need, medicinal plants and even spiritual sustenance is reciprocally provided by the forest in abundant amounts, where stewardship and extraction are synonymous to one another.

Traditionally, agriculture has been a key part of adivasi culture. Except for a few hunter-gatherer communities, most groups were engaged in agriculture in various forms. And key lessons can be learnt from their traditional practices. The Baiga of Dindori, for example, was opposed to ploughing the land because they believe it is akin to hurting Mother earth and tearing away at her breast. They prefer sowing a variety of pulses, coarse grains, vegetables and oilseeds, and supplement their diet with fish, animals and an array of leaves and tubers from the forest. It is incredibly difficult to understand the adivasi universe unless from within and as our anthropocene enters a definitive phase, it is as urgent as it is sustainable for us to adopt practices that have a low ecological footprint.

More than 650 adivasi groups live in various parts of the country. From pastoral herders to agriculturists to hunter gatherers, a singular thread that runs through the adivasi way of life is its connection to nature and the earth. Community members continue to hold significant traditional ecological knowledge, and it is still not uncommon to hear of the medicine women or men renowned for their healing skills especially when it came to treating cattle wounds, snake bites, digestive issues, fevers, menstrual problems, and the inability to have offspring.

In the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, several communities have nurtured cultural conservation practices with the forest including restrictions on cutting young saplings to respecting traditional ancestral domains to sustainable NTFP collection and nurturing an eccentric ethos that places value to putting back pieces of harvested tuber so that more can grow in the same space.

There are several examples of significant skills in fire management during the dry season where small grass would be burnt in advance to prevent a subsequent flare up. Honey hunting, another specialised skill, requires adherence to strict rules including asking forgiveness to the forest gods for hurting fellow living beings. Dances and games such as the Kolata, Kumbala Kayi, Sorekayi ata of Karnataka are all connected with the importance of forests and nature in our lives.

As traditional aspects of adivasi culture erode rapidly and our understanding of interacting with a plant, a flower, a tiger, or an elephant also reduces – question of humanity’s very existence depends on making choices for the future and the adivasi way of life can teach us a few life lessons.

About the author:

Kunal Sharma is a part of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at the Azim Premji University.