The voices of indigenous people resonate with a vast reservoir of knowledge for how to live sustainably with the earth. Listening to these voices is necessary to restore ecological balance and irrigate a desolate democratic landscape.
The following interview with indigenous journalist, activist and seed keeper Vasavi Kiro tells the story of the Save the Forest Trust with the ‘Torang’ tribal rights and cultural center. The center is based in Kotari Village, Ranchi district in Jarkhand state.
Why is it important to save biodiversity and medicinal plants?
Biodiversity and medicinal plants are very useful and very important for human beings, particularly for women’s health. Now we have collected about two hundred species and medicinal plants. In Jharkhand state there are two thousand species: edible leaves, roots, plants, fruits, flowers, etc that we are collecting, preserving and promoting.
What is the Forest Trust?
I am the secretary of this organization with Dr. Ram Dayal Munda who is the vice chancellor of Ranchi University in the capital of Jharkhand. He is a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He is a world leader of indigenous groups.
Why did you get involved with the Forest Trust and how has it grown over time?
When I was in journalism and writing about tribal people and societies I became aware of the problems of: land alienation, degradation, displacement, ecological balance and climate change. Seven or eight years back I found that so many life saving medicinal plants are going to be extinct. In rural areas, remote areas, tribal people use medicinal plants for their treatment as a practice in day-to-day life for every kind of disease. They use medicinal plants in every village where there is a folk physician.
We started the ‘Save The Forest’ movement in 2001 in our state. Very recently we have started our seed bank. Dr. Vandana Shiva visited and inaugurated the seed bank. We have put the seeds in mud pots. In our tribal villages there are so many types of Paddy varieties. We have twenty kinds of traditional seeds. Not only related to rice, but with pulses, millet, flower and medicinal seeds.
We have twenty activists in one block of our movement. They are collecting seeds and putting them in my center in Kotari. In this place we are collecting seeds 40 kilometers away form our headquarters. It is a prominent place for Multi-National Corporations: the mining industry and industrial department. They want to get land and make huge investments for power plants and coal mining. This creates a very dangerous environment for these species and ecology.
What are the consequences of industrial development in Jharkhand?
In the 60s after Indian independence the first Prime Minister started the development process. With the model of the Tennessee Valley Authority he laid the first stone in the valley. Thousands of tribals were displaced and now they are struggling for their rehabilitation.
There is no rehab policy, only in draft form. In parliament the Resettlement and Rehabilitation policy has been introduced but not discussed. Nobody is interested. Our Jharkhand state government has made so many ‘memorandums of understanding’. Mysteriously, the government did not reveal the MOU between government and the capitalists. We know from various sources that ArcelorMittal, the largest steel giant in the world, wants 25,000 hectares of land to establish a steel plant in Ranchi and Khunti districts.
What issues are of primary concern for the Forest Trust?
We are focusing on the forest issue only. We are doing campaigning awareness programs. We are organizing village-to-village meetings, small meetings, rallies, seminars, and small workshops to tell people the forest is important for the people: not only for the tribal, but also for the planet.
How do the villagers experience the awareness programs?
Tribal and indigenous people’s lives are very much related with nature. Tribals have a symbiotic relationship with nature and the forest. It is easy for them to talk on the forest issue, they become thrilled. We had a tremendous kind of response. Never did they believe that these educated people cannot understand the forest. Educated people are not interested in the forest. We are educated, civilized people. We told them we are the most civilized people because we are promoting the environment for the people, for the planet for the tribal, for the women and for the children.
We collected 35 leaves, and these are the edible leaves. Due to these traditional fruits they are surviving. We ask them in our awareness meeting: what is meant by forest? Forest means: rich biodiversity, many varieties of trees, flower and plants. It should be a natural forest. Nature has given a gift.
What is the role of women in the movement?
We are situated in the dense forest. Women have their spiritual, social, economic, mental, psychological, medicinal connections all in the forest.
In India there is a funding agency that support us. It focuses on women and children to organize them and make them aware of ecological issues like biodiversity and traditional seeds. They want to empower women. In our Adivasi society the tradition is that women carry the culture and the whole family and whole human activity. If the woman is educated then the whole family can be educated- this kind of thinking is in our society. Women have indigenous knowledge and preserve so many things in her hut and her mind when she starts work on any issue, like this life saving medicinal plant.
Women in our society, in large numbers, go to the forest every day. This is their daily routine. Women in the forest have very good relationships. Where there is no forest women have so many health problems.
Why is it important to have dialogue between Adivasi and the government and corporate sector?
In the 21st century, we are living in a high-tech era, and people want to live with dignity. The tribal people and women want to believe in a dignified life. The way is to convince corporate sectors and to communicate our plans, our ideas, our views. For this we have to make a dialogue process. We want to sit and talk.
The corporate sector makes choices with selected people from civil society – they never talk to the effected people. They never talk to the suffering women, they never want to talk to the people who are involved in the movement: educating, struggling. We are running this kind of seed bank. They do not want to contact us, they do not want to dialogue with us.
ArcelorMittal, the largest steel giant in the world, came to Jharkhand area with his private plane from London and landed in our state. Mittal talked to the chief minister. The ‘Corporate Social Responsibility Unit’ organized a meeting with selected NGOs from civil society – but they never called the Tribals. They talked to the town people who do not know anything about the traditional way, the seed bank and traditional indigenous knowledge. They are serving in the university and they are running small NGOs based in the town areas.
We want to go into the dialogue process. We want to give our message of what we are thinking, and what we are thinking for the welfare of our country and the ecological balance. Because of the degradation of forest there is climate change. The NGOs are not concerned with the forest. Adivasi and indigenous people were not participating in the discussion.
We want to convince them that huge land, 25,000 hectares of land, is not necessary. There is no need to take too much land for this work. There is a barren land; you do not need forest land. You can take the barren land and establish your steel factory.
Dialogue will be in the welfare of the state and the human.