Indigenous culture can save the planet

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Indigenous culture can save the planet.

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara


Johan Siegers under a Creative Commons Licence

We have lived in the Nilgiris for about 30 years. And we’ve talked a lot about indigenous culture.

It’s difficult to explain why we think indigenous, tribal or adivasi culture is so special. But it’s more difficult to get the young adivasis to feel proud of their culture. The world really needs this type of culture, but television, films and consumer society are quickly taking over.

Schools teach children that we must respect the ancient cultures - Greek, Egyptian and Roman – but all these were based on slavery. Slaves built all the ancient monuments eg. the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids of Giza. But indigenous people were unique – they treated everyone as equal.

Groups who hunt and collect food never take too much. They get just enough for the day. They get what they need, and are not greedy. Now, rich people hate them and say they are lazy and have no ambition. But they are the only people who live sustainably. Their carbon footprint is mostly zero. If we follow their lifestyle, this could save the planet.

Vinoth and Bhuvana have recently arrived in Gudalur. They gave up good jobs in IT in Bangalore to come here for a simple life. They want their children to grow up with values like the adivasi people.

We told them some of the old stories. Long ago, someone saw a Paniya man who had discovered some wonderful wild honey. He didn’t put it in bottles for his children. He called everyone around, people he didn’t know, to come and eat it. He was so happy to find it. But he didn’t think of keeping it for his family and friends. His instant reaction was to share it with everyone around.

There is an old Moolukurumba hunting tradition. If they caught a wild boar, they brought it back for everyone in the village, not just for the people who went out to shoot it. If one house had visitors, they got extra meat. An equal share for every person, no more for important people. Many people don’t understand this. But the adivasis say it’s normal for them. They have always done this. They didn’t understand that this is different to what other people do.

When I first arrived in the Nilgiris, I was amazed to watch a little five-year-old. I gave her a biscuit. She took it and shared it, breaking it into tiny bits so every other child got a little. I gave them a plate of biscuits and the children divided them carefully and equally. I had never seen anything like this with city children.

They sing about sharing too. In their wedding ceremony, the new married couple promise to follow the traditions of the community – they will never say no to a guest or any person who needs food.

People have studied indigenous people for many hundreds of years. Others often say they make their life sound romantic. For example, Ramachandra Guha described how the outside world has brought chaos to the indigenous areas in ‘Savaging the Civilized’.

Our first Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, said developers must be very careful in tribal lands when they introduce ‘our type of development’. They must see and respect the indigenous people and their culture. Not try to make them like us.

Many young people are now leaving the stress of the cities and trying to learn from these sustainable societies. So perhaps there’s still hope. I really hope so.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).