Climate change policies will never work until Adivasis are included: AIUFWP Roma Malik

Experts call for inclusion of Adivasi groups in national policies to effectively address climate change


According to a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on August 9, 2021, Earth’s climate in every region is indicating unprecedented changes. However, strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases would limit such changes.

In 2014, India had already moved in this direction with the National Agroforestry Policy (NAP) that calls to integrate tree components into agricultural production systems to mitigate climate change. The policy has potential considering many tribal communities practice agroforestry.

However, All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) General Secretary Roma Malik pointed out that until indigenous groups are actively integrated in government initiatives, such policies will only serve as a cosmetic move.

What is agroforestry?

According to leading expert Professor B. Mohan Kumar, agroforestry is a land-use system which deliberately integrates trees or woody perennials with other life-forms on the same land parcel. It may involve herbaceous crops, shrubs and livestock.

From the climate change point of view, trees help reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – the main villain for the concerns voiced in the IPCC report.

“Many wood products remain in use for several decades, implying their long-term carbon storage potential. Herbaceous crops release most of the gas absorbed in the photosynthetic process back into the atmosphere in a quick order, i.e., when the crop residues decompose. Thus, tree components have an intrinsic potential to absorb and retain carbon for a long time and also enrich the soil organic matter status,” said Kumar, who was also involved in the formulation of the policy.

NAP in Gujarat

Following 2014, states like Gujarat provided subsidies for various trees and other schemes under the NAP. However, surveys in 2017 showed that these did not percolate to small, landless and Adivasi farmers in the state.

“Tribals used it [agroforestry] for sustenance, not really commercial purposes. Meanwhile, land-owning farmers in non-tribal areas like Kheda, Surat and Anand districts got into contracts with companies,” researcher Manya Singh told SabrangIndia.

She and researcher Aditi Patil were part of the survey team that assessed the implementation of the NAP in the eastern tribal belt of Gujarat. They described how indigenous communities like Dahod farmers planted trees, built check-dams to curb soil erosion and damage by excessive water. Similarly, Navsari’s tribal communities knew the benefits of grafting orchard trees.

“These practices have been in place for a long time. Ideally, they should have been recognised under the forestry policy and farmers should have received add-on benefits to encourage them. But we didn’t see that happening,” said Patil.

In fact, the group observed instances where Adivasi knowledge was blatantly ignored. In case of subsidies, Singh criticised the provision of monoculture seeds like eucalyptus that are not native to Gujarat. Similarly, Roma also talked about plantation of saal, teak and other non-local trees in Dehradun and Himachal forests.

“There was no research on what work was required for the farms. Even those subsidies are available if you buy 1,000 saplings at once,” said Singh.

Largely, the women criticised the policy for focusing on big farmers with acres of land who can create carbon sinks. In doing so, it ignored the small farmers and nomadic groups that stopped their migratory patterns on learning about policy initiatives. Patil said these farmers struggled with obtaining saplings, digging, maintenance and sale.

With the wood market saturated, rich farmers and land holders benefitted more as they formed contracts with companies. In the southern region, farmers received contracts from J. K. paper mills but there was no market for other regions. Tribal farmers had to depend on NGOs to avail such contracts.

In their paper titled, ‘Explorative Assessment of Agroforestry Policy Translation in Eastern Tribal Belt of Gujarat’ Patil and Singh said, “The eastern tribal belt suffered mostly due to lack of information about schemes, management techniques, and market linkages.” Even the attempt to replicate a forest did not turn out successful, said Singh, observing that while wood from eucalyptus was sold in four years, the density, quality and canopy of trees did not serve the purpose of a forest.

“Nobody understood the basic idea of countering climate change at the ground-level. So, the policy didn’t make sense there as well. Swathes of forest have been cut down and compensated with farmers planting trees in two hectares of land,” said Patil.

Need to integrate tribals in government policies

When asked about the inclusion of tribals in government initiatives, Roma said climate change policies will never be useful until indigenous groups are made a part of the scheme and their land returned to them.

Climate change policies never consider Adivasis. They are bureaucratic with no on-ground reality. Cosmetic moves will not help. We need a whole restructuring,” she said.

Roma argued that the forest department with its colonial bureaucracy views forest as a form of revenue rather than a resource. Moreover, Adivasis are yet to get their due rights under the Forest Rights Act and the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. This delay has kept the integration of adivasis from nation building schemes.

“Adivasis still considered enemies of the state. Until this colonial mindset is removed, forests can’t be saved. We know which trees are local and which trees need to be revived. There must be a political will for the assertion of Adivasi rights,” she said.

Adding to this, Patil said the Forest Rights Act had great potential to accommodate agroforestry. Along with access to land, the Act could have helped the communities prosper on land. Even Singh observed that tribal communities view natural resources like trees differently. Indigenous groups use every aspect of the flora from leaf to the trunk with the goal of sustenance.

“They practised agroforestry differently from well-off farmers in Anand districts. So non-monetary uses should also be researched and see what trees support these tribal systems,” said Singh.

Prof. Kumar said that the inclusion of indigenous groups is “cardinal for the sustainability of agroforestry programmes.” He pointed out that local practices and species need to be considered to ensure non-local species are not added to the environment.

Successful agroforestry in other parts of India

The failure of agroforestry practices did not adversely affect Gujarat’s farmers thanks to the strong community and Krishi kendras in the region. Even so, the success of the initiative could have helped many from this working community survive the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One such example is the Mising community in Assam that benefited from the agroforestry model of the Balipara Foundation. The NGO member Gautam Baruah talked about how they worked with youths in the tribe to orient them with ecotourism and introduce programmes. Gradually, they encouraged farmers to adopt an agroforestry model in their backyard instead of working on the two regular crops of rice and any seasonal vegetable like potato.

“At first they were reluctant to implement this new model. But now, all 270 households in Miri green village use this model. Our crops are local with maximum revenue. From the canopy layer, there is moringas, papaya, lemon, king chili, moringa and in between there are ginger, turmeric, sweet potato as well,” said Baruah.

He estimated that one bigha of land yielded around Rs. 3-5 lakh rupees in one year compared to the previous annual revenue of Rs. 18-25 thousand. The moringa drumstick is consumed locally and sells well in the local market.

Further, despite a lack of government initiatives, the Balipara Foundation organised exposure trips for tribals to help export products to other cities in India. Orientation like this was notably absent when adopting the policy in Gujarat. All of this was done after talking to people in the community.

Way forward

Despite the many criticisms with the implementation of the scheme, the women appreciated the government’s efforts to fund their survey of agroforestry in Gujarat. To further correct the workings of the policy, Aditi Patil and Manya Singh argued for the incorporation of the tacit and traditional knowledge of tribal farmers. Further, they called for the inclusion of women farmers, who were often unaware about the policies available at their disposal.

“Only then a model of agroforestry could have successful and equitable results,” they wrote in their paper.


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