“We have been living in these Buxa Duar hills for about 300-400 years,” Indra Shankar Thapa from northern West Bengal told members of our team as we researched India’s first People’s Climate Report. “We live together with the wild animals and have been doing so for ages. We have mutual love and respect for each other…We have families, little kids, elderly people in the community and we don’t know how and where we will leave this place. We are citizens of India and we too have the right to live here. So please let us live and grow here.”.

As the collective of activists and academics who comprise the People’s Climate Network focussed on flipping the current top-down climate narrative to bring stories of those impacted by climate change to the fore, Thapa reminded us of the twin struggles of development and climate change faced by India’s forest dwelling communities.

For several years now, climate scientists and international bodies such as the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been sounding the alarm: the climate crisis is an existential threat to humanity and the biosphere but our “business as usual” attitude condemns us to unprecedented human suffering and a catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports are crucial for characterising the global scale of the problem, it is at the community level that people live, work – and suffer the effects of climate breakdown. More often than not, the voices, experiences, agency and wisdom of people at the frontlines of the climate crisis are drowned out by the prevalent systems of power. This means that the loudest voices on climate solutions are still those of the privileged and elite.

Double burden

One of the tragedies of the climate crisis is that those who are least responsible for causing the crisis are the ones who are suffering the worst. These are generally the least powerful groups in society, such as indigenous groups, people living in poverty, and the young. These groups bear the double burden of paying the price of both the destructive model of development, with its hastening of human displacement and dispossession, biodiversity loss, and also accelerated climate breakdown.

There are two problematic aspects of mainstream climate change discourse. One, it proposes solutions and policy changes that are typically top-down, emerging from the same worldview that caused the problem in the first place. Two, it rarely goes beyond a lip-service acknowledgment that marginalised groups experiencing climate change have something crucial to contribute to the climate debate.

To decolonise this conversation, we have to recognise the role and blindness of power – to counter the assumption that marginalised groups are backward people in need of upliftment. What we see on the ground is starkly different. Despite being historically disadvantaged, people living the reality of climatic impacts without being insulated by conveniences of modern industrial civilisation, village and tribal citizens of India are displaying exactly the kind of courage, knowledge, determination, and imagination that is needed to mitigate the climate crisis.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

In many cases their ways of knowing offer insights absent from the conventional view of climate change. Traditional forest dwellers and tribal communities have accumulated what is now called Traditional Ecological Knowledge by mainstream academia comprising ecologists and anthropologists among others, which has allowed them to co-exist with their forests and water bodies for millennia without destroying them.

Indigenous people, who constitute 5% of the world’s population, care for 80% of the world’s biodiversity, and manage nearly 300,000 million tons of carbon. They also lead the world in the protection of forests from forces of destructive development, thus playing a critical role as climate change mitigators. And yet the voices of these communities are rarely heard over the dominant discourse, especially when solutions are proposed. In fact tribal environmental defenders and community activists pay a heavy price for their courage – reportedly 1,700 around the world have paid with their lives in the past two decades.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports on the state of the climate or biodiversity are crucially important, evidence-backed warnings, but we also need to hear from those who live with the brutal consequences of the industrial state, climatic and otherwise. At the very least, marginalised communities should have equal say in what after all is their future as well. Their experiences and insights should guide policy makers. An exclusively top-down approach is likely to entrench existing power systems, and therefore prevent effective and democratic solutions.

People from tribal communities can offer insights absent from the conventional view of climate change. Credit: People's Climate Network

Giving a voice

The People’s Climate Network aims to provide a corrective to the dominant climate discourse by seeking and amplifying the voices of marginalised communities. Our first People’s Climate Report is a multimedia document available on the web, consisting of a narrative informed by 55 interviews across eight districts in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Sundarbans. Videos of the interviews are embedded throughout the narrative, and emerging concepts and ideas highlighted. We expect to create several such People’s Climate Report on India and other parts of the world.

Creating the first People’s Climate Report validated our contention that marginalised communities have a lot to say and a lot to contribute on the climate issue. Importantly, it highlighted that climate change as imagined on a global, abstract scale, is not the central concern of these communities, although it intersects with and is related to, and likely exacerbates several of their concerns.

Combining the global and the local in one incisive analysis, one of our respondents, a woman in the Sundarbans said, “More snow is melting because of global warming. And the water in the sea and river is rising. People are blocking the small canals and converting it into land. On the one hand, the volume of water is increasing. On the other hand, it has less area to flow.”

Intimate knowledge

Other respondents spoke about the acute land and livelihood insecurity due to the threat of displacement from traditional forest lands, whether due to conservation or development projects or legal challenges to land rights. Our conversations revealed not only people’s attachment to their lands but their intimate knowledge of them, whether referring to the moods of a river that is eroding the banks, or the need to dig ponds for animals to maintain a healthy forest.

“Are wildlife and forests likely to survive if the local people are removed?” asked Lal Singh from North Bengal. We discovered unsung heroes, such as Parvati Devi from a community in Jharkhand, who, 20 years ago, organised village women to protect their local forest. It stands today, lush and verdant, in a land devastated by mining projects, a reminder of what was once there and what can be taken back.

Another group of women forest protectors from a different community in Jharkhand told us, “When these trees were small we talked in our village and decided to stop this, to not let anyone cut the trees. We stuck bamboo flags in the ground, to prevent others from cutting the trees. That’s why these trees are so big! We get many things from this forest…Enough leaves for four or five villages.”

The generosity of our interviewees in sharing their insights, fears and concerns humbled and reminded us – middle class urban educated Indians – that the project of decolonisation must include cutting back on dominant perspectives so that we can listen to and learn from those who have experiential knowledge of living with precarity of various kinds: environmental and socio-economic. A truly grassroots participatory democracy is essential and desirable for many reasons, chief among them is that it offers the possibility of climate solutions that are both just and effective.