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  • The ‘Forest Man of India’, Jadav Payeng, is sharing his expertise in the North American country.

Jadav Payeng, a Padma Shri award winner known as the “Forest Man of India”, recently signed an agreement with Fundación Azteca, a non-profit organisation, to regrow forests in Mexico. It is heartening that other countries are learning from traditional Indian experiences, though, back home, they do not get the required attention.

When pondering how to engage with people at the grassroots level who may not be able to grasp the intent behind a policy, why don’t we think about involving those like Mr. Payeng to whom people will be able to connect better and stir a change in the nation’s environmental outlook?

Mr. Payeng, who started off by growing bamboo at the age of 16 and later raised the famed “Molaiforests on 550 hectares of a barren sandbar in Majuli island on his own, has often reiterated the role coconut trees can play in drought-stricken areas.

But we hardly see such ideas being taken seriously. Conditioned as we are to believing only in expertise, the ideas of people who have the “experience” are put on the backburner. The reality is that combining experience and expertise is crucial for sustainable development.

Mr. Payeng’s home State, Assam, helplessly faces floods every year, leaving many homeless and destroying crops and livelihoods. While Mexico is using the knowledge of an Indian to start afforestation drives, we are far from doing that. By starting similar afforestation in the neighbouring States such as Meghalaya, Assam’s problem of floods can be minimised, if not ended.

Today, though least responsible for the problem, indigenous populations are at the receiving end of environmental apathy, facing forced displacement, loss of culture, livelihood, homes, biodiversity and so on. On top of that, they are totally devoid of the ability to influence decisions. This approach is a blunder in developing countries where we see a clear “paradox”, as these countries have more common natural resources than others in the world but stand least benefited from that advantage.

Kenyan environmental scientist Joseph Mutanga, a representative in the United Nations Economic and Social Council, is known for fusing science and indigenous knowledge on conservation, food and medicinal plants to protect ecosystems and create livelihoods. One of the low-cost methods to fight climate change, says the World Resources Institute, is securing the land rights of indigenous people. However, we do not even think of exploring it.

Realising the teaching the importance of ecology early, American schools have started teaching students about Indian conservators like Mr. Payeng. However, it is disheartening that there is a lack of awareness of such environmental activists among Indian students. Thus, our education system needs reforms to develop in young budding minds a sensitive approach towards the environment and the will to contribute early on. Students should be taught beyond classrooms through field expeditions and visits to national park and bird sanctuaries. Environmental societies in schools and colleges are helpful too.

The administration and local bodies need to start the “desegregation” between expertise and experience by including indigenous people, who are known as the best nature conservators, before making decisions about dams, mining, forests and so on.

While traditional knowledge is rendered invaluable in Indian culture, we hardly see the same logic being applied to environmental matters. If this can be corrected, we can easily succeed in overcoming many of our environmental issues.

Cooperation among the media, youth and civil society too can facilitate such an approach. With information and awareness aided by the media, the civil society agents such as NGOs and environmental policy think-tanks can work with environmental activists for inputs and to start awareness and ecological drives. With the help of youth, such initiatives can reach a larger audience and we can be assured that future responsibilities will fall on more responsible shoulders.

As much as knowledge is a prerequisite for prescription, it is incomplete if not supplemented with experience. We need the environment way more than it needs us. It is high time we marked a new chapter in our approach towards solving environmental problems, for innovative ideas such as the Sustainable Development Goals need an innovative approach.


 

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