The latest in Forum’s Future of Sustainability series sees Forum’s Director of Global Programmes, Caroline Ashley, in conversation with Archana Soreng. As a young woman activist from an indigenous community, Archana Soreng is on the front line of the fight against climate change
Here she reflects on the contrast between the indigenous world view she grew up with, which sees people as part of nature, dependent on it and with an obligation to protect it, and a developed world view of nature as a commodity, to be harvested at a profit.
She emphasises the importance of drawing on the wisdom of indigenous elders, and of bringing an indigenous perspective to climate policy making and action, particularly youth activism. And she argues that women, who both bear the brunt of climate impacts but are also in the forefront of addressing it, should be seen not as hapless victims, but as resilient advocates for climate justice.
Despite the challenges, Soreng is optimistic that change is possible. She takes some comfort from a growing recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge, but insists that more needs to be done to recognise the rights of indigenous communities over their traditional lands. There is a lot of work still to be done, she concludes–and there is no time to waste
Archana Soreng, 26, is a leading Indian youth climate activist and UN adviser. Hailing from an Adivasi(tribal) background among the Kharia people in the state of Odisha, she is descended from indigenous healers and community leaders. Her grandfather was a pioneer in community forest protection, and both her parents were active in the struggle for her people’s rights. This heritage inspired her to study environmental regulatory governance for her Masters degree, as a means of bringing her community’s perspective to policy making.
She is one of seven members of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, established by the Secretary-General of the UN, and national convenor of the Adivasi Yuva ChetnaManch, or ‘tribal commission’, established by the India Catholic University Federation. A former President of the Students’ Union at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Soreng is currently Research Officer at the NGO Vasundhara Odisha, which works on natural resources governance, conservation and sustainable livelihoods.
While participating in COP26 in Glasgow, in her UN capacity, she spoke to Caroline Ashley, Global Director of System Change Programmes at Forum for the Future
Please note: All opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Forum for the Future.
On community identity and the climate summit:
Caroline: I’d like to start by asking what your normal working life looks like–and what you’ve been doing at COP?
Archana: My day-to-day work is focused on indigenous rights and climate justice, and in particular on preserving and promoting traditional knowledge. Before COVID, much of my work involved field visits, and I miss those a lot: I miss the chance to learn from the elders.
And I must say that COP has been a huge learning experience for me, too. I’m only able to come to a place like this because of the struggles of my ancestors, and so it feels very important to be here, to speak for my community. You know, we indigenous people have been in the front lines of climate action, so it’s really important to be part of the discussion and decision-making process on it.
I’d like to stress that we are all different, we all bring different interests, capabilities and expertise, but as indigenous peoples we all share a deep relationship with nature. For me, nature is my source of identity; it’s my culture, my tradition, my language and my livelihood.
We are not merely a part of nature – we are nature.
Just take my name. For us in the Kharia tribe, Soreng means ‘rock’. Others have names meaning ‘fish’ or ‘bird’ or ‘wild plant’. It all reminds us that nature is not a commercial commodity, but something of which we are a part, and so it’s really important for us to be a part of the process of protecting it.
On inheriting and protecting an indigenous worldview:
Caroline: You often speak about your family’s involvement in protecting and nurturing the earth. Could you give a sense of how you have seen our relationship between society and the land and its resources change, and do you think it’s getting better – or worse?
Archana: That’s a really important question. My grandfather was a pioneer of community-led forest protection practices in my village and in the region. He was a firm believer that we need to have a sustainable relationship with nature. My father was an indigenous heath care practitioner, and he and my mother were both active in indigenous rights issues. They told me that if you really want to contribute back to society, you need to enter into the policy making space. So I studied political science, and took a Masters in regulatory governance. As part of this, I studied environmental regulations – and realised that [regulating the environment] was something which I have grown up with, and seen in my own communities.
But the sad part is that [these regulations] are not written by our communities – they’re written by someone else. And we are not able to access the decision-making process.
While studying, I lost my father, and that made me realise that our elders will not always be with us. So it’s really important for my generation to go back and learn from them.
It’s crucial to make a bridge from the elders to the youth, because if we lose their wisdom now, we have nothing for our upcoming generation.
That said, it’s important to stress that indigenous people are not homogenous. Some have been displaced from their traditional homelands, and forced to migrate, and may have taken on a different view from those that have stayed in their villages.
I was talking to one indigenous leader who told me she was struck by all the migration she saw during COVID, with people walking home from the cities. By contrast, she said that, “In the village, we were protected, because the forest provided us food, the forest provided us shelter and the forest provided us medicine.”
In this time of crisis, in other words, it was nature, and their relationship with nature, which kept them safe.
So yes, we are preserving our traditional knowledge and practices, but there is more to it than that.
It is not just about what indigenous people do – it’s about what indigenous people are. Our whole world view is different from the developed world view.
Our whole world view is different from the developed world view. I come from a place where, in the past, we were constantly being made to feel inferior, that our knowledge and practices were inferior, and we were called ‘savage’ and ‘backward’. Nowadays, our traditional knowledge and practices are more acknowledged, but we still have to constantly push against this [dominant] developed world view.
On the difference between dominant and indigenous worldviews:
Caroline: Do you think that the prevalence of this particular world view, along with the exclusion of indigenous voices, is the major obstacle [to climate justice]. Are there other key factors?
Archana: I would say it is the world view, because that is where the problems start.
There is such a difference between those who prioritise the health of nature, and those who are focused on so-called development. When people speak of development, it is really important to ask: ‘Development by whom, for whom, and for what?’
If you take my land, and take my forest, then it is not sustainable development – even if you give me money, or jobs, or compensation. The money will not last, the jobs may not be fitting for local people. Yes, there are compensation programmes, but these are often not implemented on the ground. And what are we compensating? Can you compensate for the loss of identity and culture; of traditional knowledge? Once those are lost, they are lost forever.
This is very important when it comes to sustainability. If people are there, living with the land and forest and nature, then they are sustainable. If they are evicted, then that is not sustainability.
It all comes down to how you are treating the earth, and how you are treating the people.
So yes, for us indigenous people, it is the dominant world view, with its focus on profit and gain and development [which is the biggest obstacle].
On cross generations:
Caroline: You speak really strongly of having a world view rooted in your indigenous culture, inherited from your ancestors. But you are also a young person in a space dominated by people who not so young. Do you think you have a different perspective because of your youth, or is it part of your culture that actually age is not the issue, and in fact you feel in a similar way to your elders and to previous generations?
Archana: Hmmm, I think my perspective is different, in that I’m an indigenous person first, and then a young woman. I may not be young tomorrow, but I am definitely indigenous tomorrow [laughs]. It is the indigenous perspective that is so missing in this discourse. And given how active the youth climate movement is, it’s very important that there are indigenous youth involved in it. I strongly believe that it was my ancestors who advocated a lot for the perspective [we need to address climate change], and I think it’s really important for indigenous youth to keep advocating for it.
On women as leaders:
Caroline: Yes, and you mention being not only indigenous, but a woman as well, and we know that for a long time women have been bearing the brunt of both climate change and climate management. Do you see that changing?
Archana: Yes, I think it’s changing, people are slowly recognising how much indigenous women have contributed, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done. We still don’t have enough women in the decision making spaces and public speaking spaces [on climate]. It is genuinely difficult for us women to act, as the space is all filled by men. When we try to access those spaces, we meet with a lot of prejudices, so just [doing so] is a journey of assertion.
Women still get put in boxes when it comes to career choices: there is the idea that women should ‘do this, do that’, when we should be able to choose what we want to do and where we want to be. Even in my own work, it can be hard to travel to learn everything, since field research is seen as not being safe for a woman, and people ask ‘what is this researcher thing roaming around?’
This is why it is so important to see women in positions of [climate] leadership, as they are often doing the real work, in the front line, bearing the brunt. We need to see them not as victims, but as resilient advocates.
There is a lot of talk of loss and damage in the climate action discourse, but it’s important that we take into consideration the loss and damage suffered by indigenous women, and women in general. Because they have lost so much, sometimes their lives, sometimes their livelihoods, and they are risking so much, too.
On priorities – rights and voice:
Caroline: And now, looking forward: what would you most like to see happen over the next 25 years, say? What would make your dreams come true?
Archana: Ha ha! Yes… One of the most important things that I would like to see is a lot more countries committing to recognise the rights of indigenous people over their land, their forests, their territories, recognising the value of their traditional knowledge and practices, of their world view.
And the second thing I would like to see is more indigenous people, particularly women and young people, in leadership positions among the international community, able to shape international commitments and plans to make a real difference.
On the long journey ahead:
Caroline: We hear a lot more now about regenerative approaches, and we hear a lot more recognition, at least in words, of the wisdom of indigenous people. So are you optimistic that your world view is beginning to be more accepted – that real change is on the way?
Archana: I am optimistic – yes! I am optimistic because I see things are changing. I know it has taken a lot of time, and it will take a lot more time, because it takes time for things to change. We need to remember that this is not a 100 metre sprint; it’s a long run, and that means I need to be happy with small achievements along the way, because I may not be alive to see the difference that my work makes in the long term.
This is a long chain of struggle, in which every contribution matters. But because it is a long run, we need to look after our mental and physical health, we need to take care of ourselves and work together. But we have to keep pushing forward, because we don’t have time on our side.
That’s why it is so important to act now!
I’m also optimistic because of the growing number of reports recognising indigenous peoples’ rights over their land and their forests, and their contribution to climate action. I am willing to speak up, and our communities are willing to speak up. But we need to know that we won’t just be listened to – that there will be action as well.
And that brings me on to the fact that, although there has been progress, there was hardly any mention of indigenous people in the COP negotiating process and opening remarks. That makes me feel that we are still fighting for our basic rights, and to be recognised for our contributions. We need to be seen as leaders of climate action, and not victims of climate policies.
So we need international solidarity. We need support, we need people to keep advocating for indigenous people. There is a lot of work still to be done.
Meanwhile, it’s really important to do our own part of the work as best we can. We can’t control what others do, but we can hold them accountable. And we can tell them, ‘we are watching you!’
Watch the interview to find out more
Watch this space
The next in our Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward series sees Forum’s Senior Sustainability Strategist, Madhumitha Ardhanari, in conversation with Aaron Maniam. Aaron is a Singaporean civil servant currently serving as Deputy Secretary (Industry and Information), Ministry of Communications and Information
About the Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward
Produced by international sustainability non-profit, Forum for the Future, the Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward is a unique opinion and commentary series set to explore lessons learned from the last 25 years in the sustainability movement and what they mean for the future.
Based on new and exclusive insights from diverse voices across the sustainability movement, we’ll examine where we have succeeded and where we have failed in creating real change. We’ll consider how the world is responding to today’s multifaceted challenges and opportunities, and what pivots might be needed if we’re to deliver at scale and pace. Lastly, we’ll look forward – exploring how we can reframe the goals of the system, reset our ambition, and encourage the adoption of new mindsets and approaches critical to creating what’s really needed: a truly just and regenerative future.
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