Eco-spirituality in the face of climate change: Learning from the Kaani tribe of Kanyakumari District – Tamil Nadu

ECO-SPIRITUALITY AND CLIMATE CHANGE WITH REFERENCE TO THE KAANI TRIBE OF KANYAKUMARI FORESTS

S Davidson Sargunam, Tribal Foundation, 23, Cave Street, Nagercoil

S Suja, Associate Professor, Women’s Christian College, College Road, Chennai

Text and photos courtesy S.S. Davidson © 2015

ABSTRACT:

The Kaani tribal people live in 48 Tribal Settlements in the deep jungles and forests of Kanyakumari in the Western Ghats. They live in consonance with Nature and derive everything from nature for their sustenance and livelihood. They are animists and spirit worshippers with staunch belief in Benevolent and Malevolent Spirits. They are deeply anchored in their spiritual values and belief systems. Spirituality is the fabric that forms the complex web of linkage to the cosmos. Their eco-spirituality is inextricably linked with forest ecology and bio-diversity through their traditional culture.

Owing to the impact of climate change–the taste of nature’s wrath, the tribal people are destined to face a host of challenges in the agricultural, food security, economic, social and cultural spheres. By the impact of globalization, free trade and the communication revolution non-tribesmen are gradually invading the indigenous areas and intrude into their spiritual realms by introduction of their Gods, Goddesses and deities. They systematically and surreptitiously exploit their economy and devalue the indigenous culture. They clandestinely deprive their traditional spiritual culture, spiritual aspects and fervor making them vulnerable to external oppressive, exploitative forces.

Key Words: spirits, cosmos, nature, Western Ghats, globalization, exploit, biodiversity

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Mountains are among the regions most affected by climate change. Rising temperatures, disappearing glaciers, increasing weather hazards and loss of biodiversity are destabilising the delicate balance of mountain ecosystems and the food security and livelihoods of mountain people. Mountains are also home to many of the world’s indigenous cultures and languages. They are rich but fragile repositories of biodiversity, water and ecosystem services containing nearly 50 per cent of the world’s biodiversity hot-spots and providing freshwater resources for half of its population.

Climate change is a threat to all these communities and landscapes, although to different degrees. At stake are unique agricultural traditions and crops that have evolved in mountain bio-cultural systems. Six of the world’s 20 main food crops originated in the mountains, and a large number of domesticated animals including sheep, goats, yaks, llamas and alpacas. In many mountain regions, indigenous and traditional peoples already face drastic changes in their food and agricultural systems.

Climate change, caused by human actions is having a huge negative impact on the world’s most vulnerable people who have done the least cause for climate change. It is making poverty worse, floods more frequent and famines longer. It is making life more difficult for those already surviving in hostile environments on the margins of the habitable world. It is changing weather patterns upon which countless human and animal and other creatures’ lives depend and rendering generations of ancestral knowledge about the environment useless.

Indigenous traditions, closely tied to their bioregions for food, and material resources for clothing, shelter and cultural activities tend to have their environmental ethics embedded in their views. Ritual calendars are derived from the cycles of nature, as the appearance of the sun or the moon or the seasonal return of specific animals and plants. Indigenous communities have a very light environmental foot print compared with industrial societies.

“The spiritual traditions of indigenous mountain peoples are rooted in a deep respect for all forms of life and the relationships between them,” says Krystyna Swiderska of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“The cultural and spiritual values of indigenous peoples are critical to developing appropriate strategies to climate change adaptation in agriculture” says Alejandro Argumedo, Director of Association, ANDES.

The Kaani tribe:

There are people of indigenous religions 228 million in 2000 at the global level with a share of world population 3.8 per cent. According to the 2001 census, in Tamil Nadu the Kaani tribe comprises about 1% of the total population (6, 51,321) and there are 36 tribal communities listed in the 2001 census report, among which 6 are primitive tribes. The Kaani tribal community is one among them in Tamil Nadu.

In olden days they lived in tree top houses and caves. They live in small huts, built up of bamboo and wild grass. The walls are made of flattened bamboo and floors by mud.  There are no separate rooms in the huts. The hut has a single room, which is called ‘Padi’, ‘Kanikkudi’, ‘Kanipatti’.

The existence of nature-man and spirit continuum is highlighted in the life of the Kaani tribe. The existence of spirits in nature has entirely different concepts from other religious communities and the Kaani tribal people are Animists. They believe in the invisible spirit or supernatural powers and call the spirits as deities with different names. Animals, ponds, trees, rivers, stones, cliffs or mountains are the residences of spirits.  It is their firm belief that the tribe lives constantly under the vigilant eyes of spirits. The divine is pervading everywhere: it is in anything and everything, and can spring up at any moment (Harper 1957).  This concept of animism is developed from the association of specific trees, plants, animals, stones, and other objects with local divinities (Elmore 1913; Whitehead 1921).

The due veneration of their ancestors occupies an inevitable place in the tribal religious belief and they staunchly believe in Malevolent and Benevolent spirits. The world of the tribe is linked with sacredness, religiosity and reverence for nature. Nature  lives in cosmos, earth, land and all that are in it are considered as sacred and that they live in consonance with nature. The history, stories, legends, myths and rituals are like a sacred scripture around which their life revolves.

The tribal community worships the spirits as Kalattu Thampuran, Mallan Thampuran, Kaatarutha Thampuran, Keelz-malai Thampuran, Kala-pei, Vadakka–pei, Ellaikal-samy, Kalli-kutty, Auyirra valli, Karumpaandi, Mallan-karung-kaali, Thampuran, Sathan pottyie, Puli-chaavu, Aray-illa etc. They periodically conduct ‘Koduthi’ which is a ritual to appease the spirits by offering banana, flattened rice, betal with areca nut, tobacco, turmeric and the toddy of a wild palm (Arenga wightii), during the Tamil month Karthigai, that usually falls from mid-November to mid-December.

The Kaani tribal people grow some specific plants as sacred in the vicinity of their houses and temples as Aegle marmelos, Aerva lanata, Azadirachta indica, Cassia auriculata, Cynodon dactylon, Ficus bengalensis, Ficus religiosa, Gomphrena celosioides, Limonia acidissima, Mangifera indica, Mimusops elengi, Ocimum tenuiflorum, Pongamia pinnata, Syzygium cumini and Vitex negundo.

Ritual has a major role in environmental ethics among the Kaani tribe. They maintain religious or ritual representation of resource management. Before cutting a tree, they perform a Pooja, by the clan priest-magician name ‘Pilathi’ to the Spirits with the belief that they are killing a tree with a life and the Spirit residing in the tree should not revenge them. While constructing a hut with forest wood, they perform another ritual by the ‘Pilathi’ that the spirit should allow the inmates of the hut to live in peace and harmony.

Impact of climate change on forests:

Apart from timber and fuel production, the wide range of services supplied by the forests includes non-timber forest products, such as fruits and mushrooms, providing wildlife habitats, soil and water protection, biodiversity conservation, tourism and recreation opportunities and medicinal plants.An increasingly important service of the forests is carbon sink and preservation.

It is likely that changing temperature and precipitation pattern will produce a strong direct impact on both natural and modified forests. The climate change-induced modifications of frequency and intensity of forest wildfires, outbreaks of insects and pathogens, and extreme events such as high winds, may be more important than the direct impact of higher temperatures and elevated CO2. The damage from the extreme events such as a severe drought can be further aggravated by increased damage from insect outbreaks and wildfire.

The response of forestry to global warming is likely to be multifaceted. On some sites, species more appropriate to the climate will replace the earlier species that is no longer suited to the climate. Also, planted forests can be relocated to more regions with more suitable climates. In general, people expect planting and associated forestry operations to tend more toward higher latitudes, especially from some tropical sites, should they warm substantially.

Ethical Consumption:

Religion has a strong role in restraining consumption for the Kaani tribal people that they abstain from consuming cow’s milk. Cow is regarded in India as a sacred animal and extracting its milk for human food is a great sin against God. They question that is it fair on the part of humans to consume God’s milk? They are not beef eaters, that eating God’s meat is equally a great sin against God. They are not in the habit of domesticating cows. Many of the Kaani tribal people abstain from consuming wild pork, as wild boar is not a clean animal as it forages on dirt and muddy areas.

Agriculture:

Agriculture is a major occupation of them cultivating tapioca and a host of a dozen tubers, pine apple, banana, sapota, mango, guava, lime, lemon and other horticulture crops. They do the agriculture in hill slopes and forest lands after weeding out the under-growth. They cultivate rubber, banana, areca nut, coconut, coffee, pepper and other spices. Their agricultural pattern purely depends on the two monsoons, South West and North East. The drinking water need is fulfilled by drawing the water flowing down from rivulets and oozing from the mountains. There is no systematically managed, protected water supply scheme in the forests for the tribal people. When monsoons fail, severe drinking water scarcity prevails. Due to the impact of climate change, drought prevailed for the last three years and they could not perform their agricultural operations.

Nuts from a palm tree harvested for local consumption

Food Security:

Owing to the impact of climate change, food security is threatened as agricultural operations could not be carried out. The tribal people while harvesting their produce consume the produce for them and sell the remaining food materials to others. The drought condition aggravated resulting in water scarcity for agriculture. They have to trek for many kilometers to secure a pot of drinking water. The degradation of rivers, forests, water and other eco-processes also result in loss of traditional tribal food as wild honey, mushrooms, tubers and greens, which they collect and hunt from the forests. Tribal Foundation, an NGO provided open wells and synthetic water containers on war-footing to meet their drinking water crisis in some of the Settlements.

Economic Impacts:

The impact of climate change has resulted in economic crisis that they had to borrow money for their routine expenses and for emergency expenses from usurious money lender, who charge exorbitant rates of interest. Some money lenders exploit them by securing all their rubber and other agricultural produce by giving them advance money. All their agricultural produce are secured by the moneylender at a very cheaper rate than the market value. The tribal people could not get redemption from the money lenders even after 10 or 15 years, for the money they borrow. The income derived from herb collection is also lost as herbal biodiversity is dwindling in the forests and hills. To maintain their survival, they have to resort to coolie labour in the private plantations in neighbouring State of Kerala.

Social Impacts:

“In coming decades, climate change will motivate or force millions of people to leave their homes in search of viable livelihoods and safety,” said the report, supported by the UN University (UNU), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Bank, Columbia University and the non-governmental organization CARE. Environmental degradation can also be the cause, rather than the effect, of the migration of a large number of people, for example in the case of environmental catastrophes, land degradation and drought. Large-scale resettlement schemes can also result in huge numbers of the population being uprooted. UN agencies and International Organization for Migration (IOM) have adopted terms like “environmental migrant”, “environmentally displaced person (EDP),” and “environmentally motivated migrant” to describe those who experience environmentally induced migration.

Consequent to the impact of climate change, many tribal people migrate seeking coolie labour in neighouring Kerala State, neighbouring districts in Tamil Nadu and towns to meet their expenses for economic and social survival. Migration results in leaving the aged persons and women and children at home, who have to do the odd works, which are usually done by the menfolk. The cultural and traditional values are gradually lost by the impact of migration.

During the last two decades, greedy non-tribesmen intrude into the Tribal Settlements with the surreptitious intention to encroach the rich forest lands, illegally marry tribal women or keep them as concubines to clandestinely secure the rich lands allotted to the tribal people by the government authorities. The non-tribesmen indulge in destroying the ecosystem by plunder and looting the forest resources as valuable timber and forest resources. They have introduced their Gods, Goddesses and deities and brainwash the tribal community with religious fanaticism to translate into action their ulterior motives. Consequently, the tribal people are gradually losing their traditional eco-spirituality and allied aspects. The tribal people are made to celebrate the religious festivities of the non-tribesmen and made to renegade their rich traditional hoary culture. Acculturation and cross-culturation occur owing to these intrusions and the tribal culture is systematically devalued and relegated to the background.

As there is no proper documentation of their rich culture, there is dire threat of extinction of it, which is a rich repository of ethno-botany, oral traditions with songs and stories, dialectical language, dance and eco-friendly tools and equipment to counter man versus animal conflict.

Concerted efforts using multimedia to document the rich repository of the eco-spirituality and the traditional cultural heritage of the Kaani tribe would serve as an asset to posterity.

REFERENCES:

Books:

  • Suresh Awasthi, Performance Tradition in India, First Reprint 2009, National Book Trust, New Delhi-70
  • Gary Gardener, 2002, Invoking the Spirit, Worldwatch Paper, Washington, USA
  • Alice Mckeown, Vital signs 2010, worldwatch Institute, Washington, USA
  • Andreas Nehring, Ecology: A theological Pesponse, 1993, Gurukul Summer Institute, Chennai-10
  • Basil Pohlong, Culture and Religion,2004, Mittal publications, New Delhi-59
  • Davidson Sargunam, S. et al., 2013, Biodiversity for Economic Security, Proceedings of the National Conference on Biodiversity-Green Strategies for Sustainable Development, GK Publishers, Chennai-45
  • Davidson Sargunam, S. et al., 2011, Economic Value of Forests and Economic Development of the Kaani tribe of Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu ,BRICS, Economic Shift, Excel Publishers, New Delhi-67
  • Davidson Sargunam, S. et al, 2010, India Vision 2020- Sustainable Development of Land, Forest and Bio-diversity resources of Kanyakumari forests incorporating Kaani tribals in the Development

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