On April 18, 2023, at the 22nd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the NGO Committee of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples invited Ignatius Soreng SVD* to be a speaker at the side event co-sponsored by VIVAT International. He spoke from the perspective of his own Kharia tribal community, about the interrelatedness of ‘Plants, Human and Planetary Health’.
In his speech Fr. Ignatius Soreng raised tribal communities’ concerns and struggles because of painful forced replacement, migration, and resettlement as they are witnessing the destruction of hills, forests, and plants for extracting raw materials for constructing the so-called “civilized world,” including towns, cities, roads, and industries.
Here are excerpts of his speech.
May I begin my sharing, with a few lines of a poem, from my own book called Flame of the Forest? Here, an Indigenous person is saying: “Why do I have to redefine myself again and again, saying ‘I exist’ or ‘I am what I am – a Homo Sapiens’; dwelling with elements of nature, singing the National Anthem, despite dancing seasonal tribal dance, living amid folk tales and folk songs, and looking to the forest for wellbeing?”
The tribal people, indeed, look to the forest for their total well-being because the person
living in the forest, such as plants, birds, animals, and reptiles – are inseparably related to them in all aspects of their life. These persons, especially – trees, shrubs, creepers, climbers, and herbs, are their friends, relatives, family members, ancestors, spirits, and gods.
Much can be said about every aspect mentioned here, but it is impossible now. To substantiate at least one or two aspects – i.e., the aspect of relatives and ancestors-, here are a few more lines from the book: “They are all my relatives, generations of ancestors, prehistoric natural beings, a larger community than the living, in forms with a difference wrought by a second birth, so painful and true.”
Tribal myths, traditional stories, and traditional songs talk about these aspects vividly and in detail. And the tribal people truly believe that the plants are their friends, relatives, family members, ancestors, spirits, and gods, and they relate with them in the same manner.
The plants are the tribal people’s source of health, wealth and economy.
The plants build up and nourish the health of the tribal people. They heal all sicknesses and injuries and protect them from all malevolent powers. They boost their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. There is no disease in their life that cannot be healed through herbal medicine, using fruits, roots, flowers, leaves, and bark of various plants. You may laugh at the ridiculous simplicity of these medicines and the way they are administered. You may not even believe their efficacy, but they are true and effective, and the tribal people know this.
Plants of the fields and the forest provide an abundance of fruits, roots, leaves, flowers, barks, and trunks for food, drink, housing, and clothing of the tribal people. Season by season, the plants come out like human parents, feeding and caring for the people. The plants keep the tribal people vibrant and healthy in their life. They are capable of keeping the entire humanity vibrant and healthy if they care to come back to them.
Plants build the personality and character of the tribal people.
The tribals are simple, spiritual, social, peaceful, and contented people. They share, care, love, forgive and serve, just as they see these qualities displayed in nature right through the seasons, every day. The tribal people are social and communitarian, as against the individualistic and competitive nature of the people of the other societies. It is so because the tribal people learn these qualities daily from the world of plants and the surrounding nature. The plants raise their society, providing them with habitat and provisions for life. They raise their culture, as their life is intertwined with the surrounding nature and the seasons. They raise their religion as they experience the presence of all types of divinities, such as ancestors, spirits and gods, and the Godhead, in the world of plants and nature.
Without the world of plants, the climate of the world cannot be imagined.
If the world of plants is destroyed, the climate of the world will crash. The world of plants is intimately connected with land and water, just as it is connected with air and heat. Air and heat permeate everything, but the tribal people define themselves more clearly, in relation to land, water, and forest. Without these three, the tribal people themselves may not even exist.
But the ravages of time caused by human greed is devastating everything. Human greed is destroying everything that is indispensably needed for human life in order to create something that only the human mind fancies. Here are a few lines again from the book Flame of the Forest that speak about this destruction clearly: “Today, after they have carried away our hill to Bhilai, Durg or Rourkela, or Europe and America, as iron-ore raw material, the sun rises on the flat horizon in the east, and sets on a new town in the west.”
There is massive destruction on both ends – the destruction of hills and forests to lift raw materials and the destruction of them again for raising new towns, cities, and industries. Tribal people feel the pain of the destruction of their habitat, social structure, culture, and religion. They feel the pain of displacement, migration, and resettlement. So, they think – “There is a connection between mineral search and materialism, and unless they relent from the former, scavenging and excavating, love for the matter will never end.”
How to proceed?
The Governments are capable of making all policies and implementing them. In this regard, the indispensable involvement of the tribal people can never be ruled out. Tribal people are the best defenders of the forests and the world of plants. They cut them or chop them as is necessary for their life, but the rest of the time, they love them, care for them, and worship them. Besides this, here is another big reason why the tribal people are the best keepers of the world of plants. They believe that they are commissioned to this task by their God, the Creator himself.
“… they haven’t given up yet, faith, hope, and love, the will to live, the desire to give,
the urge to nurture the garden and tend the sheep; for they are aware that the trust with which the Commissioner had commissioned them as the keepers of the garden, isn’t withdrawn or annulled yet!” Here, garden means the world of plants, and Commissioner
means the Creator.
To conclude, I would like to say the following:
* Ignatius Soreng is a Catholic priest from the Society of the Divine Word. He is belonging to the indigenous community of Kharia (India). He is the director of Sanskruti Kendra - Cultural and Research Center dedicated to the Protection, Preservation, and Promotion of Tribal Culture. He has produced about 70 books, booklets, audio, videos, plays, and ballets.