In response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused by a zoonotic virus SARS-CoV-2, experts warn that more such situations are imminent in the future, unless humans coexist with the environment, and the culture of conservation strengthens. We examine lessons of coexistence from tribal hamlets in Odisha.
“Around 60 percent of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic as are 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases,” notes the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) frontiers 2016 report.
In the wake of the pandemic, human impact on biodiversity is being examined for its role in creating suitable conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19.
In such a scenario, the inherent culture of tribal communities, to conserve nature, may perhaps have a path for the future. In the primarily tribal districts of Rayagada and Koraput in the eastern state of Odisha, local people who have lived in coexistence with the environment, are witness to the depleting biodiversity that they traditionally relied upon for life and livelihood. Depleting forests that have been taken over by monoculture, single-crop farming and infrastructure works along with the weakening of soil constitution are some of the impacts of modernisation over the traditional tribal way of living.
For tribal people, the forest is god and they worship and protect it. “As the rainy season starts, we worship the forest ceremonially praying for it to protect us from epidemics and wild animals, to bless us with a good amount of rain and proper climate for a good harvest,” says 75-year-old Sada Giuria of Koraput’s Gunduliaguda village, reflecting on the culture of conservation integral to tribal life.
In such a critical time where restoring environmental health has become crucial for human health, the association of indigenous communities with nature and the inherent culture of conserving forest, soil and other natural resources bear enormous hope, said Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit working with indigenous communities of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. “The relationship between indigenous communities and nature is not limited to food, livelihood or economic activities. In fact, they co-habit helping each other survive with their own identity and dignity,” he said.
According to scientific studies, intact ecosystems maintain a diversity of species in equilibrium and can often provide a disease-regulating effect, if any of these species are either directly or indirectly involved in the life cycle of infectious disease and occupy an ecological niche that prevents the invasion of a species involved in infectious disease transmission or maintenance.
The Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 (FRA 2020) shows global forest area declined by about 178 million hectares (an area approximately the size of Libya) in the 30 years from 1990 to 2020. While the area of primary forest has decreased by 81 million ha since 1990, only three million ha of planted forest has been raised every year against the annual loss of eight million ha of naturally regenerating forest.
Sixty-five-year-old Dambaru Pujari of Padarguda village in Koraput district in Odisha, has witnessed the changes in forests of his area. He was initially living inside the forest; infrastructure works that ate away at the region over the years, moved the forest away from its dwellers.
“We are now 20 kilometres away from it. This happened in the last 4-5 decades, initially to make space for developmental works, to support timber businesses, then to make land for agricultural use and commercial plantation of eucalyptus. We have lost all ecosystem services we used to get in the past,” he said.
Between 2009 and 2019, the district of Koraput has lost 9.52 sq kms of very dense forest, nearly one sq km each year, while the state of Odisha has lost 103.29 of forest of the same category during the decade, indicate the India State of Forest Reports.
With no grazing land left nearby now, villagers occasionally take their cattle animals to far away patches close to the forest for grazing. “For anything we believe would be available in the forest, we walk 20 kilometres to reach the forest, which also has lost its lustre and richness in terms of biodiversity and produce,” 67-year-old Daimati Pendabadia of the village said.
This forest bordering Odisha and Chhattisgarh served as a habitat to several wild animals, including panthers. None of them is now seen in the forest, Pujari said. “Loss of forest has led to many changes in the local climate like temperature in summers becoming unbearable.”
Plantations bear little hope for forest revival
The area of planted forests has increased by 123 million ha since 1990, covering about 131 million ha that makes three percent of the global forest area, as per FRA 2020.
However, a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) observes that planting of monocultures have very different consequences for biodiversity and its contributions to people.
With commercial plantation of eucalyptus rampant across the forest edges and adjacent agricultural lands of Rayagada and Koraput districts, to feed a few paper mills with raw materials, Jagannath Majhi, 35, of Rayagada’s Bissamcuttack observes that such plantations don’t allow other local plant species to grow around nor are they friendly to the local fauna.
Eucalyptus, researchers find, consumes more water than other plant species in natural forests, which may draw down the water table in some regions. Its effects on the environment include the loss of soil productivity and fertility, disruption of hydrological cycles, risks of promoting pests and diseases, and negative impacts on biodiversity.
“What we see over last few years is that hundreds of date palm trees have grown in the region, mostly near the plantation sites,” Majhi and his friend Sambaru said. The date palm grows in harsh climates and in arid and semi-arid regions which are characterised by long and hot summers, no (or at most low) rainfall.
“Unusual growth of date palm trees in forest landscapes of Odisha is indicative of ecosystem degradation and increasing aridity threatening the local forest and biodiversity,” said Bidyadhar Maharana, an expert in agriculture science.
Terming exotic monocultures as “biological deserts,” studies warn, such plantations are not only harmful to local biodiversity, but are also “more susceptible to pests and diseases” as they create ideal habitats for insects and pathogens that would lead to rapid colonisation and spread of infection.
Coexist with land, don’t exploit
Intensive single crop farming to ensure a higher yield to agriculture to meet growing food demand and making agriculture a profitable economic activity has led to the degradation of soil quality and ecosystems. Such farming acts against nature because of its association with inorganic fertilisers and pesticides. Higher crop yield through such practices comes at a huge socio-ecological cost such as environmental pollution, land degradation exacerbating impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, decline in human health and livelihood, and erosion of traditional agricultural knowledge as well.
In the two Odisha districts too, efforts toward high yielding crops have caused further trouble in the long term. Following persuasion by the government, some Gadaba tribal people of Koraput’s Kadamguda village started growing high yielding variety (HYV) paddy crop about a decade back.
“As it required regular input in forms of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, we had to make loans to fulfill such needs. Initially, the yield was good. Two years later the crop failed due to lingering summer heat and low rain. We suffered badly and had to work elsewhere to repay the loans,” said 62-year-old Bhagaban Gadaba.
According to 68-year-old Chandar Gadaba, “As we grew HYV seeds, other crops like indigenous tuber crops and other traditional crops didn’t grow on the edges and bonds of our fields. We found that regular visitors like birds and flies stopped visiting the fields under HYV crop cultivation. A good variety of edible plants also vanished from the surroundings.”
As tribal farmers of the village observed, the soil didn’t support their indigenous variety crops immediately when they wanted to return to their own traditional crops. “After applying chemicals for three consecutive years, the soil became poisonous,” Purushottam Gadaba said while showing a garland of indigenous seeds he grows in his lands without applying anything inorganic.
Studies confirm that overuse of chemical fertilisers for higher yield often results in physical and chemical degradation of the soil and alters the natural microflora while increasing alkalinity and salinity of the soil.
In Rayagada district, the Kondh indigenous farmers always grow multiple crops simultaneously in their upland fields called dongor and they don’t use any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. “Usually situated on the edge of forests, our dongors are mostly inspired the forest ecosystem. We grow more than 60 varieties of crops, including paddy, millets, legumes, leaves, tubers and vegetables, during a season in a phased manner since the month of May and harvest them one after another over a period of nine months since August,” Pala Urlaka, 65, of Darukona village said while peeling off tamarinds collected from the forest.
Explaining the relationship between the Kondh tribal and nature, soil in particular, 65-year-old Kanhu Radika of Tikarpada village under Muniguda block said, “Land is not made by us but is a gift from nature. It gives us everything from food, energy, materials to make cloth, a space and all materials for our housing. It’s for all – from humans to animals, plants, insects, birds etc. We shouldn’t be in conflict with any of them but live with them in harmony.”
Overuse of chemical fertilisers not only leads to loss of soil quality and biodiversity to exacerbate the impact of climate change, but it also degrades the ability of an environment to control diseases. “They destabilise pathogen-hosts interactions that occur in pristine environments, therefore increasing opportunities for zoonotic spillovers,” said Bernard Bett of the international livestock research institute while speaking on the delicate relationship between humans, wildlife and the pathogens.
Basudev Mahapatra is a senior journalist based in Bhubaneswar city of Odisha, India. He writes on environment and issues based in rural India.