An informed overview on climate change, biodiversity and more

Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our times. Rituraj Phukan, Founder of the Indigenous People's Climate Justice Forum who also serves as National Coordinator for Biodiversity for The Climate Reality Project in India shares his views with Melange in an exclusive interview
An informed overview on climate change, biodiversity and more

Rituraj Phukan is an environmental writer, TEDx Speaker, adventurer and naturalist based out of Assam. He is the Founder of the Indigenous People's Climate Justice Forum and also serves as National Coordinator for Biodiversity for The Climate Reality Project in India. He is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and sits on the board of civil society groups in the Americas, Europe and Australia. Rituraj has personally experienced the impacts of climate change in the polar frontiers of the Arctic and Antarctic, in the Himalayas and across India. Having worked extensively at the grassroots, he says "Water is the local issue of global climate change, for people and for biodiversity." Rituraj was personally trained as a Climate Reality Leader by Nobel Laureate Al Gore and was featured in the former US Vice-President's 2017 book 'An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power'. He authored the chapter 'Biodiversity in a warming world' in the Amazon No.1 Bestseller 'Climate Abandoned,' a book launched in the USA on Earth Day 2019. He was an accredited Observer at the UN Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021 and is also a European Climate Pact Ambassador. 

Please tell us everything about Indigenous People's Climate Justice Forum? What was the objective and inspiration of setting up this forum? What have been the milestones so far?

The Indigenous People's Climate Justice Forum (IPCJF) works at the intersections of biodiversity, water and food to document the unique challenges faced by indigenous people and local communities at the frontlines of climate change. The prevailing worldview is that the global biodiversity and climate crises are interlinked with the role of indigenous people in conservation of the remaining natural places on earth.

The Eastern Himalayas are home to numerous indigenous communities, who are at a higher risk of hardship from impacts like flooding because of pre-existing socio economic vulnerability. Despite insignificant contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases, indigenous people are among the first to face the direct impacts of warming. At the same time, indigenous people and local communities have the knowledge and values oriented towards nature that steward over 80% of the planet's remaining biodiversity.

The latest State of Forest Report showed further decrease of the area under forest cover across the northeast region, despite an overall increase for India; in continuation of a declining trend since 2009. Compounding the problem is rampant encroachment with 60% of India's encroached forest areas located in the northeast, and Assam again being the worst affected. Loss of forest cover, decline of native biodiversity and proliferation of invasive vegetation and the consequent loss of indigenous food sources have emerged as direct threats to the food security of forest or fringe forest dwellers dependent on natural resources for sustenance.

Personally, I believe that climate justice is all about ensuring that indigenous people can access traditional foods in the face of warming impacts. Food is a part of our cultural identity and societal fabric, affecting personal health, wellbeing and immunity, community resilience and fulfillment.Traditional knowledge can facilitate dynamic adaptation and mitigation pathways; different communities interpret and react to the impacts of climate change to find creative solutions which may help society at large to cope with impending changes. Planning for the future should include enhancement and support for the adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples integrated with sustainable development strategies.

The northeast is blessed with natural largesse and we have an abundance of indigenous traditions and knowledge systems that could contribute to resilience and capacity enhancement, making us indispensable to the evolution of global climate justice.The objectives of IPCJF also include sharing impact stories of traditional knowledge, cultures and community resilience and documenting changes for ensuring environmental and social justice in the northeast of India.

Currently IPCJF is working on a large plantation project under the patronage of Jadav Payeng. We have co-hosted and participated in several national and international events in the past two years. Our collaborators include The Climate Reality Project India, EarthDay.Org, Healthy Climate Initiative (USA), the Green Revolution Amsterdam, Her Many Voices Foundation (USA),COICA (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica). Currently we are partnering with several organisations and musicians from all over the world for a virtual Climate Benefit Concert to raise awareness and funding for field testing of albedo enhancement technologies to arrest the loss of Himalayan glaciers.

Please explain the three most pressing reasons why biodiversity is important for maintaining climate equilibrium. Also please elaborate on some practical doable strategies to ensure that biodiversity is not disturbed while the human civilization is racing ahead in the quest of urbanisation? I mean how does one ensure the balance?

Humanity now stands at a crossroad with regard to the legacy it leaves to future generations. Our relationship with nature is broken, biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying. The pandemic has also highlighted the profound consequences of continued biodiversity loss and degraded ecosystems.

The loss of biodiversity is related to the same environmental destruction, which is contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. Studies reveal that factors believed to increase the planet's vulnerability to pandemics, including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife, were also among the drivers for decline in vertebrate populations. The main cause for decline in terrestrial populations is habitat loss and degradation, including deforestation driven by unsustainable farming practices.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5) outlines eight major transitions needed to slow, then halt nature's accelerating decline. These transitions have been explained in detail and include the following-

1) Land and forests transition: Conserving intact ecosystems, restoring ecosystems, combating and reversing degradation and employing landscape level spatial planning to avoid, reduce and mitigate land-use change;

2) The sustainable agriculture transition: Redesigning agricultural systems through agroecological and other innovative approaches to enhance productivity while minimizing negative impacts on biodiversity;

3) The sustainable food systems transition: Enabling sustainable and healthy diets with a greater emphasis on a diversity of foods, mostly plant-based and more moderate consumption of meat and fish, as well as dramatic cuts in the waste involved in food supply and consumption;

4) The sustainable fisheries and oceans transition: Protecting and restoring marine and coastal ecosystems, rebuilding fisheries and managing aquaculture and other uses of the oceans to ensure sustainability and to enhance food security and livelihoods;

5) The cities and infrastructure transition: Deploying 'green infrastructure' and making space for nature within built landscapes to improve the health and quality of life for citizens and to reduce the environmental footprint of cities and infrastructure;

6) The sustainable freshwater transition: An integrated approach guaranteeing the water flows required by nature and people, improving water quality, protecting critical habitats, controlling invasive species and safeguarding connectivity to allow the recovery of freshwater systems from mountains to coasts;

7) The sustainable climate action transition: Employing nature-based solutions, alongside a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use, to reduce the scale and impacts of climate change, while providing positive benefits for biodiversity and other sustainable development goals and

8) The biodiversity-inclusive One Health transition: Managing ecosystems, including agricultural and urban ecosystems, as well as the use of wildlife, through an integrated approach, to promote healthy ecosystems and healthy people.

Please share your views on conservation of water reservoirs?

The issue of conservation of water reservoirs has come to the forefront in the past decade due to prolonged droughts and the water crisis in different regions. In the past our ancestors were very good at creating and conserving water reservoirs, but contamination of water sources has been the bane of human civilization in the modern age. We all know that life depends on water, yet consumerism driven society has led to rampant degradation of the water sources, over extraction of ground water and pollution.

Water is the local issue of global climate change, for people and biodiversity. Climate change is projected to disrupt water availability in many regions. Recent studies indicate potentially catastrophic environmental hazards for the Eastern Himalayan region connected to anthropogenic warming of the planet. Having endured civil unrest in the past, the predicted depletion of once abundant natural resources may once again push the region to the brink of conflict. The perennial issues of influx of displaced people, floods, river-bank erosion and human-wildlife conflicts are likely to aggravate further in a warming planet.

The projections are particularly dire for the northeastern region, with the predicted loss of around 95% of the Eastern Himalayan glaciers at current levels of warming. Furthermore, it has also predicted the loss of 64% of existing glaciers in the Eastern Himalayas even if warming is contained to 1.5 C degrees, which currently looks unattainable, by the turn of the century.The agrarian economy of North India is dependent on these rivers and changes in the volume and flow will impact agriculture everywhere, including the river valleys of Northeast India. It is expected that faster melting of glaciers will initially provide an over abundance of water and lead to more flooding.

However, in the long run the loss of glaciers will reduce the flow of the rivers and eventually cause water scarcity in the hills and valleys, which is an unimaginable prospect for most people in the rainfall abundant region. The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin is among the five global hotspots that are likely to see 'water wars', according to a data-based index of 'hydro-political' issues in areas with a history of 'transboundary water resources,' where conflicts are likely to be exacerbated by climate change and population growth. Therefore, the conservation of water reservoirs is critically important for adaptation and resilience.

What have been some of your major observations and experiences while working at the grassroots level? How sensitized or apathetic are people towards environmental issues? What are the roadblocks that sometimes deter from being more responsible towards the environment?

I believe that people at the grassroots are naturally sustainable due to their inherent dependence on nature. Our region is home to so many indigenous communities with unique cultures and traditions that are steeped in nature. Biological diversity is celebrated in art and music and these communities have been practicing sustainability for millennia before the word was coined.

In the past every village had a bakery, and I remember the cycle rickshaws delivering bread, biscuits and cakes door-to-door. Now most of these are gone as people buy what they see on television; consumerism has destroyed local industries and made locally sustainable villages dependent on the urban suppliers. Another negative impact is the creation of piles of plastic litter all over the countryside. This is slowly changing as people in many developed countries are now looking to buy locally produced things and eat seasonally.

The proliferation of single used plastics has led to litter in the most beautiful natural areas in our region and we only have to look at the popular picnic areas. This has only happened in the past two decades.

Please share your views on the current scenario of the north east region as far as environment conservation is concerned? How is it similar to other regions and countries?

The northeast is blessed with natural largesse, but vulnerable to natural disasters and sits on the cusp of an impending climate crisis. In December 2018, Assam and Mizoram were named as most vulnerable to climate change among 12 Himalayan states. Other recent studies also indicate potentially catastrophic environmental hazards for the northeastern region from climate change. The proposal for new legislations, along with the Draft EIA 2020 proposals, might be used to allow the clearance of projects without local environmental and social considerations. It is well understood that the impacts of climate change will require vast mitigation efforts involving nature-based solutions. Besides, India is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity which has called for protection of at least 30% of all land and sea areas to stop the catastrophic loss of biodiversity by 2030. India's Paris Agreement commitments also include creation of a cumulative carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030, with the stated goal to bring at least 33 percent of land areas under green cover, up from the current 24.5 percent. The National Forest Policy 2018 also aspires for one-third of total land area under forest and tree cover to achieve the national goal for eco-security. These declarations will require creation and regeneration of new protected areas, prioritizing areas of abundant biodiversity and in Northeast India we have the defined landscape to adhere to these global commitments and state goals. It is the prerogative of the state governments to ensure protection of the traditions and cultures of the diverse indigenous communities.

The proposal to take away the rights of states to create environmental safeguards is tantamount to taking away the rights of these indigenous people. Rather, it is the collective responsibility of all the people's representatives to create adequate environmental safeguards for protection of the rich biodiversity of the region and it's intertwined cultural heritage.

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