When the thermostat goes haywire

Testimonies of the climate-affected

Feature story - August 28, 2009

Sometimes, when the mind gets cluttered with tasks, truth comes walking by. On Friday, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in New Delhi, three people from the interiors of India arrived to share how their lives had changed because of the changing climate.

The Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA), a coalition of climate groups, had arranged for their testimonies. There was something so unassuming about them that you paused to listen. These are voices that do not often reach urban India. This is what they said.

Shikari Baiga, 24

Forest dweller

Village Bokara Bahra, Kabir Dham, Chhattisgarh

I represent the indigenous Baiga tribe of Baigachak, from Maikaal hills. We practice Bewar, which enables us to grow and harvest 12 crops, 16 vegetables, 21 leafy crops, and more than 17 grasses for our food and seed.

(Bewar is a primitive form of agriculture in which trees are felled in January on select plots. They are then left to dry. The dry cuttings are set on fire before the first monsoon. The burnt vegetation acts as a thin productive layer on the earth.

The Bewar plots are cultivated for about four years and left as fallow land for anywhere between six and 13 years. The West describes this as slash and burn agriculture.)

Our traditional knowledge of crop and weather forecasting protected us against pest attacks. Now, the increased temperature is affecting the crop cycle of produce such as mahua, mango, char, tamarind, harra, baheda, amla, cheraungee, muslee, and mushroom.

Crop production is decreasing and so is harvest. The uneven and scarce rainfall has caused uncertainty and we are unable to grow food grain, pulses, oilseed, vegetables, and herbs. Increased temperature is causing disease and we were struck by disease some time ago. But, because we have fewer herbs, we have lost traditional treatment methods.

We have begun to re-grow traditional seed. We have reinvented Bewar. We have started to grow our age old rice called 'Satka', which can grow with even less rain.

Dalki Rawat, 22


Village Borqui, Narmada Valley, Madhya Pradesh

I am a representative of the Bhil and Bhilala tribes of West Nimar from Narmada Valley. Over the past few months, we have been discussing in our region that traditional knowledge and practices are adequate to cope with the changing climate.

Now, I wonder for how long we can cope. And why.

We are told the changes in climate are because of global warming or whatever. We have not contributed to the problem. So why should we suffer?

Our way of life in the forests with nature, fruit, and animals was peaceful. Today, our communities are troubled because half the world is practicing individual ideas of development. Their development is not ours.

Our traditional irrigation system is the path pani, through which we lift surface water to the hills. This enables us to grow and harvest nine crops, 11 vegetables, and 12 leafy crops. Bewar enables us to regenerate forests.

Our practices of preservation of seed and flowers ensure growth, conservation, and regeneration of flora and fauna. We believe in sharing our indigenous knowledge of nature's wealth according to the needs of others.

Our knowledge needs to be respected and appreciated. If the same thing is packaged by a big company, a red carpet is laid out for them.

The water table has decreased drastically, which causes loss of crop yield and forest produce. The high increase in heat over the past 10 years has caused human relations to change.

There are more violent fights over water, crop, and forest produce. Crop failure has increased migration for 10 years. There is less grass for our animals, and several deaths are recorded each year.

Jaisangh Bhai Rabari, 56


Village Madsar, Kutch, Gujarat

I used to live travelling with my animals. The land was full of lush green grass for the animals. Now, we struggle to get fodder. We pastoralists travel close to a thousand kilometres a year in search of grazing land.

The erratic weather, less rainfall, and rise in temperature has affected our animals and us. In the past, rain was not a problem. I remember 20 years ago, clothes could not dry for 15 days because of rain. Now, we yearn to see and feel rain.

At times, the temperature is really high. We are unable to stay in our villages because we have to travel a lot for grazing land. This affects our daily life.

Our women feel unsettled and have to lead a nomadic life. The children cannot be educated. Our earning reduces considerably and our livelihood is at stake.

We see the impact of changing climate and try to cope by changing our life patterns. Many friends have changed their profession. They now do manual work. Employers exploit them knowing they have no voice.

We are proud to be pastoralists. It is our way of life, which keeps us in close association with nature and animals. Why should we suffer and keep adapting to the changing climatic conditions?

We demand that those responsible for climate change stop further destruction of forests, preserve existing grazing land, and allocate new areas for grazing.

People need to be sensitive to our needs and help us to sustain our lives and livelihood.