Indigenous peoples have always had others making decisions about their lives; where they should live (wherever we want them to), what they should be called (primitive, criminal, scheduled, backward), how they should look (colourful, noble, bare-breasted) and which Gods they should pray to (Jesus, Hanuman, Mao, Capitalism, Marxism). And they have had enough of this shit. So, instead of pretending I know how they feel about being screwed by all and sundry, I give you the Dehradun Declaration of June 2009;

“We, the forest people of the world – living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forest land, roaming around with our herds – have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, that let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests, and the forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us.

This is no ordinary crisis. Not merely a climate crisis – or in your words, this magnified self-created monster of a financial crisis. We believe it is a Crisis of Civilizations. It’s no ordinary clash but a fundamental clash between our knowledge systems; of being, of nature and your wisdom, technology, and demonic tendencies. Your world rests on ideas of power, territories, boundaries, profit, exploitation and oppression and you try to own everything, including Mother Nature. This is what drives your civilisation. You need this world of oppression and exploitation; to survive and feel good. If you want to include us in your world by ‘civilising’ us, we will happily choose to remain uncivilised. Call us savages, we do not care! We have learnt amidst these trees, this water, this air, and other forest beings – a life of freedom, of being without boundaries, and yet never forgetting the boundaries of nature. You need your legal monoliths and your structures of governance to attempt to tide over this crisis, but for us the laws of nature, learnt and assimilated over generations are sufficient.

You talk of attaining Independence on August 15 1947… What is that? We, the forest people and the forests have been independent since ages. You tried enslaving us; by trapping us in your illusion that believes in converting living beings into slaves – hollow occupants of servile bodies – a life of death; by capturing our forests, establishing your false laws of oppression and exploitation – contradicting the fundamental laws of nature. We know the way you exploited and enslaved our native American comrades in other parts of the world. Let us remind you that you behaved no differently than those feudal and imperialist ancestors of yours. We, therefore, reject your unnatural law, your civilization of tyranny and cruelty. What freedom? We see no freedom, in being driven out of our forests, separated from water, land, fields, trees, air, and friendly animals, to the ecosystem to which we belong. What freedom, which doesn’t forget to chain its own brothers and sisters. False Freedom! We see no truth in a society that remains haunted by the prosperity of a few capitalists, whilst, never forgetting to oppress the workers, adivasis, dalits, women and poor of the world! We reject you!

Forest Rights Act, you need it more than us. If you think you are bestowing rights on us, then you are wrong. We have lived with these forests for ages. Our ancestors, gods, goddesses, friends and life lived in this and will continue to live here. We don’t define rights, we know what is ours and to whom we belong. We are the forests, the forests are us. Out of necessity, if you want to talk the language of rights, we are ready for it. It’s your need to recognise our rights over the forests and correct the historical injustices and exploitation. However, if by granting pattas (land titles) over a portion of forest you conspire to control, commodify, and sell the rest of the forests, then you are wrong. We understand your vested intentions and are determined to save the forests from your corrupt desires of exploitation, developmentalism, ill-sighted conservation, and technological fixes.

If you think the ghosts of commodity capitalism are going to chain our minds and souls for eternity, then you are mistaken. From the forests, the nature we have learnt that power is not infinite, exploitation is not infinite too. We, the labouring workers, adivasis, and dalits don’t treat the forest a resource to be exploited but as something which lives and supports life.

There is a climate crisis around and no amount of free trade, capital, or technology will eliminate the roots of this crisis. You forget that the crises has emanated from the way your society is structured – an edifice based on an unending desire for resources and a way of life that sees nature as an object of exploitation and extraction. Fools! You are doomed to bear the brunt and suffer the pains of your actions, but we ask you – Why must we suffer? You have intruded in our lifestyle, in the rhythm of Mother Earth. You have corrupted the environs by your vehicles, industries, arms, and development and your actions have created a crisis in our homes. You have sinned against the essence of our being, and amidst our rage and tears, we reject the basis of your being: a thought – of mistrust, of control, of vicious self-interest, of injustice, and blame.

How dare you blame us for a climate crisis? It is the product of un-natural practices, and it has devastated our lives. How could you cut our trees unthinkingly? The temperature is increasing, rainfall is diminishing, and the forests are burning – consuming themselves in pain. Now you want us out of our habitats in the name of conserving our forests! You kill, unsparingly, relish in “terrorizing” busts of tigers, decorating your mantelpiece – all pointing to your moral sensibility – and yet you have the audacity to tell us to leave the forests so that you can protect the Tigers! What law do you know? Who are you to teach what is legal? You are illegal – contradicting the very law of nature – of coexistence. You have no solutions – you only destroy.

You may not care of our times, but spare a thought for the coming generations, their inheritance. Do you wish to present to them a world of chaos and destruction? Are you so blinded by your greed? At least, now – in this crisis – we need to unite, all civilizations, and forest people of the world, to resolve the crisis, to restore our relationship with nature.

Today, at Dehradun, we call for and welcome the solidarity and harmony of all world’s forest people – workers, adivasis, and fellow travellers – on this journey to realizing the fulfilment of our existence, in communion with our forests. We warn your civilization that we are a people, united in struggle against the structure of capitalism – of greed, thievery, and profiteering. We warn the nations of the world, that you must not forget to honour our existence, or else – from deep within our hearts – we shout out loud: NO MORE SILENCE! We will rise from the ashes of your devastating fire! To resist your order, undeterred by your traps. We will rise – a united forest people – together, in strength and solidarity, to challenge the very fabric of your civilization, and become one with nature, again!”

Walk into any conference on biodiversity or natural resources conservation today and you’ll find a whole host of characters that 10 years ago had no business or interest being there. Representatives from large companies, economists, vice-ministers for business development, UN agencies with annoying acronyms and consultants who always seem reluctant to reveal their area of expertise. This mixed bunch of folks are a bit like tourists who stumble into a local bar; tolerated as long as they keep quiet and pay for their drinks (at special tourist rates of course). Occasionally they are allowed on stage provided they punctuate their talks with suitable phrases like sustainable development, triple bottom lines and win-win situations.

The only ‘stakeholder’ you don’t see is a representative of indigenous people. I mean the real kind not someone who has ‘worked’ with them for 20 years. There is no shortage of representatives claiming to know what indigenous people want and willing to make decisions on their behalf. All one has to do is mention Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, Equitable Sharing of Benefits and Prior Free Informed Consent a few times and the box on indigenous people concerns is ticked.

That conservation organisations do not have the legitimacy to speak on behalf of indigenous people has become increasingly obvious. For example, the Resolution of Amazonian Indigenous Forum on Climate Change states in its introduction that;

“Considering that the positions and measures taken by the majority of the NGOs and their representatives do not represent our viewpoint in the decision making process in the negotiations and agreements on the Kyoto Protocol and its consequences;”

When indigenous people do make it to conservation forums, they end up feeling marginalised. For example, at the ad hoc Working Group on Protected Areas of the Convention on Biodiversity in 2008, members of the International Indigenous Forum of Biodiversity staged a walkout to protest against not being taken seriously. In their statement they said that;

“the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) withdrew from the Working Group on Protected Areas because on the previous two days, indigenous peoples were not given the floor on matters of concern to them in a timely manner. This led to missed opportunities for indigenous peoples’ comments and proposed text to be appropriately discussed and reflected in the conference room papers (CRPs)”

Indigenous groups are still hurting from the failure of big conservation organisations to support local movements relating to forest rights, land tenure, extractive industry and encroachment of forests by non-indigenous people. Lack of opportunities for meaningful representation and marginalisation is definitely not the way to rebuild trust. When it comes to indigenous people issues, conservationists tend to shy away as they believe it is a complicated minefield that is best left to others. If conservationists can spend lifetimes in hostile environments trying to understand what makes elusive species tick, they sure can spend some time trying to understand how to regain the trust of indigenous communities.