“With rapidly depleting biodiversity in the developing tropic regions, there is a greater utilisation today than ever before of the value of respecting the 'sacred' as a tool towards better conservation of natural resources.” — Dr S C Rai, Head, Department of Geography, University of Delhi

What Dr Rai refers to as sacred here is the traditional ecological knowledge garnered by indigenous communities over generations. He elucidates that such knowledge and local expertise on biodiversity will aid in framing conservation measures that better manage natural resources.

Dr Rai's statement is an observation in a research paper, but if you ask Archana Soreng, she will tell you that for her this is life itself. A voice for conservation and indigenous communities alike, Soreng is showing the country and the world how young climate activists are fighting for their future. In July 2020, Soreng was named by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to his new advisory group of young climate leaders from across the world.

A member of the Khadia tribe in Odisha, Soreng holds a Masters degree in Regulatory Governance from TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Mumbai. Post her Masters, while working for the TISS Forest Rights and Governance Project in Odisha, she first interacted with Vasundhara – a policy advocacy organisation that works on natural resource governance. She is now professionally associated with them. She is also an active member of YOUNGO (Children and Youth Constituency to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and has participated in the UNCCD COP 14 as part of the Global Youth Caucus on Desertification and Land. Last year, Soreng attended the 66th Session of CESCR (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) which was held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, where she represented India.

Passionate and articulate, Archana Soreng believes that the world is her oyster, and she wants to protect it to the best of her ability. Over a phone call, she expressed her views on community involvement in climate action and how young activists can change the world.

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"I realised that our indigenous community members and leaders, including our parents, will not be around forever to guide us. We need to document the knowledge they have gained over generations."

Many congratulations on being selected as one of the seven youth advisors on climate faction to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. How did you get interested in climate activism and tribal rights?

It actually starts with who I am. In my tribal language, the meaning of my surname Soreng is rock. It is a representation of how connected my tribe is with nature, that nature is a part of our names as well. It goes to show that the world we live in is a source of identity for us. This is where I come from. 

A big influence for me is also my grandfather. He is a pioneer of forest protection in my village. He formed a committee which decides on how the forest resources can be utilised in a sustainable manner, by the entire village. For example, if they use resources from a certain part of the forest in one year, they would explore a different part the next year, thereby implementing judicious practices. They also look into the protection of native species, and how you can only cut a certain number of trees. Basically, you need to ask the committee before you proceed with such activities, which ensures that there is some regulation in place. 

My father was a practitioner of indigenous healthcare. Growing up, I saw him treat and cure people with various ailments using just roots and herbs. So these were ideas I was constantly exposed to from a young age. When I did my Masters in Regulatory Governance from TISS, I found the textual version of these concepts. I was introduced to environmental regulation as part of my course curriculum, and was very surprised to know that what my community members practice as a way of life is written in these books. I found myself asking the question, now that the community has access to education, why should we not write about it ourselves! We must write our own stories because our perspective matters.

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Soreng and team conduct evidence-based research on the implementation of the  Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, in Ambapadia village in the Khordha district of Odisha.

In 2017, I lost my father. That made me reflect on a lot of things. I realised that our indigenous community members and leaders, including our parents, will not be around forever to guide us. We need to document the knowledge they have gained over generations. My father always said that if you want to contribute to your community, it is very important that you engage in decision-making. These are the ideologies that motivated me to work on conservation. I have visited several districts in Odisha and have interacted with almost all the indigenous communities in the state. All these communities have their own unique ways of protecting their natural resources. They have their own rules and norms. This is what fuelled my interest in learning more and fighting for their voices.

Tell us a little bit about Adivasi Drishyam, and how we can incorporate indigenous practices and traditional knowledge in our policies for better climate action.

Adivasi Drishyam was initially envisioned by my brother Eugene Soreng in 2016. He created several videos on indigenous songs, medicines etc. and uploaded them on YouTube. We always discussed with our friends about how important it is not just to document these practices, but document them in different formats. When we just write about them in articles or even books, we are restricting the reach of the content. But when you share images or create videos, they are available and accessible to people who have not received formal education. Plus, there is the added benefit of the content being present on various platforms. So this was the idea behind Adivasi Drishyam, and while we were under lockdown during the pandemic, we made it more structured and started our social media pages. 

I think an extension of this will answer the second part of your question. In order to incorporate these practices at the policy level, government entities and organisations must put in efforts to research and document the practices and their impacts in an institutionalised manner. I live in Odisha, so I can write about what is happening in the state. But what about the other states? I will not know what is happening there. Collective documentation is very important, and only when something is documented can we make it a part of policies.

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Community members interact with field experts about the Prime Minister's Van Dhan Scheme, on the Doordarshan Odia News Channel.

Also, what is important is that we call for inclusive dialogue. We need to involve the community members, and include the voices of people who have borne the brunt of climate change. Their experiences are vital for us to plan our next steps. Many of them belong to marginal communities, so we need to reach out to them. Additionally, youth groups have been doing some amazing work, so their ideas will also help in planning our next steps. Sharing of knowledge is vital, and it will aid in coming up with a better strategy in terms of climate action.

In one of your interviews, you said entrepreneurship could aid indigenous communities in continuing their practices. Please tell us a little about that. 

If you have ever visited a tribal mela, I am sure you have come across products that are the perfect green alternative for what we are currently using. Disposable plates made from leaves are a great example; they are ideal alternatives for single-use plastic plates, and they are biodegradable. I know there is greater awareness now, but there are many restaurants and fast food joints where plastic is widely used everyday. Instead, if they could replace plastic with these leaf plates, it would also be a great source of livelihood for the communities that make them. We need to think of ways to engage the communities for providing such biodegradable options at a scale that will also generate employment for them. I know some organisations are working along these lines, but I don’t see the profits reaching the community members. The products they come up with are creative and resourceful, so I am sure that there is a better market for them that compensates the makers as well. In my travels, I have seen carpets that are made using material from date palm trees. In Odisha, there is a grass called sabai which can be used for a variety of purposes like making chairs and baskets. I think there is endless potential, but things need to be streamlined.

I always think about agriculture when we talk about livelihood options. Many people now prefer organically grown fruits and vegetables, but this has always been around, especially among the indigenous communities. They use natural ways to fortify the soil and follow multi-cropping. But people don’t realise that they need encouragement to continue these techniques. We need to create a demand for the goods they produce. They know that these time-tested methods are valuable, but they don’t know the market terminologies to express what they are doing. We need to find ways to bridge that gap between them and potential markets.

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"We need to involve the community members, and include the voices of people who have borne the brunt of climate change. Their experiences are vital for us to plan our next steps." Soreng conducts evidence-based research on FRA implementation at Ambapadia village in the Khordha district of Odisha.

What message would you like to share with the young climate-activists of our country? 

I think they are doing fantastic work. Together, we have to continue to use our voices and raise awareness about climate-related issues. But I strongly believe that we also need to invest time for knowledge-building. This is equally important. We have to keep ourselves informed; we need to know more about the law and policies surrounding the issues we are trying to address. I know it is impossible for us to know everything or have an interest in all the topics, which is why I believe we need to form local advocacy groups and take other efforts to disseminate information and discuss this periodically. I think continuous engagement needs to be there.

There is a message that I would like to share at this point with all the young people reading this interview. I know that we all dream of a happy future, a good job, great friends and travelling the world, but if we don’t act now, we will not be able to experience all of this. A climate crisis is happening as we speak. 

Also, let’s not forget children. We need to educate them as well. I have seen messages where they show the popular cartoon character Winnie-the-Pooh and say that because the forest exists, Pooh is happy. This is a great way to get their attention and get them talking about the environment. So I request all of you to educate the elders and the children around you. Most importantly, we must practice what we preach and make mindful changes in our own lives.

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"I will be able to tell people about the conservation measures that I have witnessed in villages in Odisha, and I will also learn about what is happening in other parts of the world." Interaction with members of the Pardi Community in the Kanker district of Chhattisgarh.

How does it feel to have been recognised by the United Nations, and what changes would you like to implement as part of this global initiative?

I am very grateful and happy. This recognition has made me realise that I am here because of my community. I am only the second generation from my community to have gained an education, and it is my community’s sacrifices that have given me this opportunity today. I think I have gained a great platform to showcase what I emphasised earlier – to have inclusive dialogues, irrespective of race, background and nationality. It gives me a chance to show that we need to respect and value diverse opinions, so I would definitely like to set an example on those lines. Climate change affects all of us, and we need to include everyone in this discourse.

I think this will be an insightful and enriching journey for me. I will be able to tell people about the conservation measures that I have witnessed in villages in Odisha, and I will also learn about what is happening in other parts of the world. I think this is what the Secretary-General means when he talks about taking climate positive action and leaving no one behind. We have to follow that path. This position has given all of us in the committee an opportunity to disseminate knowledge. I am looking forward to all the learning and implementing what I learn.