Wisdom of Generations: Learning from the Hills and Valleys of the Northeast India

A tea garden in Dibrugarh, Assam
A tea garden in Dibrugarh, Assam. Image credit: Nborkakoty at English Wikipedia.

Northeast (NE) India is more than just a region on the map; it is a treasure trove of beautiful
natural landscapes and ecological wealth that plays an essential role in our planet’s health. As
we celebrate World Environment Day 2024 with the theme of restoration, let us highlight the
ecological richness of Assam and the other Northeastern states of India. From the slopes of
Arunachal Pradesh to the lowlands of Assam, the NE region is a biodiversity hotspot, home to
unique species found nowhere else on Earth. The more we explore this ecological richness,
the more we discover the wonders and mysteries it holds, sparking our curiosity and interest.

The scenic landscapes of the NE region exemplify a dynamic and harmonious relationship
between humans and nature. Indigenous communities here have cultivated a profound
repository of traditional ecological knowledge passed down through generations. The Bodos,
Mishings, Karbis, Nyishis, Angamis, Khasis, and many others have developed a deep-rooted
understanding of their natural surroundings through intimate interactions with forests, rivers,
and mountains.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this traditional wisdom is the extensive knowledge of
local plants and their uses. These communities have identified and utilized numerous plant
species for food, medicine, shelter, and rituals, demonstrating a profound understanding of
the ecological roles of each species. For instance, the Bodos have long made use of medicinal
plants like Bhut Jolokia (ghost chili) for their therapeutic properties, contributing to the
preservation of traditional healing practices. This knowledge not only highlights the ecological
and cultural diversity of the region but also supports sustainable development and
conservation efforts.

Beyond plant knowledge, these communities have developed sophisticated ecosystem
management practices. Indigenous forest management practices in NE India have
significantly contributed to maintaining biodiversity hotspots and preserving wildlife habitats.
Traditional agroforestry systems, such as jhum cultivation practiced by the Karbi and Khasi
tribes, have shown resilience to climate variability while supporting local livelihoods. According
to a recent United Nations report, indigenous peoples’ territories encompass about 80% of the
world’s remaining biodiversity, underscoring the importance of their stewardship in
conservation efforts.

The wisdom of the hills and valleys also embodies resilience—a capacity to adapt and thrive
amidst changing circumstances. Indigenous communities have overcome challenges like
floods, droughts, and shifting climates by drawing on their deep ecological knowledge.

Panimur Waterfalls, Dima Hasao

According to the Indian State Forest Report 2021, Assam’s forest cover is around 35% of its
geographical area, highlighting its critical role in biodiversity conservation and carbon
sequestration. However, this forest cover is declining, and the region faces environmental and
climate challenges, including deforestation, riverbank erosion, and climate change impacts.

Preserving and promoting traditional ecological knowledge is crucial in the face of the global
climate crisis. According to UNESCO, indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge
significantly contributes to the sustainable management of natural resources, benefiting both
local communities and global biodiversity. Recognizing, valuing, and supporting these
practices are essential for environmental conservation, cultural identity, and community
resilience.

Celebrating the wisdom of Assam and Northeast India’s hills and valleys on World
Environment Day reminds us of the transformative power of indigenous knowledge.
Integrating their insights into broader restoration efforts can contribute to building a sustainable
future for all. By embracing the wisdom passed down through generations and augmenting it
with contemporary research and statistics, we, the #GenerationRestoration, can pave the way
toward ecological harmony and resilience in the years to come.

Let us change gears to the tea communities of the NE region. Assam also plays a vital role in
India’s tea production, boasting over 312 210 hectares of tea cultivation. These tea plantations
not only fuel the state’s economy but also hold significant cultural and ecological value. Assam
is among the world’s largest tea-producing regions, with an annual production of 500-700
million kilograms (Mkgs) of tea leaves. The tea industry employs a vast workforce and
supports livelihoods throughout the region, contributing significantly to India’s overall tea
production. The tea plantations in Assam are not only unique but also serve as a prime
example of the harmonious blend of agriculture and biodiversity conservation. The lush green
tea bushes are seamlessly intertwined with shade trees, providing a habitat for various birds
and insects. Assam’s tea is globally renowned for its robust flavor and represents a heritage
deeply rooted in the land and its ecosystems. However, climate and environmental changes
threaten these lush industries, impacting the ecological and socio-economic balance in the
region.

View to Guwahati city
View to Guwahati city

The government has launched several key initiatives to promote development, ecological
conservation, and socio-economic growth across the state. Notable initiatives include the
Assam Budget for Sustainable Development, Assam Tea Tribes Welfare Board, Jal Jeevan
Mission (Har Ghar Jal), Assam Arunodoi Scheme, Assam Green Mission, Assam Skill
Development Mission, and Assam Startup. Effective implementation of these programs aims
to address climate change, promote environmental conservation, and improve the overall
quality of life for the people of Assam. However, the success of these programs depends on
thorough execution at the grassroots level.

What unfolds in the remote corners of Assam reverberates across continents. The lessons
gleaned from this region—on biodiversity conservation, traditional knowledge integration, and
community-led resilience—are universal. They inform global discussions on sustainable
development, emphasizing the need for inclusive approaches that prioritize both people and
the planet.

This World Environment Day, let us heed the call of Northeast India—a call to action for
environmental engagement and climate action involving youth, communities, government
agencies, and non-profit organizations. The region’s youth must understand the challenges
facing their environment and take action to safeguard their communities and natural
surroundings amidst infrastructural growth and development for their own and future
generations. Climate mitigation and adaptation strategies tailored to the region’s unique
context are critical, including afforestation, sustainable agriculture, and flood management
solutions. Youth can lead the way in developing context-specific climate adaptation and
environment restoration strategies that respect local cultures and ecosystems. By immersing
themselves in environmental education, research, and activism, young students can amplify
their voices and influence decision-makers at all levels.

Assam and its neighboring states in India stand out as a distinctive and valuable addition to
the mosaic of Earth’s landscapes. They serve as a beacon of hope and possibility in our
collective journey toward planetary stewardship. The region’s unique natural heritage,
combined with its rich cultural and ethnic diversity, makes it an important site for scientific
research and cultural exchange. As we strive to better understand and protect our planet,
regions like Northeast India offer invaluable insights and opportunities for collaboration.

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This blog is written by Dr Jagannath Biswakarma, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, UK. jagannath.biswakarma@bristol.ac.uk.

Jagannath Biswakarma
Jagannath Biswakarma

Olive oil production in Morocco: so many questions

No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil. The medium one had been focused on cattle, making use of previous common land, that was now enclosed land, and was now diversifying with oil, watermelons, and more. The small producer produced a full range of things including olives for their own oil and most recently had established a side income in both fish and honey production.

Firstly, we learnt how to make money. Morocco’s heavily financed agricultural development programme, Plan Maroc Vert, which aims to intensify the agricultural system into a new-age competitive beacon of the modern food system, offers attractive incentives to spruce up agriculture in the country with new machines. All you need is to write a proposal (a report), have money to invest (from bank credit perhaps) and an impressive part of your money will be returned to you in state subsidies within two years.

So, for example, all three of the small, medium and large producers we visited, had benefited from a 100% state subsidy for irrigation of their crops. In the case of the ‘super-intensive’ large producer this meant state funding for the irrigation of 65,780[2] olive trees from groundwater on a rapidly declining water table. Some of the more landscape-savvy of the seminar group reminded us that olive trees had been grown in the region for centuries precisely because they did not need this kind of constant watering but could grow deep roots and access scarce water themselves. This, however, is not of interest to the ‘super-intensive’ producer. This producer is simply interested in the logic of economic growth, which in this case says: plant the trees closer, and add the chemical nutrients to the water while you’re at it. And so, these 65,780 trees are watered with the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and ammonium, yet no studies are evident of what all these substances may be doing to the groundwater. By any other logic this would be a big concern, nitrogen pollution, particularly. Nitrogen pollution of water supplies, or more simply, of the nitrogen cycle, is one of the only planetary ecosystem boundaries that we have already crossed as a human race. This was not relevant in the lesson of how to make money.

Yet, I work with people, so where were they in the Moroccan olive grove? Well, it seems they have been replaced by a machine in this super-intensive oil production. The company, with links to power as far up as it goes, has invested in a machine that drives over the trees like a bridge. It shakes their branches and collects their olives.  So much for an investment in rural employment.

Some new olive trees defy the machine but are pretty un-reliable as employers too. These trees that the machine can’t manage provide jobs for only a very precarious seasonal and short-term workforce. I was told that 100 people would be employed for a space of around 200 hectares, and these jobs would last 2-3 months. The company assured us though that these workers would get both contracts and, in order to have those contracts, bank accounts. Thank goodness the banks aren’t losing out.

I should be kinder in tone about the small and medium sized farmers that we visited. Not only did their olive oil taste a lot richer, but they invited us to tea, and allowed us to share their experience of oil production more closely.  They humoured our partial language skills and our many, many questions. This was the second major thing we learnt on the trip – we were a team. We were a slightly chaotic, and erratic team, but really quite effective. A little like slugs on a cabbage, we chewed up every bit of information every which way.

Releasing a group of 13 researchers at a family farm, was a bit like inviting children to a playground, or providing clowns with an audience. Each of us found something to play with, interact with, reflect upon and smile. Some of us looked at the trees or identified the plant specimens. Others wrote notes, or took pictures, or carried out semi-formal interviews with whichever family member we felt most comfortable with. Others played with material toys, climbing ladders, smelling fruit or knocking on enormous oil containers to discover them empty. As we found the olive branches, force-fed powder food through irrigated pipes, or in the smaller farm providing shade for some resident chickens, this seminar group grew together, discovering the knowledge of the peasant farmer.  This experience was far richer and engaging than any power point presentation or report.

More images can be found on the original blog.

References

[1] “Workshop on Agricultural Labour and Rural Landscapes in the Arab World” Organised by the Thimar collective and supported by the École Nationale d’Agriculture de Meknès, the Leverhulme Trust and the London School of Economics.

[2] Calculated based on 286 plants/hectare in a cultivated area of 230 hectares, this was the details of the holding advertised by the company.

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This blog is written by Lydia Medland, a PhD student at the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies who is looking at the role of seasonal workers in global food production, specifically in Morocco and Spain.  This blog has been reposted with kind permission from her Eating Research blog.  View the original blog post.

Lydia Medland

Read Lydia’s other blog: Watermelon work

Why forests are about more than just climate change

It’s National Tree Week, and there is a plethora of talk about all the great things that trees do: encouraging biodiversity, providing a pleasant space for humans, and providing numerous ecosystem services. As well as this, there is some reference to how trees take in carbon dioxide, and the benefits of this for helping to prevent climate change. But what if trees didn’t help prevent climate change? What if actually, they increased climate change?

Afforestation (planting forests) is one of many suggestions as a way to deliberately change the earth’s climate to attempt to reverse the effects of climate change (known as ‘geoengineering’). Planting more trees seems like a an obvious, natural solution. Carbon offsetting, RED+ and lots of other schemes around the issue of climate change have been based on the preservation or increase of forests. But does it work?

We’ve known for some time that boreal forests contribute to climate change rather than help prevent it, because of changes in the surface reflectance (the albedo). But thus far, forests in other places have been thought to be beneficial, storing up carbon and not affecting the albedo so much.

But our recent study suggests that globally, preserving and expanding forests actually causes a net global warming. We used the Met Office’s latest climate model and did simulations of future climate change, with and without afforestion/forest preservation, and we found that though the deforestation has no discernable effect on the climate, the afforestation does.

Does this mean that we are advocating chopping down forests? No. As National Tree Week says, forests are about more than climate change. However much climate change is a key challenge for the future, we can’t forget that other things are important too. The climate effect of the forest preservation and expansion is small – only about 0.1 °C. How do you value that against the mass loss of biodiversity, irrelplaceable ecosystems and ecosystem services that would be lost?

Saving or planting forests is not a panacea for climate change, but neither is it the enemy. Conserving forest is worthwhile for lots of other reasons, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that there won’t be difficult decisions to make about protecting the unique forest habitats, especially tropical forests like the Amazon, and preventing climate change.
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This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, T Davies-Barnard, University of Exeter.

Guest blog: Let’s reach the Size of England

The Size of England is an amazing new charity working to raise £13 million to safeguard 13 million hectares of rainforest, which is the size of England, and coincidentally the area of rainforest that is cut down every year globally.

To us, safeguarding is not about owning land – it’s about encouraging those who need the land to use it sustainably and to empower local people and indigenous communities. It’s about establishing local rights to the land and providing alternatives for fuel and initiating tree planting programs to restore habitats.

We know that Size of England can be successful. Last year, the Size of Wales team reached their target of raising £2 million to safeguard 2 million hectares of rainforest. But as you know, we want to raise the game. However in order to do this we need help.

At the moment we are raising money for a start-up fund via a crowdfunding webpage. This is so we can register as a charity and start doing amazing things for the rainforest and the local community. We already have support from brilliant organisations such as Cool Earth, the Prince’s Rainforest Project, WWF and the Crees Foundation, but we can never have enough! We hope, through communication that we can raise the sum whilst also spreading the word of what we want to do, and getting people to ‘like’, ‘follow’ and ‘friend’ the project as it develops.

There are currently three of us, all volunteers with big ideas and ambitions. What we’re asking is can you help the Size of England campaign in other ways? Are you a great fundraiser? Could you improve our website? Have you got legal experience? We’d love to crowd-source skills as well as cash.

Check out our Facebook and Twitter pages. Also take a look at our crowdfunding site if you fancy and pass it on to anyone else who may find it interesting!

Feel free to message me if you have any questions or email me at olivia@sizeofengland.org.uk

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This guest blog is written by Olivia Reddy of Size of England.
Olivia Reddy

Your planet needs you!

We are under attack. Our assailants threaten to kill millions of people, destroy our homes and wipe out our crops. Who are these fiends?

Us.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focusses on how we can stop runaway climate change before it’s too late.  Despite our “best efforts”, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase at an alarming rate. The IPCC estimates that without any additional effort to reduce emissions, we’re looking at a rise in temperature of between 3.7 and 4.8°C by 2100, although variability in the effects of climate change mean the rise could be as high as 7.8°C. Anything over 2°C means we risk runaway climate change with catastrophic effects felt around the world.

A call to action

The UK energy secretary Ed Davey responded to yesterday’s IPCC press conference by stating,

“we need a worldwide, large-scale change to our energy system if we are to limit the effects of climate change”

and called for an international effort to reduce carbon emissions by 2015.

The question is, are politicians willing to put in the effort needed to reduce emissions by 40-70% in the next couple of decades? It’s hard to put a price on the cost of mitigation, but as Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC team, stated “Climate policy is not a free lunch”. His colleague Professor Jim Skea was more optimistic, saying that,

“it is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living”.

That’s the kind of thing that politicians like to hear.

Change doesn’t happen unless something dramatic happens to force us to act. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events doesn’t seem to be working, so what would? As the IPCC brief states, “Emissions by any agent (e.g. Individual, community, company, country) affect other agents”. We need to invoke some Blitz mentality; we ARE facing a deadly enemy and we ALL need to do our part to stop it.

How to mitigate climate change

The IPCC used 10,000 scientific references to ensure that their models are properly founded in science and all the uncertainty that entails. The IPCC defined mitigation as “a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases”, and look at a range of scenarios to find the most effective and efficient methods.

The report particularly favoured low carbon energy sources as a major way to reduce emissions, using natural gas as a transition fuel into renewable energies. Encouragingly, renewable energy comprised over half of all new electricity-generating developments globally, with wind, hydro- and solar power leading the way. The costs of renewable energies are falling, making them viable for large scale deployment in many areas, and Professor Skea enthused that

Renewables are going to be ubiquitous no matter which part of the world you look at”.

Cities will play a big part in reducing CO2 emissions too; a combination of better urban planning to incorporate public transport and compact walkable city centres will be vital. The report also recommended high speed rail networks between cities to reduce short haul air travel and its associated high emissions.

Replanting forests will be an important way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Plants take in CO2 for use in photosynthesis, but can also be used to remove pollutants from the air and soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and providing important habitats for other plants and animals.

It is important for all nations that mitigation does not mean a halt to economic development. Dr. Youba Sokona, IPCC team co-chair, said, “The core task of climate change mitigation is decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from the growth of economics and population”. This will be the main challenge for governments around the world, but the overwhelming message from the IPCC is that mitigation is affordable, whilst doing nothing is not.

Social justice

There has been an undercurrent of unease alongside the IPCC report; the sticky question of who, exactly, is going to pay for this mitigation? A few days before its release, pressure from unspecified developed nations led to the removal of a section in the IPCC report stating that developing countries should receive billions of dollars a year in aid to ensure that they grow their economies in a sustainable way.

The argument centres on whether developing nations should have the right to exploit fossil fuels to expand their economies, as developed countries were able to do. Dr. Chukwumerije Okereke, one of the lead authors of the report, said that this “is holding them down from developing”, believing that “this is reinforcing historical patterns of injustice and domination”. I would argue that with the impacts of climate change predicted to affect those in developing countries most drastically, perhaps we should adopt the mentality that we are all in this together and help each other to overcome the problem.

Act now

The take home message from the IPCC is that if we act now, we can probably prevent hitting the 2°C temperature increase that would have disastrous consequences for us all. The mitigation strategies suggested are affordable and certainly cheaper than dealing with the consequences of climate change. Will politicians and all the rest of us do our parts to drastically reduce carbon emissions? Only time will tell. A lot of hope rests on the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is hoped to yield a global agreement on climate to avoid passing the 2°C safety threshold.

Cross your fingers and turn off your lights.

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This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

 

You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose