Monday, April 20, 2020

The Unequal Partners: Indigenous Peoples in the COVID-19 Crisis

As the global combat against COVID-19 pandemic has intensified, most of the countries are now under partial or total lockdown.

. In India, for example, this is the 3rd week under a nationwide lockdown. And although the Novel Coronavirus doesn't discriminate between classes or races or communities, the lockdown does affect some more than others, especially the Indigenous Peoples who are hardly ever involved when official decisions are made. Today, I want to share a few snapshots of the way the crisis is affecting the indigenous peoples across the globe.

Assam (India)

The largest tea producing state in India - 50% of the country and 1/6 of world's total tea produce comes from here - has just lifted the lockdown to allow production in its 803 tea farms. Traditionally, harvesting in tea gardens begins on April 1 and so, this year, harvesting has been already delayed by 2 weeks.  According to the farm owners, if the harvesting is delayed any longer, leaves will grow too old and unfit for consumption. So, if the lockdown continued, not only the leaves in this peak season would be wasted, but the overgrown bushes would also make production hard in next season.

But opening up of the estates has left the state's 8 million+ indigenous workers with a Cornellian  Dilemna: if the lockdown continues, they would face starvation as most employers in the tea sector practice 'No work, no pay' policy, and without lockdown, the threat of a virus spread grows bigger than ever before.

An indigenous woman workers walks through a tea garden. Courtesy: Indian Chamber of Commerce

Historically, Adivasi people of the tea estates have been described among the poorest Indians who live in little or no education, high poverty, hunger, malnutrition and poor health. It doesn't take much effort to imagine how devastating the effect  would be on these people if anyone gets the coronavirus. The threat is especially huge to indigenous women  who are the main harvesters in any tea garden.

A union of these women had appealed to the government to continue the lockdown. But of course this has not been considered. The government has just instructed the gardens to maintain social distancing. But it would take more than an instruction. They would need  masks, gloves and all the protection required to stay safe. Besides, there would have to be strict vigilance to see that the social distancing is maintained across the production areas including  plucking (in the garden, its possible), weighing yard (not so easy) , in the processing unit (also hard as some tasks need more than one person to work together)  and in sorting/drying.
The question is, is the govt serious enough to ensure these safety measures or will the matter be left on the indigneous people to fend for themselves - like they have always been?


Last week, the Amazon indigenous territories witnessed its first COVID-19 death which sent shocks across the forest communities. Now, why is a single death so shocking when countries are reporting thousands of death , some in a single day?

The answer is, the indigenous people of Brazil, especially the uncontacted tribe do not have the immunity to fight against a deadly pathogen like the Novel Coronavirus and are therefore particularly vulnerable against a disease like COVID19. If we look into the history, every viral disease breakout has wiped out a sizeable population of the Amazonian people, pushing them near extinction.. And this time, as the president of Brazil stubbornly undermines the deadliness of COVID19, the indigenous people are again at great risk.

Uncontacted Indians seen from the air during a Brazilian government expedition in 2010  © G.Miranda/FUNAI/Survival
According to a press release by the Survival International  protection of indigenous territories is  "a matter of life and death". There are primarily two reasons behind this: 1) the govt of Brazil has continued to let Christian missionaries from outside of Amazon move freely in the uncontacted tribes territories and 2) Loggers, miners and ranchers also allowed wide access and free movement in the tribes land. Both could possibly infection the tribes with the coronavirus..

"Although the entire world now understands how dangerous new diseases can be, Brazil's President Bolsonaro is actively encouraging fundamentalist missionaries to make contact with uncontacted Amazonian tribes, who lack resistance to outside diseases. In addition, many tribes in Brazil such as the Yanomami, the Kawahiva, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, the Munduruku and the Aw√°, are seeing their territories invaded by goldminers, ranchers and loggers. All are home to uncontacted communities, who are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet and extremely susceptible to outside diseases," says the press release.

Update: On 17th April,  a court in Brazil blocked evangelical missionaries from making contact with uncontacted tribes in the Javari Valley, home to the greatest concentration of such peoples anywhere on Earth. The judge stated in his ruling that "Uncontacted Indians are especially vulnerable... To make contact with them is hugely risky," and ordered the authorities to strictly enforce the ruling.

This is certainly a very positive development but it also puts the onus on the govt now. Unless the ruling is honored and strictly enforced, the threat of the pandemic is unlikely to wane, let alone be gone.

Papua (Indonesia)

As of today, Indonesia has over 6,760 positive COVID-19 cases including 107 in Papua. an indigenous territory. 590 people have also died so far, 6 of them in the Papua .

The 6 fatalities might not sound big but, like in the Amazon, has created high tension in Papua as the remote province has very  health infrastructure which is totally incapable of handling a large number of infectious disease.
Members of the Indigenous Miyah community. Courtesy: Samdhana Institute and

According to a BBC report, the hospitals in Papua are already almost full with non-COVID patients. If the Coronavirus spreads, the administration won't be able to treat them.

So, the indigenous peoples are putting up check points and barricades, social distancing system to prevent a potential virus spread. But tension and fear prevails high. And in a fear-gripped land, rumors are flying: a few days ago, there was rumor of the Papuan governor getting COVID-19 and flew out to Jakarta for treatment. The government has denied that.

The fact, however, is that the indigenous peoples are vulnerable, resource-less and have little to depend on except luck to stay safe and healthy in the growing pandemic.

Nellore (India)

 Amidst all the doom and gloom, there is something good happening in at least one indigenous area and I want to wrap up with that. 2 years ago  couple of years ago, I had reported on Yanadi - the largest group of homeless indigenous people in India.

As millions of poor Indians struggle to find a square meal now, two charities have joined hands to provide food to the Yanadis. These are  Reliance Foundation - the charitable arm of  the Ambani group of industries and Association for the Rural Development - an NGO based in Nellore district which has the largest population of the Yanadi people. The food aid kit has 10 kg rice, 1 kg daal, besides salt, sugar and cooking oil.

The number of the Yanadis is of course too huge to be covered by a NGO alone. But its good to see that the most forgotten and left out people of all are not being forgotten in this pandemic. May their effort find more support!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A year of Environmental Reporting: My 2019 in 5 Photos

I haven't blogged this year. But all through the year, I traveled, telling the stories that somehow didn't get reported or, as a colleague once said, "just fell through the crack". And while on my job, there were many powerful moments that filled me with strength and inspiration - the reason why I could go on, no matter how hard it was. Sharing today, as I say goodbye to this year, 5 of those moments. Have a look and feel free to share, if you  like them.

#1. The Peatland Restorers of Philippines

Standing guard over the vast stretch of peatland in Leyte sab-a basin , Philippines, these are women of Tacloban, Palo and Leyte who have survived several disasters including the 2013 typhoon Hayan. And now they have joined hands to restore the peatland which is a crucial step towards restoring the entire ecosystem of the region.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

River Trilogy Part 1: Mighty Mekong - the Mighty Carrier of Plastic

I have marked 2018 as the year of visiting our great rivers. 

And so, since January, I have visited half a dozen rivers across Asia. Among them are the 3 of the continent's mightiest rivers: Mekong, Irrawaddy and Padma. I spent a couple of days - and nights too - by each of these great rivers, travelling along them, visiting communities that live by them and experiencing the riverside life.

On this World Environment Day, I am starting to write some of my experiences. I begin with Mekong.

I visited Mekong in Can Tho of Vietnam - known as the heart of the Mekong Delta. As my flight drew closer to Ho Chi Minh City, I could see the serpentine image of the river - zigzagging through the delta. I was awestruck!

A few hours later, I was in Can Tho checking into a modest guest house right over the river. It was 31st December. Back home and everywhere else, my family and friends were partying. The wi fi did not work, so I was cut off from everybody.

Lying in the darkness of my room, I could hear the burbles of Mekong. Occasionally I could hear boats paddling away. In a few hours time, the night would end and the morning sun would rise and I was going to welcome the rising sun - the first sun of 2018 - over the Mekong. I slept with that beautiful dream.

At dawn, I was up and sitting on a fishing boat with my fellow journalist friend Dinh Tuyen who lived in Can Tho. It was still somewhat dark and yet there were several other boats around us already. We were all moving to one destination: Cai Rang -the floating farmers' market.

The market, in nature, was not very different from the other floating markets I have seen in Thailand or elsewhere. But this was bigger and of course on the wide open river. All kind farm-fresh produce -from fresh fruits (pineapple, rambutan and guava) to vegetables, fish, besides groceries etc sold in the market.

As we were cruising through the market enjoying some fresh fruits and meeting some old farmers, the sun was getting hot and the crowd of tourists was growing bigger.
For us, this was time to move out of the market area and visit some riverside villagers. However, as we started out, the boatman began to slow down and halt abruptly. He had a nagging, nasty problem: plastic bags. Every few minutes, he would pull the oars out of the water and clear it off the plastic. 

And then it stuck me: floating around me were all kind of plastic trash: sandals, bags and plastic bottles of mineral water and soft drinks. The last one was clearly a contribution of the tourists.

Tuyen, who was born in the mountains of northern Vietnam, had fallen in love with the Mekong during a trip to Can Tho several years ago and decided to live here. He has been covering the Mekong Delta for years and he says, the volume of plastic trash in the river has been growing in an alarming rate.

There is a general lack of awareness, he says, about plastic pollution of a river. From fish to fruits to biscuits, everything comes in a plastic bag. Nobody bothers to discard this on the land and instead, just tosses it away in the river. "The current carries away everything (to the ocean), so nobody thinks its a big deal",  Tuyen told me.

There is no organized drive yet to  prevent this or to educate the communities yet, but the locals are indeed feeling the heat of the pollution, Tuyen says. The color of the water is changing and the fish catch is decreasing. But there is a much bigger damage of the plastic in the river: according to a study conducted by Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany, about 90% of the plastic in the oceans come from 10 rivers. One of them these 10 rivers is Mekong.

And just to touch base on this, there are 8.3 billion tons of plastic trash in the world that we live in today. In the ocean, its causing acidification, bleaching the corals and killing marine life.

For the next 2 days, I travelled to some islands and villages along the Mekong. Most of the people were subsistence farmers, growing fruits and catching small fishes for a living. 
Life seemed so simple, peaceful and so close to the nature.

But then, wherever I turned,  I saw plastics.

Even for safeguarding their fruits, they covered them with tiny plastic jackets - the same that would soon end up in the river.

Last week, the Mekong River Commission - the governing body of entire Mekong river (which flows through 5 countries), released a statement saying it was working on an initiative to go plastic- free. But this was the commission's office in Laos - faraway from the Mekong Delta.

As I took my last ride over the river, I felt sad.
It had been a dream for years to see Mekong - a river that feeds millions of people with its fish stock, besides helping nations prosper with its inland waterways and its hydelpower potential. 

This river needs to clean, free of plastic and not carry plastic to the oceans.

The communities - both locals and the tourists - need a campaign to tell them of the mountains of  plastic trash Mekong was creating, causing the ocean acidification.

After all, a healthy river is our biggest asset and its our responsibility to preserve its health.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Embarrassing, Unjust, Tyrannical: Women Climate Warriors on Trump Quitting Paris Agreement

The worst fear has just come true: US President Donald Trump has just announced that he will make US abandon the historic climate deal - the Paris Agreement - because 1) he thinks the agreement is bad for American economy and 2) It was something he had promised to do during his election campaign.

A snapshot of the infamous California drought that affected millions. Credit : LA Times

As expected, reactions are pouring out from all corners of the world. Here is a compilation of some of the world's most vocal Women climate leaders:

Lidy Nacpil, Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development
"... a U.S. pull-out reveals utter disregard for the fate of humanity in favor of continued hegemony of U.S. elites and big corporate interests. Not to mention a tyrannical refusal to accept scientific findings."

Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and Environment, India
Climate change is a global challenge. The US cannot continue to keep the world hostage. Pulling out of the Paris Agreement would mean that with 5 per cent of the world population, the US will continue to jeopardise the remaining 95 per cent. Countries need to hold the US accountable for decisions that have a global impact,” said Narain.

 Rachel Smolker, BiofuelWatch USA
 "I am ashamed ... hope our allies will let their voices be heard at U.S. embassies - to both isolate Donald Trump and his ilk - and apply pressure on the U.S. to step up and take responsibility for real and equitable solutions to the escalating climate catastrophe."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Investing in Women: Saving Wildlife the Lankan Way

At a time when governments worldwide are struggling to protect an ever-dwindling wildlife population, in Sri Lanka, a dramatically simple strategy seems to bring good results: pay local women incentives for having their husbands abandon the illegal business.

The roads are wide, the houses are spacious and the yards adorned with flowering bushes. There is a motorbike in each yard and a dish tv antenna on every roof - the first look of  Serakkulia - a fishing village by the ocean in North west Sri Lanka - is truly impressive.

 "This is the richest and most prosperous fishing village I have seen anywhere," I think.

 And then I quickly learn, most of the richness and the prosperity has come through illegal fishing.

I am in Serakkulia on a media tour organized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The UN agency, along with a few other national and international organizations including the IUCN, is trying to protect a highly endangered sea animal called the Dugong. The biggest threat to the Dugong are fishing nets that catch (and kill) any marine creature. Locally known as "Surukku"  and "Laila" - these nets have been recently (2016), but fishermen with a strong greed for money and little regard for law or environment use them anyway. Serakkulia, I hear, was notorious for that.

But today, this is where the Dugong protectors are trying out a never-before strategy: roping in women of illegal fishers and giving them fund to turn entrepreneurs, so their husbands won't feel compelled to earn a lot of money - by hook or by crook.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

On Women's Day, Celebrate These 5 "Invisible" Leaders

As a journalist who looks at an issue through a gender lens, I meet hundreds of women each year. While I see a change maker in each of them, there have been a few women who have especially inspired me with their grit and passion to turn the tide. On this International Women's Day, I wanted to salute five of  those harbingers of change.

1. From Sexual Violence Victim to Anti-GBV Warrior

There was a time Ramvati Bai thought of nothing but killing herself.  A widowed mother of two, the 20 something tribal woman in Bakud village of India's Madhya Pradesh state was sexually harassed and assaulted by her father-in-law for three years. Yet, when she finally gathered the courage to file a complaint, the police dismissed her, calling it a “family matter”. To make things worse, Ramvati's mother in law threw her out of the house for bad naming her father in-law.  With two young children and no place to go, Ramvati thought ending her life was the only option.

But today Ramvati can be seen consoling and supporting other women victims of sexual and gender based violence. In fact, she informs such women of the existing laws against violence against women and how to seek legal justice.

According to Ramvati, it happened when she joined Narmada Mahila Sangh - a network of  fellow tribal women that helps victims of domestic violence seek justice. The members of  the network are trained paralegals and they in turn run workshops for other women in the villages on a range of issues from understanding existing laws and policies, to learning how to conduct a basic investigation before approaching the police. They also counsel, provide moral support and often, a sympathetic sister's shoulder to cry on.

“We want a life of dignity, free of violence,” Ramvati Bai told me when we met. “Nothing else matters more than that. You can read my story on her here.

2. From disability and abandonment to water leadership

Saturday, February 13, 2016

In Photos: A Day With Rural India's Barefoot Radio Producers

Last summer, in a tiny town called Orccha in central India, I met Ekta, Gauri and Kausalya - three women working for a community radio station called 'Radio Bundelkhand'. The radio station, now in its 8th year, serves farmers in about a dozen villages within a radius of about 70 km.
For two days, I followed these three women as they traveled around villages, interviewing farmers, recording their stories and later, broadcasting content that they created just for these farming community. Here are 10 photographs that describe the journey I took along with these barefoot journalists and their amazing audience.

1. It was a very hot summer day with the mercury hitting almost 40 degree Celsius. We had hired a car, so the journey was relatively easier. 

But on a normal day, the reporters travel in an auto rickshaw (also known as Tuk Tuk to some) from their office in Orchha to the entrance of a village. From their, its a long walk to the inside of the village.With them they carry a voice recorder, a notebook and, often a radio which they play for the entertainment of the villagers, many of whom do not have the money to buy a radio.