“The world is finally willing to hear Indigenous voices – and I’m here to speak up.”

August 8, 2021

On International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples an activist shares her perspective on the climate crisis.

When you think of solutions to the climate crisis, you may immediately think of modern technologies, like solar and wind energy; but Indigenous communities have been leading on and perfecting natural solutions for centuries simply through their way of life. Indigenous peoples share a deep and spiritual connection with the natural world, making them the best stewards of the areas that they have inhabited for generations.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Archana Soreng, a young Indigenous climate activist, researcher, and member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. She is from the Kharia tribe in Odisha, eastern India.

How did you get involved in climate activism?

My grandfather has been a pioneer of community-led forest protection practices.  He believed that if we don’t live a harmonious and sustainable life with nature, we will not be able to sustain ourselves.

I also witnessed my father’s health care practices. He was a professor of social work and social sciences but also gave medicine for snake bites. It was made out of leaves, roots and filled with Indigenous knowledge. I had seen a lot of people coming to my home for treatment and getting well. He did not have the formal education for giving medicine for snake bites, but it had been passed onto him by his uncles. This made me see the value of traditional knowledge.

I lost my father in 2017, and it made me realize our elders will not always be with us. If we don't learn now, then there will be nothing for the younger generation.

What were some of the experiences that brought you to where you are today?

When I was in tenth grade, my parents told me that if I really want to make constructive change in the world, I should enter into policymaking spaces. That led me to political science and to my Master’s in regulatory governance. When I was pursuing my degree, I started reading about environmental regulation and realized all the concepts, all the theories we were being taught is something I had already witnessed while growing up, whether it is village-level forest protection, eco-friendly ways of living, rotational farming, organic farming, carbon footprints, or air and water pollution. I had seen all that, but the irony was that the literature was not written by Indigenous people. It was written by outsiders, which made me notice that even though these eco-friendly practices are practiced by my communities, their voices are not being heard. That is when I realized that by being given this opportunity for education, I had to highlight these perspectives.

I started working with communities in Odisha as a research officer. I was able to see the tremendous work being done in forest conservation, biodiversity conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and agriculture, not only in my village but in other Indigenous communities.

I started documenting traditional knowledge and practices, and studying how recognition of rights is related to climate action. That is when I got connected with YOUNGO, the official UNFCCC youth constituency. All of these experiences helped me to realize that most conversations were missing the Indigenous perspective. I realized that people are now willing to hear us but nobody will show you the way. I feel it is important for me to bring the Indigenous perspective of my colleagues and brothers and sisters and advocates into climate action and deconstruct the colonial framework of conservation.

Why is it important to support indigenous and rural communities in addressing the climate crisis?

Indigenous peoples take care of 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, yet their rights are not being recognized. Indigenous peoples are the ones combating the climate crisis now. They're combating it merely with their way of living. Not undoing or trying to change something.

The recognition of rights of Indigenous peoples land rights is also crucial for climate action.  How will Indigenous people sustain themselves if their land and territories are taken from them? Reports have shown that wherever rights are recognized, there has been immense amount of forest conservation.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

We are always looked upon as people who do not know anything and who are backward and savage, so you are constantly made to feel that you are nothing. I'm very proud of myself and of my culture and tradition. It took me a lot of time to realize that. When I was able to get an education, I realized the imposition of worldview in this entire education system. Another challenge I have is how people treat me. Indigenous people are made to feel that you have no knowledge - it's a constant struggle. Everyone is talking slowly and gradually about climate crisis but from a very scientific perspective - about technology. I completely believe and agree with science, but it is important to emphasize the human factor and the Indigenous peoples perspective. My perspective is unique and that is what brings me to the table.

How do we ensure voices of young people, and in particular indigenous youth, are included in climate policy and decision-making? Any examples you can share through your personal experience?

It’s very important to consciously make sure that Indigenous people are involved in decision-making. If there is any project initiated in Indigenous areas, Indigenous people and should be part of that process.

Specialized indigenous training and capacity building of indigenous youth and indigenous community also needs to happen, but this capacity building initiative should be not done from a perspective of “they don’t know anything” but rather it should be done from a place of “how we can support them and what are the other things that will be fruitful for them?” Making sure that these trainings are done in their original language or in a language comfortable to them would be essential. Language matters, too. If I go to a rural area, no one knows what is “climate action” even if I translate it. It may not look like they know what climate action is even though all their actions are based on it.  Even as they are doing organic farming, they may not know what “organic” means. So I think it's very important to go beyond the terminology framework to see what people are doing. Otherwise, we risk excluding them.

What are you proud of?

I'm proud that I still have patience. I realized over time that this is not a sprint or a 100-metre race. I'm proud that I haven’t given up, because it's very disheartening and tiring when you just repetitively say the same thing everywhere. Respect our rights over land, respect our world, respect our traditions – it’s as simple as that.

I may not live to see the fruit of my work. This is a long-term struggle. I'm proud to push forward a narrative which is less spoken about. I'm proud to continue the work which my ancestors started. 

I'm also proud of Indigenous youth. We are now connecting globally in a way we were not able to do earlier. We are inclusive and we have solidarity. I realized that even though we are from different regions, our struggles and our connection bring us together.

Read the most recent report from the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change here.

Find out about results of Peoples’ Climate Vote, the largest climate change public opinion survey, which will bring voices of the people, including youth to decisionmakers — here.

If you enjoyed reading this, check out our interview with climate activist Paloma Costa.

Written by Sameera Savarala, UNDP climate change specialist