A messenger from the mountains

Mari Marcel Thekaekara, writer and Co-founder of ACCORD-Nilgiris says the tribal communities are a standing example of how women play a major role in preservation of eco historic cultural heritage in India

January 27, 2017 03:49 pm | Updated 04:36 pm IST - MADURAI:

Mari Marcel Thekaekara  Photo: Special Arrangement

Mari Marcel Thekaekara Photo: Special Arrangement

“Once, I was walking with this young tribal girl through the forest and we stumbled upon a tuber. She plucked it, cut the eye of the tuber and buried it in the mud before taking it to be cooked. I asked her why she did so and she replied ‘If I don’t put it back, how will it grown again?’ and that moment made me realise how sensitive tribals are towards environment and nature. For them, putting back what they take is inherent in their culture and lifestyle,” says Mari Marcel Thekaekara, who has been running ACCORD (Action for Community Organisation, Rehabilitation and Development), an NGO that works for the Adivasis in the Nilgiris for the past three decades.

Mari believes that the hunter gatherer tribal communities have big lessons for the modern society. “Hills and forests are considered the gods and there’s no better demonstration of ecological sensitivity. They have lots to offer to the modern society.” Tribals have always had a great deal of dignity, observes Mari. “They have never been subjected to casteism and hence dignity is something important for them. But they face the challenge of facing the modern world on a daily basis and feeling the need to belong to,” she adds.

Through ACCORD, Mari and her husband Stan along with few like-minded friends have been working on the education and health aspects of the tribal communities. “We started off helping them get social justice as we felt that there were various kinds of exploitation on them. We persuaded them to retain the land as a lot of their culture and practices are wrapped up with the land, thus making them wear the tribal identity with pride.” That’s how Adivasi Munnetra Sangams were formed in tribal villages, facilitating a platform for them to address issues concerning the community.

Tribals exhibit an unbelievable level of understanding of a debatable subject like man-animal conflict especially with regards to elephants in the Nilgiris, observes Mari. “People have been killed by elephants and yet tribals do believe that the land belongs to the animals as well. They understand this much more than anybody else and this is no romanticising the issue.” She recalls how an elephant once strayed into the tribal hospital and one of the Irula Youths cut his banana plants and took them to the forest in order to give some food to the elephant and thus leading the animal away from the hospital. “So gracefully he parted some of his share with the jumbo. Such kind of a deeper empathy is rare to come by from non-tribals.” “I am not saying farmers should suffer loss at the hands of animals raiding their crops, but tribals are better at averting and handling man-animal conflict on the whole,” she adds.

She observes that women play a major role in preservation of natural heritage. “I have seen tribal men pressing the feet of their pregnant wives and fetching water and wood, cooking and taking care of the household works during the period, which is a rare gesture seen in modern society,” says Mari. “In festivals like Onam and Pongal, it’s the women who make the payasam, passing on the recipes and the rituals. It’s they who collect flowers for the Pookalam. Women carry the wisdom, recipes and beliefs of grannies. They carry the knowledge of what’s health and the starting point of a family’s health is the kitchen.”

Although, the power of decision making is mostly in the hands of men and women are still relegated to a backseat in policy making, says Mari. “Unequal burden of environmental degradation is placed on women. They are the ones who fetch the water and firewood, sow the seeds and saplings. They bear the cost of it but still excluded from the benefits of development. M.S. Swaminathan once said that if it were the men who carried water from far away to the houses, then every house would have had water by now.” As a human rights activist, Mari has written a book titled Endless Filth on the community that cleans toilets. “I visited community toilets across the country as a research and after my writing, a toilet in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh where manual scavenging was the norm, was demolished.”

“Women have profound traditional and contemporary knowledge about the natural world around them and hence there’s a necessity to make policies mindful of the connection between environment and gender,” she says. “And that’s why it’s largely in the hands of women to sensitise our children towards the ecological heritage. Big changes always begin with small steps and the right place is always the home.”

Mari Marcel Thakarkara addressed the students of Lady Doak College, Madurai, as part of a two-day national workshop on Networking on Ecohistoric and Cultural Heritage of India.

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