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Lessons From the US Presidency On Indigenous Peoples and issues in Manipur


Applying Indigenous Knowledge requires maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between Agencies and Indigenous Peoples. The crux of the issue here is that such application is particularly missing and more pronounced in Manipur where for decisions taken are arbitrary and without the informed knowledge of the local people.


By Salam Rajesh

The United Nations is understood to have accepted the singular contribution of Indigenous Peoples and their age-old traditional knowledge and practices in protecting and safeguarding for posterity some of the best known biodiversity rich pockets in the world. It, therefore, comes as a pleasing lesson on States’ acceptance of this truth with the US Presidency issuing an office memorandum recently acknowledging Indigenous peoples and their time-tested knowledge.

The ‘Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge’ notified by the Executive Office of the President of the United States of America (30 November, 2022) states that “Indigenous Knowledge” is a ‘valid form of evidence for inclusion in Federal policy, research and decision making’.

This goes a long way in stating States’ acceptance on the oft-looked-down wisdom of the Natives who govern forests and other natural landscapes as their “Territory of Life” upon which they share a relationship that dates back to those early days when humans first colonized the surface of Earth during the prehistoric times.

The office memorandum of the US President’s office states that, “The Federal Government recognizes the valuable contribution of the Indigenous Knowledge that Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples have gained and passed down from generations to generations”.

The statement goes a long way in recognizing the decades of demand of the Indigenous peoples for recognition by the States on their significant contribution in safeguarding the natural assets that define the basis on which life itself depends for its continuity.

The memorandum touches on a very particular issue that is fairly commonplace in terms of conflicts of interest, wherein it says, “Since Indigenous Knowledge is often unique and specific to a Tribe or Indigenous People, and may exist in a variety of forms, Agencies often lack the expertise to appropriately consider and apply Indigenous Knowledge”.

This does assumes significance when policy planners consider taking up developmental schemes in nature reserves without understanding the dynamics of the landscape or without trying to understand the relationship that Indigenous peoples share with their surroundings. It then becomes the factor for creating conflicts when these schemes threaten displacement of forest dwellers or to harm the ecosystems in a manner that these become almost desolate.

“Consultation and collaboration with Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples is critical to ensuring that Indigenous Knowledge is considered and applied in a manner that respects Tribal sovereignty and achieves mutually beneficial outcomes for Tribal and Indigenous communities”, the memorandum says.

This acknowledgement inherently accepts the uniqueness of the ageless wisdom and practices of Indigenous peoples who live with nature without harming nature itself, unlike the modern day corporate who ravishes vital rainforests and peatlands for their businesses.

The memorandum defines “Indigenous Knowledge” as ‘a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs developed by Tribes and Indigenous Peoples through interaction and experience with the environment’.

It further states that Indigenous knowledge is ‘applied to phenomena across biological, physical, social, cultural, and spiritual systems. Indigenous Knowledge can be developed over millennia, continues to develop, and includes understanding based on evidence acquired through direct contact with the environment and long-term experiences, as well as extensive observations, lessons, and skills passed from generation to generation’.

Acknowledging that Indigenous Knowledge is ‘inherently heterogeneous due to the cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic differences from which it is derived, and is shaped by the Indigenous Peoples’ understanding of their history and the surrounding environment’, the memorandum gives due respect to the processes that had shaped the wisdom and knowledge of the Indigenous peoples through centuries.

This broadly defines the close connectivity that Natives share with their natural surroundings, being one with nature as this interdependence benefits both – the humans and the nature. When this cohesion breaks down due to negative interventions, then that becomes the reason for many of the ills that humans of modern times are facing, including unprecedented floods, droughts, wildfires, cyclonic storms, water scarcity, and risks in securing enough food for the poor and the marginalized.

To achieve this cohesion, the US Presidency suggests that “Appropriately recognizing, considering, and applying Indigenous Knowledge requires growing and maintaining strong and mutually beneficial relationships between Agencies and Tribes and Indigenous Peoples. Such relationships provide opportunities to identify shared values and goals, build trust and common understanding, and facilitate the exchange of information”.

And, further still, “These relationships can also help Agencies identify and pursue actions to support Tribes in protecting and enhancing Indigenous Knowledge, develop better approaches to scientific research informed by and inclusive of Indigenous Knowledge, and make better-informed and more effective decisions”.

The crux of the issue here is that such discussion at the highest level of Government is particularly missing in India, more pronounced in a place like Manipur where for the most times decisions taken are arbitrary and without the informed knowledge of the local people – in particular those who are in the frontline of forest and wetland conservation in their own system and as best as they know through generations.

The futility of State’s decision on initiating schemes that do not directly benefit local people, as and when these schemes tend to intrude into forest lands and water bodies, the stakes are high when the schemes threaten displacement of the forest and wetland dependent local communities. The result always ends up in conflicts of interest between the parties. This is perhaps what the US Presidency is seeking to address in its memorandum.

It is quite crucial to understand the implication of the memorandum when it says explicitly that, “The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires Agencies to analyze, consider, and disclose the effects of major Federal actions on the human environment”. This reflects the very concern of Indigenous peoples in terms of the non-accountability and the non-transparent policies of States when they seek intervention in biodiversity rich landscapes without considering the free, prior and informed consent of the communities concerned.

It particularly reflects upon the Government (past and present) back home where the tendency is to by-pass the consent of local communities, and other relevant stakeholders, to pursue so-said ‘developmental’ projects that have the potential to impact both the human and the natural environment in a major way.

(The writer looks at environmental stories through the journalistic lens. He can be reached at [email protected])

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