Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster
Environmental Justice & Climate Justice Studies
Global South/East Partners
Indigenous Responses to Covid-19: Living Forests and Traditional Medicine in India’s Northeast
Jane E. Warjri, Ka Mei-Ramew Project, and ann-elise lewallen
Summary: Cultivating biodiversity and striving for balance with the forest ecosystem may prove to be the key to surviving this pandemic. For the Khasi indigenous community, human survival and treatment of Covid-19 hinge entirely on a flourishing forest. If the forest withers or is cut down, the medicines likewise perish. Already 200 medicinal plants have disappeared from area forests, according to traditional healer “A.” This is what we understand from the community right now. To be clear, in the absence of hospitals or clinics, doctors or nurses, biomedical treatments, or even an ambulance, the communities have no access to western biomedical facilities during the pandemic. The term “medically underserved” does not even begin to capture the degree of medical inequality in these regions. Into this desperate gap, Khasi traditional healers offer critical treatment modalities which help address emergency needs, tend to those with pre-existing conditions, and importantly, offer a way to boost the community’s immunity to resist covid when it does become more widespread in the region. This is critical at a time when travel to urban centers is out of reach. Khasi traditional medicine then has enabled the community to respond with a kind of dogged grit and resilience, in the face of a nearly impossible situation.
We initially conceptualized this engaged research to explore how indigenous communities in India’s northeast have evolved in their responses to the pandemic, drawing from ancestral medicinal knowledge and other creative resources. Jane and her field team have been conducting interviews with village leaders around the question of “resilience,” to help us understand what tools indigenous communities may draw upon in the face of global pandemics and pressure to close their interactions with outsiders. Together with the village leaders, Jane’s group has also been spending time with and interviewing a traditional medicinal healer (nong ai dawai khasi) who tends forest lands and her own garden to ensure that her ancestors’ plants survive and that this ecological knowledge can be applied. The most surprising finding thus far is that the medicinal healer inherited her knowledge directly from her father, who inherited all of the plant medicines used in treating the sick during the last global pandemic. We understand this to have been the infamous 1918 Flu Pandemic.
The research purpose of this project is to challenge us to rethink the framework of “resilience.” How is the notion of “resilience” defined by Indigenous communities in Asia, and how does climate transformation interact with and transform local systems delivering health care, including the health of forest ecosystems upon which Indigenous communities depend? While climate justice and environmental justice models have long promoted more equitable access to health care and sustainable environments that can ensure health, a view from Indigenous health modalities pushes us to rethink what may be meant by “health access,” health equity,” and even “medicine” itself, thus forcing scholars to reconceptualize development as a means to improve equality and biodiversity when managed by Indigenous caretakers. Target audience: This project is targeted at undergraduate student audiences, as well as the public at large, and should be productive climate scholars and activists as well.