At the 95th Academy Awards held last month, Kartiki Gonsalves, a brown woman who grew up around Ooty in the South of India, went on stage to accept the Oscar for Best Documentary in the short subject category. Receiving the award Kartiki said, “I stand here today to speak on the sacred bond between us and our natural world. For the respect of indigenous communities. For empathy towards other living beings, we share our space with. And finally for co-existence.”
“The Elephant Whisperers”, directed by Gonsalves is a scintillating tale of the power of love and community that transcends all boundaries in its quest for a peaceful existence with nature. Revolving around the lives of a middle-aged couple living deep in the forests of the Mudumalai national park in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, the film documents how climate change resulted in Raghu, a baby elephant losing his mother and then finding his “human” family after many trials and tribulations.
Indigenous communities depend on the forests for their livelihood and in turn do their very best to protect them. According to one of the protagonists Bomman, taking care of rescued elephants and the forests is like taking care of God. “I take care of it and it puts food on my table”, says Bomman. Can you imagine a more sustainable way of living?
Representation of Indigenous people from India and other countries in the global south has been tainted with stereotypical images focusing mainly on poverty. For this reason, the global recognition of the Elephant Whisperers is ground-breaking. It has shifted the narrative from “exoticizing” indigenous communities to hopefully taking lessons in “sustainable living” as we gear up to face the wrath and fury of nature in the face of the impending doom of the climate crisis.
The climate injustice faced by developing nations is an issue that requires global attention. So let’s talk about how rich countries outsource their CO2 emissions to poorer ones and how that adversely aggravates the climate crisis in the global south. Take for example the recent floods that ravaged Pakistan and pushed it towards the worst economic crisis the country has ever faced. No one’s blaming the EU or the USA solely but reports have shown that, although difficult to prove, there is a nexus between outsourcing CO2 emissions to growing economies in the Global South by high-income countries in the West and climate injustice faced by the global south. UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres has affirmed that South Asians are 15 times more likely to die from the effects of climate change as compared to people in other parts of the world.
When I moved to the Netherlands last August, many well-meaning Europeans asked me about life in rural India. From the type of questions I was asked, I quickly realised even in the age of information, a large number of Westerners are still living under the impression that an average Indian villager is probably a snake charmer, taking a dump on the streets! Years of media misrepresentation have contributed to the concoction of these images but it’s now time to collectively move past these stereotypes and tap into the knowledge on sustainability and community living that indigenous and rural communities in the global south have to offer.
I’m not suggesting that we give up the comforts and privileges of the Western lifestyle with perfectly heated homes and aesthetically pleasing architecture and move to the forests to live like indigenous people. I am aware that would be quite disastrous and overbearing for mother nature. Besides, the average European or American is heavily dependent on toilet paper, a Western household “necessity” that does not even exist in the middle-class households of the part of the world that I come from. We have douche toilets. So no toilet paper needed, more eco-friendly and let’s not get started on the hygiene aspect!
However, the next time you buy a brand-new smartphone, a swanky car or a piece of clothing from a deceptively fancy-looking fast-fashion brand, remember they were most likely manufactured in some factory in China, India or Bangladesh. All countries that the average “globe-trotter” would be quick to classify as “dirty”, “polluted” or “dangerous”. I am not contesting the fact that these countries are dirty, polluted and sometimes dangerous. I am simply urging that you ask yourself why?
The newly rich elites of countries like China and India, two of the biggest economies of the Global South are also part of the problem, having the means to buy these products that are being manufactured primarily for the Western market. However, indigenous communities like the one in The Elephant Whisperers are paying a huge price for a problem they had no part in creating. They suffer and live in unpleasant and unsanitary conditions so Europe and the rest of the West can continue to look postcard perfect with its blue skies and clean air.
It’s time for the EU and the US to take responsibility and restorative action for disproportionately contributing to the climate crisis, if not being solely responsible for it.