What does it mean to be “native” to a place?


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I was born in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh in India. And ever since then I have spent some important & formative years of my life in Amethi, Lucknow, Delhi, Colombo & Bangalore – in that order. Whenever faced the question “where are you from” I could never conclude, without adding “technically” or something on those lines. And I know most of us in today’s time can relate to this phenomenon because thanks to globalization and the internet, we don’t find it unimaginable anymore to move to a completely unknown part of the world and start life there. Of course there are measures in place to legally recognize one’s rights and duties after spending a considerable amount of time in new country, state or city. But do you ever wonder what makes you a native of somewhere, in the true sense of that phrase? Does living in a place for a certain number of years make us a native? Does owning property, working, studying or conducting business for sometime make us a native?

To answer this question, I decided to look at the value systems of some of the Indian tribes (adivasis) who have been native to a geographical region for a very long time. One big insight for me lied in the difference in which we approach the basics. There was a famous story in which some forest authorities observed that when members of a tribe were let in a protected forest area, they only took what they needed and came out. This comes from the way in which their lives are connected to the place they dwell in. The health of their land and water is central to their spirituality, culture and sovereignty. They are born into the responsibility of taking care of this system and train future generations to do the same. And that’s exactly why they are called the natives, because they are not leaving. And they take the responsibility that comes with staying.

Nowadays, if we look at things more macroscopically, in the whole scheme of universe, the earth could very well be a small town. That must make us the natives of this planet, by standard definitions, because we have been around for generations and the last time I checked, not many of us were planning to leave. But do we behave like we are natives of this planet? Our economies, culture and politics are designed in a way where we do not live with the earth, we live off it. Our disregard for ecology is not limited to other species and forms of life. We call our fellow human-beings who live a simple & sustainable life (like the adivasis tribes) poor and “save” or “educate” them with our ideologies of development, because they are not participating significantly in the market economy and not consuming goods produced in the global economy. Unlike a native, we seem to have no respect for the system we all depend on for life. Thankfully, we are all witnessing a dawn of many movements around sustainability of our life on this planet. A few such sustainability initiatives that I witnessed in the time I worked in Sri Lanka, inspired me to come back and start a stint in the social space in India and eventually co-found Ecofolk with a friend. At Ecofolk we are working to create a conscious consumption movement, which eventually transforms into initiatives around sustainability led by the natives of this planet. And we hope that India can play a strong role in leading the sustainability movement, because we have always been and “Eco-conscious” culture in some ways. We do have a huge opportunity to make the lives of our 1.25 Billion people more happy, diverse and productive.

Hansika Singh,the writes of this article, is a part of Team Ecofolk. She is passionate about sustainable fashion and is working to create a range of conscious-clothing for women. Feel free to share your thoughts about this article with Hansika and the rest of the team at ecofolkteam@gmail.com.