By Shiba Desor
The Karen community settled in the Andaman Islands in the early 1920s. A forest-dependent community from erstwhile Burma, the Karens quickly developed linkages with the natural environment of the islands. Along with having a good traditional and developed knowledge of the forest and the sea, the Karens are adept craftspersons of wood, bamboo and cane. Today their population is composed of around 2500 people, primarily residing in North and Middle Andaman.
Ever since the beginning of ANET in the 1970s, the multi-faceted nature of Karen knowledge and their openness to new challenges has led to a unique partnership between the field researchers and the Karen community (as boatmen, field assistants, craftsmen and base-management staff). This relationship and motivation within the local community led to ANET facilitating the formation of the Andaman Karen Crafts cooperative society in late 2014 with objectives of local economic empowerment while reviving Karen cultural heritage and conserving local eco-systems. The society is predominantly a women-based group of 10 members belonging to the Karen community.
Although ANET has been supporting these activities for many years, this has been a fairly recent initiative for Dakshin Foundation. Since Dakshin believes in building community capacities for conservation and enhance community stakes and rights in environmental decision-making, this initiative forms a perfect ground for collaboration. The objective behind this initiative is to support local livelihoods and, in the long term, to create community spaces for people to articulate their own approach towards ‘development’. The approach is multi-faceted, simultaneously focusing on socio-cultural, economic and ecological dimensions of well-being.
This implies a manifold strategy. To retain local craftsmanship while enabling generation of some revenue, trainings and skill-development in tailoring, embroidery, handloom-weaving, bamboo-weaving and small-scale community markets has been facilitated. At the same time, to conserve the Karen culture and cuisine, local history and folklore is being documented and also promoted through local story-telling sessions and a slow food restaurant focused on Karen cuisine is being constructed in the lower part of the AKC community centre. To revitalise links with land, a nursery of locally valued plants has been set up and conversations are ongoing for a longer-term engagement with community forestry. All of this is happening alongside regular sessions on environment and ecology through researchers’ talks and mangrove walks.
In terms of capacity-building and community-ownership of the process, much has been achieved in the past year, and it is hoped that this cross-thematic intervention will lay foundations for a long-term strengthening of the community’s bio-cultural connections.