Among the many issues that are laced with feelings of loss, dread and rage is the climate crisis. As important as it is to talk about it, particularly with children, the hopelessness linked to it is not something one wishes to pass on. Bengaluru’s Azim Premji University (APU) found a way through this dilemma last week and hosted a nature festival to talk about climate change while inspiring children to actively engage and act.
Following last year’s inaugural edition, titled Rivers of Life, this year, the 10-day Forests of Life festival aimed to provide a glimpse into the wonders of forests. “Through the festival, we wanted to focus on children, especially those from marginalised communities who may not have access to quality information about the climate crisis. Through this large-scale event, we hoped to teach tens of thousands of young people,” says Harini Nagendra, Director of APU's Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability. The festival which began on 2 November was attended by 1,500 to 1,800 children every day.
Using science and art, they discussed forests' links to sustenance, human-animal relationships, and the strong connections that indigenous communities have with nature. The highlight of the festival was young people’s storytelling exhibitions and talks. This year, 130 interns, aged between 14 and 28 years, from across India, explored 150 diverse forests and shared stories about them.
Lakshmi, a 28-year-old intern from the Solega community from the Biligiri Rangana Hills in Karnataka, documented her community's connection with the forests, their way of life, and how the forest is part of their traditions such as brewing medicines. Lakshmi came with a group of elderly women from the Solega community who inaugurated the festival. “She also did several talks with the children who visited the festival, telling them her stories and about her community’s deep connection with the forest,” says Nagendra.
Another intern, Anagha Balakrishnan talked about the three ways in which elephants interact with humans. “One, elephants in the wild as they should be. Two, through training with mahouts which involves breaking the spirit of the animals to make them trainable. And third, when elephants can’t work anymore, they are taken to a rescue and rehabilitation centre to spend the rest of their lives. The whole comparison between the lives of wild and captive elephants is very heartbreaking,” explains Nagendra.
Interns Jinu Jishana, Farsana K K and Rana Nasnim T.P. documented the last few members of the Cholanaikkan, a hunter-gatherer tribe who live near Nilambur.
A group of school students from Sikkim also participated in the festival, including Rajita Rai, from the Kirati Rai indigenous community of eastern Nepal and parts of Sikkim. Rai spoke about her community's practices of foraging, hunting and fishing as well as the rituals they formed as followers of Sumnima (the earth god) and Paruhang (the sun god).
There was also a focus on urban ecology with young twins, Nisha and Naima Ramakrishnan from Mumbai, founders of the Mumbai Tree Project, talking about their efforts to document trees of the city for people to know more about their environment. “They spoke to their local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) and have been working on putting up QR codes on trees of people to scan and know more about it. It’s all about building a connection with nature,” Nagendra explains.
Drawing from last year's experience of children’s love for maps and storytelling through art forms, APU made sure to include both this year. Using satellite remote sensing, they set up several maps, including those of the Western Ghats, the Aravallis, the Western Himalayas, and forests in the northeast areas, to show the loss of forest cover.
The in-house production of maps led by Kunal Sharma, who works at APU on issues of sustainability and conservation, also shows urban heat islands in Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkata. Urban heat islands refer to metropolitan areas that are significantly warmer than their surroundings due to human activities.
There were also several dance performances, plays and workshops for children, including a yakshagana performance by a troupe from Shivamogga, Yakshadegula. They played out Arjuna from Mahabharata and Hanuman from Ramayana having a conversation about current affairs, environment and the greater good. “They touched upon the recent news of a leopard that entered residential areas and was killed. As Hanuman questioned the killing, the children clapped and were clearly on his side. No one told them who’s right or wrong, it’s their understanding and that was beautiful to see,” says Nagendra.
“Many of these children come from marginalised communities, so this was also a way of building their confidence and giving them a platform," says Nagendra. "When children talk to children about nature and climate change, it’s way more effective. They listen, understand and connect better.”