Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Ethics : The Kaani Tribe in India

Indigenous peoples are ethnic groups native to a land or region. Usually they have a close relation to the land and live in consonance with nature.

They believe that land and people are inseparable and interdependent. It is this aspect of their lifestyle-the intertwining of their lives with their natural surrounding that are a subject of fascination to modern man.  Today at a time when man is moving further away from direct contact with nature, a study of people with a different mindset is not only a subject of fascination but an important learning as well. And this is just what inspired S. Davidson Sargunam, an environmental educationist from India to study the ‘Kaani Tribe’.

In this article he shares with us the work he is doing with ‘Kaani’ tribe: what he is learning from them and about his rehabilitative work.

 Kaani Tribe : A study in environmental ethics

by S. Davidson Sargunam

Growing up in the lush estates of Kerala, South India, where my parents worked, I got an early and wide exposure to forest ecology. My parents taught me how to live safely amidst animals and reptiles in the dense forests. When I was growing up, trekking up the forests became a favourite activity of mine. I liked to explore everything about these forests: animals, birds, reptiles and forest vegetations. My guides during these treks used to be the tribal people living there. So from early on I developed an intimacy with them.

Thus it was only natural for me to take this profession. I had read about the concerns raised by sociologists and folklorists about the disappearance of traditional tribal cultures and the loss of indigenous knowledge and wisdom in several areas especially their strong environmental ethic.

What does ‘environmental ethics’ really mean? Ethics refers to a sense of fairness, of right and wrong, and encompasses virtues such as honesty, compassion and loyalty in a way that benefits society.  Environmental ethics then, relates to the harmony in the relationship between humans and the natural environment. The ethics of sustainability ensures that in a world where individuals have to compete for resources, human beings learn to cooperate with each other and the rest of nature for the mutual wellbeing of all.

Realizing how modernization is affecting the tribes and their lifestyles, I felt there was an urgent need to study and document various aspects of the tribal culture. With this in mind I decided to study the ‘Kaani’ tribe.

The  Kaani Tribe


The Kaani tribe lives in settlements in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in South India. (Kanyakumari and Thirunelveli districts of Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala in the Western Ghats region). They live in areas which are rich repositories of biological diversity, classified as ‘Hot Spots’ which are in remote, inaccessible forests and hilly terrains. They maintain their culture in the deep forests with unique environmental ethics and intrinsic value systems, which are models for others.

Initially I went with forest officials who are known to the tribe. Even though the Kaani people are friendly, they have an unspoken secrecy or veil beyond which they do not let outsiders into their life. Thus while I have known them for over 20 years now, staying with them is still not permitted and also not feasible. So I learnt about them by camping nearby and visiting them during the day and today you can say I am very much one of them: as much as they can allow outsiders to be.

A Kaani Tribesman wearing a hat made from the leaves of areca nut

The first thing one notices about them is how they use the natural resources in forests with minimum destruction. They are nature worshippers and revere the forest and its animate and inanimate inhabitants. They secure their food, fodder, medicines, tools and all other requirements for their sustenance from the forests.

Because of their close relationship with the forests the ‘Kaani’ tribe possesses inherent knowledge about the animals. The Western Ghats is one of the major habitats of the Asian elephant and the forests near Kanyakumari are considered as an elephant corridor. Due to the illegal demand for ivory, elephants often become the victims of poachers.  The Indian government is initiating efforts to save the elephants. The Kaani tribes have an inherent intuition to track elephants. Because of this the Tamil Nadu Forest Department engages the Kaani tribe to track elephants, monitor their habitats, breeding patterns and vigilantly watch their movements.

Bamboo Hut

For their housing needs they make use of the bamboo growing in the forests. They reside in small bamboo huts, where the entire infrastructure is established by bamboo poles, processed bamboo walls with reed or grass roof tops. Of late, however, they have incorporated longer lasting roofing like asbestos sheets. As with most of us, the tribe too like to believe that longer lasting modern housing materials are superior to traditional ones. Yes, asbestos sheets last longer for about 3 or 4 years but are definitely not very healthy.


They get their food by hunting, harvesting or collecting forest produce and sharing the food among the community. They collect fruits like jackfruit, mango, edible green leaves, mushrooms, tubers, and hunt honey. They cultivate coconut, areca nut, banana, pineapple, and vegetables, mainly tubers. Tapioca used to their staple food but now they finding it impossible to grow them because they are being raided by animals. Deforestation has resulted in less forest sharing space for the tribes and animals.

A bamboo pen for chicken to roost safely at night

The land is fertile, and the people don’t use any artificial fertilizers. They do not use any pest control. Because their gardens are a manageable in size, large scale attacks by pests-the kind that threaten conventional farms covering vast acres of land is rare. For common types of garden pests they use local folk remedies to keep them out. Their main threat comes from increasing attacks by wild animals like elephants, wild boars, porcupines, monkeys, bats, Malabar squirrels and sloth bears. They use preventive methods to keep them away.

The Kaani people cook using fire wood. Cooking is done during evening or night as that is the only free time. Their day starts with Kanji (porridge). They also carry this in a vessel to their work spot. At noon depending on what is available it could be Kanji again or cooked rice or cooked tapioca. The men used to take liquor in the evening- a practice which is coming down due to government efforts.

Main Dish:Tapioca, Side dish:coconut gratings with a wild chilli, and black tea.They use teak leaves instead of plates.

The Government also helps to supplement their food by giving 35kgs of rice per family per year. They eat freshly cooked rice in the evening and put away the remaining rice in cool water to eat as ‘kanji’ the next morning. This practice of soaking cooked rice in water overnight to be consumed the next morning is a common practice throughout Tamil Nadu and a very beneficial food. The water is to prevent decay and also facilitate fermentation. This Kanji is generally eaten on its own in the morning. During noon, lunch it is accompanied by ‘Thuvayal’- ground paste of coconut, salt and chilies. They do not consume milk as they hold the cow sacred and Cow worship is an important aspect of their beliefs. They consume black tea and other herbal concoctions.

Earlier the people had domestic chicken (country breeds), but now many are being hunted by wild cats during night, by mongoose, kites, falcons and snakes during day. So, many have stopped rearing them.

Knowledge of Plants:

Medicinal Plant - Rawulfia species.Used in treatment of hyper tension, in indigenous medicine (Sidha)

The Kaani tribe possess a rich knowledge of Ethnobotany. They treat their diseases by extracting green resources from the forests. Plants are used for food, medicine, divination, building, tools, clothing, and rituals and in social life. They do not share or reveal their inherited traditional knowledge of medicinal system to others, as they believe that by doing so the medicinal formula will lose its efficacy.


Magico-religious healing is an inherent part of the Kaani tribe culture. The community has a form of chanting of songs to the accompaniment of a traditional musical equipment-the ‘kokkarae’. They believe that the chants chase away malevolent spirits responsible for physical illness and ailments. The musical chant is led by the clan physician and usually starts at dusk and ends by dawn. It is repeated by a selected group of tribesmen well-versed in the process of chanting.

Most indigenous groups the world over have their own systems of singing and chanting.

Political system

The tribe adopts an egalitarian value system. No one claims a superior status, nor does the community allot a superior position to any one based on social, economic,cultural and literary criteria.

The tribal community administration is governed by a triumvirate, having a headman named Mootukaani, a secretary called Vizhikaani and a physician named Pilathi. The triumvirate administers the community in decision-making, judgement, punishment, celebrations, rituals and maintains the integrity and cohesion of the community. They solve their own problems, issues and disputes. They do not allow outsiders to interfere in their problem solving nor do they seek their aid. Major decisions are made at the community level.


Harvesting wild mushrooms

I respect the culture of the ‘kaani’ tribe. But at the same time I can see how modernization is affecting them. It is becoming difficult for them to continue their old ways of living. At one time, they lived undisturbed in the forests and had access to the abundant forest resources for food and sustenance. But things are changing now. Due to the rapid decline of the forests and wildlife in the region, there are now strict forest laws in place. Forest laws strictly ban extraction of rare forest produce. The tribals follow the law sincerely. This means they can no longer continue their old ways of hunting down wild animals. So I encourage them to look for alternatives. I introduced mushroom cultivation. Initially they did not agree to grow them because they thought it’s difficult to culitivate mushroom. They believed that mushroom grows only if lightning flashes on full moon or new moon days. When I cultured it in front of them, they were motivated to do the same.

At the same time, I do not wish to glamorise their life. There are now schools nearby but so far they kept away from formal education. I am trying to help them by removing their concerns about ‘education’. Since it is something they have not been exposed to before many have apprehensions about school. Many girls after attaining puberty are made to marry. I am encouraging them to study and delay the marriageable age. Breaking a community tradition is not easy. But through constant efforts, counseling, exposing them to educational institutions in towns, I am motivating them to look for better means of sustenance and a better quality of life. We explain how child marriage affects the health of the girls as well as the babies born to them. The efforts are slowly bearing fruit. One  success story is a girl who pursuing a college degree in botany.

The Kaani tribe is inevitably facing transition, in all aspects of life. The forces of globalization, free trade and the communication revolution have made indelible impacts in their lives. The impact is felt more severely in the younger generation which is not interested in their culture. Consequently, erosion and dilution of traditional ethics and values espoused by their ancestors is observed, and this is why documentation is so important. On the other hand, some influences from the external world can be beneficial to them. When the forces of change are inevitable, they can become better equipped to respond to them.


About the Author: 

S. Davidson, a student of English literature with a post graduate degree in Education is a man who wears many hats. He has a diploma in mass communication and now doing his MPhil in Folklore. Davidson is deeply passionate about the environment and environmental issues and is involved in a number of activities to create awareness among students, tribes, and the general public. For his work in the field of environment he was awarded the NCERT National Award, in 2000 for ‘Imparting Environmental Awareness by innovative teaching methods’.

He may be contacted at ssdavidson9[at]gmail.com or at 23 Cave Street, Nagercoil-629 001, Tamil Nadu, India




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Posted by on Sep 7 2011. Filed under Indigenous Communities, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

3 Comments for “Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Ethics : The Kaani Tribe in India”

  1. Thank you for a wonderful article.

    I would like to draw your attention to the following sentence:

    And this just what inspired S. Davidson Sargunam, an environmental educationist from South India to study the ‘Kaani Tribe’.

    Please exercise care in using the term ‘South India’, in this manner. It inadvertently conveys the sense of a different country like South Korea! We are not careful enough, but it can be used by interested parties to divide us, as they have done in the past.

    Thanks and regards.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dr Banerji. We’ve made the correction – it was only put there to show the geographical location of the Kaani people, which we have done in the next paragraph as Kerala, South India – for an audience which may not be familiar with India. However your point is noted and we’ve removed ‘south’ from the description of the author.

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