Sowing Seeds, Supporting Women Farmers in India

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By: Katie Douglas, WEA Intern

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“Seeds have no caste, creed, religion, or gender. They are universal and secular. We nurture this sentiment strongly in our work with various communities,” says Manorama Joshi, a farmer in the Malnad region of Karnataka, India. A mother and wife, Manorama has also gone on to become the spirit of local women’s agriculture and a seed leader in her community.

Manorama is an integral member of Vanastree, a grassroots collective that works in Southern India at the intersections of gender disparity, traditional knowledge and sovereignty. Since 2013, WEA has collaborated with Vanastree to uplift women seed savers and small-scale forest home gardeners by helping them to organize meetings and festivals, collect and share knowledge on seed strengths and weaknesses, and carry out key community programs.

Through her work as a program coordinator and seed leader with Vanastree, Manorama helps to support this peaceful seed revolution to identify forest gardens as longstanding food repositories, to highlight traditional knowledge, and techniques of farming and gardening, and to empower the women who tend these places as influential agents for addressing food scarcity.

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In India today, although these women are the primary advocates, and cultivators of the forests their families have called home for generations, women have little say in policies that impact the land and forests, and which often result in the environmental degradation of their natural resources. In fact, women make up around 60%-80% of all India’s agricultural labor, and remain unrecognized as farmers, who are largely considered to be men with land titles. Women on the other hand, legally own less than 10% of the lands they work to cultivate and protect. Furthermore, of India’s natural resources, where the country once had 14.8 billion acres of land forested, by 2013 this had dwindled to 8.6 billion acres due to large-scale agriculture and land grazing for cattle. Due to this widespread deforestation, sustainable management such as seed saving and traditional food knowledge remains unrecognized. And such practices will only continue to be lost whilst mainstream agricultural practices of mono-cropping and chemical pesticides exacerbate issues of climate change.

And yet there is hope as women like Manorama and organizations like Vanastree work to preserve and promote the knowledge and culture of seed savers. Over the course of our collaboration, WEA and Vanastree’s partnership visited 120 small-scale women farmers and 15 seed groups in the region, ascertaining the community’s needs, and holding a communal space for the women to gather for monthly meetings. This was a time for them to exchange seeds and share skills, or find opportunities to teach courses in Organic Kitchen Gardens to rural youth. Manorama herself was responsible for organizing the area’s Tuber Festival, which supports the protection of forest home gardens, and educates on the importance of biodiversity in the name of food security.

Through this life-giving partnership, Manorama has been able to take seed knowledge and protect it’s future continuance. Today, she has more than carried out her family’s legacy, and is now referred to as “the backbone of the initiative… seek[ing] to overcome the invisibilisation of women in agriculture.” By planting her traditional wisdom throughout the community, Manorama can ensure her seedlings will be powerful enough to support both her people and her forests.

Building Solidarity Around Resource Management for Women

Project: South Asia Small Grants Initiative

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By: Katie Douglas, WEA Intern

For Nanu Ghatani of the Lalitpur District in Nepal, staying silent in the face of injustice and oppression was never an option.

Nanu’s strength, courage and determination was first tested when she moved villages to be married at the age of 14. She soon learned that she was not permitted to use produce in the forests surrounding her community. Nanu was told to remain silent and sneak the supplies she needed, but instead, she refused and organized an oppositional campaign. She then mounted campaigns against regional human trafficking, and though her husband threatened to leave her, Nanu again refused to back down. Said she of this time:

“I did not stop because I knew what I did was right.”

For Nanu, the next steps in her local movement came after she began attending trainings with the Himalayan Grassroots Women’s Natural Resource Management Association’s (HIMWANTI).

HIMWANTI is an organization that focuses its projects on the issues of gender justice, environmental protection, and land and resource rights. In partnership with WEA, the group is continuing its work to both develop the aptitude of local women leaders like Nanu in natural resource management and to document the success of women who have led community forest management practices.

While women are the primary providers for their families in Nepal, this also puts them at great risk to gender-based violence and harassment as they travel great distances from their homes in search of food and water. Nepal reported that nearly half of its country’s women had experienced gender based violence during their lifetime, and this dramatically increased for women in rural areas, and with lower caste or economic standing. And, as climate change makes basic natural resources scarcer, women are forced to travel to increasingly isolated and dangerous areas. With 75% of rural women engaged in agricultural production, the depletion and degradation of forest resources is felt deepest amongst them, especially because their share of earned incomes is 1/3rd that of men. Thanks to the efforts of women like Nanu, and the support of HIMWANTI-Nepal, there is change and progress on both these fronts.

Photo: HIMAWANTI
Nanu Ghatani, president of the HIMAWANTI-Kavre District Chapter, speaking during a training session. Photo: HIMAWANTI

By providing rural women with the opportunity to come together and build solidarity around natural resource management, access, and the equitable distribution of their benefits, HIMAWANTI and local female leaders are doing critical work to sustain community forestry. HIMAWANTI achieve their vision through district-wide events, conducting studies, policy reviews and gathering recommendations for a gendered analysis of rural women’s rights and natural resource management strategies. Today it is Nanu, and other inspired women leaders, who are able to bring forth the issues of the lack of female voice in local land decisions, the benefit of agricultural sharing, domestic violence, and how to create future opportunities of leadership roles for women in forest food sourced communities.

After her HIMWANTI training, Nanu conducted literacy campaigns in her region, advocated for her community’s access to free electricity, formed more than 20 women’s savings groups, and rose to president of HIMWANTI-Nepal’s Kavre District Chapter. Although she received little support from her family, Nanu persevered on to create a support system for the women of her community, and to become a central voice of female leadership and forest resource management.

There is hope for the future, and as Nanu says:

“Change is possible…if you don’t believe just take me as an example.”

When Weather Turns Unfavorable, Farmers Lose Hope

Project: Women and Food Learning Exchange in Northern India

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Tragic farmer suicides sweep India
Tragic farmer suicides sweep India

According to a report by Al Jazeera, “agricultural investment in India is a big gamble. Farmers usually take out bank loans against land to buy seeds and fertiliser, pay salaries, and acquire irrigation equipment.”

However, unforeseen and unwelcome weather patterns can strike at any time, and with less than 20% of Indian farmers insured, this can lead to disastrous results. And for many farmers, in the face of enormous debt, feeling like there’s no other way out.

The suicide rate among Indian farmers was 47 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2011 census. Forty-one farmers commit suicide every day, leaving behind scores of orphans and widows.

You can read more about this tragic epidemic here.

A Mother’s Day Call to Protect the Earth

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This Sunday is the day of the mother, the day we honor the source of life. As we give thanks for our very existence, for all the nurturing and resources our mothers provide for us so that we may grow and thrive, we also celebrate our shared mother—the Earth itself. Without her flowing waters, warm sun, rich soil and fresh air, even our most advanced technologies wouldn’t be able to sustain our collective life here. 

It feels like just yesterday that WEA’s Co-Directors, Melinda and Amira, were both becoming new mothers—and then mothers once more! But today, they each have two sons, all under the age of three, and it’s taken us just a moment to realize how quickly time has flown. 

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The women of RENAMITT. Photo by: Semillas, a partner of WEA

At its heart, our work here at WEA has always been about nurturing women at the grassrootshonoring and uplifting the work of women and community caregivers around the world who are mothering children and mothering movements. We do this because we recognize the undeniable connection between our experiences as women—as mothers—and the experiences of our first mother, our shared planet earth. 

Last week, WEA had the oppotunity to attend the Indigenous Birthways convening at  BirthKeepers Summit here in Berkeley, CA. There, we heard Mohawk elder and midwife, Katsi Cook, speak about these links, and her wisdom is reflected in her written work. “Women are the first environment,” she teaches. “We are privileged to be the doorway to life. At the breast of women, the generations are nourished and sustained. From the bodies of women flow the relationship of these generations both to society and to the natural world. In this way is the earth our mother, the old people said. In this way, we as women are the earth.” 

Our grassroots partners around the world remind us of the truth in these words. In India, the traditional knowledge women hold of seed saving, home gardens and climate adaptation help rural communities usher in locally-centered and sustainable futures. And in North America, young indigenous women leaders resisting environmental violence bear witness to the simple truth that everything connected to the land is connected to our bodies. 

These fierce women are birthing transformation, not only in their communities, but in the world. WEA is committed to standing alongside these leaders as they do the essential work of safeguarding our environment and generations to come. 

This Mother’s Day, please consider making a tax-deductible gift in honor of Mother Earth and the amazing mothers in your world. Your contribution will help us to continue supporting grassroots women today who are stepping forward to demand clean water and healthy food, protect sacred lands and traditional knowledge, resist dirty energy that harms our lands and bodies, and design sustainable solutions.

Most of all, we invite you to take a moment today to stand on the earth, give thanks for all that she provides, and make a commitment to protect her, for the sake of future generations and all life.

We wish you a peaceful Mother’s Day.

Women with Land Boost world Agriculture Output

Project: Grassroots Indian women leaders improving food and economic security

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A farmer carrying bundles of rice saplings through her farm in Khokana, Lalitpur, Nepal.  Source: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
A farmer carrying bundles of rice saplings through her farm in Khokana, Lalitpur, Nepal.
Source: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Researchers are concluding what many have known for a very long time. That women are central to the production of food across the globe, but receive drastically fewer resources than their male counterparts. In the developing world, women produce almost half of the food grown. But according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, they only receive 5% of all the agriculture services world-wide. Services like training, credit, marketing and research.

Of 143 countries surveyed by the World Bank earlier this year, 37 still have discriminatory land laws in place.

Changing this needs to “start with understanding that land rights are part of a cultural system, and that cultural systems also define gender roles,” Scalise said. “That link is critical.”

You can read the rest of the article here.