For many women, biodiversity is the cornerstone of their work, their belief systems and their basic survival. Apart from the ecological services that biodiversity provides, there is the collection and use of natural resources. For indigenous and local communities in particular, direct links with the land are fundamental
The United Nations Environmental Programme, has a series of chapters, or in-depth articles about women and their relationships with various aspects of nature. One of those chapters touches on Biodiversity, land protection and sustainable development. Aside from the ability to provide food, shelter, and resources for their survival, biodiversity in any given area has a profound impact on the inhabitants of said area. Loss of overall diversity can be devastating. Biodiversity allows women the world over to sustain their livelihoods, bring themselves up from poverty and empower their children to follow in their footsteps.
In the northeastern mountain state of Meghalaya, is the Khasi tribe, a matrilineal people, where the women own the land, and harvest numerous crops from their fields. Indeed, women are quick to note that by farming in the modern, monoculture way is ineffective, instead create jhum fields, following an ancient shifting cultivation method. Karamela Khonglam grows 35 different crops on her land. A diverse crop of foods leads to overall health and in this way, knowledge of different ancient grains and ways are passed down, generation after generation.
Indigenous women are also holders of traditional knowledge that enables them to gather medicinal plants and wild edibles in the surrounding forests, and gives them deep understanding of the ecology
That is not to say the Khasi aren’t facing problems. Today’s rice monoculture is encroaching ever closer to Khasi land, as is the market economy. You can read more about the Khasi people, the food festival hosted by Meghalaya and see the beautiful photo essay by Rucha Chitnis here.
“We Indigenous peoples of this village never thought that protecting natural resources was our responsibility. Now, we know we are responsible for protecting nature.”
These are the powerful words of Sani Maya Bote, a farmer and mother from Manahari Village in Kathmandu, Nepal. As a child, Sani remembers the great prosperity of her community, who derived their success from the plentiful resources of local land, forests, jungle, and rivers. By the age of 17 Sani was married, and by 38 was caring for a 7-person household. Sani’s ability to provide for her family deteriorated as the local forests and rivers were seized and designated as national parks and protected areas, essentially eliminating the traditional food-ways of Sani’s Indigenous peoples. Additional stressors of climate change and development have wiped out much of the traditional biodiversity in the area, and Sani’s community now faces severe economic and food insecurity. When Sani heard of IWL Nepal training women to heighten their awareness of local biodiversity, climate change, and issues of food security, she jumped at the chance to have a say in her community’s future sustainability.
The National Indigenous Women’s Federation (NIWF)’s Indigenous Women’s League of Nepal (IWL – Nepal) formed a partnership with WEA in the interest addressing the issues of land, resource, and indigenous rights, and gender injustice in Nepal, especially as they are exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Through advocacy trainings, IWL – Nepal provided indigenous women with the resources to utilize their traditional skills and protect the future of their land.
Large-scale resource extraction by the Nepalese government and multi-national corporations has severely threatened the forests and rivers of indigenous communities. Although deforestation has slowed since the 1990’s boom, forestry contributes to 15% of the country’s total GDP. Such deforestation has translated to an infertility of the soil, loss of endemic biodiversity, and a disproportionate effect on the livelihoods of women. Women depend heavily upon these natural resources for survival, and as resources become scarce they must walk farther and farther to collect fodder and fuel. There is little profit from such foraging, and in many markets a backload of wood is barely the equivalent of two days wages.
In order to change this reality, IWL – Nepal’s work focuses on capacity building efforts. This means providing Indigenous women with opportunities to learn about climate adaptation and mitigation, and how to handle the discriminatory laws related natural resources that affect them so deeply. These trainings promote the traditional skills and knowledge these women already posses and offer them a space for discussion in the interest of advocating for their issues with local governmental authorities, political leaders and other Indigenous women to raise awareness of their concerns around land and biodiversity management.
Through IWL – Nepal, Sani began growing her leadership skills, and learned how to make compost for sale at the local markets. Now a master composter, today she teaches her techniques to other Indigenous women, which allows them benefit from the additional income. Sani would like to one day purchase land to plant wild fruit and an organic vegetable garden, and fully intends to continue educating herself around the environmental issues her community is facing. It is through women leaders like Sani that IWL-Nepal and WEA see the hope for the indigenous communities of Nepal to develop sustainable solutions in the face of climate change.
When Aring Rengsoring joined the WSDC training program in her village of Aimol Chingnunghut, she was already skilled in farming, weaving, and domestic work. Participating in the WSDC program allowed her to not only pass on these talents to others, but to strengthen her leadership abilities. It was leadership training that gave her the opportunity to challenge her community’s strict and discriminatory patriarchal structure. Aring was already a woman of many skills, but training from the partnership of WSDC and WEA gave her the resources to assert herself as an activist advocating for the rights of women in her community.
Gender justice, food sovereignty, and the right to just livelihoods are the issues that WSDC aims to conquer by leading educational trainings that teach women about their basic community rights to lead in their communities and government. When women are trained in peace and conflict resolution and sustainable livelihoods, they are better equipped to handle the amounts of violence, and food scarcity that have increased in the Chandel district due to climate change.
Although women have long been disregarded as “second-class citizens” in certain regions, this has not stopped the women of Manipur from rising forward to assert their rights throughout history. In 1939 women led a series of social movements known as the Nupi lan, or the “women’s war”, to protest British free trade laws that facilitated food shortages in their communities. However, today new issues have presented themselves in the form of dam construction, foreign farming practices, and the onslaught of climate change. Women’s rights are stressed by these newly introduced practices, which have forced the abandonment of traditional resource management and farming practices. In many communities women like Aring have no control over their earnings or land ownership, and many lack economic security because there is so little access to quality education or other skills training. As the women’s ability to provide for their family becomes increasingly limited, communities see consequential rises in sexual and economic exploitation, and violence that targets rural women.
To promote political, social and cultural rights is crucial for sustainable development and fundamental to the success of WSDC vision. WSDC creates opportunities for women to voice their concerns, and form women’s groups for collective training in advocacy and lobbying around the laws that directly affect their rights, and livelihoods. Through WSDC hundreds of women farmers are supplied with the resources for sustainable farming practices such as organic seeds and fertilizers, and training in organic crop management.
WSDC also assists over 300 impoverished families by informing them of their entitlements to government ration programs, and supports women’s groups on their efforts to change laws that sustain discriminatory practices of violence against women.
After Aring’s WSDC training, she formed the Peace Self-Help Group (Peace SHG). This group of 12 women advocates for the concerns of women at the village government level. The work of Aring and the other women activists of Peace SHG has touched her entire community from helping families to access once restricted ration cards to creating a traditional weaving center where all profits earned provide micro credits to women farmers. Today Aring is an inspirational activist in her community who has furthered her WSDC training by spreading her knowledge and advocacy work to benefit the lives of her entire village.
All her life Sinumoni Bora has been an advocate on behalf of women’s rights. Sinumoni was born to an impoverished tribal family in the city of Jorhat, India. From an early age she was supporting her family and tutoring other youth. By the time she was an adult, Sinumoni had already established herself in a variety of grassroots women’s committees, going on to create a women’s self-help group to tutor rural women in literacy and train them to cultivate sustainable sources of income. Sinumoni additionally became an advocate on violence against women, leading campaigns for justice for women who had been murdered or sexually assaulted. As a volunteer for People’s Action for Development, Sinumoni is an inspirational and exemplary figure of empowerment within a project that aims to train female leaders from the Assam region to speak on the impacts of climate change, development, and gender inequality in their lives.
People’s Action for Development (PAD) deals primarily with the issues of gender justice, indigenous rights, land rights and climate change. With the support of WEA, PAD has played a critical role within the Assam region by addressing these issues through the identification of local women leaders and young girls to take part in leadership trainings. In a society where women often find themselves confined within strict patriarchal systems, there is little room to express their needs or voice their solutions to the increasing issues of climate change, development, and threats to indigenous traditional livelihoods.
Newly developed extractive industry policies in the Assam region have resulted in widespread and illegal mining, deforestation, water contamination, loss of agricultural lands, mega dam construction, and the subsequent increase in climate change-related issues. The northeastern region of India, in which Assam is located, is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, and maintains nearly 44% of the country’s forest. Yet from 2001 to 2012 approximately 548,440 hectares of the forest were cleared. The impacts of such massive deforestation have been felt in particular by women as they lose further control over their traditional sources of livelihood, are being displaced by new populations, and levels of poverty and sexual or economic exploitation rise. The only way to change such vulnerability is to give these women the resources from which they can make their voices heard.
PAD’s top priority is to develop women’s leadership in order for them to hold positions at the forefronts of social and political movements. For this to happen, local women leaders from the Assam region take part in leadership trainings, and gather to discuss the impacts of development projects, and environmental degradation in the lives of women in their communities. From this these grassroots women activists are able to unite in recognizing the ways in which they are discriminated against and their voices disregarded. In many cases these meetings represent the first time these women have been able to leave their communities and gather with other women in the interest of opening their minds on new ways to critically address climate change and gender injustice.
As a volunteer for PAD, Sinumoni works to help these women organize and to understand their own potential as community leaders. For her work volunteering with PAD and other organizations she was awarded the C. Subramanian Award by the National Foundation of India, an award that given to volunteers and community leaders working tirelessly to promote volunteer efforts in food security and sustainable livelihoods. Her leadership is an inspiration to women across the globe and a lesson in how the vision of female leadership can help a community to thrive.
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