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Stewards of Food Culture and Biodiversity: Voices from the Northeast

Project: South Asia Small Grants Initiative

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In her piece for Vikalp Sangam, Rucha Chitnis shines her light on the challenges faced by communities in Northeast India to preserve the region’s rich agrobiodiversity and food culture.

“A journey on a food trail in the region [also] reveals a rich agrobiodiversity and a unique food culture that has been stewarded by local communities–from the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam to remote mountainous tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. In the face of modernization, mining, oil exploration and escalating deforestation, both, the biodiversity of species and food crops, including wild edibles, are threatened.”

As Rucha explains, since forests are a vital source of food and indigenous crops, new economic policies supporting large infrastructure projects in the area could pose a direct threat to small scale farmers.

The article uplifts the voices of four activists and advocates working for ecological justice in their communities of Northeast India. Their work takes different angles but it is no coincidence that each is concerned with empowering women to raise their voices and be recognized as key players in ecological justice. We are especially excited to hear from Mary Beth Sanate of Rural Women’s Upliftment Society (RWUS). RWUS works to promote sustainable livelihoods in the face of conflict and climate change, and was a WEA South Asia Small Grants Initiative partner. Mary Beth and RWUS’s work advocating policy and social change on behalf of women’s rights continues to be an inspiration to us!

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Mary Beth Sanate of RWUS (third from right). Photo: Rucha Chitnis.

“We need a strong gender policy in the state and women’s participation in the development of climate change policies is key…women are slowly realizing that the customary law is discriminatory. It needs to be reformed so that women can have equal access to property, political participation and other resources.” — Mary Beth Sanate

Read the full article here.

President Barack Obama Says, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like”

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In June, WEA was honored to have our Leadership Board Member Pandora Thomas represent us at the #StateofWomen Summit in Washington, D.C., bringing our (and your!) voice to this historic gathering.

During the summit, President Obama made his now-famous declaration that, “I may have a few more grey hairs than I did 7 years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like.” Now, in an exclusive piece written for Glamour, he expands on that statement, diving into being a feminist, a father, and the President of the United States — and how it’s all interconnected.

Credit: Glamour
Credit: Glamour

The progress we’ve made in the past 100 years, 50 years, and, yes, even the past eight years has made life significantly better for my daughters than it was for my grandmothers. And I say that not just as President but also as a feminist…

So we shouldn’t downplay how far we’ve come. That would do a disservice to all those who spent their lives fighting for justice. At the same time, there’s still a lot of work we need to do to improve the prospects of women and girls here and around the world. And while I’ll keep working on good policies—from equal pay for equal work to protecting reproductive rights—there are some changes that have nothing to do with passing new laws.

In fact, the most important change may be the toughest of all—and that’s changing ourselves.

Read the full article here.

Malnad Mela — A celebration of Seeds

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In an event hall in the small village of Sirsi, on the edge of the Western Ghats in the Indian state of Karnataka, more than a hundred women gather to participate in the Malnad Mela, a decade-old festival organized by Vanastree, a seed saving collective of women farmers. These participants, as well as the 800 or more community members who visit throughout the day, have traveled long distances to be there despite a week of heavy monsoon rains and winds, uprooted trees, and power outages.

Arriving at the festival, there’s a noticeable buzz in the air. Members are selling and exchange organic, local seeds along with other products ranging from “aromatic herbal hair oil and recycled-fabric patchwork bags to local snacks and spices.” It is also an environment of participation and conversation, where critical issues are raised and discussed.

Sunita Rao— seed saver, farmer and founder of Vanastree — believes that the mela is a critical opportunity to bring women home gardeners and farmers together to exchange skills, share and sell produce, and discuss solutions and adaptations to the growing threat climate change presents to the region.

The Malnad region of the Western Ghats is an area rich in biodiversity that has sustained their communities for centuries. However, the changing climate has rendered the monsoons — one of the area’s most essential ecological events — both unreliable and unpredictable. Rainfall patterns have drastically changed. Deforestation has increased.  Soil degradation has worsened. And women farmers are bearing much of the resulting burden.

The Malnad Mela is an opportunity for these women to share traditional ecological knowledge about saving flood-resistant indigenous seeds, promote tuber cultivation as a solution to climate-induced food insecurity, engage a larger market to sell produce, and take part in leadership skills-building with other local women leaders. Each of these goals is a strategic action Sunita Rao, Vanastree, and the women of the Malnad take to face the persistent and dangerous effects of climate change.

The Festival is also an important way for the Malnad community to appreciate their biocultural wealth, as well as the tremendous role of women as stewards of biodiversity conservation.

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Angella and Martha Win an Award and Buy a Brick Machine!

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Martha
Martha

Angella and Martha have two big reasons to celebrate and are one step closer to reaching their goal of providing their community with access to water!  First, they were able to raise funds from their local supporters and community members to buy an ISSB brick-making machine to build strong water tanks and rainwater harvesting systems! At the cost of approximately $1500 which is quite an accomplishment!  And second, they won the Best Booth at the Moyo District Women’s Day Celebration!

Angella
Angella

Angella and Martha are from Marindi in Northern Uganda, a region that has been plagued with conflict for decades. Both are retired nurses and have been working tirelessly as facilitators and volunteers to improve community health for the most vulnerable people in their communities – women, orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA).  Angella and Martha came to the Global Women’s Water Intiative through Patricia Eiyo-Elotu of the UN-World Food Programme. Patricia not only nominated the team, she also led the Climate Change workshop at the GWWI Women and Water Training held in Kamapala last July 2011.

Angella and Martha learned how to build a variety of different rainwater harvesting systems including capturing water from thatched roofs, ferro cement tank construction and how to repair and clean gutters.  On a field trip to Connect Africa, they saw the ISSB tank and new that this technology was the best option for their community situation. The ISSB (interlocking stabilized soil block) machine makes a special kind of brick that is composed simply of marram (earthen clay), sand, a little cement and water.  Because the blocks interlock, the structure is much more stable and requires less cement to bond them together. They went straight home, mobilized their community and built a rainwater harvesting tank for a local school!
Patricia
Patricia

At Moyo District’s Woman’s Day Celebration they offered a workshop that was attended by the Chairman of the District Council. They made bricks with the ISSB machine, promoted the bricks and offered a demo of the Biosand Filter! Angella and Martha are no stranger to recognition as they have won the Home and Environment Competition for three consecutive years! They have strong relationships with the community and its leaders and because of their transparency, they have developed a deep trust that will ensure that this program will succeed.

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