We are Responsible for Protecting Nature

Project: South Asia Small Grants Initiative

Topics: ,

By: Katie Douglas, WEA Intern

“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.

Sani Maya Bote. Photo: IWL-Nepal

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.

Training program for Bankariya women at Hadikhola Village Development Committee. Photo: IWL-Nepal

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.

Promoting Political, Social and Cultural Rights of Women to Uplift Sustainability

Project: South Asia Small Grants Initiative

Topics: ,

By: Katie Douglas, WEA Intern

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Aring Standing and her team members sharing the traditional shawl woven by the women Self-Help Groups. Photo: WSDC

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.

mushroom training
WEA and WSDC’s partnership supported 36 Farmers & 10 SHGs to receive training on mushroom cultivation. Photo: WSDC

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.

Recognizing and Uniting Women Leaders in Assam

Project: South Asia Small Grants Initiative

Topics: ,

By: Katie Douglas, WEA Intern

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.

WEA and PAD’s partnership supported a training on women’s leadership to build skills around environmental protection and climate change in Jorhat. Photo: People’s Action for Development

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.

Volunteer of WEA project receiving award
Sinumoni Bora, a volunteer with WEA and PAD’s project, receiving the C. Subramanium Award given by the National Foundation of India for her contributions as community leader. Photo: People’s Action for Development

Protecting Forest Livelihoods and Biodiversity in the Face of Climate Change

Project: South Asia Small Grants Initiative

Topics: ,

By: Katie Douglas, WEA Intern

“Each time I plant a tree I realize that I am not only contributing in a small way to sustain the livelihood of forest dependents like me, but also toward [addressing] global warming.”

After learning about the impacts of forest degradation, Sangpui committed to personally plant over 1,000 banana saplings. Photo: RWUS

In the northeastern state of Manipur, India, Sangpui is a mother of three, and raises her children on the little income she earns from growing vegetables, and selling forest food items to local markets. Though her actions may seem small, they are part of a larger and incredibly significant global movement. For her part in this movement Sangpui refuses to be a powerless victim of climate change, and instead has established herself as an active participant in sustainable change.

Sangpui’s determination to create change for herself and her community is reflected in her actions and her participation in the Rural Women Upliftment Society’s (RWUS) climate training. This partnership between RWUS and WEA supports the local women of Manipur by addressing issues of natural resource management, gender inequality, environmental degradation and climate change at local and policy levels.

RWUS tackles these issues with trainings that provide women with the resources to become voices of change and sustainable development within their communities. As massive developments and national deforestation programs challenge the wellbeing of Bangladesh’s lands and rivers, traditional female knowledge represents the key to climate mitigation and conservation.

Manipur is regarded as one of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the world, but in recent decades this beautiful land has experienced widespread deforestation with 38% of the state’s land seeing rapid forest cover change. This has resulted in agricultural challenges, and water and food insecurity. Severe droughts have led health officials to fear for increased levels of water-borne diseases as people increasingly drink from impure and contaminated water sources.

RWUS Thrasiami highlight photo2
Photo: RWUS

Sangpui and the other women of Manipur’s tribal communities represent the primary food providers, water collectors, and economic contributors. This means that these unsustainable developments have affected their lives the most. And without empowered female figures to raise these issues, either in their traditional societies or around government resource management, those with the most information to bring to the environmental discussion are left with no way to contribute their knowledge.

RWUS trainings are a critical element in tackling Manipur’s local issues of gender and environmental injustice. Through awareness-raising workshops on climate change and female leadership, grassroots environmental campaigning, and tree planting days, the women who were once vulnerable can take a proactive role in addressing issues of environmental degradation. As community leaders these women can work to improve the effectiveness of initiatives around climate change adaptation. Example workshops may focus on increasing awareness around forest biodiversity, sustainably managing natural resources and giving the women the capacity to address emerging issues of dams and mining. This provides the women with the critical opportunity to discuss how these destructive developments have impacted their Indigenous livelihoods, culture and general existence.

Focus Group Discussion during Impact Assessment
An RWUS orientation around impact assessment as part of a training program. Photo: RWUS

Today Sangpui continues to work on how to take personal responsibility in protecting her local environment. In fact, learning about the impacts of forest degradation led her to personally plant over 1,000 saplings. Just as in WEA’s vision, she is literally sowing her seeds of knowledge in the hope of creating for herself and her community a more sustainable future.

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.