At the end of January 2016, WEA’s Planting Seeds of Resilience Project partner Vanastree organized their 9th Malnad Mela. The Mela — featured in the Times of India — provides an opportunity for Sirsi women to showcase their seeds, soil, tubers, cotton, clothing, and food, increasing their recognition, honoring their knowledge, and providing and opportunity to learn more.
At this year’s event, the women farmers were especially able to increase awareness on the usefulness of tubers — a climate sustainable crop — and how to grow them, displaying seven varieties throughout the event.
“Women in the agriculture sector are not recognized anywhere. They play a vital role in handling all the aspects of agriculture in rural areas. Through Vanastree, we are trying to provide a platform to the women of Sirsi.”
–Sunita Rao, Founder of Vanastree
Read more about the event here, and experience last year’s Mela here.
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.
“Laudato Si” or “Praised Be to You”, Pope Francis’ recently released environmental encyclical, details how the collective actions of people are responsible for the irreversible degradation of our Earth. Subtitled “Care for Our Common Home”, the encyclical speaks boldly to the need for change to the structural injustices that drive environmental devastation. However, as the many years of WEA’s work has shown us, the Pope fails to identify one of the most prevalent social injustices that directly links to climate change: gender inequality. The question we—as women, as allies, as actors in our global community—are left with, then, is: how can humanity care for the planet while half of our population continues to fight for an equal position in ‘our common home’?
In general, the encyclical takes an important stance as it calls for people to accept our role in and impact on the degradation of the Earth. This has been the most controversial point of the statement across religious and political spheres, with Pope Francis calling out the unrestricted rights of human “dominion”. He states that being created in God’s image does not give humanity justification for the domination of other beings, and such “dominion theory” has only encouraged the destructive exploitation of the natural world. Our greed, he says, has led to an alteration of the Earth’s natural cycles, resources and productive capabilities. To find solutions, Pope Francis stresses the need to bring impoverished and Indigenous voices to the center of environmental discussions. This is a critical steps since, as we have learned from our partners, these communities already face the damaging impacts of climate change in acute ways, even though they’re often not the drivers of this destruction.
What this landmark statement doesn’t do is highlight the fact that even within these communities, women are typically those most disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation due to their roles as mothers, food providers, and community caretakers. However, despite this overall lack attention paid to gender issues and impacts, the Pope does acknowledge that, “This sister [Mother Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse…. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” As we read this, we are reminded of the direct link between the body of the Earth and our bodies as women. The violence to Mother Earth that Pope Francis talks about is seen reflected in the violence experienced by women through climate change, pollution and natural resource development. At WEA, this is one of many reasons we are committed to supporting grassroots women around the world who intimately understand the interconnectedness of our place in this world as both women and stewards of the Earth, who draw strength and wisdom from our relationship with Mother Earth, and who are stepping forward and leading our communities toward a future where we co-exist in equality with one another, and in reverence of the Earth.
Gender equality must become recognized as a central point to the environmental movement, especially in a world where women living in poverty are the demographic most affected by the effects of our actions. While we applaud Pope Francis for taking this important first step in directing humanity’s attention to our historically negative impact on the environment, and for boldly calling for change where it is so very necessary, we stand firm in the knowledge that respect for our Earth and respect for women are undeniably linked. We must understand this simple truth: we cannot have one without the other.
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.
At its heart, our work here at WEA has always been about nurturing women at the grassroots—honoring 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 Earthand 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.
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.