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Gender, Environment, And Development: How Traditional Knowledge Of Adivasi Women Is Paving The Way

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

In 2014, UN Women reported that there is a disproportionate burden on women to provide water for their families. The article titled ‘Collecting and Carrying Water, Burdensome Reality for Women’ addressed the way this impacted women’s access to education and leisure as a big portion of their time is spent on fetching water. The article also highlights how women have traditionally been close to nature due to these activities expected of them. They have not only been responsible for collecting and carrying water from rivers, ponds, lakes, wells, etc., but have also been involved in collecting, gathering and selling forest produce. Women and the environment are intrinsically linked.

A scene from the Chipko movement. https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/chipko-andolan-was-the-strongest-movement-to-conserve-forests-india-needs-it-again-342183.html

Scholars like Warren (2000) claim that ‘nature is a feminist issue’ which has become an informal slogan of feminist environmental philosophy. One of the best examples in the Indian New Social Movements surrounding environment and gender, which depicts the closeness between women and their environment, is the Chipkoo Movement. In this movement, Adivasi women from Uttarakhand protested the felling of trees, by a private company to earn profits, by hugging the trees and protecting them with their lives. The protest highlighted the difference in perspectives between men and women. While men favoured the construction of roads for better connectivity to cities, where they regularly traveled in search of work, women were involved in collecting timber, fire wood, water, fruits, etc., from these forests for domestic consumption and commercial purposes. Hence, they were aware that their very survival depended on these forests.

Gaard and Gruen (2005), in their research vividly explain through data analysis how women are disproportionately affected by deforestation, water pollution and other environmental hazards. Furthermore, women from vulnerable sections of the society like tribal/Adivasi women are impacted by such events more. The work of Gaard and Gruen also quantifies the relationship between rural and indigenous women in Less Developed Countries (LDCs) and the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on them. Historically, in agricultural countries and regions like Ireland, India, South and South East Asia, women from marginalized backgrounds like the working and labour class, indigenous communities, religious minorities, etc., have been practicing agriculture. According to a report by Oxfamindia (2018), around 85% of women in India were engaged in farming and agriculture. A substantial number of these women belonged to rural and Adivasi backgrounds.


In this article, I would be focusing on the traditional knowledge of Adivasi women in India, aimed at conserving and protecting the environment. I would be looking at the definition of traditional knowledge, its link with Adivasi women, and the relevance of Adivasi traditional knowledge in safeguarding the environment.


What is traditional knowledge?

Traditional Knowledge (TK) signifies the indigenous knowledge system, with unique customs, traditions, practices, innovations, sense of communal living, peaceful coexistence with nature, etc of the indigenous communities that is important for the protection and conservation of forests, biodiversity and resources, along with sustainable development. It refers to age old knowledge about flora and fauna, their healing and medicinal properties, nutrient values, etc., along with methods and techniques to conserve and protect them. TK in all societies is passed from one generation to another through folktales, folk songs, accounts, stories, cultural practices, customary values, arts and poems. As such TK is a storehouse of alternative forms of knowledge that can help human beings in progressing towards a sustainable future. Indigenous populations around the globe have collected the wisdom of generations in their mythologies, folk tales, poems and songs, that point to a close relationship between them and nature where they realized that their survival is dependent upon nature and hence safeguarded it. Women played a vital role in this. Most folk songs and folk tales, carrying TK were sung and passed down by women from generation to generation.


Paradigm Shift in Agricultural Practices: How Traditional Knowledge of Adivasi Women Changed Cultivation Patterns to Safeguard the Environment:

Women produce around 60%-80% of the world's food in Least Developed Counties (LDCs). India, with its history of being a predominantly agriculturalist nation, witnesses a large portion of Adivasi women engaged in agriculture. It is imperative to note that TK plays a significant role in the agricultural practices of Adivasi women. The Bonda women of Orissa, have resorted to TK in their agricultural practices. “They do not use any chemicals to protect the crops. Bonda women allow birds and insects to prey on the other insects that can be harmful to the crops. They play a key role in seed identification, collection and storage. Bonda women ensure that the seeds are sun dried and preserved using organic means. This process involves protecting the seeds by covering them with bengunia and neem leaves. This is a natural way of seed preservation owing to the traditional knowledge among Bonda women” (Singhdeo 2022). They also began cultivating climate resilient native food like millets, which are high in nutritional value. Moreover, these are not like cash crops that are used to earn profits at the cost of the cultivators and which damage the soil quality permanently and are not used for domestic consumption. Millets and native food crops do not harm the soil and their nutrients remain intact for further cultivation. They conserve the surface soil and prevent erosion from mountainous regions. Bonda women also practice ‘Dangar Chas’, a method of shifting cultivation that enables the cultivation of varied crops without damaging the land or the soil. They do not cut down trees, especially fruit trees and medicinal plants. They collect firewood and timber from fallen, old and damaged trees.


Rai and Nath (2003), in their survey of the central Indian belt, inhabited by a substantial number of Adivasi communities, observed that Adivasi populations were engaged in conserving plants and trees through their religious beliefs and practices. Plants, trees and flowers were worshiped as goddesses and gods. Some of these included Mangifera indica Linn, Terminalia arjuna W &A, Citrus medica Linn, Ocium santum L, Nerium indicum Mill, Calotropis gigantean (L) R.Br, and Nelumbi nucifera Gaertn. Adivasi women played a vital role in practicing and carrying forward such methods of conservation. Varied plants, fruits, seeds, leaves, and other forest produce have been conserved by the Adivasis as rich sources of nutrients. Aegle Marmelos, Achyranthus Asper, Bahhinia vahlii, Curculigo Orchioides, Entada pursaetha, are some of the forest produce, conserved and consumed by the Adivasis in different forms. This knowledge has been passed down through generations of Adivasi women. Apart from these, Adivasi women have also conserved the knowledge on medicinal plants and flora used in treating insect bites, fractures, infections, etc. Bombax ceiba, Bauhina purpurea, Jatropha curcus, are some of the plants and herbs used for the above mentioned purposes. “The tribals do not perform complete felling of forest but they retain several useful species of horticultural and agricultural importance such as Mangifera indica (Mango), Citrus spps. (Orange), Musa spps. (Banana), Phyllanthus embilica (Goose berry), Zea mays (Maize) and Saccharum spps. (Sugarcane). Several useful plants like Ardisia polycephala, Ardisia cripsa, Casearia glomerata, Meliosma ipñata, Rhus spps and Phoenisx spp., are colonized at abandoned sites” (Rai and Nath 2003). A large portion of these practices are carried out by Adivasi women of Central, North-East and South India have all engaged in the above mentioned practices.


In the Kandhmal district of Orissa, the Kondha Adivasis were largely dependent on forest produce and hunting for their survival. The Kondha women are the breadwinners in these families that are currently moving towards settled agriculture. Nonetheless, they are neither recognized as farmers by the government nor by mainstream society. They have been recognized as ‘Change Agents’, by the United Nations. This is so because these women have changed their way of surviving and earning a living for their families. Instead of hunting for survival, they have resorted to the cultivation of millets, a native crop, helpful also to the health of soil, for earning a living.


Traditional Knowledge and Protection of Biodiversity: The Role of Adivasi Women in Understanding and Management of Resources, Forest Produce and Diversity:

According to Sarkar (2017), women in many societies, especially Adivasi societies, have been playing a ‘significant role in managing the diversity of eco system, as they are responsible for sustaining the livelihood of the family.’ “They used to develop multiple strategies for their farming system and most of these are based on a sophisticated management of genetic diversity.” (ibid). The author aimed at identifying the contribution of tribal (used interchangeably with Adivasi as most indigenous populations of north east prefer the term ‘tribal’) women in different states of the North East region to manage the diversity of the ecosystem.


Globally, it has been observed that most indigenous communities live in hostile conditions, with rich biodiversity and resources. TK ensures that this biodiversity remains intact and the indigenous communities preserve, protect and conserve natural resources. Women of these communities often take up these responsibilities as they look after the survival of their families. In India, there are over 68 million Adivasis who have descended from Negroid, Proto-Australoid, Mongoloid, Mediterranean or Dravidian, West Breachy and Nordic Aryan backgrounds (Ministry of Environment and Forest 1994). All these communities have a close relationship with nature and their environment.


The North Eastern part of India is rich in flora and fauna and the tribal women of this region are experts at preparing varieties of nutritious ethnic food from local soybean, bamboo shoots, lai patta etc. A study conducted by the Biotechnology department, Bodoland University, Assam, found that Bodo women conserve about 48 different plants to use (leaves, stems and tubers) for various purposes. “They use Bel leaves to worship lord Shiva. Erianthus spp (poaceae engkur) plant is used to construct their kuchha house.” (Sarker 2017). The relationship between women and conservation of biodiversity is founded on the TK of Adivasi women, which is passed down the chain of women in families.


The Adivasi women of Kodarapalli village, Orissa, have taken upon themselves to conserve biodiversity by protecting the forests. About ⅓ rd of Orissa’s forests and biodiversity is protected by the Adivasi women (Nitnaware 2021). Adivasi women here are engaged in a practice called ‘Thengapalli’, where 4-6 women patrol the boundaries of the forests in shifts. This tradition has been observed for five decades to prevent “outsiders” from exploiting forest resources. This was even before the Forest Rights Act, 2006, came into force. Gradually, this practice spread to other villages as well and currently around 135 villages practice the same custom. These Adivasi women have contributed to the rejuvenation of 500 acres of forest land.


Promila, an Adivasi woman from the Kodarapalli village explained that the practice started in the 1970s from Nayagarh district and slowly spread across the villages in other parts of the state (Nitnaware 2021). “The story in the community revolving about women’s involvement is that the men guarded the forest earlier. However, once a bullock cart was loaded with timber and was confiscated by the villagers. The women from the village seized the goods and brought the wrongdoers to justice by taking the thieves to the police station. Since then, women actively participated in the protection, and the incidents of timber theft reduced.” (ibid). Promila further explained that men would get involved in conflicts with smugglers or become way too lenient with them, because they do not understand the value of resources and biodiversity as we women do; for us justice is very important in the context of mother nature (ibid).

Women making bowls from leaves collected from the forest. Credit: Ashish Birulee

In Surguja district’s Lundra forest range of Chhattisgarh, a group of women have taken up the task of patrolling the forests to save trees from felling. “Around eight to ten groups of about 70 women from seven villages in Chhattisgarh stay connected via mobile phones and alert each other about any possible attempt to chop trees down” (Mishra 2020). This step was taken by the Adivasi women because they were adversely impacted by the thinning of the forest covers, leading to a loss of biodiversity, natural resources and forest produce like fruits, vegetables, medicinal herbs, etc. It would be safe to say that the efforts of these Adivasi women are starting to pay off as the sale of forest produce have increased, notwithstanding the lack of support from the forest department.


The Intrinsic Link Between Traditional Knowledge, Adivasi Women and Environmental Conservation: A Case of Jharkhand:

Adivasi women of Jharkhand possess a deep appreciation for the forests and the environment. This is so because of the economic control women have through forests and forest produce. Forest based gatherings have given the Adivasi women of Jharkhand, equal socio-economic status in their communities. Nonetheless, capitalism and neoliberalism have pushed these women out of forest lands, towards displacement and migration. In the name of ‘development’, through construction of roads and dams, these women have had to leave their habitats and thereby economic independence. Privatization has increased encroachment upon areas inhabited by Adivasi populations as they are rich in minerals and resources. Displacement has made Adivasi women more vulnerable because job opportunities offered after displacement are not inclusive towards them. In the aftermath of displacement and migration caused due to the construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam, displaced families were offered one job per house. These jobs were offered to men primarily, due to the conception of men being the breadwinners in mainstream family structures. As such the Adivasi women were left with no opportunities of economic independence, after their traditional means of survival and economic independence were snatched away.


The forest produce used by the Adivasi women of Jharkhand for personal consumption and commercial purposes include mahua flowers, tendu leaves, honey, beeswax, shikakai and turmeric. In the Sarkaghat region of Jharkhand, women march with sticks, bows and arrows towards the borders of the forests to protect them from encroachments and mafias. ‘Jungle Ki Sherni’, and her team have become the lone guardians of around 250 acres of forest lands in Jharkhand (Nitnaware 2022). These Adivasi women assert that ‘outsiders’ enter the forests in search of resources, but often exploit and over exploit them, which in turn harms the environment in which these women reside; moreover it harms nature in general. This is not acceptable to these Adivasi women, who for generations have depended upon these forests and forest produce for their survival. Jamuna, an Adivasi woman from Muturkham, a small village in the Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, has led the movement for the protection of trees and biodiversity in the region (S. Priya 2017). Jamuna Tudu has managed to gather a team of 60 women over the years, to protect their forests from mafias and poachers. They have been protecting 50 hectares of forest lands for 20 years.


Conclusion:

In contemporary discourse, ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ or TEK is a widely used term. It refers to a subset of indigenous knowledge system, ‘preserved through oral tradition and through cultural expressions such as arts, crafts, and ceremonies and the cultivation, collection, and preparation of traditional foods.’ (Finn, Herne, Castille 2017). According to Moller (2009) and Montag et al. (2014), TEK has been threatened by the loss of indigenous languages, the sole means of passing down TK and TEK through narratives, folk tales, folk songs etc. TEK is closely linked to Adivasi women in India. Women from Adivasi areas like Jharkhand, North Eastern regions, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and South India, have engaged in forest conservation and environmental protection with the help of their TEK. They have also provided models of sustainable development. For instance, as mentioned above, Adivasi women from Orissa have resorted to the cultivation of native crops like millets, which increases the soil life, prevents erosion, preserves soil on the top layers and maintains the nutrients of the soil, unlike cultivation of cash crops that harmed the environment and generated profits at the cost of nature and Adivasi populations, thereby providing a model for sustainable development. Adivasi women have also acquired knowledge surrounding food, medicinal plants and the like through the TEK. They have also learnt to protect biodiversity in order to maintain a healthy balance between nature, the provider and human beings, the consumers. Due to the TEK system, Adivasi women know the importance of forests and natural resources, on which our species are dependent for survival. Therefore, it can be stated that the TK and TEK of Adivasi women in India have been vital catalysts for the conservation and protection of the environment.

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