“Long before the development of modern science, which is quite young, indigenous peoples have developed their ways of knowing how to survive and also of ideas about meanings, purposes and values.” - Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous women are defined and recognized by their distinct customs, language, spiritual practices, customary laws and governing institutions; that is to say distinct from the mainstream, dominant cultures with recognition of collective rights as enshrined by the UNDRIP.
They are also distinct because of their attachment and dependence on their ancestral lands and territories for subsistence and guidance. The distinction is also based on indigenous women being practitioners and stewards of indigenous wisdom rooted in indigeneity that is a set of beliefs and practices that acknowledges the environment as having the presence of powerful presences that are deeply revered by indigenous communities. This, as opposed to an individualistic approach while treating the environment as an infinite source of natural resources placing humans on top of the hierarchy of all living beings and as an extractive and destructive force with zero accountability towards Mother Earth.
The recognition of indigenous women, therefore, must be widespread to understand their radical and healing presence in the context of climate change and climate justice. There is collective wellbeing in understanding their resilience and resourcefulness in their management of natural resources and indigenous traditional practices that have stood the test of time. They are the fount of ancient wisdom and practical magic. To ignore their contribution is to endanger ourselves, increasing our vulnerabilities to droughts, disease and pandemics.
So here are some stellar examples of how indigenous women’s interventions through the application of traditional knowledge has ensured measurable and sustainable impact on the ground in tackling clear and present global challenges:
Cambodia and Vietnam
“Women are the only ones who can find good drinking water, which is clean and safe to drink. Men only drink water, they know nothing about finding safe water, if left alone they will drink the water from the ponds! We learn from our mothers and grandmothers, and they learn from the ancestors. We decide if the water is good or not.”- Women’s group in Seang Say village, Ratnakiri, Cambodia
Indigenous women are responsible for water storage and collection for households and communities after identifying safe sources of water for consumption. The physical labour of collection and distribution is done with the esoteric knowledge of identifying safe drinkable water. In many indigenous communities in Cambodia and Vietnam, the quality of water fit for human consumption is done by taste, odour, and colour. Drinking water without the need to boil is obtained by digging in clay soil or by digging holes in sand along river banks which acts like a viable filtration system.
“When we were young, our parents would send us to live with our relatives, to learn about our traditional way of life and rotational agriculture system. Now that kids have to go to school outside of our village, we have to teach them about herbs, weeding, and rice planting during school holidays,” says Ms. Chankham Bongkotvijitrung, the knowledge holder of Lua Community.
Indigenous women are also mediums of transmission of indigenous knowledge. They are the glue that hold communities together with a wealth of farming methods and everyday phenomenal solutions. With increasing pressure on younger generations to adopt a so-called modern lifestyle, defined by their newly acquired aspirations through mainstream influences in order to access viable employment opportunities in urban areas, the planning, timing and location for teaching indigenous practices rests on the shoulders of indigenous women.
The Lua community in Mae Hong Song province in Northern Thailand is one such example where traditional practices are threatened by erasure with an increasing number of children from the community being sent away to study in schools in cities.
As a means of ensuring this wisdom is not lost in the sands of time, Lua women take their children to the rotational agriculture field in their free time or during school breaks so that they can acquire life skills and cultural traditions through apprenticeship learning thereby underlying the importance of preserving indigenous knowledge which ensures food security.
“One rice plant can feed one person. One rice plant can feed a whole family. And one rice plant can feed the whole world.”
A Lua Proverb
The Karen group’s Huay Ee Khang Village in Mae Win Sub-district of Mae Wang District in Chiangmai, Northern Thailand is an example of how the community thrives under the able leadership of its female village chief Noraeri Thungmueangthong, also a prominent leader of the Indigenous Women’s Network of Thailand (IWNT).
Indigenous women like Ms Thungmueangthong, can be attributed with a pragmatic vision that is organically socialist in its approach. A case in point is her initiative of creating a forest area for indigenous women. The idea being inspired by and based on the principle of the Pgakenyaw traditional classification of forest as Keu Neu, which categorizes two types of forest: Keu Neu Mue (hill evergreen forest or Women’s Forest), and Keu Neu Pha (rainforest or Men’s Forest). The creation of a dedicated forest area of sixty rai that is accessible to women and girls from her community has led to a remarkable preservation of indigenous species of plants and non-timber forest products like sappan wood which is used as a dye for clothing. The forest is now a stable source of herbal medicinal plants and fruits used in cooking and administered as medicines to all in the community.
“Corona could be treated with traditional medicine, for prevention I am not sure but our traditional natural food will help us to maintain immunity. About treatment, my view is that Corona is similar to patha bemar or an illness which is treated by traditional medicines. For example, though usage of tulasi, ginger, jhaten, gulchi, gol mirchhi etc.”- Joakim Kullu
In her research report titled, “Atmanirbhar Adivasis: Community Role in Prevention and Management of Covid Crisis: An Assessment of the Situation, Challenges and Good Practices”, researcher and journalist Alma Grace Barla highlights the role of indigenous women in providing strategic resilience during the COVID 19 pandemic through responsive techniques using indigenous know how.
Indigenous medical practices in India have been culturally appropriated by mainstream Hindu culture claiming it to be ayurveda, a form of alternative medicine that is branded as the traditional system of medicine of India which has received global recognition. The indigenous roots of this alternative system have largely gone unnoticed or have been deliberately diminished in popular narratives.
Many Adivasi or indigenous women in India are like Radha Kanta, a Bhil woman who is widely acknowledged as apothecary, healer and mid wife in her community. With forty years of practice in making medicines from herbs, roots and trees under her belt, Radha’s encyclopaedic knowledge has proved vital during the COVID 19 pandemic, when all age groups sought her treatments for COVID symptoms.
For indigenous women in India, the kitchen garden is both a source of food and pharmacy. It is common practice for Indian households to use plants such as Neem and Tulsi (holy basil) for the treatment of fevers, coughs, and colds. Bhui Neem is used to treat malaria, which allegedly boosts immunity which has become a buzzword in the context of pandemics.
In a quick response to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Barela adivasis from Central India, resorted to the traditional practice of creating sanitizers from the mahua flower. The mahua arkhi or alcohol distilled from the mahua flower has been a common practice in funerary rites since it is known for its sanitizing properties.
About the author: Nina Sangma is the Communications Programme Coordinator with Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact. She has been a radio, television and digital journalist and producer for over 17 years in mainstream Indian media conglomerates like The Times of India and India Today groups. One of the first indigenous journalists from the Garo indigenous community from North-East India, her focus now is to create active spaces for Indigenous Peoples in digital domains, where we can extend our advocacy and media campaigns, thereby attempting to narrow the digital divide that has excluded Indigenous Peoples from meaningful representation and participation.