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Bringing women at the forefront of sustainable mountain ecosystems


The decade counting from the year 2021 up to the year 2030 is being focused by the United Nations as significant for the restoration of all types of ecosystems to address several issues confronting the world community, more perversely the climate issues.

 By Salam Rajesh

The year 2022 is expected to see activities focused on mountain ecosystems to address myriad issues connected to human life, the natural surroundings and all other life forms that thrive in the natural landscapes. These encompass a global effort in looking forward to a time zone when the blue planet will be relatively free from the stress on environmental degradation and degeneration that threatens climate catastrophe.

Deliberations on the topic are heating up with various research findings and general publications focused on the subject. As a part of this ongoing dialogue, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) discusses the role of women in sustainable mountain ecosystems through its publication ‘Critical approaches towards gender in mountain ecosystems’ (IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, 2021).

Bringing the gender profile at the forefront of the discussion, the IUCN CEM’s report says that, “Women are vital to environmental action in mountain ecosystems. Their contributions to resource management, biodiversity conservation, water and food security cannot be stressed enough. On average, women in mountainous communities are more likely to engage in agricultural activities than their male counterparts. Similarly, they are more likely to stay behind as men migrate to urban centres. Since women are at the forefront of mountain ecosystems, they are also more sensitive to environmental change and degradation”.

The IUCN gender profile talks generally of women all over the world who live and thrive in mountain ecosystems, linking their lives to the natural surroundings for all of their needs. This is particularly relevant for the people in the mountainous region that geographically is termed as the ‘Northeast’. The eight sister States in the region are typically mountainous by nature and the people are adapted to living in rough and tough mountain landscape.

In Manipur, lifestyle is adapted to two domineering landscapes: floodplain and mountain ecosystem. A rough area of around ninety percent of the State is mountainous and is inhabited by different ethnic communities, quite distinguished from one another by their differing lifestyle, food habits, dress and custom, and belief system. The common thing is that they all have to adjust themselves to a lifestyle that is tough and rough by nature.

In this setting is the role of women in providing for the family and working in the agricultural fields for almost the entire period of the year coping with the different seasonal activities. So much so as the IUCN CEM report details, the multiple role of the women here in the State is definitely defined by their ability to harness the resources of nature for their living and sustenance.

In the midst of this hard-profiling conversation on gender is the emerging fact, as the key message in the IUCN report puts it, that, “Women play a key role in nature conservation, yet they often lack the inputs, technologies, training and extension services, and various enablers and linkages that can enhance the effectiveness of their efforts. They rarely formally participate in shaping conservation policies or programs”.

The core of the discussion comes to the fact finding conclusion that women in general hardly find space in the decision making process in most instances. As is in the Indian system typically, the predominance of the male in decision making process is too evident. The women are usually relegated to the second layer of community affairs, often not given the opportunity to have their say in the decision making process.

Male chauvinism is all too evident in almost all forums beginning from the village structure to the highest forum at State level. This writer has been witnessed to several processes at the village structure where the women are there only in namesake, hardly asked for their opinion nor providing space for them to have their say. The little amount of female voice that comes up, too, is subdued by the ultimate decision that is dominated by the male voice. This is then the tragedy when the women are actually co-partners in providing for the family and in managing their agricultural fields and also shouldering equal responsibility in many activities including forest resource management and protection.

The decade counting from the year 2021 up to the year 2030 is being focused by the United Nations as significant for the restoration of all types of ecosystems to address several issues confronting the world community, more perversely the climate issues. There is no differentiation between male and female when it comes to collective effort at global ecosystem restoration. Everyone is a co-partner in this immense task.

The Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF, 2018) states that, “Across the 149 countries studied, no country has yet achieved full gender parity. Moreover, gender disparities are one of the key barriers to economic growth and poverty reduction”.

The truth is seen evidently on ground as and when dealing with decisions to be taken at the community level. More often than not, the decisions taken are male-opinion driven with less of time and space given to women to voice their concerns. This writer has been party to several community level interactions where for the better duration the discussions are led by the male voice without prioritizing women and children’s needs and concerns.

The IUCN study seeks to understand the level of community-led initiatives where women are the driving force. In South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and in Africa, as is true of in many other smaller nations, women are now seen taking proactive role in conservation and management of different ecosystems ranging from forests to mangroves, wetlands and mountain ecosystems.

Citing multitudes of good examples across the world where women are in the forefront of community-led initiatives in conservation, the IUCN CEM report is specific on the positivity of gender involvement in sustainable mountain ecosystems. The report says, “Notwithstanding the continued challenges of high out-migration rates and policy neglect, the women’s solutions demonstrate effectiveness in enhancing the resilience of the target community and empowering women to lead nature conservation initiatives in the region”.

Peter R.W.Gerritsen writing for the IUCN CEM report says, “Poverty remains an outstanding concern. Global biodiversity loss is another major challenge that humanity faces. The loss of plant and animal species is rising at an unprecedented rate. Both challenges, poverty and biodiversity depletion, appear as interrelated in mountainous environments, which are often inhabited by structurally disempowered and marginalized indigenous peoples”.

Peter’s observation cannot be better placed in a setting like the ‘Northeast’ where for the better part of their lives, mountain communities have to struggle much to achieve food and water security. Depletion of forests and a corresponding loss of water sources is a process that adds to the burden of mountain communities. It, therefore, necessitates prioritizing strategies for intensive ecosystem restoration to address multiple issues of which food and water securities are dire necessities. Policy planners need to lend an ear on this with due earnest.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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