03 October 2014

Women, Environment, and Sustainable Development

A Study of Women among Sumi Community of Nagaland - Page 1                 
Junior Research Fellow,  Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, India

Journal Cover Page

Women have been participatory stalwart of conservation for centuries without much recognition and appreciation in natural resources and environmental management. They are known to exist in close proximity with nature and possess inherent indigenous knowledge about the earth systems thereby contributing to the sustainable management of the resources, yet they continue to suffer the brunt of environment degradation at the expense of Gender disparity. Had they been given equal opportunity and control over the natural resources the world would have achieve greater if not, complete sustainable development.

In this milieu, the present work seeks to explore the role and contribution of women in sustainable development within the patriarchal framework. Are women the key to Sustainable Development? What are the contributions of women in the environmental management? What are those Gender constraints that hamper the process of Sustainable Development? Or is Gender parity the “missing link” of Sustainable Development? An attempt is therefore made in the present work to unearth these queries based on the qualitative research study conducted among women engaged in Organic farming, Vermiculture/Vermicompost, and Indigenous based Knowledge Systems in Agriculture.

Key words: Sustainable Development, Gender Disparity, Environment, Organic Farming, Indigenous Knowledge

In a traditional set-up of Sumi tribal community, land is an important source of income and means of livelihood for the rural poor. The natural resource base is very crucial to their existence because every activity for their growth and survival is directly related to the forest and forest land in terms of food 
security, fuel, fodder, water security, medicines, etc. With agriculture and animal husbandry as the main stay of more than half of the tribal population in the rural villages, any imbalances in the environment hamper their overall economy affecting women the most in the process due to sexual division of labor.

    Traditionally the local practice a form of subsistence agriculture, slash and burn also called jhum cultivation or shifting cultivation in which the farmer slash, burn, cleared the land and cultivate it for about 2 years until the soil loses its fertility and then they move on to next patch of land and continues the same process. This takes about 15 to 20 years for the soil to retain its moisture and fertility after which they come back to cultivate on the same plot of land and utilized the regained nutrients before leaving it barren for the next cycle.

   However, this practice became unsustainable in the face of rapid land degradation, deforestation, population pressures, food demand, and development programmes at the expense of  modernization and global forces. As a result, the gap of years for soil fertility enhancement was cut down at a high rate from 15-20 down to 5-7 years in an attempt to meet their subsistence needs. Organic farming was by default in the context of traditional agriculture of the local people, life was simple with no menace of health complications, people eat healthy, deriving their vital supplement of nutrients from the forest judiciously in their harmonious co-existence with the nature. But increased use of artificial fertilizers and chemicals reached the remote corner of the rural location brought about by the global market and forces to combat the invading problems of land degradation and food demand. Local believes increasing cases of still-born or abnormalities in new born children to be the outcome of chemicals in the food crops coupled with the incoming elements of the global market bringing health complications in their trouble-free existence long time ago. They also recount of the past glories when modern medical conditions and health complications were unknown or scarce at the expense of their living standard, which was simple, natural and healthy. 

 In this milieu, there was a great urgency to adopt innovative and sustainable technique of cultivation to combat the increasing environmental issues, health complications, livelihood management, and quality of life in the face of rapid growth and development. The question arises as, what could be the new innovative techniques in agriculture that would produce not only quality food crops but also contribute to the sustainable management of the natural resources? And who could devote earnestly for nurturing the natural resources and promoting the sustainability of the given environment? Modern organic farming incorporation with the local indigenous knowledge of women emerged as the new ecological paradigm and sustainable strategy to combat against contemporary 
issues of the environment and natural resources. 

The present paper therefore seeks to explore and address the relation of gender in the context of environment and natural resource management from an ecofeminist perspective. Ecofeminism as an activist and academic movement sees critical connection between the domination of  nature/ environment and the exploitation of women in different context of the world. Women all over the world engaged in environmental movement in different contexts dedicated to the continuation of life on Earth. A range of ideas on their interconnectedness have been explored within ecofeminist 
framework, but for the present paper three central connection to the theory is derived to understand the co-relation of women and environment of the field area;

Conceptual or cultural/symbolic connection: This connection is articulated in several ways and represents ideas of the world in dualistic structure as such women are identified with feminity, body, earth, sexuality and men with masculinity, mind, spirit, power. Therefore dualism such as mind/power, reason/emotion, culture/nature, heaven/earth, men/women converges which implies that men have innate power and control over both nature and women. These ideas are perpetuated by religion, philosophy, culture, networks and constructions. In the present paper, focus is made on cultural elements as such patriarchal tradition that results in domination of women.

Empirical claim: This claims that in most parts of the world environmental problems disproportionately affect women the most. The increased burdens may not result from environmental deterioration per se, but from a sexual division of labor that considers family sustenance to be women’s work such as food security, fuel, fodder, water security, hygiene and so on.

Epistemological claim: the fact that women are disproportionately affected by environmental problems establishes an innate connection between women and nature which makes them better qualified as experts on such situations. It also places them in an epistemological privilege to 
develop inherent knowledge about the earth systems and assist them in bringing about new ecological paradigm.

Universe of study 

The study was conducted among the Sumi women of Khukiye-Lukhai village 6-7 km away from its adminsitration block, Satakha under Zunheboto district, Nagaland, North-East India. The village has its own tribal council of governance and autonomy which at present, is witnessing development with the formation of village development board (VDB) in 1981. It has a population of about 1200 (approx) with the population of females relatively higher than the male population. The 
topography of the village is hilly landscape with lush green forest, swift flowing streams abounding with diverse range of flora and fauna. With its moderate weather conditions throughout the year it sustains the village with their mainstay as agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry and other 
subsistence activities. Although the mainstay of the village is agro-pastoralistm yet many modern amenities like highway road, solar cells, internet connection, cars, luxury goods, machinery, and so on covers the remote corner of the village betraying the picture of the rural economy and location.


The data for the present study was collected by conducting fullfledged  anthropological  fieldwork  for  2  months  using participant  and  non  participant  observation,  village  survey, census,   genealogy,  case  studies,  narratives,  focus  group discussion,  semi  structured  interviews,  informal  conversation, etc.  Grounded  theory  was  followed  up  in  which  the  data collection was carried out till it reaches the saturation point to validate  the  information.  Interview  guide  was  employed  in which  board  themes  and  dimensions  were  constructed  to  lead the  conversation.  A  total  of  about  80  (approx)  women,  both married  or  unmarried  were  interviewed  using  different 
methods of data collection engaged. Focus was given on women engaged in Organic farming. Cross Gender views was taken to crosscheck information. 

Monthly  journals,  informative  journals,  newspaper,electronic  media  like  television,  online  journals,  and  scholarly literatures  were  referred  to  gain  insights  into  the  situations and  enrich  with  the  ongoing  problems  and  issues  relevant  tothe present work.

Locating Women’s lives within Patriarchal Framework 

Tied  down  in  patriarchal  system,  women  have  certain limitations and reservations in every sphere of her life be it thesocial,  cultural,  economic,  political,  or  the  religious  domain.
Although  the  outer  cover  displays  uniformity  between  gender relations  yet  the  internal  functioning  and  organization  is  still very  much  patriarchy  in  prevalence.  Following  the  customary laws  and  traditions,  women  are  denied  of  property  and landownership  of  neither  her  parents  nor  her  husband rendering  her  immobile  and  voiceless  regarding  any  decisions
for the welfare of the family and the society at large.

However, women  as  a  caregiver,  nurturer,  etc  are  expected  to  meet  the basic requirements of the house with or without any source of income in their hand and as a result they face daily constraints of household management. They entirely depend on the forest and  a  forest  product  to  generate  some  sort  of  income  to  meet household requirements which is considered to be their domain. Therefore  they  develop  intrinsic  connection  with  the  forest  in the process and gathers inherent knowledge as a nurturer and conservationist.

Although  they  contribute  immensely  for  the welfare  of  environment  yet  they  continue  to  remain marginalized in decision-making regarding any environmental policies  and  development  programmes  of  the village.  Women’s multiple  role  as  mother,  nurturer,  care  giver,  etc  renders endless  responsibilities  to  tackle  and  these  do  not  delineate their contribution but rather they  are tied down to ensure food security,  fodder,  water  security,  fuel,  and  other  miscellaneous needs.  As  a  result,  any  imbalance  in  the  environment disproportionately affects them which may not be directly due to  environmental  degradation  but  due  to  sexual  division  of labor perpetuated by male oriented social order. When we look at  the  sexual  division  of  labor,  women  in  general  are  simply tagged  as  house  wife/house  keeper  because  their  works  is unpaid and limited to domestic boundary and is not associated with official workplace.

 Men usually work outside the village in some  private  sector,  Government  sector,  or  self  employed  like carpentry,  running  rice  mill,  shops,  hunting,  daily  wage laborers,  and  private  driver,  etc  therefore  escapes  the  direct brunt of environmental crisis.

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