BAGUIO CITY—Rose Cunningham Kain of the Miskita and Tuapi tribe of Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua personifies what wordsmiths call “forest dweller.”
She depends on the forest for food, water, medicine, clothing, dwelling materials, tools and implements.
The forest is her teacher and book. Her deities are in the forest. She takes care of the forest as it takes care of her.
For centuries, the balance between Kain’s people, culture and forest worked harmoniously. Today, however, the forests are dying and vanishing. And forest dwellers are finding it difficult to save these.
“If the forests die, so will we,” Kain said.
Kain, with 25 other indigenous women from Indonesia, Nepal, Kenya, Peru, Cameroon, Vietnam and the Philippines, are representing their nations to the “Global Conference on Indigenous Women, Climate Change and REDD Plus” here in Baguio City that was convened by the United Nations (UN)-affiliated Tebtebba Foundation.
The conference presented researches that bare impacts of climate change on biodiversity, on indigenous women and on the role of women in biodiversity, traditional forest ecosystem and resource management.
Kain, representing the Center for Indigenous Peoples Autonomy and Development of Nicaragua, said the Miskita and Tuapi women are “living encyclopedia” in describing and interpreting the effects of climate change on forests and biodiversity ecosystems.
Their understanding deals with their belief systems and enables them to practice coping mechanisms like establishing buffer zones that will not be touched by anyone in the forest.
Indigenous knowledge has been helpful as the spirituality of the people manifested itself in conceptions, relations and conservation of trees and plants, as well as in practices employed in observing social festivities, such as tree planting for every birth of a new-born child, Kain described.
These reflect the indigenous Nicaraguan women’s rich knowledge and deep relationship with land and nature as they observe the climate changes through the years.
Erosion of values result to forest destruction
Indigenous Nicaraguan women are rooted in the notion of Yamni Iwanka, a belief that the erosion of values and responsibility over nature and over ambition to extract from nature have resulted to climate change.
The change in the values toward nature arises from the increasing monetization of the local economy, the Nicaraguan women believe, adding that traditional knowledge, values and practices should be restored and further built upon to restore the communities’ resilience against unpredictable climate-change impacts for present and future generation.
Such worldview is shared by spiritual believers in the universe who consider ecology and spirituality, in God, as overlapping, and that there is a need to treat all creation as sacred because the living human spirit is interconnected to all creation as stewards, not destroyers.
As such, the Nicaraguan women rely on Pana-pana Bahaknu, a traditional system of mutual help in carrying out protection and conservation activities of their forests and biodiversity like tree-planting, putting out forest fires, firewood gathering and collection of nonwood forest products like honey, rattan and wild foods.
Western form of conservation threatening forests
Conference participant Lele Wal from Cameroon lamented that industrial indiscriminate logging and exclusive conservation projects in her country have destroyed traditional way of life, particularly those of the Chaka pygmies’ sustainable hunting and gathering practices.
She claimed these have exacerbated the impacts of climate change, explaining that Pygmies have been displaced from their forests by government and conservation authorities, who look at biodiversity conservation without the pygmies.
From a hunting-gathering culture, the pygmies are pushed to live by the roadside to a semi-sedentary lifestyle. They have to learn to do crop domestication in order to survive as they are curtailed from doing their traditional hunting and gathering practices in the Congo forest, their traditional home territory.
What is disgusting is that while the Pygmies were pushed out, the Congo forest was opened to loggers who cut anything they put a price on, ignorant that some plants and small creatures are dependent on these trees.
It is resulting in species loss, aggravated by climate-change impact like less rains and increasing warm temperature for longer lengths and long dry seasons.
As a consequence of logging the Congo forest, Wal said water supply to rivers, streams and ponds of the forest have gone down, making extinct the most common edible fish, called Nbwakkah, last seen in 1997. The fish is also used in pygmy women’s rite of passage to womanhood.
When the hunter-gathering pygmies were present in the forest, the ecological balance in the Congo was sustained, Wal added.
The Pygmies believe that the disappearance of the trees and fish is a sign of wrath of Komba (god) against the government and loggers. They believe Komba is telling them to plant trees and Raffia palm trees, which they have started doing.
Putting forests in the hands of the people
Nepali conference attendees bared success stories when forests were placed in the hands of the people. And that women are not only helpless victims of climate change but rather powerful agents of change.
Tsering Sherpa, representing the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, bared that Gurung and Bhujet indigenous women and their families are benefiting greatly from the Kassur and Kalleri forests because women are fighting for their rights and privileges.
The two forests, created under the Community Forest Act of Nepal, placed most forests under the management of communities. Thus, the forests became centers of spirituality and respected. Groves of trees were considered sacred and protected.
Women plant trees, and spices, berries, nuts alongside and beneath the trees. They do bush clearing collect dirt, while men are in charge of cutting branches and selective tree felling.
Women have positions in the tree committees and can influence decision-making on critical issues about the forest because they asserted their rights.
Tsering disclosed, however, that despite the collective efforts of women to preserve their forests, climate-change impact has lessened food production in the region because of erratic rainfall and the disappearance of snowcap in their mountains that feed rivers of the forests.
This led the community people to plant crops that require less water, especially native seed varieties, collected and stored by women, that have long adapted to the region.
Return to traditional ways
Senjuti Kisa of the Women’s Resource Network of Bangladesh disclosed that in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), climate change is impacting adversely on their jum rice cultivation.
Farmers are getting less rice yield. The forests have less tree species; there is dwindling water supply, longer dry spells, less time for farm work and rapid biodiversity loss.
This has prompted CHT women to revert to common sense and traditional ways. For instance, they avoid harvesting all potato tubers during harvest so as to leave in the ground a tuber for a second or third cropping.
They plant only native banana varieties to avoid diseases, they do not harvest multi-river products, harvesting only crabs or shrimps or fish or shells one at a time and never altogether. They strongly suggest to men not to cut trees less than 50 years old.
What are common among these experiences are the depletion, erosion and extinction of not only genetic material, and biodiversity but also knowledge, values and norms that govern natural resources management in the face of worsening climate-change impacts.
It is aggravated by multiple interacting factors like state laws, profit-oriented economic development, exclusive forest conservation schemes and creeping globalization.
Some 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on varying degrees on forests for livelihood. The world’s population of around 7 billion rely on biodiversity for existence, but only several thousand indigenous women are really on the ground protecting and conserving these.
These women need help but may have to contend on the problem alone for the moment. Most of the world’s humans are busy destroying what is left of biodiversity.
Help may never come.