Women at the fore of Climate Adaptation in South Asia


By Raakhee Suryaprakash

South Asia, with its many islands and miles of low-lying coastal cities and fertile farmlands, is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change. Add to this the densely populated regions in flood-prone areas, poor civic infrastructures, storm drains clogged with plastics and grinding poverty and what we have is the perfect storm of vulnerability as demonstrated over the past few weeks with the flooding in Gurugram, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Jodhpur, and the massive devastations and displacements of hundreds of thousands in Assam and Bihar and the forest fires in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand early this summer. Adapting to climate change and developing sustainably while working to lower our planet’s ecological footprint and reverse global warming by controlling our carbon emissions is an immediate necessity.

The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize–sharing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation as the “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.” A corollary of the concept of sustainable development and integration in developmental parlance, the idea is to find a single powerful solution and methodology so as to address the many problems before us. Thus the idea is to put economics, empowerment of the marginalized, and the environment on the same side so as to achieve prosperity and peace.

This idea has been embodied in many movements “andolan” over the years that have embodied the basics of eco-feminism. Thus be it the programmes of Vandana Shiva that promote organic farming, soil rejuvenations and local seed conservation, or the Chipko Movement of the 1970s that involved the nonviolent protest by hill women who are the backbone of local households and farms of what is today the Indian hill state of Uttarakhand against deforestation by sticking to trees (basically they were tree-huggers long before the term became ‘cool’) to the Maiti Movement originating more-recently in Uttarakhand which promotes afforestation by including tree-planting and nurturing as part of wedding ceremonies and the communal preoccupation of getting girls married! Then there is the brilliant initiative in the Spiti Valley of the other Himalayan state Himachal Pradesh – the Ecosphere project co-founded by social entrepreneur, ace mountaineer and potter Ishita Khanna.

What these movements and initiatives have in common is the fact that they involve primarily marginalized sections of society (e.g., rural communities, tribes, women) becoming empowered by their quest to protect the environment while making a decent living. In a record-breaking ‘hottest planet’ yet – where the ‘Darth Niño’ (the El Niño system exacerbated by the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and the resulting global warming) wreaks havoc costing the exchequer  over $22 billion in damages due to drought, melting roads, infrastructure and installations, and wildfires in some portions of the planet with corresponding extreme weather, including sudden cloudbursts and storms in others parts of the world – what we need is a scaling-up sustainable development and adaptation that focuses on keeping the planet’s temperature from soaring to over 1.5 degrees.
What Ishita Khanna is doing in the Spiti Valley is one such successful initiative encouraging conservation while bringing in much needed income to the locals. 

This involved the conservation and organic cultivation by the community of the wild berry rich in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids called Seabuckthorn as well as the setting up of processing units for its products including jam, tea, and juice as well as a nationwide marketing programme under the brand name ‘Tsering’  (blessings for life). As money percolated into the previously cut-off community through the Ecosphere project the Spiti Valley has become a model of “reduce-reuse-recycle…and renewables” mantra. Ecotourism has brought in tourists who will spend on local eco-friendly handicrafts, while urban debris such as crushed mineral water bottles are being used in insulating solar passive homes and tetra packs are being recycled as tissue paper! Solar power and geysers, smokeless chulhas (stoves) and composting pits and biogas plants is all helping to drastically reduce this tourist hub’s ecological footprint, while the increased plant cover and tree-cover and use of organic farming shelters the region from the more devastating effects of erosion, landslides and flood run-off.

Many farmers, especially those with smallholdings, whether it is Asia or Africa are women, yet the face of agriculture across the globe is inevitably male. This dichotomy adds to the feminization of poverty in the face of poor farm yields from small farmers who are also, according Andrew Youn, co-founder of the One Acre Fund, a huge portion of the world’s poor and hungry. Thus as funds, green technology, training, and adaptation knowledge-sharing is shared with these smallholding farmers – most of whom are women or have woman-headed households share-farming we have the consolidation of ties between the people and the planet which in turn builds prosperity and brings peace to communities.

Farmer suicides in India, climate refugees and internally displaced due to the devastation of monsoon-related flooding and landslides in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, hungry farmers leading the civil unrest of Syria and Northern Africa displacing millions and empowering the ISIS – many of the world’s security issues seem to stem from a skewed climate! Thus adaptation strategies that re-engage the disenfranchised be it with employment guarantee schemes that involve the greening of highways (Green Highways [Plantation and Maintenance] Policy, 2015) or the move to conserve our forests while empowering the state and local communities (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill of 2015) will help eliminate poverty while creating massive carbon sinks. For just one tree sequesters about 1 ton of carbon and processes enough oxygen for two people’s requirements in its life-time! Think of the good a whole forest of them would do. To mix metaphors it definitely past time to see the forest instead of the wood!

Similarly with flood-prone yet fertile farms the benefits of organic farming and mixed intensive culture is multi-fold. As proponent of organic farmer Vandana Shiva puts it, the greater the intensive organic cultivation of a land the greater the nutrition in the produce, mixing legumes, with livestock and fruits-bearing native plant species with the usual grains, vegetables, and cash crops brings in more income and diversifies the produce so that in case of failure at least one income stream remains. Also as a organic farmer farming near flooded waterways in Morappakkam near Madurantakam during the Chennai Floods of December 2015 showed, it is possible to have a good yield of rice even after the field floods! His use of organic manure in the 3-acre farm and a flood-resistant variety of paddy with strong roots and long stalks prevented the washing away of the fertile soil while yielding a rich harvest. Planting deep-rooting perennials and trees alongside farms further eliminate destruction during flooding. 

Organic farms, living soil, and forests as well as empowered women head the fight to control climate change. When the power and dependability of organic culture and mixed intensive agriculture is demonstrated and promoted at the village level it is made the popular choice. Guna Van Panchayat (forest conservation council) leader, organic farmer and 2012 Green Ambassador Award winner Almora district, Uttarakhand’s Sudha Gunwant thus leads by example. The soil has the natural ability to sequester massive amounts of carbon. By moving from chemical and industrial farming practices to regenerative farming in just smallholding across the world it is possible not just to arrest global warming but fixing 100% of present-day carbon emission trends in just three years. Sikkim, which has been prone to landslides during cloudbursts during the monsoon, has shown great thought leadership by going 100% organic.


Decoupling the economy slowly from fossil fuels and agriculture from petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides while encouraging afforestation and preserving flood plains, wetlands, mangroves, and reviving temple tanks, community ponds and lakes can significantly mitigate from the worst effects of climate change while bringing prosperity and peace back into the community as one renews one’s communion with nature, the elements and the life-giving earth. Thus by integrating it’s possible achieve many of the sustainable development goals (preserve the environment, combat hunger and poverty, empower women and the marginalized) and address human insecurity while ensuring peaceful co-existence. A win for the planet, a win for its peoples! 
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