Amplifying the voices of Indigenous People through the Lens of Women – Biodiversity, Livelihoods & Climate Change


The word “Indigenous” basically means native, original, aboriginal, home-grown, local, etc., and is the antonym of foreign or alien. For centuries, peoples and communities have either been born to certain lands and areas or have marked out lands and areas for themselves after migrations and became the “indigenous” peoples and communities of such marked land. Till today we are witness to disputes arising of two or more peoples or communities claiming to being indigenous to such lands and areas —  not least us Nagas — and wars have been waged and lives and limbs lost to such claims. The very word “indigenous” itself has assumed multi-dimensional political, economic, social and cultural connotations and implications over the decades and this has unfortunately given rise to not only polarizing ideologies and politics but such ideologies and politics have also dictated and determined the quality of life of those on both side of the debate. However, because life has never stopped being “short, nasty and brutish” — increasingly more so now, since neo-colonialism, liberalization and globalization have become the hallmarks of our increasingly unrecognizable world, perhaps time has come for us to re-look at the word “indigenous” and look at it from more and much wider perspectives than we used to. So then, is it possible for us to look at the word “indigenous” from the perspective that all human beings are indigenous to Mother Earth? That when Mother Earth unleashes her furies, they leave no indigenous and non-indigenous unscathed; and that her bounties are meant for all?

Let’s look at the word “indigenous” from the perspectives of the civil wars, terrorism, wars on terrorism and communal conflicts in their most virulent and violent forms across the globe, which are not only rooted in power politics and economics but in discords related to cultures, belief-systems, traditions, customs, etc. Yes, the word “indigenous” also has very negative, disruptive and disabling connotations, which we must also at all cost prevent to become the lait motif of our discourses on matters indigenous ~ particularly the indignity of our political, social, economic, cultural and religious intercourses and interfaces. So, today as we observe the International Indigenous Peoples Day, let us do so keeping in mind and truly believing that every human being on earth is indigenous to the earth.

Unless we do so, we marginalize half the world’s population, which is us, women. It is ironic that while we observe and celebrate indigenous people across the globe, indigenous people across the globe do not even count women as full-fledge human beings, much less celebrate us as indigenous persons ~ to Mother Earth, to community and to society. Unfortunately, even women do not realize this most unjust status we are consigned to and forced to live with. In an article titled A Field of her own, published in the Indian Express recently, an MBA student at the Yale School of Management, who is currently an Intern in the agriculture programme at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation India Country Office, wrote: “The stereotypical image of an Indian farmer is a mustachioed man, clad in a white dhoti with farming tools in hand. The reality is the Indian agricultural landscape is fast being feminised. Already, women constitute close to 65% of all agricultural workers. An even greater share, 74% of the rural workforce, is female. Despite their hard labour in the field, women are not officially counted as farmers, and are either labelled “agricultural labourers” or “cultivators”. This is because the Government does not recognise as farmers those who do not have a claim to land under their name in official records.” I wonder whether Naga women, and women in the Northeast, irrespective of race and religion, urban or rural, recognize ourselves in these statistics, in this picture of our reality, as we observe and celebrate the International Indigenous Peoples Day? When we are so marginalized by and from our indignity, what are we really observing and celebrating?

The same article further says: “As many as 87% of women do not own their land; only 12.7% of them do. There are two primary reasons for the alarmingly low number: One, land being a state subject is not governed by the Constitution under a uniform law that applies equally to all citizens but rather is governed by personal religious laws, which tend to discriminate against women when it comes to land inheritance. Second, the cultural aspect of the deep-rooted biases that hinder women’s ownership of land in patriarchal societies cannot be discounted.” Does this not resonate in perfect harmony with Article 371 (A), which is the fountainhead of the State of Nagaland? The question we must ask today is: while we observe and celebrate the International Indigenous Peoples Day, are we also celebrating the indigenous women in our state, our region, our country and our globe, who are the principal mainstay of the home, the family and as a natural corollary, the mainstay of the state, the region, the country and the globe? You know, what we must take very serious note of is the fact that whenever we talk of “people” and/or “peoples”, women are inevitably excluded from the discourse and the interface. This you might have noticed in the discourse of both “Naga sovereignty” and now the “Naga Peace process” besides so many other issues ~ unfortunately, women have also have marginalized ourselves from the these discourses and interfaces. This basically means that women have peripheralized ourselves from our own societal existence.

Yet I concede that our overall societal existence is incomplete without women being and providing the main prop. Women’s problem is that we tend to take the backseat and to assume the role of the supporting cast to the lead roles seemingly played by men ~ while in reality it is women who are the lead players in this drama called life, more so in “indigenous” communities and societies like ours. My suggestion would be to acknowledge, claim and own for ourselves the lead roles women play to keep ourselves in Mother Earth’s good books. Who, after all, sacrifices and slaves to protect and promote our bio-diversity by way of feminizing the landscape and spacescape of our agriculture and allied activities, even though we do not own the land in the technically legal sense? Women do it because inherently we know that Mother Earth owns us and we owe it to her to acknowledge and respect her ownership of us human beings. This has then created livelihoods for both women and men, which translates into food on our tables. This is what has created jobs in the Government and private sectors ~ please never make the mistake of thinking that jobs in the Government and public sectors sustain human beings, particularly women’s sustenance relationships with Mother Earth. As long as women till the land, secure seeds and plant them, there will always be food on the table ~ all the money in the world cannot be a substitute for food.

It is becoming increasingly hard to secure seeds, plant them and harvest food for the table with the unpredictable and drastic climate change every day of our live. It is tragically ironic that in the recent month or so when heavy and incessant rains descended down on us, some of the human casualties were that of women farmers in their rice and vegetable fields in Nagaland. This must have also been the case in other Northeastern and Himalayan states. Clearly, this further accentuates women’s lead role in sustaining agriculture, sustaining the family and providing food on the table. Unfortunately, no indigenous people, community and society will ever concede and acknowledge the centrality of women’s roles and contributions to people, community and society’s sustenance. This is so very crystal clear in most indigenous people, community and society’s cultural, customary and traditional discourse and interface, even belief-systems, which totally disenfranchise women as full-fledged human beings hence women’s peripheralization from the political and economic discourses and interfaces of indigenous communities and societies. A prime example is what happened when the ULB elections were slated to be held with 33% women reservation.

Today I am extremely happy and proud that women have documented issues of Biodiversity, Livelihoods and Climate Change ~ issues women have been dealing with for centuries, no let me say “since time immemorial”, and bring such documentations to the notice of an uncaring, insensitive and egoistic world ~ to register our existence, our strength and our gratitude to Mother Earth for sustaining us ~ the human race, indigenous to Mother Earth. Today as we observe and celebrate indigenous peoples across the globe, our voices must be amplified through women’s lens because these are the only lens that gives the most rational and credible picture of how the most peripheralized half of the earth holds up the sky.

While what I have said may not have been what you had expected me to say ~ for which I apologise, I also would like to convey my gratitude to the North East Network for inviting me to this celebration and giving me the platform and the opportunity to express my opinions, however ill-informed they are, and to all of you who have worked tirelessly to underscore that women too have our lens through which we speak and register our existence. I want to say a very special “Thank You” to North East Network for creating in women, especially in our rural areas, the awareness that “We Can” and building the capacity to say so in no uncertain terms  — and emphatically.

Monalisa Changkija is Editor, Nagaland Page.