Women Speak: Reetu Sogani on Mainstreaming Social and Climate Justice

Reetu Sogani is the Honary Program Director of Chintan International Trust—as well as a development practitioner, researcher and advisor on gender, traditional knowledge, food and nutrition security and climate change in the Middle Himalayan ranges of India. She has been working in this remote region for the past 15 years, focusing on the issue of people’s rights to their own resources, knowledge systems and protection of cultural and biological diversity. Using a gender-, participatory- and rights-based approach, Sogani works to mainstream knowledge and rights into policies and programs of governance, particularly as they relate to climate change and community food and nutrition security, in close partnership with women and Indigenous communities at the grassroots level.

In light of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network’s new Women Speak initiative Ms. spoke with Sogani about the ecological and social significance of the Himalayan Range, the importance of Indigenous women’s perspectives, the power of traditional knowledge systems and more.

Could you begin by talking about the type of work you do and what inspires your activism?

I have been working on the issue of “People’s Knowledge Systems and Practices” for the past 20 years, with women and the marginalized sections in the middle Himalayan ranges in India, which has a very rich traditional knowledge system. This living and dynamic knowledge has helped them survive very difficult conditions in environmentally fragile areas. My work entails creating an enabling environment for protection and strengthening of people’s knowledge systems and practices, and developing community driven and gender responsive strategies based on themsuch as improving people’s access to food and nutrition security, sustainable livelihoods and well being in the face of changing climatic variability. This also includes raising the concern levels, and advocating for the inclusion of people’s perspectives and knowledge systems in the development processes at regional, national and global level.

My education and training in management, science and as an environmentalistand above all, experiences at the grassroots with rural and indigenous womenhas given way to my life-long commitment of working towards sustainable development with a holistic, participatory, social equity-based and gender sensitive approach. My extreme desire to work with communities, especially in the vulnerable areas, and learn from their immense wisdom, knowledge, experience and perception, has acted as a catalyst towards my decision to learn and contribute with the best of my ability and knowledge to do everything possible in this critical hour, especially when the Himalayan ecosystems are at stake, and with them, the lives, livelihood, food and nutrition security of almost half of the world’s population.

In your opinion, why are the voices and experiences of women so vital to movements for climate justice? What made you want to support the Women Speak project? 

Women Speak is a great opportunity to share the experiences, voices and wisdom of rural and indigenous womenand to reach out to a wider audience. Such exchanges are so essential to confront the challenges posed by climate change, as well as effect policies and programs at the international and national levels.

Voices of women from the Himalaya need to reach out and make an impact in climatic discussions and policy framing, especially given that the discussion on the Himalayas as the ‘third pole’ of the world is hardly happening. Himalaya is extremely important as it is the second largest reservoir of fresh water after the polar ice caps, and is the maker of climate for much of the South Asia, thereby influencing the lives of almost half of the world population. It is a highly vulnerable ecosystem as there is evidence to indicate that the Himalayas are warming at a higher rate than the global average rate, and the glaciers here are receding faster than glaciers of the other parts of world. Unfortunately the development processes are totally ignoring the fragile ecology, culture and traditional knowledge of the area, and this has aggravated and worsened the situation.

Ongoing negotiations on climate change provide a unique opportunity to move from a high fossil fuel based production, distribution and consumption model to a biodiversity-based sustainable, ecologically-friendly economy providing effective and sustainable  alternatives. Women are so vital for changing this discussion. Therefore, it is very important to ‘Speak out’ and ‘Reach out’ at this critical juncture.

You mention how your interdisciplinary education imbued you with a holistic perspective. Did your cultural, spiritual or religious upbringing influence the way in which you understand and approach human’s connection to the environment as well? 

My upbringing and education has certainly influenced me in respecting each and every living being, appreciating and maintaining the critical balance with ecosystems and using the approach of non violence and the philosophy to ‘live and let live’. The last 20 years in the mountains with communities has helped me learn a holistic, integrated way of looking at things, appreciating the organic and intricate linkage amongst various components of nature. I have been hugely been influenced by the people’s holistic view of nature and culture. Health for me means health of my animals, my forest, my crops, my soil, my family and myselfincluding the practices, customs, rituals, even music and dance, to keep one emotionally, mentally and physically healthy. It is not just about me or my family, because all these are my family. This inclusive and holistic perspective that sees cultural and biological diversity as mutually supportive of this village woman has taught me more than any write up on health could ever do.

What is the importance of a gender-, participatory- and rights-based approach, specifically in the Middle Himalayan range of India?

Life in the mountains in Middle Himalayan ranges in India is largely dependent on women’s knowledge, wisdom, experience and incredible hard work, all of which has helped people survive in these remote, inaccessible and difficult conditions. With livelihoods that are mostly natural resource- and agriculture-based, they are quite climate sensitive. Any deterioration in natural resources eventually has a cumulative effect on the workload and access and control of women. Women, with limited access to productive resources and assets, restricted rights and limited voices in decision makingbut with increased responsibilities to ensure food and nutrition security for their family and animalshave become extremely vulnerable to climate change. With a good percentage of women and girls already experiencing anemia and malnutrition, it becomes extremely critical to understand the issue of climate change from the gender- and rights-based perspective.

At the same time, it is no surprise that women are repositories of knowledge on ensuring food security, managing water and forests reserves sustainably and addressing health related issues governed by food and herbsespecially in relation to the changing climate pattern. Therefore, adaptation mechanisms initiated by women based on their wisdom, knowledge and experience have been quite effective, durable and sustainable in increasing communities resilience. Unfortunately, the potential of women remains untapped and their rights as stakeholders are still being ignored. They are mostly seen as ‘victims’ and not as ‘knowledge providers’ and actors of change. Women have the right to be included in climate change-related decisions and to benefit from them equally. In fact solutions provided by them will be more effective and sustainable to address local needs and challenges. Therefore a participatory-, gender- and social-equity approach is crucial to climate compatible development.

Women of the Middle Himayalan range in India planting, and strategizing leading with wisdom and traditional knowledge for health and justice (Reetu Sogani)

So much of the climate justice action at the level of governance takes the form of market-based solutions, like incentivizing corporations with lower taxes if they lower their carbon emissions, or providing subsidies for geoengineering and large-scale technological manipulations of the Earth’s systems. How do these “solutions” impact small, land holding farmers who depend on specific ecologies and weather patterns to sustain their source of livelihood? 

I feel it is very important to understand that climate change is not an issue of science but an issue of social justice. Unfortunately most of the solutions relating to climate change are technical, engineering or market based, and the issues of social justice, equality or sustainability are mostly missing. A complex and multifaceted issue like climate change has to have a more holistic, integrated and trans-disciplinary approach. Moreover, these imposed solutions driven largely by profit motive and less by climate justice, are insensitive to local communities, as well as gender blind. Policies and programs involving the cutting down of carbon emissions, or preservation of forests and providing economic incentives, often eventually further marginalize the most vulnerable communitiesespecially womenwho are dependent on them for agriculture, food and nutrition security, energy and livestock needs.

On the contrary, the biodiversity-based ecological farming practices and adaptation mechanisms of women and impacted communities themselves ensure food and nutrition, water and livelihood security and climate resilience. This has been proved through various studies. Moreover, these practices are excellent mitigating mechanisms, as experts agree that soils are one of the most significant and effective ways to start shifting meaningful volumes of carbon out of the atmosphere in the immediate term. Market-based approaches need to benefit women and the marginalized equallynot disadvantage them further. Yet it is rarely so, as these approaches are being promoted by resource-controlling, powerful institutions and groups, with their profit motives and selfish interests as the main driving force.

What do Traditional Knowledge systems have to offer a planet that is so rapidly evolving? 

Systems based on Traditional knowledge can ‘cool’ the planet and save it. The truth is that the changes brought about by the tailwind of globalization have put the survival of local people, especially women and the marginalized, at stake as it is negatively affecting their health, food and nutrition and livelihood security. The global market economy is negatively impacting the planet by quickly replacing the accessible, local, nutritious and diverse varieties of natural resources with costly synthetic hybrid onesdiminishing biodiversity with uniformity, impairing local cooperation with individualism and replacing self-reliance at the local level with perpetual dependence not just at the local, but also at the national or global level.

Fossil fuel-based industrialized agriculture and livestock management is a major source of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. On the other hand, biodiversity-based ecological farming practices and diverse forest species have proved to be an effective mitigating mechanism. Studies have proved that this is perhaps the most effective strategy for mitigating CO2 emissionsexplaining that use of compost manure, crop rotations and organic systems can result in carbon sequestration of up to 2000 pounds per acre per year, while with chemical farming we are creating almost 300 pounds of carbon per acre per year. This clearly indicates that biodiversity-based mechanisms and systems are by far more efficient. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) an average farmer in industrialized countries spends five times as much commercial energy (based on fossil fuel) to produce one kilo of cereals as compared to farmers of Africa or Asia. This hopelessly inefficient system has to end, else the world and planet will cease to exist.

An alternative, ecosystem-based approach which respects biological and cultural diversity is urgently needed to bring about a transition from energy, water, chemical and capital intensive economy to cost-effective, just and energy- and water-efficient systems. Practices based on judicious amalgamation of modern knowledge with time tested people’s knowledge have emerged as environmentally sustainable, economically viable and locally appropriate. In addition, if care is taken to ensure that values such as social equity and gender equality are pursued in the development process, these can become powerful tools for climate compatible development and empowerment of women and the marginalized.

You talk about the need for women to engage in both formal and informal decision making forums. Could you expand upon this? Why are both forums important? 

Women have always been very actively involved in informal decision making processes and forums as part of their role and responsibilities, but unfortunately these contributions have remained largely unpaid and go mostly unrecognized and unacknowledged. Because of her connecting with management of natural resources (water, forest), farming, livestock management, health care and so on, women have immense knowledge and insight which she uses in developing survival strategies.

Unfortunately, women are often nowhere in formal decision making processes which are largely urban and male dominated. This prevents her needs and priorities, along with her experience and knowledge, from coming to the fore to contribute to effective and sustainable strategy development. As an individual, she has a right to be part of, and be involved in, all decision making forums and processes. Women’s contribution in conservation of bio-cultural heritagewhich she has been making informally mostlyneeds to be recognized, acknowledged and effectively used in formal processes and forums in development of productive and sustainable strategies for climate resilience and food and nutrition security. At the same time, traditional knowledgean oral, informal knowledge systemneeds to be integrated with formal knowledge system and practices to bring about ecological conservation and sustainable development.

What do you hope will come of a feminist-led, racially-equalized approach to both climate and environmental justice?

We are up to the brim with approaches which are resulting in a conflict stricken, hierarchical, competitive, selfish, exclusive society replete with inequality, injustice, poverty and violence. It is further intensifying the division between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, with marginalized peoples becoming more vulnerable and the economically poor fighting to survive, even for basic amenities. Approaches which are feminist, racially-caste and class-equalized, and marked by reciprocity, inclusiveness, solidarity and magnanimity will lead to a society where there is love, respect and cooperation amongst all living beings and nature. A transition of this nature is urgently needed for the people and the planet. It will ensure approaches to bring about gender equality, climate justice, community’s resilience and build a sustainable society.

Jessica Merino has divided her time over the last several years between Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz and exploring and reporting on women’s issues across cultures. She has interned with the White House-recognized organization Girls Write Now, Creative Time Reports and a startup social enterprise where she shared the stories of South East Asian women artisans with the international community. She is now an editorial intern at Ms., where she reports on issues related to women’s health.

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