By Manipadma Jena
The three major tribes of Megalaya, a biodiversity hotspot of northeast India, are matrilineal. The descendants take the mother's surname, while the daughters inherit the family lands.
As women own the land and have always decided what is grown on it and what is conserved, the state not only has a robust climate-resistant food system, but also some of the rarest edible and medicinal plants.
"International legal protections relating to indigenous and rural women's tenure rights have not yet been reflected in national laws that regulate women's day-to-day interactions with community forests": Stephanie Keene.
While their ancient culture empowers the indigenous women of Megalaya, as land ownership greatly enhances their resilience to food shocks caused by climate change, the overwhelming majority of women in the South developing society it does not even allow them to have a voice in the management of the family or the community.
Not even national laws support their rights to own the same land that they sow and harvest to feed their families.
According to a new report from the non-governmental organization Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), legal protections for indigenous and rural women to own and manage private property are insufficient or non-existent in 30 low- and middle-income countries.
This conclusion means that much of the recent progress that indigenous and local communities have made in gaining legal recognition for their community territory may have an unstable foundation.
“Generally speaking, international legal protections regarding indigenous and rural women's tenure rights have not yet been reflected in national laws that regulate women's day-to-day interactions with community forests,” noted RRI's Stephanie Keene, an international coalition based in the United States.
Together, these 30 countries are home to 75 percent of the developing world's forests, which remain essential for mitigating global warming and natural disasters, including droughts and land degradation.
In South Asia, migration out of necessity due to climatic events - in particular, droughts - is high, as more than 75 percent of the population depends on agriculture, and of that proportion, more than half are farmers from subsistence that depend on the rains for irrigation.
“In many indigenous peoples, women are the producers of food and those who administer customary lands and forests. Safeguarding their rights will consolidate the rights of their communities to collectively own the lands and forests that they have protected and on which they have depended for generations, ”said Victoria Tauli Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Indigenous and local communities in the 10 Asian countries analyzed provide the most consistent recognition of women's inheritance rights at the community level. However, this… is not observed in India or Nepal, where insufficient laws on inheritance and dispute resolution at the community level make women's forest rights particularly vulnerable, ”Keene told IPS about the RRI study.
“None of the five legal frameworks analyzed in Nepal address inheritance or dispute resolution at the community level. Although India's forest rights law recognizes the inheritance of tribes… and other traditional forest dwellers, it does not expressly recognize women's specific rights to inheritance or to dispute resolution at the community level, ”she added.
"Inheritance in India can be governed by civil, religious or personal laws, some of which do not expressly guarantee equal inheritance rights for wives and daughters," Keene said.
Madhu Sarin, who was involved in the drafting of India's Forest Rights Act and is now pushing for its implementation, spoke to IPS about the situation in South Asia.
“Where governments have ratified international rights, in principle they accept that national laws are compatible with them. However, a large gap remains between these commitments and their translation into practice. First of all, most governments do not have mechanisms or binding requirements to guarantee such compatibility, ”he commented.
"Furthermore, the intended beneficiaries of gender laws remain disorganized and unaware of them," he said.
Women's land rights, recurring droughts and progressive desertification
According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), a way to face droughts - which cause more deaths and more displacement than any other natural disaster - and stop desertification - the silent and invisible crisis that threatens a third of the earth's surface - is to implement urgent legal reforms that apply gender parity in agricultural and forestry property and management.
“Poor rural women in developing countries are critical to the survival of their families. The fertile land is your lifeline. But the number of people negatively affected by land degradation is growing rapidly, ”stated Monique Barbut, UNCCD Executive Secretary, in her 2017 study.
“Crop failure, water scarcity, and migration of traditional crops harm rural livelihoods. Action to halt the loss of more fertile land must focus on households. At this level, land use is based on the roles assigned to men and women. This is where the tide can start to turn, ”he said.
Reducing the gender gap in agriculture alone would increase the output of women's farms by 20 to 30 percent and total agricultural production in developing countries of the South by 2.5 to 4 percent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Translated by Álvaro Queiruga