Biodiversity, Gender, and Indigenous Rights. A Q&A with Pragyaa Rai

By: Yarrow Global

Biodiversity is having a moment. Currently, governments around the world are deciding on a new Global Biodiversity Framework, expected to be adopted next year. The Kunming Declaration, released at the end of the UN Biodiversity Conference’s latest High Level Segment this October, calls on the States Parties to act urgently on biodiversity protection in decision-making and recognise the importance of conservation in protecting human health.

But many worry that not enough is being done to foreground Indigenous peoples, who conserve an estimated 80% of biodiversity, despite making up less than 5% of the world’s population and who manage or own a quarter of all earth’s land. Despite recognition of Indigenous people’s – and increasingly Indigenous women’s –  contribution, they are still largely excluded from local to international decision-making processes and their knowledge is not adequately considered or included. At the same time, Indigenous people – and especially Indigenous women – are disproportionately affected by biodiversity loss and climate change.’

Yarrow Global had the opportunity to speak with Pragyaa Rai, the Indigenous Women’s Program Coordinator at the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP). She is from the Rai Indigenous people in Nepal and is a gender studies graduate with years of experience working in international and national development projects. In her work with the Indigenous people’s movement, she’s been influential in helping to streamline gender sensitive approaches into all aspects of what the organization does.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

Pragyaa Rai, the Indigenous Women’s Program Coordinator at the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

Yarrow Global: You work at the intersection of gender and the Indigenous peoples movement, what got you interested in that?

Pragyaa Rai: I had been working in the development sector in Nepal on gender issues and I was always curious, especially in a country like Nepal where gender inequality is so deep-rooted, about how gender equality is different for Indigenous communities. I wanted to learn more about the Indigenous peoples movement and the intersectionality of gender in Indigenous Peoples Movement so in 2020 I joined Asia Indigenous People’s pack. Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) was born out of the Indigenous Peoples Movement in 1992. It’s a regional organization based in Chang Mai, Thailand, and works for the promotion and advancement of Indigenous People’s Movements. It has 46 members from 14 countries in Asia who work in different subregions, mostly in advocacy and lobbying efforts to promote the Indigenous Peoples Movement. We mainly focus on fighting injustice against Indigenous peoples, as well as  conducting projects for capacity-building of Indigenous peoples in their communities. The Indigenous Women’s Program has the responsibility to mainstream gender into AIPP programs, its activities, its advocacy as well as expanding it to our network members.

YG: We’re homing in on biodiversity and the environment this month as the UN Biodiversity Summit takes place and COP negotiations on climate change start ramping up. Why would you say it is important to have a gender focus when you’re thinking about things like biodiversity conservation and the environment?

PR: I work very closely with Indigenous women’s organizations in 14 countries in Asia. When we talk about biodiversity and gender intersectionality, what we mean is that gender roles have been defining the everyday duties and responsibilities of women, especially Indigenous women. Those have definitely influenced the different values and access to power for men and women but they have also created different kinds of knowledge. So focusing on gender in biodiversity conservation is not only important, but also without taking gender into account, it’s not sustainable. Without focusing on gender we lose out on the knowledge, skills and practices of the more disadvantaged population, which is women. Often decisions made that exclude women also disproportionately impact women as well, so it is extremely important to focus on the connection between gender and biodiversity. 

YG: How does the component of Indigenous identity fit into the discussion around gender and biodiversity?

PR: A lot of researchers have documented how Indigenous peoples, and especially Indigenous women, are guardians of 80 percent of the biodiversity in the world. Indigenous women are the holders of Indigenous knowledge, they are the users, the managers and the protectors of biodiversity. Biodiversity and Indigenous women’s lives – they are intricately interlinked. There are a lot of examples and a lot of practices that exemplify this. One that comes to mind is the Karen people of Thailand. There, once the child is born, they put the placenta in a bamboo box and then they tie the bamboo box into a tree. And during the whole life of the tree, they clean it and they take care of the trees. It is also believed that the child’s progress, their development, their everything is related to the tree. A lot of similar practices can be found in Nepal and Cambodia. These show just some of the many practices that tie us as Indigenous people to the land and forests.

For Indigenous people, for us, natural resources like forest, land and water are all very sacred. And this is exactly where the conflicts are escalating. You know, over these resources. And that’s also where Indigenous populations, especially the women there, are more affected. That’s why it is important that Indigenous peoples and especially Indigenous women are included in these decision making processes and in the discussions and the conversations.

YG: Do you see a connection between loss of access to resources, gender inequality and gender based violence? 

PR: When we’re talking about Indigenous peoples and Indigenous communities, the most important thing is the land. So Indigenous peoples live on their ancestral lands and do their traditional agriculture and other practices. When these resources are lost through natural disasters, climate change, or land encroachment it definitely results in forms of gender inequality. One case study for example in Bang Kloi, Thailand, looked at how the state took the land from the Indigenous peoples and turned it into a national park. The Indigenous communities had to relocate to a different place where they couldn’t practice any of their traditional practices. And as carers of the family, many Indigenous women were forced into sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

YG: What would you say are the main barriers for more political participation of Indigenous women both in conservation and in general?

PR: There are a lot of barriers, with the major factor being structural inequality women face as a whole and the patriarchal systems and policies that oppress women, making it hard for them to challenge the power imbalance. Like I mentioned earlier, at the same time, there’s a need for capacity building, more knowledge and confidence building of Indigenous women to know their rights and demand them. Indigenous women experience multiple layers of discrimination. Alongside gender discrimination in general, another huge barrier is lack of information. For example during the COVID-19 pandemic there was a lot of information being spread by the states and the government and organizations. However, Indigenous women could not access the proper information because it was not in their language. So there are a lot of barriers like this. 

There is also a huge need to build the capacity of Indigenous women. To go to the right places, to know where services are available and to know their rights.

YG: What are the kinds of policies or changes that need to happen in order to both create more gender equality, and also to help include Indigenous people in the conversation more?

PR:  That’s a big conversation. But just to name a few, we at the AIPP are advocating for the government and the stakeholders to ensure the integration of gender sensitive approaches into all stages of state programs, projects and policy design and development. We’re specially focusing on suggesting or recommending state parties that we develop climate response and biodiversity conservation mechanisms, addressing issues and concerns of Indigenous women, and to recognize and integrate Indigenous women’s role and knowledge in policies and programs. That is one part that for example the state, state governments and the U.N. agencies can do.

But the other part that we are working on is to build the capacity of Indigenous women to, you know, be more confident and have more knowledge: the knowledge to claim their spaces and claim their rights. I see it as two different things, two different areas we need to work on. 

Cover photo: A mother and daughter of the Karen tribe in northern Thailand. Flicker Creative Commons/Justin Vidamo. February 22, 2012. Used under Flickr Creative Commons license.

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