CELEBRATING AND AMPLIFYING HER STORIES: INDIGENOUS WOMEN, ANCESTRAL WISDOM

Millions of Indigenous Peoples in Asia live in remote areas in the mountains, hills, plains, river basins, forests, and coastal areas. The homes of Indigenous Peoples overlap with the most biodiversity-rich areas of the Planet. There is enormous bio-cultural diversity among Indigenous Peoples in Asia. The common to all include a strong cultural and spiritual attachment to the land and the dependence of their traditional livelihoods on the land, forest, river, sea, and the natural resources found therein. 

The recognition, protection, and promotion of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their land, territories and resources are crucial to achieve biodiversity targets, Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Therefore, the transformative change, the term that we hear all the time from the state and non-state actors, requires the foregrounding of the Indigenous Peoples’ land rights and agency in climate, biodiversity, and sustainable development policies and actions.

Indigenous Women are the key practitioners, innovators, and holders of Indigenous Knowledge relating to their traditional livelihoods. They play a crucial role in preserving indigenous seeds, maintaining food security, and ensuring the wellbeing of community members. Indigenous Women are also the protagonists in ensuring the inter-generational transfer of knowledge and cultural values associated with seeds and food systems in the communities.

As part of the celebration of the 2021 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) is launching a photobook “Indigenous Women, Ancestral Wisdom” in Thai, and English languages. The photobook features the roles and contributions of Shan, Lua, and Akha Indigenous Women of northern Thailand in the practice, cultivation, and transfer of knowledge relating to indigenous seeds, food, and culture. 

Taw-pae is a traditional Shan community situated in Khun Yuam District of Maehongsong Province. Despite the changes happening in the community, the identity of the Shan community remains strong and unaltered, including the language, clothing, traditional beliefs, and most importantly, the culture of food. The photobook highlights the traditional Shan dish ‘fermented soybeans’ and the established practice of preserving and sharing seeds to maintain food security and seed diversity within the community.

“Even though many things have changed over time due to social currents, but we are fortunate that we are able to preserve our culture. Our dress, our language, and importantly, our food is still with us,” says Ms. Wanitchaya Kantayuang, President of Shan Women’s Network and Committee Member of Indigenous Women’s Network in Thailand (IWNT).

The Lua community is in the Mae La Noi District of the Maehongsong Province. The Lua community still practices traditional rotational agriculture. The culture, traditional values, and belief systems have played major roles in maintaining their traditional way of life.

“One rice plant can feed one person. One rice plant can feed a whole family. And one rice plant can feed the whole world.”

A Lua Proverb

When rice seeds are sown, they grow into a plant and can feed a person for a meal, or even for a day. If some of the grains are saved for the next planting season, they will produce enough rice to feed a whole family. When this is continued, the rice will multiply until there is enough to feed the whole world. The key value that is embedded within the Lua culture is to take care of the seeds and natural resources, as well as to share what we have with our fellow humans.

The traditional learning process is vanishing in the Lua community as children are required to go to school. Nonetheless, community members still take their children to the rotational agriculture field in their free time or during school breaks so that they can acquire life skills and cultural traditions through apprenticeship learning.

“When we were young, our parents would send us to live with our relatives, to learn about our traditional way of life and rotational agriculture system. Now that kids have to go to school outside of our village, we have to teach them about herbs, weeding, and rice planting during school holidays,” says Ms. Chankham Bongkotvijitrung, the knowledge holder of Lua Community.

In the past, Akha Indigenous Communities had a wide-open area in the middle of their village, called “Dae Khong”, or cultural court, a learning space for youth. Here, young people acquired knowledge from the elders and were introduced to dancing and singing. However, due to far-reaching social changes, nowadays these cultural courts do not exist anymore. Today, children go to school in the city so that the Indigenous Knowledge transfer at the courts has ceased, and traditional Akha life skills are no longer passed on to the younger generation. Thus, Ms. Pee Athoo decided to open the Akha Cultural Center, or “Akha Dae Khong” in Chiang Rai Province, a learning space on the traditional lifestyle of the Akha, for both Akha people and interested outsiders.

“I feel proud because we can provide a learning space to our children. Even when I’m not here anymore, children will continue to learn. I will give as much as I have and as much as I can teach. Sometimes, people just come to learn and ask, but we share seeds with them as well,” says, Ms. Wanphen, sister of Ms. Athoo.

This photobook is the result of the partnership of Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples of Asia (IKPA) with Indigenous Media Network in Thailand (IMN), and Indigenous Peoples Foundation for Education and Environment (IPF). IKPA, IMN, and IPF sincerely thank the representatives of Shan, and Lua communities and the Akha Cultural Center, for sharing and agreeing to publish their stories and initiatives.

Special thanks to Mr. Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, AIPP Chairperson and the Executive Director of IPF, Mr. Sakda Saenmi, Secretary-General of the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand (NIPT), and Mr. Phnom Thano of IMN for their support and contribution in finalizing the photobook. 

AIPP acknowledges the generous financial contribution of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) for the development and publication of this important knowledge product.

For more information, please contact the following team members of the Environment Programme:

To download the photo book please click here

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