Friday, April 22, 2011

Women in the Center of Crop Diversity & Food Security

Women farmers displaying indigenous seeds that they save at a community seed bank in Karnataka.

Blog entry by Rucha Chitnis, India Program Director, who is traveling in Southern India to research women farmers’ green traditional knowledge systems for farming, seed saving and managing their natural resources.

Let’s start from the very beginning.  And some might say that it all began with the seeds.

Seed, a symbol of fertility and perpetuity, of culture and sustenance in India, is also becoming a symbol of self-reliance and a key resource to preserve the biodiversity of indigenous crops on small farms across the country.

In Southern India, GREEN Foundation, a community-based organization that works with small and marginalized farmers, including tribals and Dalits, in semi-arid regions of Karnataka, has immersed itself in this challenge of promoting the conservation of indigenous seeds among farmers since 1996.

During my visit to the Foundation, I learn that women farmers are in the center of their seed conservation efforts due to their gendered roles as the primary seedkeepers in India.  The Foundation began its work with five women farmers and a handful of indigenous seeds. “When we began talking to the farmers, we realized that traditional varieties of seeds had almost disappeared. Without seeds what we were attempting to do would be a non-starter,” notes Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, founder and a seed conservationist.

The Foundation believes that women farmers also hold the key to preserving the biodiversity of the crops and their knowledge systems of seed saving and mixed and natural farming are vast, which need to be documented and promoted.  Dr. Vanaja shares an example of an elderly woman farmer, who identified nearly 80 varieties of greens in her field, as well as their uses for medicinal and nutrition needs. “Her knowledge was phenomenal,” she says. “When it comes to food security, women play a key role in identifying food that is available. In lean seasons, they trek to the nearby forests, and they are able to identify roots and tubers for their food requirements and medicinal plants.” 

Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, founder of the GREEN Foundation
This intimate knowledge of women, believes Dr. Ramprasad is often undermined by the scientific community and biotechnology companies who promote agro-technologies, which might not be appropriate for rural communities, and especially for the economically disadvantaged farmers. Dr. Ramprasad shares that some of the greens on the farms, which poor farmers in India subsist on during lean periods, might be considered as weeds by some agro-companies, which are eliminated by herbicides.

The Foundation programs promote the conservation of agro-biodiversity, ecological farming practices, seed conservation and creation of community-managed seed banks.   Seed conservation has been in the center of the programmatic efforts of the Foundation. Their research and analysis showed that India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s eroded the diversity of indigenous seeds with the introduction of the high yielding varieties of seeds and pervasive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  As farmers moved away from the practice of saving and exchanging seeds with their neighbors and families to buying the HYV seeds from the market, their own indigenous knowledge systems related to farming and seed saving became slowly irrelevant in the face of industrial agriculture.

 Gene bank of indigenous seeds set up by the GREEN Foundation
“India is a land that had over 100,000 varieties of rice,” she says, but now only a few popular varieties are sold in urban markets. The Green Revolution also focused on intensive cultivation of rice and wheat and ignored other indigenous varieties of crops, like millets--considered to be a vital source of nutrition in rural India.  The Foundation encourages women farmers to save indigenous varieties of millets, which are ideal crops to grow in arid and semi-arid areas as some varieties are drought-resistant and require little water for irrigation, compared to rice and other cash crops. As small-scale and marginalized women farmers largely depend on the rain for their irrigation needs, millets are an important source of food security in areas where recurring droughts or dwindling and unreliable rainfall cause stress among farmers.

“In many ways, we have to rekindle the pride that the farmers have in their traditional farming systems,” says K. P Suresh, Associate Director of the Foundation. He believes that the traditional role women play in seed selection, seed conservation, and seed treatment to prevent the crop from developing unhealthy, are critical and need to be documented and promoted.  Seeds also symbolize the cultural heritage of communities across India, and they are an integral part of many rituals, ceremonies and festivals.  And seed conservationists, like Dr. Ramprasad, affirm that the practice of seed saving has been a cornerstone of farming traditions that made agriculture, itself, a way of life.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Indigenous Community Enterprises: Building Sustainable Futures, One Home at a Time

Edward and Rose in their Hogan home 

Zoe Levitt, 
Consultant for Indigenous Community Enterprises (ICE), a Women's Earth Alliance Partner Organization

March 14th was a bright, windy day in Window Rock.  I waited outside the Navajo Nation Museum to meet Hazel James from Indigenous Community Enterprises (ICE) for the start of my site visit to gather photos and conduct interviews for their new website.  She had kindly offered to be my guide on a tour of several of ICE’s Elder Hogan Homes and Green Homes projects on the reservation. 

As we set out on the road, Hazel began to share with me some of the important elements of the traditional Hogan - a round dwelling structure that has significance for Navajo people who practice traditional religion.  “The sacredness of the Hogan is understood as the womb of mother Earth, with a fireplace at the center of the home representing the center of the four mountains, and the hole at the top of the dome conveying a connection to the universe” she explained.

It is with these sentiments in mind that ICE has developed a graceful solution to the contradicting land paradigms of the U.S. government and Navajo traditions. Yes, ICE was securing the right to build homes in line with Western concepts of land use via the homesite lease program, but they were building homes that connected generations--that stood as testaments to ability of the Nizhoni Dine culture to thrive in the face of forced assimilation.

Indeed, as the homeowners showed us, these elegant yet simple Hogan homes were strongly tied to people’s sense of dignity and self-sufficiency. An elderly couple we visited beamed recalling how the modern conveniences of their new home were critical for elderly people like themselves. Edward, 73, struggles with heart, kidney, and prostate problems and is blind in one eye.  Before receiving their ICE home, Edwards and his wife, Rose, were living in their daughters’ home without electricity or running water.  Due to his deteriorating health, Edward had several accidents slipping on steps while carrying wood and walking into doors because of the lack of light. Today Edward and Rose, receive many visitors stopping by to admire their home and find out who built it.  “It’s warm in the wintertime and it’s nice and cool in the summertime.  And I really like that the doors are wide, so if anyone has a wheelchair, you can go in and out very easily…You know, it’s just beautiful…We’re very, very blessed.”

In recent years, ICE has added another a “green” element to their building philosophy. For ICE, building “green” is about providing housing solutions that are economically practical and environmentally sustainable.  Two of the alternative materials they use, Strawbale and SIPs, or Structurally Insulated Panels, are highly energy efficient, which is particularly important in the Southwest’s desert climate. ICE has also equipped some of their homes farther off the infrastructure grid with solar panels and water cisterns to enable basic utilities in lieu of power lines and water pipes.

Throughout my short but jam-packed site visit, it became strikingly clear how important ICE’s home-building is for people living in some of the most remote areas of the reservation, where access to formal infrastructure is not logistically (or politically) feasible. The work that ICE does is rooted in a strong respect for Navajo culture and the ripples of the work have effects beyond the local level.  Every home that is built using energy efficient materials reduces the demand for energy from power plants that poison local communities and pollute the air.  As Navajo Nation leaders struggle to strike a balance between economic expansion and cultural and environmental preservation, ICE serves as a powerful example of how indigenous economic development and self-sufficiency can go hand in hand with cultural and environmental integrity.

Indigenous Community Enterprises’ mission is to work directly with indigenous communities to identify and develop community and economic development opportunities that respect and incorporate traditional culture, foster responsible stewardship of the land, maintain and enhance the well-being and self-reliance of communities, and support and protect the dignity and responsibility of individuals.  In addition to affordable home construction, ICE supports economic empowerment and cultural preservation through financial literacy workshops, Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), and a Native Foods project.  For more information, contact Hazel James at

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Florence and Fulera bring Improved Access to Drinking Water to Ghanaian Schools

The following article was written by Beth Robertson, Research Fellow at Women's Earth Alliance. This article was published in the Spring 2011 "A Matter of Spirit" newsletter published by Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center.  To read more click here.

Fulera and Florence during the 2010 GWWI Grassroots Training in Ghana
Women in Bimbilla, Ghana—and women all over the world—are the cornerstones of their communities.  They shoulder the burden of water-harvesting, spending countless hours fetching and managing water for drinking, agriculture and cooking.  Women are also key to improving access to safe drinking water in their communities.

In 2010, two powerful women leaders from Ghana—Florence Iddrisu and Fulera Mumuni—participated in a training through the Global Water’s Initiative.  They were introduced to four different area appropriate technologies designed to address issues of water and sanitation.  Following the training, these women leaders developed an action plan to construct a rainwater harvesting system that would serve the women’s dormitory at their local high school.  Florence and Fulera chose Bimbilla High School for their project because, like many schools across Africa, it was not equipped with ample water facilities.  Students and teachers would often have to bring water to school or fetch water during class time, limiting time devoted to studies.

Florence and Fulera’s pilot project brought tremendous change to Bimbilla, decreasing the hours that female students have to walk in search of water.  The female dormitory at Bimbilla High School now has a complete rainwater harvesting system that serves 210 female students, providing them improved access to potable drinking water at the school. Today, Florence and Fulera continue to spread knowledge of low cost, effective solutions to inadequate sources of water in other areas in their community.

Safe drinking water is a human right and the participation of women in conceiving technologies to address issues of water and sanitation is essential. The Global Women’s Water Initiative (GWWI), a program of Women’s Earth Alliance in partnership with Crabgrass, embraces the idea that local women leaders who understand the needs of their communities merely need the resources, confidence and training to inspire change and improve the health of their communities. GWWI holds capacity-building trainings throughout Africa to equip local women leaders with technology training, networking support, and seed funding to launch sustainable water projects in their communities. “Access to fresh water and sanitation does not only improve the health of a family, but it also provides an opportunity for girls to go to school, and for women to use their time more productively.”1  Women are the stewards of their natural resources in their communities and therefore hold the key to improving access to safe drinking water in their communities.

Florence and Fulera’s model succeeded because of its bottom-up, grassroots nature. Top-down, dependency driven development solutions have failed communities too many times.  Co-designing solutions to development challenges based on local vision rather than outside wants are the foundation for sustainable development—investing in existing leadership and knowledge of women who know what their communities need most. This approach avoids the pitfalls of top-down practices and outsider-generated attempts at assistance that can fall short or even reinforce damaging dynamics. For sustainable development to take root, we must rely on the local, environmental stewards and community caretakers to identify and co-design solutions that address issues of water and sanitation. Local women understand the needs of their community; all they need are the resources and confidence to design solutions and engineer change.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ndudi and Elizabeth Improve Sanitation and Community Health in Western Nigeria

Elizabeth at the 2010 GWWI Women and Water Training in Ghana
The Global Women’s Water Initiative continues to make ripples of change! 2010 GWWI team Ndudi and Elizabeth of Western Nigeria recently met with members of the Idoye community to collaborate on solving  issues of water and sanitation in their area. During the meeting Ndudi and Elizabeth introduced the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) program and, with the help of the community, constructed a much needed Eco-san composting toilet.  To the members of the Idoye community, the Eco-san toilet will decrease the amount of open defecation and bring real change, improving the health of the community and ensuring the well-being of future generations.

Ndudi at the GWWI 2010 Women and Water Training in Accra, Ghana
The 198 participants included school children, the community chief, community health officers and women leaders. Through WASH education activities, these groups learned about water collection, safe storage, the importance of clean water and the benefits of sanitation. In order to promote sustainability, the toilet was constructed with local materials, keeping the costs low while supporting the local economy. Ndudi and Elizabeth also gave an orientation and posted instructions about the proper care and use of the toilets. By mobilizing a maintenance committee and sharing the knowledge of the technology with a diverse group of community members, Ndudi and Elizabeth have ensured that the facility is kept clean and continues to be useful for the Idoye community. 

The project was an extraordinary experience for the GWWI team, Ndudi and Elizabeth and the community at large. As the team reported, “It was a very great opportunity to improve the health condition of our women and children who are most vulnerable to poor environmental conditions.”

ith dedication, compassion and joy Ndudi and Elizabeth, along with the members of the GWWI Team and the Idonye community, have brought real change to the region. Their inspiring story adds a drop in the rapidly spreading ripple of the Global Women's Water Initiative. To learn more about GWWI, visit