Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why were the elephants so angry?

By: Katie Douglas, WEA intern

In Ulhara, a village in the city of Hazaribagh in Jharkhand, India, a group of women gathered for a cluster meeting and sat in thoughtful conversation on a rising issue: Why were the elephants of the forest so angry?

The women questioned what had driven fourteen elephants to wreak havoc and destruction in the nearby villages where many of the women were from, leaving one man dead and destroying numerous food grains, houses and crops. The women began to share how mining projects were destroying their homes and natural resources, and causing them great mental and emotional strain. They likened this to the experience of the elephants, who were losing their homes and corridors to mining and infrastructure development.

Ultimately, the women decided that they were not angry at the elephants. Instead, they understood the animal's anger and vulnerability as their own.

The natural habitat and corridors of elephants are being lost to mining and development, and they are venturing into villages where they can cause damage to both property and life.  Photo: CASS

Since 2013, WEA has partnered with Chotanagpur Adivasi Seva Samiti (CASS) to develop a community development training for adivasi (indigenous) women of the Santhal tribe in eastern India. Large-scale open-cast coal mining and infrastructure development has resulted in the destruction of land, forest, and rivers. Not only are these resources the primary means of food and fuel that the Santhal women rely on for sustaining their families and communities, but these resources also contribute medicine, peace, and spiritual sustenance. With the loss of their lands and rivers, the women have become increasingly dependent upon men and outside markets, which makes this not only an issue of environmental exploitation, but also indigenous rights and gender injustice.

In the face of environmental destruction and oppressive gender structures, these trainings provide women with different methods of support, all with the aim of helping them to exercise their rights, practice their culture, and enhance their natural resources for a future they can manage. This is facilitated through cluster groups, trainings, weekly meet-ups for female leaders, and by enrolling local girls in school. Cluster groups, like the one that met in Ulhara, are critical to the state of the community because they allow women to share stories and skills, collectively organize, and discuss basic human and forest rights.

Women gather in Ulhara village for a cluster meeting.  Photo: CASS

Through this training, adivasi women also share personal experiences and build bridges of commonality and support. These trainings ask the women to question what they know of gender. At one such training, Ms. Budhandi—a CASS volunteer—offered the group a song:

A group of men are sitting under the banyan tree
They have listened to the sufferings of women.
They are getting up and going.
The women beckon them
To come back and listen.

Discussion of songs and stories like these allow the women to sit back and view the situation through a lens that considers gender as a social construct, and that then encourages them to take their place as leaders in their communities.

Driven by the destruction of the environment, once-sustainable communities like those near Hazaribagh have been reduced to dependent entities that are disconnected from their environment and unable to protect the rights of adivasi women. This partnership aims to provide the training, support, and networks necessary to uplift the leadership of grassroots women in some of the most impacted adivasi communities in the area, therefore promoting healing and providing safety to human and elephant alike.

The Ulhara cluster group.  Photo: CASS

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