Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Gender equity, like social justice, implies recognising the abilities, knowledge, culture, and traditions of the entire population without relegating anyone because of their gender, social condition, race, or ethnicity. No decision that directly or indirectly affects the whole population should be taken without considering everyone’s reality.
By partnering with initiatives that are either women-led or value and count on women as guiding forces, you are allowing for a different vision to make its way and address forest restoration and conservation with a different lens.
I recently found a publication detailing the wisdom of the Kichwa culture in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I’d love to say I came across this publication by chance, but I must confess that it was a purposeful search while gathering data and facts for what you are about to read here. I am infuriated by how little we know about these communities because the study of their history and culture does not seem to get the attention it deserves.
Kichwa is one of the largest indigenous nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Its name refers to its spoken language: Kichwa. Among thousands of fascinating facts, I discovered that the symbols that Kichwa people often paint on their faces have particular meanings and a reason for being.
"Each design is related to animals, plants, and natural phenomena' energies and abilities.” For the specific purpose of this publication, I was struck by one, in particular, called "The Seeds.”
The story of this design tells that in the old days, there was an indigenous woman who had a hard time getting good crops in her fields. Sometimes, the seeds did not germinate, and she spent her days worrying while seeking a solution.
One day, while walking along the river bank, she was surprised to see banana and yucca peels floating down being moved by the flow of water.
She did not hesitate to follow the path of those peels upstream to discover where they came from.
The woman had to dodge trees and jump over rocks, but after a short walk, she spotted a small house near the shore, practically hidden among a great diversity of trees and crops.*
Inside the house, the woman saw an older woman who introduced herself as Nungulli and invited her to come in. The grateful woman told her that the peels had guided her there expressed her interest in working the land and the problems she had had to achieve it.
Nungulli told her that she had the gift of growing good crops and taught the woman successful practices as they shared some of their personal experiences. After their conversation, the woman went back to her home. From then on, the season of good harvests arose.
The story of Nungulli refers to the female spirit, owner of the land, the crops, which brings abundance to the land. Her knowledge is transmitted to more women through generations.*
Knowledge and Sustainable Development
Knowledge is the information or ability that human beings acquire through our readiness to identify, observe and analyse the facts of what surrounds us. Still, it is so vast that there is no temporary capacity to learn it all, and the key lies in sharing knowledge among everybody.
Indigenous communities possess traditional knowledge, which they have inherited for generations.
It has enormous value when it comes to the relationship of human beings with nature because, traditionally, they are groups of people who live in contact with natural forests.
In the Kichwa language of indigenous communities holding the same name in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Sacha Runa Yachay refers to the baggage of knowledge that the men and women of the jungle possess about their world and that allows them to coexist with the other beings of nature.
The tradition in these communities is to organize the physical space in three areas, where the different forms of energy and life are developed: the "sacha", the "yaku" and the "allpa".
Sacha is the space in the jungle where animals, plants, and local energies (spirits) live.
Yaku is the fluvial space where fish live.
Allpa is the space where agricultural activities are carried out, in its interior dwell inhabits the feminine spirit that vitalizes production, Nungulli.
From her, kichwa people understood that "he who wants to learn something must go to the source, to the one who possesses such knowledge. That is, learn from the one who knows".
Sadly, the colonization of knowledge has relegated indigenous expertise, which has had a strong influence on the increase of social injustice. To eradicate this injustice, we need to recognise that their experience and values positively impact sustainable development, translating into "well-being for all the planet’s inhabitants.”
Sustainability is related to the environmental dimension, but it does not only refer to ecological but also to social actions and political and economic decisions. Hundreds of studies affirm that there will be progress towards sustainable development only when social justice includes gender equity because the former strengthens the latter.
The roles indigenous women play in their communities make them custodians of traditional knowledge and culture because their activities have always been related to working the land and caring for the environment. Often, this work is made invisible or "romanticised" as an excuse to justify the lack of remuneration. Still, with this fact, they run the risk of losing their knowledge and traditions.
Achieving sustainable development, is not only a matter of strengthening a social movement that promotes respect for the environment but also of promoting the participation of women in all environments and on equal conditions and rights as men.
No struggle makes sense as long as there are people who are not allowed to raise their voices, and gender studies affirm that when women participate in decision-making, society can move faster towards the goal of an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable future.
The consequences of this loss would be palpable in the generations to come, with young people who, upon entering adulthood, will have to work with a weakened social capital that will reduce their capacity to face environmental and social challenges.
Therefore, women must be central actors for sustainability and the transformation to a greener world. This does not mean increasing the protective role or recognising them as saviours, but rather respecting their knowledge, rights, capacities, and integrity so that they are assured positions in the protection of resources and are included in decision making.
It is a call to imagine a sustainable world where gender equality is the key to transformation.
Within the communities, it is common to see that women are responsible for seed selection, weeding the cultivated fields, collecting the products, processing and distributing them.
They also have specific activities for the maintenance of water sources and soil. All this work makes them holders of unique knowledge transferred to younger generations.
Gender differences place an enormous burden on women's shoulders and also limit their opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities in paid jobs. While it is true that there are already examples of relevant indigenous female leadership, there is still a significant gap in terms of participation and decision-making.
At the environmental level, women are the most vulnerable to climate change, especially in developing countries, such as much of Latin America. In a higher percentage than men, women are given the responsibility of guaranteeing the availability of water, food, and sanitary care for the family, which is the first thing to be affected due to the climate crisis.
This reality, added to the conditions of poverty, makes it increasingly difficult for women to guarantee the availability and access to these resources.
Additionally, in Latin America, women own less than 20% of the land, and one in three women have no income. Without this monetary resource, it is also more difficult for them to gain decision-making power over relevant actions within their communities.
Despite all these systemic problems, women have the potential, desire, and knowledge to be essential agents of change to enable indigenous communities to work collaboratively between men and women to mitigate and adapt to the effects of the climate crisis.
In Mushullakta, although men still have more space in decision-making, there is a lot of support among families and respect for each person’s work.
However, one of the most significant differences is that women always work thinking about building a better future for the generations to come.
Their commitment to their families keeps them active in developing a forest that provides them with food and health.
The Road to Sustainability
If, as a society, we recognise the actual value of indigenous communities as critical elements for the recovery of natural areas, native forests, and biodiversity, we must also be aware of the power of women in achieving this.
Not only because they are the bearers of ancestral knowledge but also because it is neither feasible nor logical to fail to take into account the ideas, work, and talent of almost half of the people.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that empowering women and girls has been shown countless times to increase their capacity for action to promote social and environmental development.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 goals integrate gender equity as a cross-cutting issue. In addition to being a right, guaranteeing gender equity is an opportunity to add ideas, capacities, and solutions to face the climate crisis challenges. To achieve this, we can:
Redistribute care work and do not assume that women should be responsible for unpaid care activities.
Allow women to lead the proposal of alternatives that ensure food sovereignty by implementing agroforestry, permaculture, and solidarity economies such as bartering products among neighbours.
Redistribute land and natural resource tenure on equal terms for men and women. In this particular case, significant participation of the states of each country is needed, but it is essential for the fair distribution of products.
Implement successful paths towards respect for indigenous knowledge and provide them with market opportunities for products obtained from sustainable land development mechanisms.
Eradicate power relations and set aside the non-indigenous populations tending to present themselves as experts in the field without considering the indigenous people's ancestral knowledge and work experiences.
Concentrate efforts on recognising the knowledge of all as equally valid, meaningful, and valuable.
Research has shown that equitable participation is key to ensuring the right to respect for values and traditions. Given this situation, the question arises: how to get more women involved in sustainability issues?
It is essential to promote, support, and encourage the creation of educational opportunities and encourage more women to exercise leadership and decision-making roles. Women need to be allowed to find innovative ways to support the process of adapting to environmental challenges in every facet of their lives.
Only with gender equity can indigenous communities keep the spirit of Nungulli alive and inherit their ancestral knowledge to future generations based on the sacha runa yachay that allows them to live in the jungle and coexist with other beings of nature in mutual respect.
Alejandro Mendoza O.(dir), (2012). Sabiduría de la Cultura Kichwa de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana. Tomo II. Universidad de Cuenca, Ecuador
Leach Melissa, Lyla Metha, and Prabhakaran Preetha (2014). Gender Equality and Sustainable Development. For the world survey on the role of women in development. UN Women.
OECD (2021). Gender and the Environment: Building and Policies to Achieve the SDGs. OECD Publishing. Paris
Krushil Watene & Mandy Lap (2015). Culture and sustainable development: indigenous contributions. Journal of Global Ethics, 11:1, 51-55.
Agarwal Bina. Gender equality, food security and sustainable development goals (2018). Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 34:26-32.
Ray Isha (2015). Transformative Investments for Gender-Equal Sustainable Development. University of California, Berkeley
Magni Georgia (2017). Indigenous knowledge and implications for the sustainable development agenda. European Journal of Education, 52:437-447.