The hands that weave baskets can transform the climate context
Kamal Bhandari, Srijana Baral, Kanchan Lama of ForestAction Nepal describe the transformation of indigenous women's wellbeing via involvement in the project Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions.
"The future generation do not have to worry about how to find bamboo for basket weaving anymore. We are proud of having made a sustainable resource base for the future generation.”
These were the words of Manmaya Bhujel to the ForestAction Nepal team, when we interviewed them recently.
The 29 households of the Bhujel community (a caste group in Nepal) appeared to be happy, encouraged and confident in dreaming about the long-term impacts of their bamboo plantation, on the occasion of "National Plantation Day of Nepal" 2022, when we met them on their homestead fallow land. This is a story about how their confidence and their dreams developed.
The story began more than a year ago, in November 2021, when a small team from ForestAction Nepal visited the village at the invitation of the Deurali Community Forestry Users Group (CFUG), Dhodeni and Ward Chairperson. They visited as part of the work for the IDRC-funded GLOW project entitled "Economic empowerment of women through forest solutions".
The Bhujels: a migrant community
The Bhujels here have lived inside the community forest for decades. However, they have not yet obtained CFUG membership as they cannot afford to pay the required membership subscription fees to the CFUG. They have no idea if they can make a request to the CFUG for a special subsidy. Moreover, they do not inherit land to be eligible for CFUG membership.
Long ago, the Bhujels migrated from the neighbouring district Tanahu and settled here. One political leader encouraged them to migrate with promises of land and resources. However, later the leader proved selfish and wrong. Once he fulfilled his vested political interest, he did not even look back at them. The migrated Bhujel community could not return but continued to live in the forest as residents, although without obtaining a clear knowledge about how to access their civic identity until now.
Dependent on forest resources – but without clear rights
The community is heavily dependent on the forest. Some timber traders make use of the elderly men and young people as cheap labour for timber harvesting and transportation. The women usually harvest and sell minor forest products, such as, Sal (Shorea robusta) leaves, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, edible seasonal ferns, other wild vegetables and herbs. Besides consuming, they also sell those items in the market, which is located two hours' walking distance away. During winter, they can reach the market on the three-wheeled “tempo”( a manual tricycle).
Due to their living below the poverty line, and lack of any alternate employment opportunity, the Bhujel community members do waged labour in the neighborhood fields. The men earn NRs. 600/day (USD 6.50) and women earn NRs. 500/day (USD 4.00) for the same work. The prevailing societal assumption is that women cannot do hard work equal to that of the men.
The CFUG occasionally employs them for managing the forest by clearing out the dry leaves, trimming and thinning trees. For three months in a year, they weave bamboo basket (doko-daalo, made from bamboo) and tray (nanglo, Himalayan bamboo).
Despite their reliance on bamboo–based products for livelihood, they do not have procedural access to the bamboo trees. Consequently, they buy bamboo at a costly rate of NRs250/ (USD 2.00) per piece. In addition, they must pay NRs 2000/- (more than USD 15.00) per trip by tractors for transportation of bamboo stems from the distantly-located site of the community-managed forest to the Bhujels’ village.
Research points to the fact that Indigenous Peoples such as this community are often marginalised by development processes which are intended to provide sustainable livelihood and wellbeing solutions. With an objective to reform such practices, the Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions project responded seriously to the voice raised by this community on their livelihood issues.
Action research sparks new, collaborative process
At the beginning, the project team was confused by widely-spread rumors, such as, “the Bhujel women are alcoholic, they would ruin the project by drinking day and night, while their men keep working hard to produce bamboo baskets for livelihood. The youngsters of the village are timber smugglers, they would not allow outsiders to enter for project activities,” and so on.
The project team reflected on these negative opinions with empathy and decided to explore whether they were correct, and how the Bhujels are experiencing deprivation.
On one hand, they saw a ray of light – a positive signal – when the Deurali CFUG Chairperson and the Ward Chairperson suggested that the project implement actions with the Bhujels. They found that it is not the Bhujels themselves, rather certain external social forces that play the game of creating rumours. Such external actors were concerned about their potential losses, with the idea that “if the Bhujels become aware about their rights, they might lose the cheap labour force to continue with illegal activities of forest exploitation.”
A preliminary baseline assessment helped the project team to understand the community better as a “skilled group” in possession of indigenous bamboo weaving skills, but fully deprived of education, health and livelihood related resources and services. Although the Gaindakot Rotary Club supported them to construct small homes with toilets and drinking water supply, the community remains far from being involved in local development decision-making. “Someone” decides everything on their behalf, they just follow others’ prescriptions.
Being under domination of “others”, they remain passive by losing their own creativity and confidence. They sound to feel marginalised, frustrated and depressed. Some even lost the hope of a better life. As a woman remarked, “Can you bring us some magical solution to our hard lifestyle? How long will we go on with bamboo weaving from morning till night?”
Another remarked, “We are held capture by micro finance loans. How can we get free from our loans?” Some others voiced, “How can we have easy access to bamboo bushes near to our village so that we can manage bamboo for basket and tray weaving without paying the high price to buy bamboo stems?”
The project team came up with a creative idea for being much closer to the community by relationship-building with them. By taking women’s reproductive health issues as a central issue, the project team organised a “lifestyle interaction programme”. This comprised a one-day interaction, supported by philanthropists, in which a majority of the community people participated. A general primary-level health check-up, interaction on women's health issues, problems related to men and youth were identified and provided by a naturopathy doctor.
She checked women’s health and provided some basic treatment for a few victims of uterus prolapses. We also provided dental health orientation to the children who happily used toothbrushes supplied by us after they had taken their snacks. The young men came to get checked up of their basic health condition. It was an unanticipated finding that more male, both elderly and young, had high blood pressure and sugar problems. But the women had no such problem; the women’s problems related to a few of them having uterus prolapses.
Following this event, a household needs assessment survey was conducted for a bamboo plantation near to their homestead to establish a sustainable resource base for the bamboo weavers. A total of 34 households demanded and 29 of them planted bamboo rhizomes. The executives from the local government and the community forestry management group encouraged them by joining the bamboo plantation ceremony.
The bamboo rhizomes have a 95% survival rate. A total of 17 women also participated in the entrepreneurship development and Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) training held in the Deurali CFUG premises. As their favoured major enterprise, the Bhujel women selected improving their bamboo products. Later, they also began demanding training on bio-degradable cup and plates (duna tapari) production.
Re-setting development dynamics and hope for the future
Aspirations and hopes are back among the women. Today, when we interact with the Bhujels, the women come forward to proudly share about their learning from training and other events. Their confidence level is high, with smiles in their faces. They are planning to expand and strengthen their bamboo stock for enriching access to bamboo for weaving baskets and trays.
The project adopted a feminist approach to build self-awareness among the women. This included:
- empathising and encouraging them to take the lead for year-round enterprise development actions,
- enabling them to get organised for negotiating with the local government authorities, forest authorities, CFUG committee and the market sector to create sustainable access to forest resources and marketing processes.
The project is at a crossroads now to focus its investment more on strengthening the Bhujel community women’s leadership for reflecting on their civic status, status on land rights, right to resources, their potential roles on sustainable forest management and mitigating climate disaster.
The project’s action learning process has begun with such mixed initiatives as: analysis of the gender specific needs; interests of skilled, indigenous women; women’s attitude and knowledge about mitigating carbon emissions; and adaptation initiatives for climate resilience through nurturing the forest resources – by managing a sustainable forest resource base for livelihood and environmental health.
Can this small beginning lead to an economically viable forest and environmental health?