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FOCUS June 2004 Volume 36

Resistance to Development and Militarization - Report on the Second Asian Indigenous Women's Conference

Mieko Fujioka

Indigenous women from various parts of Asia gathered in Baguio city, the Philippines, on 5-8 March 2004 for the second Asian Indigenous Women's Conference (AIWC). This gathering was held 11 years after the first AIWC. About a hundred people, including observers, from 13 countries participated. There were no Ainu women participants. The author participated on behalf of an Ainu woman. The conference was organized by the Asian Indigenous Women's Network and Tebtebba, and hosted by INNABUYOG-CWERC (Cordillera Women's Education and Resource Center).

Development, militarization, and anti-"terrorism"

A major issue in the conference was the link between globalization and development and its effect on indigenous women in Asia. In the Cordillera (Philippines), indigenous vegetable growers have been badly hit by the influx of cheap vegetables from China and other countries. A participant from Yunnan, China reported that the policy of the Chinese government forces indigenous farmers to produce cash crops. But only a handful succeeded in it. Many are increasingly being pressured to abandon their communities and migrate to cities in order to survive. With the entry of "suicide seeds"[i] or other genetically engineered seeds of high yielding varieties marketed by transnational corporations, indigenous women farmers are now losing the role of keeper of indigenous seeds. They now have to buy seeds, which is an added drain on their already limited cash.

These cases show a common pattern of the market economy penetrating indigenous communities resulting in the loss of subsistence economy and more dependence on cash income. This situation leads to greater economic gap between rich and poor within the community and the collapse of mutually beneficial traditional social system. In this process, distinct cultures undergo significant transformation.

This process greatly affects women. It was reported that in many parts of Asia, indigenous women used to have an important role in resource management and production in the traditional economy. However, as the market economy penetrates the communities and women's roles are no longer valued, their status in the community declines.

Large-scale infrastructure projects such as dams are undertaken in indigenous peoples' lands without their consent. In the Philippines, most of the large-scale dams have been built or planned in indigenous peoples' territories. In India, it is reported that 40 to 50 percent of those who were displaced by development projects are indigenous peoples.

The Doyang Hydro Electricity Project in Nagaland, India is a case in point. The dam was built on Doyang River in 1983 and 30,000 indigenous people were affected.

They (the Nagas) lost their land and traditional ways of living which depended on the forest and wetland resources. They became wage laborers, while their community systems and social fabric were affected. A second phase of the project is proposed and they fear that the destruction of the indigenous communities will continue.

Development in the form of tourism transforms indigenous peoples' lands into national parks and protected areas. Many of these projects have military support to suppress people's opposition. The most obvious cases can be seen in Burma.

Militarization of indigenous peoples' territories is one of the common issues facing indigenous peoples in Asia. Military power is used not only to violently suppress indigenous movements for self-determination and autonomy (such as in Nagaland), but also to promote State-sponsored or private transnational corporation development projects. Militarization deprives indigenous peoples of freedom of movement, destroys their environment and gives rise to sexual violence against women and girls.

Another serious issue related to militarization is the increasing labeling of legitimate indigenous movements as "terrorists" in the "war on terror" after 11 September 2001. In the Philippines, after the US government added the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing New People's Army (NPA) to its Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, the Philippine government undertook military offensives against the NPA and the indigenous communities suspected of supporting it. In India, many indigenous peoples organizations fighting for their rights to land and resources have been labeled as "terrorist" organizations under the Prevention of Terrorism Act enacted after 11 September 2001.

The author reported on the situation and concerns of Ainu women, particularly the Ainu Communal Property Case. This case, filed in 1999, questions how the Ainu communal property has been managed under an 1899 law on the Ainu people. There is a suspicion of misuse of the communal property by the Governor of Hokkaido who is given the responsibility to manage it. The litigation is considered as one of the efforts towards restoring Ainu's right to their land and resources.

It became very clear in the conference that globalization, development and militarization go hand in hand to hinder indigenous peoples from achieving self-determination and full enjoyment of their legitimate rights.

"Tradition" and cultural development

The conference also took up a wide range of other issues including women's rights, reproductive rights/health, violence against women, and women's organizing.[ii]

The participants reported that under customary practices women usually play a central role in preserving the land and forest resources and thus their status in society is relatively high.

Indigenous customary laws and practices worked favorably for women in many cases. In the Cordillera, violence against women used to be a communal concern and various interventions by the community were useful in preventing violence or persuading the men from resorting to violence. With the deepening westernization of the society, however, violence against women became private matter and no longer subject to communal intervention. Also, indigenous women used to have control over forest resources which helped guarantee their relatively independent and higher status in the community. Due mainly to the imposition of the modern land registry and forest management systems, women have lost this important role. These examples suggest that it is desirable to maintain, rather than dismantle, the traditional economy and value systems, and the customary laws and practices in order to keep the women's status high and protect their dignity.

On the other hand, there were reports about traditional practices that women want abolished. In some indigenous societies, the "bride price" system in marriage is now functioning as if "women are being bought." A Maing participant from Thailand said that after marriage she was forced to pay back through her labor the cost of her huge wedding ceremony. Male child preference is strong in some ethnic groups, such as the Hmong in Thailand, and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, women are pressured to give birth to two or more male children. If they fail, the husband divorces his wife and/or takes another wife.

In sum, the destruction of traditional indigenous systems and the shift to modern values and legal systems often lower women's status in society and lead to violation of their rights. On the other hand, changing certain traditional laws and practices that work against the interests of women, should not mean that other systems and cultural aspects that the women themselves want to preserve should also be destroyed. The participants expressed pride in transmitting their distinct culture and values to future generations. To label them as "victims of tradition" is wrong.

A Nepali participant explained that when a marriage system that allows a woman to marry all the brothers of one family in an ethnic community in Nepal was subjected to Western feminist criticism, the women in the community strongly felt shame and lost confidence in themselves. Women without self-confidence "will not become agents of change in the social institutions they want to abolish," she pointed out.[iii]

Empowering indigenous women

In response to the need to protect and/or recover the traditional important role of indigenous women, the second AIWC recommended to the indigenous peoples organizations and movements the following:

Empowerment of Indigenous Women for Leadership

  • Empower indigenous women to exercise our life skills in health, education and decision-making and to play our important roles in our families, communities and the indigenous peoples' movement.
  • Carry out gender-sensitivity programmes within indigenous organisations and communities.
  • Strengthen indigenous women's participation in all aspects of leadership and governance. Special meetings, leadership training as well as other training courses and exposure programmes should be organised.
  • In terms of participation, a quota for women should be allocated, and when projects or meetings are going on, nursery facilities should be provided.
  • Women will be encouraged to take up decision-making positions, after gaining the necessary confidence.
  • The role and perception of women should not follow stereotypes and women who are qualified and experienced should be selected as leaders.

Leadership by indigenous women will have an impact on the way the indigenous people's organizations and movements operate. It will also supplement the ongoing effort to establish indigenous women's organizations in many countries in the region.

Future networking in Asia

In the past 11 years, organizing of indigenous women in Asia has considerably advanced. In Indonesia, indigenous women's network called Aliansi Perempuan Adat Nusantara, or Indigenous Women Alliance of the Archipelago (APAN) was created in 2000. In Bangladesh, 11 indigenous women's organizations participated in Hill Tracts NGO Forum that was established in 2000. In Nepal, 8 indigenous women's organizations are organized and 9 more are planned. At the sub-regional level, South Asian Indigenous Women's Network was established in 2003. The conference decided to activate sub-regional and regional networking of indigenous women in Asia. It successfully ended by adopting the Baguio Declaration.[iv]

Mieko Fujioka is the Coordinator of the IMADR Guatemala Project, and a university lecturer.

For further information please visit: www.tebtebba.org


[i] Also called terminator seeds. These are crop seeds that become sterile at harvest time.

[ii] The conference also discussed an issue particular to indigenous peoples in one country. The Baguio Declaration has a statement on this issue:
Violation of the Right to Citizenship of the Tribal Peoples of Thailand
The right to citizenship of the tribal peoples of Thailand has not been guaranteed by the government; with applicants facing long delays in the processing of documents. Without citizenship, indigenous and tribal peoples are denied their most fundamental rights and entitlements, including access to education and other public services, land and property rights, and social mobility. Under these conditions, indigenous women are rendered extremely vulnerable and marginalised. Urgent government action is needed to redress this situation.

[iii] The Baguio Declaration also includes a statement about the general condition in Nepal, as in the following:
The declaration of Nepal as a Hindu State has meant the promulgation of laws, rules and regulations (including the Constitution) based on Hindu values including cultural norms which consider women as inferior and impure. The government policy of Hinduisation undermines the egalitarianism of traditional indigenous societies of Nepal and downgrades the status of indigenous women.

[iv] See www.tebtebba.org/tebtebba_files/gender/aiwcdec.html

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