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IANS: Women to share environment concerns with Nobel laureate

[India News]: New Delhi, Oct 10 : Two Indian women activists will share the platform with Wangari Maathai, this year’s Nobel Peace Price winner, at a United Nations environment meet in Nairobi Monday to highlight women’s struggle for livelihood.

Bali Devi, who was part of the historical environmental conservation movement, Chipko Andolan, at Reni village near the Tibetan border 30 years ago, and Srilatha Batliwala, president of the global Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), have been selected for the honour.

“At a time when even the government was not aware of the importance and need to protect forests and biodiversity, we were tending to the Nanda Devi forests,” Devi said.

“It was our refuge from family problems, our resource for livelihood and our cultural and spiritual heritage,” Bali Devi told IANS before leaving for the “Global Women’s Assembly on Environment: Women as the Voice of Environment” (WAVE).

Bali Devi will be one of the speakers at the opening of the three-day event where Maathai will deliver the keynote address.

“The rights of a village have to rest within village control,” said the 54-year-old activist, who vividly recalls the day 30 years ago when women decided to protect the forests neighbouring their villages, 22 km from the Himalayan pilgrim centre of Joshimath.

After district officials stage-managed the absence of all the men in the village, the womenfolk clung to the trees for a day to save the forests, she said.

“It was not a question of just the trees but also medicinal plants, fruits and flowers,” said Bali Devi, who will symbolise 30 years of the Chipko movement at the Nairobi event.

“For us, forests are not just a means to get wood but also a cultural link with Nanda Devi, believed by Hindus to be the consort of Lord Shiva, whom we revere as a sister. For the most part we do not even wear slippers in the forest as it is a sacred abode.”

In the last 30 years, much has changed. Village folks, once viewed as protectors of forests, are today being treated as predators with the Nanda Devi region notified as a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.

“Our traditional rights to forest resources have been usurped. Today we have to pay the foresters for collecting wood and medicinal herbs from the Nanda Devi biosphere reserve,” said Devi.

Since 1998, when mountaineering activities in the Nanda Devi region too became restricted, people have lost a major source of livelihood, said Biju Negi, an activist of Save Seed Movement who is accompanying Devi to Nairobi.

With no access to forest resources, no income from mountaineering and a ban in trading with Tibet after India’s 1962 war with China, villagers have little source of livelihood, the two activists said.

“The government fails to realise that the forest is like our father’s house. Traditionally we have been ensuring its conservation while it met all our needs,” said Devi, who continues to be active on village committees.

She hopes to voice her concerns at the three-day Nairobi event, which is expected to attract a large number of delegates, including seven women environment ministers from countries like Sweden and Columbia.

While Bali Devi and Batliwala will share the platform at the inaugural session with Maathai, the woman behind Kenya’s green movement, Negi is scheduled to make a presentation on seed conservation at another session.

– Indo-Asian News Service

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