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Southeast Asia Women and Environmental Human Rights Defenders Summit 2023


Posting Date
Session sharing during Southeast Asia Women Environmental Human Rights Defenders (WEHRDs) Summit 2023. Held from 20-26 May 2023 in Pajinian Village in the West Adonara region of East Flores, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). (SAMDHANA)

Together with partners, the Samdhana Institute recently organised the Southeast Asia Women Environmental Human Rights Defenders (WEHRDs) Summit 2023. Held from 20-26 May 2023 in Pajinian Village in the West Adonara region of East Flores, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), the Summit provided a platform for exchanging ideas, sharing experiences, and gathering information, while also fostering solidarity among women and young leaders.

The Summit was a celebratory occasion, when representatives of women environmental and human rights groups from Indonesia, the Philippines and the Mekong Region could gather and share their experiences, while also determining the next steps on their ongoing journey towards recognition and equality.

The WEHRDs Summit 2023 was a collaborative effort between Samdhana, the Larantuka Socio-Economic Development Foundation (Yaspensel[1]) and the Agro Sorghum Flores Foundation (Yashores[2]). It represented a major milestone in Samdhana’s 20-year journey to support social and environmental movements in Southeast Asia.

Addressing Issues, Redressing the Balance

Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) help protect and conserve forests, by implementing traditional practices that are geared towards protecting forest ecosystems and preserving natural resources. For this reason, they have a vital role to play in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

However, in recent years, IPLCs in Indonesia, the Philippines and in countries around the Mekong area have been denied the rightful stewardship of these lands. As a result, many have fallen into poverty. Today, IPLCs living in tropical forest areas in Southeast Asia continue to struggle for rights to their territories, in a bid to gain official recognition from the state and other authorities at the local level.

Furthermore, gender-based discrimination has historically restricted women from leadership and decision-making roles in IPLCs; village leadership structures tend to be dominated by men, who are the arbiters of traditional or customary knowledge (adat). As a result, planning and management systems for resources tend to prioritise men, while overlooking women’s role in

communities and ignoring their dependence on natural resources. This in turn can increase their burden and leave them vulnerable to gender-based violence.

To address these issues and redress the balance, Samdhana is committed to supporting Indigenous women as guardians of the Earth, by helping them fight for their rights to land, living space and livelihoods. Samdhana also supports women's role in the protection and sustainable utilisation of natural resources, by encouraging the recognition of their rights, roles, and agency in tackling gender-based discrimination and violence. In practice, this involves helping to grow women's networks so they can protect tropical forests, revive traditional food systems, and integrate sustainable agriculture with eco-friendly livelihoods.

Structure, Purpose, and Content: WEHRDs Summit 2023

The Summit primarily aimed to increase support for IPLC women who are in the frontlines of their food production, livelihoods, forest conservation and restoration, and other forms of activism for the environment and their rights. This would be achieved by building a network of women leaders and young women leaders representing IPLCs in Southeast Asia. The process would draw on the collective experience of communities, government agencies, academia, media, urban groups, and the business sector.

Participants had the opportunity to exchange stories, combine skills and share their experiences of dealing with the threat of environmental damage and climate change in their respective territories. They joined in brainstorming, storytelling, focused group discussions (FGDs), dialogues and the world café, engaging in direct and peer-to-peer learning. This included the sharing of testimonial stories, narrative photos, films, and videos.

 Their topics included good practices and innovations that support environmental protection and sustainable agriculture. They shared their knowledge about the cultivation of local staples such as sorghum, barley, corn, sweet potato, and sago, along with rice and other essential foodstuffs. There were also community products on display, including herbal and organic products, weaving and handicrafts.  The participants also shared the cultural heritage about these.

To ensure these insights and innovations can be expanded at scale, the Summit placed an emphasis on multisector involvement and collaboration. A dialogue with government agencies, legislators, academia, private sector actors and media representatives was held on the last day, in order to gain support for conservation/ restoration and forest-friendly livelihoods.

Participants and Platforms

The WEHRDs Summit was conducted through face-to-face meetings in Pajinian Village on West Adonara Island in East Flores in Indonesia’s NTT province. A total of 55 people participated in the meeting, comprising a mix of women leaders and prominent figures representing IPLCs, partner organisations, government agencies and academics involved in protecting forests and the environment.

Participants came from various countries in the Southeast Asia region, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In order to accommodate each of these groups and facilitate their interactions together, the Summit was held mostly in Indonesian and English, with translators provided to assist when needed.

The Summit began with an official opening ceremony, during which guests were welcomed by their Indonesian hosts with a traditional hedung dance ritual. This was followed by ceremonial chewing of betel nut, drinking of sofi wine and the wearing of woven shawls made on Adonara island. These ceremonial activities were overseen by local village heads and enjoyed by all in attendance. After they were completed, participants sang the national anthem of Indonesia – Indonesia Raya – before saying communal prayers to express their hopes for the days ahead.

Following the opening ceremony, speeches were made by various organisers and representatives at the event: the Director of Yaspensel; the Head of Pajinian Village, David Sanga; Cristi Marie Nozawa, the Executive Director of the Samdhana Institute; and Doris Alexander Rihi, an East Flores Regency official.

Later that day, in a session under the coconut trees, participants sat in a circle and were introduced to the event agenda. Facilitated by Mia Siscawati and Siti Maimunah, the participants shared their impressions with regard to environmental activism and human rights defenders, with particular focus on women, family and community.

Key Outputs and Takeaways from the Summit

The four days Summit provided an opportunity for reflection and switched focus to creating strategies and solutions.

These discussions resulted in the creation of a draft WEHRD Declaration and Action Plan, which outlined many of the major concerns raised by women at the Summit and formulated remedial actions to address them. These strategies covered traditional wisdom in Indigenous societies and the importance of its continuation; the need for women’s empowerment and protection for other vulnerable groups, such as the LGBTQ community; education and engagement with youth groups; cooperation with government; conflict with the corporate sector; environmental protection; and advocacy for land rights. Hopefully, the participants bring with them the lessons and insights they picked up from fellow WEHRDs in the Summit, which they can apply in their own places to improve food production, develop sustainable livelihoods, support the conservation and replanting of forests, and enhance their custom-based/ community-centered resource management.

[1] The Larantuka Social Economic Development Foundation (Yaspensel) was founded by the Bishop of Larantuka, Mr Darius Nggawa, in 1979 as a foundation engaged in agriculture, education, health, environment and economics. Yaspensel's approach to organising community productivity is by building inter-community networks, sustainable systems, legitimacy, and cadres that move from upstream to downstream with the formation of inter-dependent associations.

[2] The Shorgum Flores Foundation (Yashores) is a social and humanitarian organisation working in education, community empowerment, entrepreneurial development and climate change. Yashores seeks to become a learning institution for the recovery of local food conditions in order to support advanced and sustainable food sovereignty, with the vision of realising food sovereignty for the people of NTT.



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