Lalzamien observed that the rains had become capricious. The farmer from Churachandpur district of Manipur reminisced about ai-ruo, the November rain that brings out the crabs that crawl on the wet, muddy earth. In the Hmar dialect, ai is crab and ruo is rain.

Such a name for the rain elucidates how closely the lives of indigenous communities in these parts are interwoven with their natural environment.

“These days, the rains are unpredictable and this is affecting our harvest and farming cycle,” said Lalzamien. In August, a heavy downpour triggered landslides that killed 20 people in neighbouring Chandel district. A few months later, floods submerged farms and small bridges as rivers swelled.

Mary Beth Sanate, secretary of the Rural Women’s Upliftment Society, a civil society group in Churachandpur that works to empower women in matters of food security, livelihoods and human rights, said, “Climate change is affecting the livelihoods of rural communities. Small farmers are dependent on the monsoons, and unpredictable rainfall is affecting their income.

She added, “Our state does not have a concrete disaster policy, let alone a gender policy.”

Women farmers in Manipur contend not only with unpredictable weather but also with life in one of India's most militarised territories.

Climate and conflict

Manipuri women have had to contend with much more than tumultuous weather as they inhabit one of the most militarised territories in India. A protracted conflict has seeded dozens of armed groups, leading to innumerable killings and gender-based violence, and leaving a trail of women widowed by gun violence.

Once an independent kingdom, Manipur was colonised by the British in 1891. Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh signed a merger agreement with India in 1949, which was contested as coerced by the Manipuri public, who considered it an assault on their independent democratic processes that were already in motion. Since then, the state has seen both liberation struggles and ethnic conflicts between various groups.

“There are nearly 20,000 gun widows in Manipur,” said Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, a non-profit that offers livelihood and psychosocial support to women who are survivors of gun violence. “Our state has weapons flowing in from 13 countries, including the United States.”

In the face of a changing climate, food insecurity and unspeakable violence, women in Manipur have a long history of organising and confronting unbridled power. In 1939, they staged a bold agitation against British imperialism in Nupi Lan or Women’s War to protest free trade laws that spiked the price of rice. In 2004, 12 Manipuri mothers staged a naked protest outside the headquarters of the 17th Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit accused of raping and killing Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman. This protest brought national and international visibility to the horrific sexual violence faced by women in a militarised state.

“When armed soldiers are patrolling, women are afraid to go into the forest alone and prefer to go in a group to gather fruits and other produce,” said a woman farmer from Churachandpur. Conflict and militarisation restrict the mobility of rural women, posing a challenge to their food security.

Fight for inclusion

Women’s rights organisations in Manipur are amplifying the dialogue on the critical role of indigenous women as human rights defenders, peace-builders and natural resources managers who play a vital role in conserving community forests and biodiversity. “Women have a profound knowledge about forests and managing natural resources that is passed on as oral tradition,” said Sanate. “It is critical that this knowledge is preserved to build the resiliency of communities to stop climate change and degradation of our natural resources.”

The Rural Women’s Upliftment Society trains farmers, like Lalzamien, on ecological farming and biodiversity-based food production to build resiliency and counter unpredictable weather. Lalzamien grows nearly 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables on her land. She said she used vermicompost (compost created from the use of earthworms) as a natural fertiliser and has planted nitrogen-fixing plants to improve soil health. “Chemical fertilisers hardened our soil, and are not good for our health,” she observed.

Ecological farming advocates believe sustainable agriculture is important for carbon sequestration (the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) and reversing climate change.

Ecological farming is considered as a sustainable alternative to counter climate change.

Women’s struggles

Rural women’s rights advocates like Sanate underscore that both climate change and conflict are not gender-neutral: they have a disproportionate impact on women and girls. When streams dry up due to deforestation, women bear the burden of walking longer distances to source water. Similarly, they bear the burden of caring for their families when gun violence affects men. “We need women to be part of key decision-making spaces to influence policy,” said Sanate. “This cannot be a top-down solution. Women need to be an integral part of peace negotiations and designing climate change policies.”

Shangnaidar Tontang concurs. As an advocate for the rights of women and small farmers, she has witnessed the impact of biodiversity loss and conflict on the lives of rural communities. “We need holistic sustainable development that protects our livelihoods, culture and natural resources,” she said. “Food is a connected issue – it is linked with our livelihood, rituals and health. We need to see issues in relationship with each other, not in isolation.” Tontang is secretary of the Weaker Sections Development Council, a civil society group that empowers small farmers by promoting sustainable agriculture and livelihoods and through statewide advocacy to shift food policy in favour of marginalised communities and small producers.

Last year, when persistent rain triggered landslides in Chandel district, Tontang was one of the first responders. She mobilised her team and volunteers to lead outreach efforts to clear roadblocks that had trapped people in remote villages, preventing them from accessing essential commodities and services. “People were desperate, they were suffering terribly,” she recalled. “They didn’t have food to eat and couldn’t reach health clinics for medical help. We mobilised support and resources and cleared road blocks in nearly 60 points.”

Women’s rights groups in Manipur have also been engaging in dialogue at state and regional levels to demand the inclusion of women in governance in the face of discriminatory customary laws. “Men are at the table making decisions while women are working on the ground, protecting their forests and patrolling the night in their communities to stop violence,” Sanate said. “They are meditators, peace-builders, negotiators and caregivers. Customary laws need to be redefined from a gender perspective so that women can have control over their lives and wellbeing and shift policy.”

Civil society groups in Manipur are working to empower rural women.

It’s not just in Manipur but across India that indigenous women’s groups have begun to make linkages and see problems in relationship with each other. “The health of our lands and forests affects our food and livelihood security,” said Tontang. “Women have that knowledge. And so we can’t just pick up one issue as our agenda, because everything is inter-related and we see that.”

All images credit Rucha Chitnis.