Elderly Adi Women of Arunachal Pradesh: “Living Encyclopedias” and Cultural Refugia in Biodiversity Conservation of the Eastern Himalaya, India
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- Singh, R.K., Rallen, O. & Padung, E. Environmental Management (2013) 52: 712. doi:10.1007/s00267-013-0113-x
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Elderly women of a particular socioecological system are considered to be “living encyclopedias” in biocultural knowledge systems. These women play a pivotal role in retaining and passing on biodiversity-related traditional knowledge to the next generations. Unfortunately the fast changing sociocultural values and the impact of modernity have rendered their knowledge somewhat less valuable and they are being treated as “cultural refugia.” Our study on the importance of these women in the conservation of indigenous biodiversity was conducted in 14 randomly selected villages dominated by the Adi tribe of East Siang District, Arunachal Pradesh (northeast India). Data were collected from 531 women (381 elderly and 150 young to middle aged) during 2003–2008 using conventional social science methods and participatory rural appraisal. One innovative method, namely “recipe contest,” was devised to mobilize Adi women of each village in order to energies them and explore their knowledge relating to traditional foods, ethnomedicines, and conservation of indigenous biodiversity. Results indicated that 55 plant species are being used by elderly Adi women in their food systems, while 34 plant species are integral parts of ethnomedicinal practices. These women identified different plant species found under multistory canopies of community forests. Elderly women were particularly skilled in preparing traditional foods including beverages and held significantly greater knowledge of indigenous plants than younger women. Lifelong experiences and cultural diversity were found to influence the significance of biodiversity use and conservation. The conservation of biodiversity occurs in three different habitats: jhum lands (shifting cultivation), Morang forest (community managed forests), and home gardens. The knowledge and practice of elderly women about habitats and multistory vegetations, regenerative techniques, selective harvesting, and cultivation practices contribute significantly to food and livelihood security while sustaining an array of threatened plant species. Basically, knowledge of elderly women on using biodiversity in food and medicinal systems was found in three categories namely: “individual,” “community,” and “refined.” We identified a need to develop holistic policies to recognize and integrate knowledge and practices of elderly women with local level of planning on sustainable conservation of biodiversity as well as community-based adaptations.