ROME – Asian matriarchal communities have become unlikely pioneers of women’s rights and the protection of the environment as females play a central role in these indigenous societies.
The Minangkabau, an ethnic group of some four million people that inhabit the western side of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, is the largest matriarchal community in the world.
Mothers take on a key role: they make the decisions, safeguard nature and tend to the forests and agriculture.
In many patriarchal systems, women are blocked from accessing natural resources but not for Minang women.
“Our properties and inheritances go to women since they are transferred to daughters,” Nofri Yani, a member of the community, told EFE.
“We manage them, but we cannot sell them. The land for us is communal,” Yani added.
Men in the community support the work of women and are expected to bring food to the table, as well as having the obligation to plant trees – coconut, mango and avocado – before getting married to earn an income.
Yani believes that there is gender equality since men also act as “leaders on behalf of their mothers and sisters.”
She hopes to continue living “in harmony with nature” and to document the group’s collective knowledge so that it does not get lost in a world in which “modernization does not match their needs.”
The young woman traveled to Rome to participate in a scholarship program for indigenous young people promoted by the United Nations and other institutions aimed at enhancing the management of their natural resources.
Indigenous communities manage 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.
The Khasi, another matriarchal community of just 400 people in northeastern India, maintain around 280 edible plants, community member Merrysha Nongrum told EFE.
Khasi women meet at a local council which serves as a “platform to express their views and take care of community resources.”
Recurrent topics at these meetings include troubleshooting problems such as the loss of local varieties of plants, the lack of job opportunities and the progress of monocultures.
Nongrum hopes to launch a seed bank, expand the agricultural market, bring agroecology to schools and learn more about farmers’ rights.
More than 150 matrilineal societies have been documented around the world, those in which a person’s descent is through maternal ancestors and property is handed down from mother to daughter.
Anthropologist George Murdock accounted for them in his exhaustive study of over 1,200 communities which he mapped in his ethnographic Atlas published in 1967.
Matriarchal communities made up 12% of the ethnic groups he recorded.
Although the Mayan community in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, does not have a matrifocal structure like the previous ones, Edgar Oswaldo Monte highlighted the role that women there play as “property managers.”
“Men focus on production, but women decide what they eat each day and know how much food they need at home, how many resources they have and the prices at which to sell them,” the young man said.
Monte regrets that certain traditional practices have become less efficient due to climate change and external pressures: rains cannot be predicted as well as before with the lunar calendar and it is also useless to observe insects because pesticides are killing them.
Indigenous food is closely linked to biodiversity, said Yon Fernandez de Larrinoa, an expert at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Hunger or lack of micronutrients suffered by many of these communities is due to the poverty that many suffer, especially after many have lost control of their lands, according to the FAO.
Many nutrient-rich native species have been abandoned or scarcely used in their diets and malnutrition is a concern.
Lukas Pawera, from the Bioversity research center, has called for support for the diversity of these food systems and matriarchal societies given their “unique values” which can serve as a reference in the fight against climate change and gender equality.