How Indigenous Women Are Integrating Sustainability in Their Businesses


Author – Noah Rue

We live in a more advanced world than ever, yet the world has a long way to go when it comes to numerous social issues, such as sustainability and gender equality. Ensuring equal opportunities for women ranks among the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a list of goals set in 2015 to build a more sustainable future for all.

If rising global temperatures and extreme weather events are any indication, we have a long way to go in the realm of environmental stewardship. Some people are more vulnerable to the negative effects of pollution than others. According to researchers at Helsinki University, in fact, indigenous communities are “disproportionately affected” by pollution in all its forms, including waterborne. Although the study primarily involved indigenous tribes in North America, a similar trend can be seen throughout the world.

Frequent exposure to pollution such as contaminated water, poor sanitation or toxic effluents can result in ill health among a large portion of the population. The good news is that it is within those communities such solutions can be found: Indigenous women are leading the charge towards a healthier future for all, with many indigenous women even integrating sustainability into their business model.

While we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s explore the various opportunities that exist for indigenous women to better themselves, their communities, and the environment.

Importance of Sustainability and Water Quality

From a business standpoint, sustainable initiatives come in a variety of forms, such as environmental remediation. Indigenous entrepreneurs looking to make a difference can do their part by organizing a local clean-up event, or otherwise educating the community on the importance of sustainability.

Freshwater access is also a key component of environmental stewardship. Sustainability and water quality are intrinsically linked, and the issue of clean water access is a major talking point for indigenous populations across the globe. In rural India, for example, indigenous tribes are constantly on the lookout for water purification ideas that are both practical and cost-effective.

The issue of water quality is important for a number of reasons. For starters, community members who drink poor quality water are highly susceptible to various diseases, some of which can be fatal. Common waterborne contaminants include E. coli and Hepatitis A. Thus, for the sake of public health, tribal leaders must ensure that community members are able to access water that is both affordable and free from contaminants.

Cultivating a Sustainable Mindset

In terms of sustainable business practices, examples of progress can be seen around the world, from North America to remote villages in India. the Pipara village in Bundelkhand. There, tribal women spend upwards of 5 hours each day in order to secure enough drinking water for their families. They are not alone. The Pipara’s counterparts in environmental activism include the following:

Women in Odisha

It’s important to note that being a business owner in an impoverished, rural community looks much different than her city-dwelling counterpart. In Odisha’s village of Kodarapalli, for example, many tribal women work for themselves. Like the Pipara, Odisha women are tasked with attending to the everyday needs of their household, including chores and food preparation.

Yet in addition to their daily chores, these tribal women have taken on a much more important task, and have effectively become the guardians of the Odisha forest. Using a practice known as ‘Thengapalli’, Odisha women from 60 tribal villages patrol the surrounding forest in an effort to ward off timber thieves and poachers. It is a practice where members from the village participate in protecting their community forest. It involves around 4-6 women patrolling the forest’s boundaries in shifts to protect the forest. Without Thengapalli, villagers would have few options in terms of making a living.

Indigenous Students in Rural Costa Rica

On the other side of the world, villagers in Central America are also looking to make a difference in terms of sustainability and female empowerment. In 2016, four young women from Punta Burica, a rural village in Costa Rica, traveled to India on an educational scholarship. The opportunity was sponsored in part by the Barefoot College in an effort to recognize the sustainability efforts of local, indigenous women.

During their six-month adventure in Rajasthan, the students learned about the benefits of solar energy and other forms of eco-friendly technology. The young women then brought that knowledge back to their villages in Costa Rica in the hopes of improving sustainability while also boosting employment and the overall quality of life.

Aditya Birla Empowers Indigenous Women

True sustainability can be difficult to achieve on a small scale and reducing pollution on a large scale can only be achieved when community members work together for the greater good. And sometimes, indigenous women with a dream of owning their own business and making a difference in their community may need a boost. Across India, organizations like the Aditya Birla Group (ABG) are doing their part to empower women for sustainable development.

ABG partners with localized self-help groups to give rural and indigenous women the tools and skills they need to succeed. Prospective entrepreneurs can learn useful skills, such as textile making and livestock rearing, as well as other green business ideas that may take them far in life. Their efforts may also inspire other indigenous young women to follow a path towards improved sustainability, in business and community efforts alike.

No matter where you reside, pollution from human activities wreaks havoc on the natural world, contaminating everything from soil to groundwater, and compromising public health in the process. Fortunately, there’s an unseen hero in the fight: the indigenous woman!


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