As the heat of cuaresma becomes almost unbearable these days in the Philippines, I invariably turn to memories of Benin in West Africa. There, at the fringes of climate change’s “Ground Zero”, no mourning bell tolls for the women who are most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts.
And justly so,because women's resilience can be a most valuable resource for survival even in a more inhospitable, warming globe, asserted a university-based researcher there.
Monique Oussa, a teacher on the sociology of art at the University of Abomey-Calavi, wrote in her recent study of agricultural Benonois northern tribes that national and local development planners looking into local adaptation strategies for climate change must understand and learn from indigenous worldviews in order to tap women’s potentials.
I met Oussa while on field work on climate change reporting in Coutonou half a dozen years ago.
This, as the Benin government’s environment agency has striven to provide support in harnessing womenfolk’s potentials in adapting to the effects of a quickly changing temperature of an already “feverish earth”, a few months before the 21st yearly meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP 21) in Paris at the end of the year.
Oussa issued the findings of her study “like the sound of African morning bells”, not as a mourning toll but as a wake-up call. Wake-up calls of African bells known as djin djin,have been popularized worldwide by an eponymous title of an album of world music by the Grammy award-winning Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo in 2007.
Oussa, 34, had set out on a multiple-year study of the worldviews of the agricultural bush-burning tribes in the departments (equivalent to provinces in the Philippines) of Atakiri and Alibori in the northern Benin, about 500 kilometers from Cotonou, along the borders of Mali and the Niger.
“ I sought out to understand the indigenous cosmogony, their worldview so that we will know why, for instance, they keep on burning trees and grasslands and why they have no tradition of planting trees and instead is contributing to desertification.”
The West African country of Benin (112,600 square kilometers), slightly bigger than the size of Luzon island, has lost virtually all its primary forest cover and desertification is taking over its northern territories. The upper north of Benin is on the isedge of the sub-Saharan Sahel region and shares the same Sahel-like climate and terrain.
Jan Engeland, UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on conflict, while on a visit in this area, called this part of Western Africa , as climate change’s Ground Zero, where the worst impact of climate change will be felt by the world’s poorest peoples, especially women and children.
Moreover, the Nobel Peace Prize awardee, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of some 2,000 climate scientists, which evaluated the risk of climate change caused by human activity,also concluded in 2007 that the West African Sahel and Central Africa will experience some of the highest temperature increases anywhere in the world over the next few decades.
Oussa found out after researching since 2004 that for these Benonoise tribes women are associated mostly with water, rain and fertility while men are associated with soil and the land.
“That’s why women are tasked with gathering water and watering fields while men are associated with the soil and the harvest. She also said that fire is also considered an important element associated with new beginnings and rites of passages.
These beliefs can have an implication on women’s land rights, Oussa contends as women in these parts traditionally cannot own nor inherit land, so she urges development planners in the government and private sectors to find ways to change the negative aspects of this worldview in order to benefit women.
“Only when women can have their land rights can women be fully harnessed as resources and stewards of resources for survival in an era of climate change.”