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Sujata Tamang: Benefiting indigenous communities in Nepal

Posted: 4 August 2023

Nepal, Alumni, Impact, Indigenous,

To mark this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we spoke with Dr Sujata Tamang, an alum and member of one of Nepal’s indigenous communities. Dr Tamang completed a Master of Indigenous Studies at the University of New South Wales in 2012 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. She also received a John Allwright Fellowship from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research in 2015, which supported her to complete a four-year PhD at the University of New South Wales. She is currently engaged at ForestAction Nepal, where she works in research and policy advocacy on issues related to smallholder farmers and in educating these farmers about their rights. Our questions and Sujata’s insightful responses follow.

How would you describe your experience as an indigenous person? How did your Master of Indigenous Studies help deepen your understanding of your people and culture?

Growing up as a member of the Tamang indigenous community in Nepal, in a village that has a mix of caste and ethnic groups, I have witnessed both harmony and conflicts among these groups. In particular, I have personally experienced and also observed the challenges faced by indigenous communities who rely on upland farming with limited resources, fishing, forest dwelling and other occupations such as pottery (i.e. Dalit, Kumal and Majhi). I have observed and encountered instances where indigenous people have endured different forms of marginalisation for decades.

One of the motivations behind my decision to enrol in a Master of Indigenous Studies in Australia was to expand my worldview. The course provided me with international perspectives and insights into the experiences of indigenous communities worldwide. As I engaged with the curriculum, I tried to reflect on the values held by indigenous peoples, particularly their knowledge and wisdom. I also tried to explore the challenges they have faced, including issues related to identity, access to and control over natural resources and struggles for fair benefit-sharing, despite their contribution to nature conservation. I truly believe that indigenous communities also have a strong, reciprocal relationship with nature, making them the true guardians of mother earth.

Dr Tamang in her traditional attire

You also have a doctoral degree. Can you describe your academic journey, especially in Australia?

There were obvious differences between studying in Australia and in Nepal, particularly because I was brought up in a rural setting and in a community/government education system. Despite the noticeable differences in context and cultural aspects, pursuing my course work and research training at both master’s and doctoral degree levels in Australia offered valuable insights. It deepened my understanding of the theoretical foundations underpinning smallholder women farmers’ issues, particularly those faced by marginalised and resource-poor groups, as well as the challenges experienced by such communities in general. Additionally, the courses I took in Australia, combined with excellent mentoring and supervision at the university, enhanced my ability to grasp theoretical and conceptual frameworks with greater clarity.

Did you have any opportunity to network or develop partnerships with the Australian Indigenous people during your time in Australia?

Since I chose a field site in Nepal, I had limited opportunities to engage in networking with Australian Indigenous people for potential partnerships or collaboration. However, on a personal level, I did establish connections with groups of friends who were Indigenous Australians. Through these connections, I gained valuable insights into the lives of Indigenous people and their communities. I also received support from them during my stay in Australia.

Could you explain how you are supporting indigenous people and their cause in Nepal?

I have worked with ForestAction Nepal since 2008, which also provides a secretariat service to the Alliance of Agriculture for Food: a loose network of producer farmers, local and international non-governmental organisations, and civil society groups working on the issues of food, land, agriculture and climate change. We have been able to influence the shaping and making of agriculture policies in Nepal, to ensure that agriculture plans and programs consider the needs of marginalised farmers (based on caste/ethnicity, gender, region, wealth and access to resources), which is crucial for achieving food security and inclusive and sustainable agricultural development.

My current work is mainly focused on amplifying the voices of smallholder farmers, particularly women who face unequal pay, have limited access to, and control over, productive resources, and are often forced into labour-intensive roles. These farmers predominantly come from marginalised indigenous groups and rely heavily on farming for their livelihoods. I am using developed knowledge and skills in my current role to facilitate their capacity building and engage in policy advocacy. Additionally, I raise their issues and voices through various channels, including popular media platforms and social media.

This year’s theme for International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is ‘Indigenous Youth as Agents of Change for Self-determination’. What does this mean to you? What should be done to make this theme a reality?

Although there is growing concern and awareness about the rights of indigenous peoples and the United Nations Declaration  [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] ensures these groups’ right to determine their political, social, economic and cultural development, indigenous people are still struggling on many fronts of their daily lives. In this context, we should prioritise building the capacity of young individuals and empower them to take a leading role in raising awareness about the issues faced by indigenous communities and take collaborative actions. Any program aimed at addressing these issues must be inclusive, ensuring that indigenous youths have the opportunity to actively participate and contribute.