Later this month more than 100 heads of State, along with some 50,000 representatives from businesses, NGOs, trade unions, local governments and others will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the 2012 UN Earth Summit.
Among them will be Muhabbat Mahmaladiyeva, a passionate advocate for biodiversity and women’s rights in Tajikistan who is to receive an award from the UN Development Programme on behalf of the organisation she set up, Zan va Zamin – a Christian Aid partner.
The Equator Prize is awarded to local community groups around the world in recognition of their outstanding contributions to sustainable development.
Muhabbat founded Zan va Zamin – which means ‘Women and Land’ – with other female activists to give a voice to the rural poor in Tajikistan and help them overcome the social and economic challenges after a civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
‘‘The civil war which followed the end of the Soviet era meant that people were not hopeful about their future. I worked as a biology teacher in the capital of Dushanbe for 18 months without a salary. This was common at the time and worse for poorer women in rural areas – they were working like slaves in farms.
“I began talking to other friends and we decided that we must speak on behalf of the people at a grassroots level. When I lived in Dushanbe I used to feel like an eagle, just observing things from a distance, but I realised I had to get to the heart of the issues.”
Many Tajiks remember the Soviet era as the ‘happy days’ when they had jobs, healthcare and education. Following its collapse, Tajikistan was unable to cope and it is now one of the poorest of the former Soviet states.
The civil war and a process of rapid de-development left millions living in poverty and caused mass male labour migration.
Today, in Tajikistan, women and children are particularly vulnerable.
Muhabbat explains: “One million Tajik men are working as economic migrants in Russia and many never return. The burden of household responsibilities falls on the shoulders of the women while 90 per cent of workers in the fields are women too.
“This is in a country where domestic violence is normalised with many women living with their husband’s families where they suffer physical and psychological abuse.
“We work with women to rightfully obtain their land, grow their own food and provide for their families. My proudest moment was visiting a woman who had been left by her husband and left with nothing. I visited her after we had helped her; she had a big smile on her face and offered me a basket of vegetables she had grown.”
According to law, those who worked during Soviet times are entitled to a share of the land, but local people in rural areas did not know about their rights or how to claim the land. Farmers were also told that they had to cultivate 80 per cent cotton, for which there is little profit.
Today communities are beginning to diversify the crops they produce, growing fruits and vegetables, ensuring their food security.
Zan va Zamin have been at the forefront of this work. Two thousand farmers have received land parcels as a result of the group’s advocacy work.
Muhabbat retains a keen interest in biodiversity from her days as a biology teacher. She enthusiastically recounts the story of Vavilov, a prominent Russian botanist who identified the eight centres of origin of cultivated plants at the turn of the century, pinpointing one of these as Southern Tajikistan.
“There are rare apples in Tajikistan we need to preserve! Everybody should be able to take care of their environment, it is not just the responsibility of experts and biologists, it must be everyone – it is a question of keeping life on earth,” she says.
The group has established ‘field schools’ where farmers learn both agricultural production and biodiversity conservation – over 1,000 tons of vegetables are produced annually. Two community orchards contain over 10,000 trees, the majority of which are traditional varieties of apple, pear, grape, apricot, and peach. Diversification of crops has prevented land degradation, reduced food shortages and strengthened food sovereignty, and improved local incomes.
Every year Zan va Zamin reach 3,000 homes with their invaluable work. They will receive $5,000 with the award and will be put forward for a further 10 special recognition awards, each to the value of $15,000. These prizes will be announced during the Rio+20 summit in Brazil (20-22 June 2012).
Muhabbat said: “We are honoured to win this prize. It inspires us for our future activities in protecting the environment, improving women’s living conditions, and building sustainable and resilient communities. As a result of this prize, we will be able to further our work.”