Indigenous peoples as stewards of sustainable development.

As the threats of climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity grow, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have much to learn from Indigenous communities’ relationship with nature. Although the significance of their knowledge and culture has often been denied, their potential to contribute to sustainable development is huge. While, at 370 million, Indigenous people make up less than five percent of the total human population, they manage over 25 percent of the world’s land surface and support at least 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity ---including most of the world’s plant and animal species. Mobilizing Indigenous people's wealth of ancient knowledge can teach us valuable lessons on how to live in harmony with our environment – a necessity, as we enter the final decade of ambitious action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Indigenous youth play a key role in unlocking the potential of Indigenous knowledge and voices to achieve sustainable development. All around the world they are taking action around issues that disproportionately affect their communities and environments, such as land degradation, displacement, and climate change.

To learn more about this generation of young Indigenous activists, we spoke to Sittie Asia Mangompia (25) during the Regional Dialogue on Indigenous Youth Social Entrepreneurship held on 20-22 January in Bangkok. Sittie is an Indigenous entrepreneur from the Philippines who supports livelihoods and environmental conservation in her community through her social enterprise, Mushroom For a Change.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Please tell us about yourself.

 

Hi, my name is Sittie Asia Mangompia Mai (below top-right) and I am a teacher and entrepreneur from the Maranao Tribe in the Philippines. From early on in life I have been advocating for peace, mainly through sports. My family owns a small Martial-arts school named Dojo Karate Do where we provide self-defense classes that boost discipline and self-esteem in women and young children. My passion for humanitarian work has led me to launch Mushroom For a Change, a social enterprise striving to find sustainable solutions aimed at poverty alleviation and enhancing local waste management.

Were there any specific events or issues you witnessed that compelled you to launch your social enterprise?

 

Marawi City, my hometown, is situated in the Philippines on the Southern island of the province of Lanao del Sur. Despite the region’s breathtaking views and rich culture, the province is plagued by poverty. Underprivileged, underdeveloped, disadvantaged and “left behind” are words often used to describe our Indigenous communities. In 2017 Marawi City was severely affected by an armed conflict between Philippine government security forces and local militant groups affiliated to ISIS. Months of fighting left our city in ruins and, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, displaced an estimated 100,000 residents, half of the total population. An awful period of fleeing followed during which I witnessed much pain and grief. Seeing many of my people lose their livelihoods and suffer from frustration, depression and extreme poverty, made me want to do something - something that would really help them.

Was this the start of Mushroom For a Change?

 

Indeed, this is when I founded Mushroom For a Change, an Indigenous youth-led social enterprise focused on oyster mushroom production, in partnership with UNDP, UNFPA and ILO. Some background: around 60% of the local population consists of Indigenous “Maranao” rice farmers, many of whom are poor, indebted and deprived of basic social needs. “Maranao” means “people of the lake” and indeed much of their identity and culture is derived from Lake Lanao. For the Maranao, rice farming is considered to be their main source of income, along with metalworking and woodworking handicrafts. Many of the Maranao lost their homes and farms during the ISIS siege. Now they struggle to provide for their families and give education to their children, which results in high child labor rates. To improve their living conditions and prevent them from becoming trapped in deep poverty, we crafted an innovative solution: an alternative source of income that helps them to maintain their livelihood.

What innovative solution did you come up with?

 

Using farmers’ rice straw waste - a byproduct of rice production – we design fruiting bags suitable for mushroom cultivation. In these bags, crafted from what is normally considered to be waste, farmers can grow an abundance of white oyster mushrooms. Besides the bags’ important economic value, they also contribute to sustainable development. Rice farming practices in our region historically instruct to burn rice straw, which releases dangerous emissions that can have serious negative consequences for human health and the environment. By using the bags, the practice of burning is no longer necessary. Another positive effect of the project is that we are providing employment, especially for women and younger people: mushroom cultivation is easy to learn, doesn’t require much time or capital and can be done from home. Currently, we are in the process of expanding our enterprise; aside from raw products, we have started developing processed products such as Mushroom Palapa (Palapa is a traditional food seasoning eaten by Maranao people) and Mushroom Polvoron (a type of candy). Many Maranaos from my area are investing their free time now in creating these products.

 

Why do you find it important to advocate for sustainability and community building through entrepreneurship?

 

While our approach to mushroom production isn’t new to many developed places in the world because the technology is already readily available there, it is an important stepping stone for Indigenous peoples in our region to preserve their culture and contribute to sustainable development. This is why Mushroom for a Change is not just about making a profit. It is a response to our region’s environmental problems and challenges to livelihood for Indigenous peoples. The next decade will be vital for our planet and I believe that action is every human being’s responsibility - even just in small ways, because they can have a big and lasting impact. Mushroom For a Change aims to do just that: bring sustainable change and hope for a better future for our people and the planet. Indeed, there is much room for a change in mushroom!

Thank you!

 

On January 20-23, 2020, young Indigenous entrepreneurs from nine countries gathered at the Regional Dialogue on Youth Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship in Bangkok. Participants developed the skills needed to grow social enterprises that will support the preservation of Indigenous culture and livelihoods. The event is a part of a larger effort by UNDP, UNESCO and the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP) to enable young Indigenous peoples to protect their communities.