Some 15 miles downstream of Palizada, a day by canoe, through the willow trees you might spy a handful of corrugated buildings on the banks of the river. This is the home of an extensive family who thrives on the vast, bountiful, Rio de Palizada. Three generations of settlers live here, working the land, and taking only what they need, when they need, from the generous waters. The mesh which ensures that this family unit functions harmoniously is a 36-year-old woman, Sara.
In the mess-kitchen-turned-committee-room, the issues of the day are hashed out; the matriarch is frequently visited by family members seeking direction. Planning projects and innovations all go through Sara. If there’s a dispute in the ranks, Sara is first on hand. A family intervention? Sara assumes the role of confidant. When and what to hunt? Mediated by Sara. A symbiosis with the environment is again instilled by the matriarch, her ethos: “We take only what we need.”
Although rare, a matriarchy is not unheard of, and this instance is a testament to its merits. The structure favors less of a dictated, top-down approach, but rather the matriarch adopts a central role in the daily affairs. People look to her as a mother or a sister, softly advising: more the chair of a council than an autocrat. This approach is important; they take from the river only what is of immediate use, nothing is wasted, and they limit voracious, unsustainable growth. The people here subsist off the environment in a relationship of mutual respect.
Unfortunately, away from the river but all too common worldwide, de facto systems enforce a regime of aggressive extraction, with corporations and governments stumbling over one another to claim dominion. Land and resources are to be tamed, exploited, then abandoned for greener pastures. As is well documented, humanity has developed a chronic habit of over-consumption for momentary economic benefit; everything has a price and is harvestable. Small, self-sufficient communities, imbued with a matriarchal paradigm may be throwbacks to occasional pasts, but they could be a pragmatic model for our futures.
Meanwhile, back on the banks of the cool river, water laps at the side of the canoe as the daily fishing party heads out. The sun is at its highest and the fish must be as afflicted with the post-lunch lethargy as those that catch them. A young girl, no older than eleven, navigates the bulrushes with a precocious aptitude. She’s done this a thousand times. A half-mile of canal leads from the river to the family’s lagoon – their share of the fruitful waters. The lagoon is vast, seemingly stretching for miles in every direction, fed from the flowing river ensuring that it is always stocked with fish. Unperturbed by the omnipresent crocodiles, the efforts of the fishing party are rewarded and they head back to shore with their catch. Always enough for tomorrow’s dinner. Sometimes the solution we’re looking for can be found in unusual places.
Written by George Chowdhury.