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How Women Are Going From Climate Victims to Climate Leaders

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change across the globe. At COP22, they demanded the opportunity to be part of the solution.

By Kate Wheeling


Huaorani natives march to call a referendum to ban the oil exploitation in the Yasuni National Park. (Photo: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images)

We need the women of the world to save planet Earth, for she’s truly in peril. — Hilda Heine, President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands

Alicia Cahuiya was just 13 or 14 years old when she noticed that her world was changing. The sprawling territory of her people, the Huaorani, that lies between the Napo and Caracuya Rivers that flow through Ecuador’s rainforest had begun to shrink. The oil companies pushed into the jungle in search of oil, laying down roads that divided her people’s territory in what is now Yasuni National Park; they paved over the cemetery where her grandfather was laid to rest.

“My heart protested the idea that my grandfather was buried under a road,” she says. “That’s why we created an organization of Huaorani women, to be able to make decisions — because before, the men had made all the decisions. And they had let the oil companies in.”

Much damage has already been done. Since the arrival of the oil companies in the late 1950s, the rivers have become contaminated and the Earth has grown hotter; the land along the road stopped producing food, the fish died, the jaguars left, and the Huaorani fell ill with diseases they had never before experienced. In response, Huaorani women from 48 communities, who produce the food, educate the children, and take care of their communities, banded together to become caretakers of Earth.

Alicia is small, but still looks the part of a climate warrior, with a fierce band of red achiote face paint across her eyes. She led a march on Quito—Ecuador’s capital city—to demand that the government let the Huaorani protect what little jungle they have left, and to leave any oil that still lies under Yasuni in the ground. Everyone has a stake in this fight, Alicia says. If the unimpeded exploitation of Yasuni and its resources continues, the Huaorani will lose their home. The rest of the world we will lose something as well—a unique culture, a carbon sink, a biodiversity hot spot, a shot at new treatments from medicinal plants that don’t grow anywhere else in the world, for starters.

In Quito, rather than being received and welcomed by the government, the Huaorani were confronted by police, Alicia says — treated like outlaws. She’s still struggling to make sure their voices are heard and their territory is respected before contamination and climate change force the Huaorani to abandon their homeland.

It’s a struggle that is all too familiar to women all over the world. Twenty-six million people around the globe have been displaced by climate change since 2010; 20 million of those climate refugees are women. “There’s a clear link between poverty and who climate change impacts first and worst — and women make up the great percentage of the world’s poor,” Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director of WECAN International, said at a COP22 side event last week.

And yet language on women’s rights was largely left out of Article II of the Paris Agreement — the section that outlines the main objectives of the accord. Instead, as Lucia Graves reported in Pacific Standard last year, the issue of human rights and gender equality was shifted into the preamble of the accord — a somewhat hollow gesture, given that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has no power to enforce the content of the preamble section.

This oversight is not only to the detriment of affected women, but to anyone who either is now or will be affected by climate change (read: all of us), because women are not only victims of climate change, but have a lot of potential to be part of the solution. In the global north, women make 80 percent of consumer decisions. Historically, indigenous communities have been the most successful stewards of the Earth; today, 80 percent of biodiversity left on Earth exists on indigenous lands. In developing countries today, the vast majority of water collection and food production tasks fall to women. Food and water security are tightly linked with climate, which means that women often have a better understanding of the Earth’s climate processes on regional scales, how they are changing, and how to adapt, but it also leaves indigenous women the most vulnerable of all.

“The stresses that many indigenous women and women in developing countries experience as a result of climate change are more severe, due to their direct reliance on nature and primary resources for their survival,” Lake said.

“As we implement the Paris Agreement, we must ensure that these examples of the expertise and experience of women living on the front lines of climate change inform the decisions taken at COPs,” said Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. “Women for whom day-to-day living requires innovation and adaption to overcome climate impacts that undermine their livelihoods, their food and water security, in fact, their human rights.”

Human rights have long been overlooked by extractive industries and fuel-hungry societies. And it’s no less troubling when human rights are violated in the name of conservation or renewable energy; the United States evicted indigenous populations from their land in order to establish the national parks, for example, or, more recently, the massive land grabs that have taken place in the global south, where land is cheap, for biofuel production, solar plants, and wind farms. At COP22, Osprey called for bold climate action to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius, but cautioned climate actors not to make the same mistakes. “How we go forward matters as much as that we do go forward,” she said.


Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands, addresses the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly. (Photo: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

Women came from all over the world to tell their stories at COP22 — stories about how their rights, their communities, their people, and their bodies have been violated by both corporations and the governments meant to protect them. All were fighting their own battles in the war against climate change and the structural flaws in our economic system that perpetuate the problem, but in coming together in a show of cross-border solidarity, their ranks swelled to numbers they hoped would be too large to ignore.

Kayla DeVault, a SustainUS delegate from Window Rock, Navajo Nation, says shefelt an immediate kinship with the women of Imider, a municipality in the Atlas Mountains that has been plagued by pollution from a nearby silver mine. Five women from the community recently passed away from cancer, many others have developed strange skin allergies—illnesses that the community never faced before the mine began operating, according to Fadma El Khallouri. A 57-year-old mother of 10—six boys and four girls—with piercing eyes and a traditional Berber chin tattoo, Fadma explains through a translator that everyone in the village—the elders, men, women, and children—suffer from poverty and pollution. There is a proverb in Tamazight that comes to mind: Aman iman. Water is life and faith.

The mining company uses about 12 times as much water per day as the entire village on average, according to activists. Since 2011, the women of Imider, including Fadma, have occupied a hilltop about three kilometers from the village in protest, cutting off access to one of the mine’s main water supplies. They’ve faced threats, arrests, and intimidation from the authorities, who are present in the village 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Fadma says.

DeVault made the nearly 200-mile trek south of the COP22 site in Marrakech to Imider last week. As she spoke to the group and listed all the environmental and health problems troubling her people back in Window Rock — contamination, emerging illnesses, and violence against women among them — the women of Imider solemnly nodded their heads; they had been through the same.

Indigenous peoples rarely see the financial fruits of the resources extracted from the land they live on. “We’ve been given land to farm and to use, but we only own down to the grass roots through the grazing permits,” DeVault said of the Navajo Nation on Monday. “That means we don’t get rights to the resources that are taken out.”

Across Africa, land grabs are exacerbating food insecurity on a continent where women farmers account for up to 80 percent of food production. “In the last 10 years, one million hectares of land [in Africa] has been given or sold off to investors in the Middle East and Europe,” Ruth Nyambura, a member of the African Eco-Feminists Collective, said on Monday. “The average farmer owns about two hectares of land. Some of us have been calling it the second conquest of Africa.”

Compounding the insult, many of the corporations that have wrought this destruction are at COP22 as well, promoting their ends with negotiators and attempting to green wash their environmental abuses with climate finance. Managem, for example, the sister group of the mining company in Imider, is one of the official sponsors of COP22.

“We allow the same companies that continue to commit ecocide to sit at the table that decides what climate justice means to us,” Nyambura said.

Public-private partnerships can pose a major threat to community conservation, according to Simone Lovera of Paraguay’s Global Forest Coalition. Such partnerships too often create a financial incentive for governments or the United Nations—which should be protecting the public interest—to shy away from policies that could harm companies’ bottom lines.

If corporate influence over governments is conspicuous at international conventions, that’s nothing compared to the chumminess once corporations go home, Lidy Nacpil, head of the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development, said at a side event last week. In a variety of cases, corporations can directly influence elections. “You see many instances of governments that are beholden to corporations, including and especially big corporations that are involved in the fossil fuel business, or in businesses that are targets of system-wide changes in order to bring down greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. But corporations have “unprecedented involvement” at COP22, as the Guardianreported last week:

[R]epresentatives of companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Peabody, BP, Shell and RioTinto will have unquestioned access to most discussions in Marrakech, will be called upon for advice and will be walking the corridors and holding private discussions with countries that are trying to move the world to stop consuming the products those companies have based their businesses on.

Meanwhile, indigenous communities say they are still fighting to be heard. “It would be very honest to say that it pisses me off that they have a voice but we don’t,” Nina Gualinga, a climate activist from Sarayaku, Ecuador, told Pacific Standard in reference to corporate influence. “But that’s also why we’re here, because the world has to listen to us. We were a small community in the middle of nowhere in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and that’s why the government sent the military—because they thought no one is going to care.”

In the 1990s, the Ecuadoreangovernment gave a private oil company a permit to explore and drill on the Sarayaku People’s land. The community resisted, and the government sided with the oil company, sending heavily armed military forces into the jungle. Nonetheless, the Sarayaku People managed to kick the oil companies off their land. “Indigenous people should be considered as real actors in the negotiations; we are not only being affected but we are also the solution,” Gualinga says. “Thanks to us, today, the oil has been kept in the ground.”

The UNFCCC is beginning to recognize the critical role for women in climate action. A new decision on gender and climate change is on the table during COP22, which, if implemented, would compel parties to consider traditional knowledge in climate policy planning and encourage grassroots women’s participation in climate action. It seems that grassroots women, according to Mary Robinson, will soon have spots on delegations and more resources to help them participate and contribute. This would be a major step forward for women’s groups; currently, governments seem more likely to bring in armed forces to arrest or intimidate protestors into submission than to give them a platform.

Even in the U.S., dozens have been arrested at peaceful protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which passes just half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. On Sunday, police reportedly blasted a group of roughly 400 protestors with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures, and over 100 people were arrested in one night.

“How are we ever going to achieve climate justice,” Gualinga asks, “if we keep on criminalizing those who are actually fighting climate change, and not just only talking about it?”