Three women, three stories.
In Papua New Guinea, the Carteret islands are drowning in the rising sea. The people who live there traditionally have relied on taro for food, but the plant has become increasingly difficult to grow as salt water floods the fields. “Our shorelines are eroding so fast, and there are frequent storm surges,” says Ursula Rakova via Global Greengrants Fund, an international environment fund that supports grassroots environmental actions. “The rising sea levels have gotten so bad that one of the islands is disappearing really fast…We can’t hold back the sea. It will do its part. It’s already doing its part. It’s displacing us.”
In response, Rakova initiated a process that relocated 86 people — comprising seven families — to higher ground on the mainland, in Bougainville, on four parcels of land donated by the Catholic Church. But the elders don’t want to leave the island. So Rakova and others from the community are finding ways to grow crops in their new location and bring it back to those still living on the atoll.
Her name is Aleta Baun, but they call her “Mama” Aleta. She lives on Indonesia’s Timor Island, where the forests and the mountains are rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, gold and marble. For years, mining companies had taken the marble without consent, polluting rivers, destroying forests, and eroding the very identity of the community.
Finally, when they tried to plunder Mutis Mountain, which lies at the intersection of the island’s major rivers, which supply water to the indigenous Mollo people, Mama Aleta decided enough was enough.
With the tribal elders’ approval, she organized more than 150 women in the region to sit at the mine’s entrance with their looms. They stayed, peacefully weaving their traditional tapestries, blocking entry. During the year-long protest, their men took on the domestic chores, including cooking, cleaning and caring for the children. The youngsters served as “runners” and brought the women food from home.
Ultimately, the miners gave up and left.
“The philosophy of our people is that we regard the Earth as our human body,” she explains in a video provided by the Goldman Environmental Prize, which awarded Mama Aleta’s campaign its 2013 Islands and Island Nations prize. “That stone is our bone. Water is our blood. Land is our flesh and forest is our hair. If one of them is taken away, we are paralyzed.”
Sasolburg, in South Africa’s Vaal Triangle, home to Caroline Npaotane, is a city long dominated by the large petrochemical company Sasol. It is an economic mainstay for the town, supporting many facets of its infrastructure. Yet it also is polluter that emits carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and benzene, among others — a noxious stew that has caused widespread health problems for residents who live nearby, including Npaotane’s daughter. When her child began suffering repeated nosebleeds and breathing issues, Npaotane became an activist, with Global Greengrants support, leading a successful campaign to enact new air quality standards.
“You feel intimidated, because you’re just a community member,’’ she told Parliament when testifying in favor of the new law. “You’re not a doctor or a scientist. But you don’t need to be a doctor or scientist to know when you know your kids are suffering.”
CREDIT: Global Greengrants Fund
Three women, three stories. But these three represent thousands of other women globally who are engaged in local battles against climate change and other environmental conflicts, often at significant personal risk and with great courage. These women understand that the struggle for environmental justice also is a fight for gender equality, land rights, economic and cultural rights, and food security, among other things, and that local activism can be a critical portal to the political process and policy decision-making.
It seems fitting to recognize them on International Women’s Day.
“Climate change is a women’s issue largely because the current world economic framework puts women at a disadvantage,” says Osprey Orielle Lake, co-founder and executive director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN), an international climate justice-based organization that involves women in sustainability issues, social and economic justice and policy advocacy. “There is a clear link between poverty and who gets impacted by climate change.”
“Women make up the greatest percentage of the world’s poor,” she adds. “Indigenous women and those in developing countries have a direct reliance on nature, so when we have droughts, and heat waves and flooding, this increases the stress on millions of women world-wide, often due to gender roles — the responsibility to provide food, water and firewood for their families.”
These women don’t necessarily self-identify as feminists or activists; rather, they are fighting for the survival of their communities and their people, and to preserve their heritage. They may not be as high-profile as other women who speak out and work visibly in the climate change policy movement, but they are no less important in effecting change.
“When I hear about grass roots climate activism, it reminds me of the Civil Rights movement,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climate scientist who directs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. “We had Martin Luther King Jr. who gave inspirational speeches — and we had Rosa Parks. We need both. We need the Martin Luther Kings to give us the vision, the overall picture. And we need the Rosa Parks of the world to refuse to give up their seat on the bus.”
Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian who often speaks about the realities of climate change to Christian groups, stresses that climate change is an issue that affects women disproportionately, particularly at the local level, often in matters related to food, water and health. “How climate change affects us depends on the ways we are vulnerable, which are specific to the location where we live,” she says. “We see a large number of engaged women on the local scale, whether it’s in Africa, the Philippines — or Texas.”
CREDIT: Goldman Environmental Prize
Mama Aleta’s community, for example, had fought the miners for decades, unsuccessfully. “The traditional ways of defending their land were not working,” says Ursula Miniszewski, Global Greengrants’ gender and environment officer. “They had marches. They tried negotiating with the companies, but the companies weren’t interested in engaging with the communities at all.”
As it always has been for those involved in controversial movements, her activism put her in constant danger. “Mama Aleta was targeted — she was attacked with a machete, but escaped,” Miniszewski says. “None of this deterred her. She is unrelenting.”
Not everyone, however, has been so fortunate. Last week, Berta Cáceres, a Honduran woman who organized the indigenous Lenca people in a successful grassroots battle against construction of the Agua Zarca Dam — and winner of last year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize — was murdered by unknown assassins who snuck into her home after she had fallen asleep.
CREDIT: Goldman Environmental Prize
The dam project she opposed would have cut off the water supply, as well as access to food and medicine, to hundreds of Lenca people, effectively ending their ability to sustainably manage and live off of their land. In 2013, she initiated a road blockade to prevent access to the dam site which lasted more than a year and ultimately ended the dam company’s construction efforts. One of her colleagues was killed during the protest, and she had been the recipient of countless death threats.
“I have an advantage in regards to other women in the fight. I come from women, my mother, my grandmother, very revolutionary, feisty,” she said in a Global Greengrants audio interview. “My children were raised with that…. For them, it is very important, the environmental cause…” She also spoke poignantly of the intimidation, calling it an affront “to my physical integrity, emotional integrity…and to the organization I work for.”
Undaunted by her own narrow escape from death, Indonesia’s Mama Aleta fights on. She now is working with communities across West Timor to map their traditional forests in order to protect their indigenous territorial rights from future development, according to the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which awarded her its prize in 2013. She also is seeking economic opportunities for the villagers through sustainable farming, and through initiatives that can produce income from weaving and other activities.
It is not unusual for women in these communities to develop approaches that are unique to the problems within their own communities. “I visited a women’s farming collective in Tanzania, and they talked about how weather changes were messing with their crop rotation, and their seasonal calendar,” Miniszewski says. “They got together with another women’s collective nearby to exchange information, and decided to try alternative ways of food storage.”
Worried that their food sources would disappear, they learned to preserve their food through drying. “This was something they hadn’t had to do before,” says Miniszewski. “They didn’t have access to information about climate change, or even call it climate change. It was more ‘OK, we’re going to adjust and adapt to this.’ There are women all over the world who are adjusting and adapting on a daily basis.”
CREDIT: Global Greengrants Fund
Elsewhere in Africa, WoMin (African Women United Against Destructive Resource Extraction), has aligned itself with more than 60 organizations committed to bringing a gender perspective to issues related to fossil fuel extraction and climate change, and is working in nine countries to mobilize women to challenge coal development and promote alternatives. This past week, they have been holding a women’s rights activist “building” school in Johannesburg to teach women from seven African countries about women-led campaigns against coal extraction, as well as issues related to energy and climate justice.
“The climate justice question, linked to the fight against fossil fuels and for energy justice, is a critical one for African women,” says Samantha Hargreaves, the director of WoMin. “This is because they bear the immediate impacts of fossil fuels extraction and combustion on land and water, the major communal resources from which women create livelihoods for families and communities.”
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, WECAN, in collaboration with SAFECO (Synergy of Association of Women in Congo), has been training Pygmy women of the Itombwe forest (a rainforest in the Congo Basin) since 2014 to create conservation projects and reforest land that has been damaged as a result of clear cutting.
“In the last six months, they have planted over 7,000 trees,” Lake says. “The goal is to plant 20,000 trees.” WECAN, which is providing funding for the trees, nurseries and training, also has supplied small, hand-held solar-powered light devices “to replace the need for cutting trees for light,” Lake says, adding:
These women are thrilled. The pygmy women have become empowered. They’re gone from seeing no way out of their poverty to planting these trees, which, among other things, are providing fruit – and it’s been revitalizing and renewing for them.
Also, today in Puyo, Ecuador, women climate leaders organized by WECAN and Amazon Watch, will stand with the Sápara and Kichwa indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon to protest the government’s decision to sign a contract with the Chinese oil corporation Andes Petroleum. The agreement gives the company rights for oil exploration and extraction in two areas that overlap the traditional lands of the Sápara and Kichwa. The people there — led by local women — have been fighting for decades to preserve their land.
“We thought it was perfect on International Women’s Day to uplift these brave women who literally put their bodies on the line to protect these rainforests,” Lake says.
The protestors have asked citizens around the world to support their efforts by signing a petition to the government of Ecuador.
On International Women’s Day last year, Global Greengrants introduced a resource for philanthropies and other organizations to understand the importance of local environmental activism on the part of women which includes case studies and practical tips.
Thus, despite disproportionate suffering from the impacts of climate change, as well as life-threatening attacks for their environmental activism, these women are at the forefront of global efforts to combat the effects of global warming and environmental destruction. “They are on the frontlines trying to heal our world,” Lake says. “So many of the women we work with will tell you: ‘We are not the victims. We are the solutions.'”
Marlene Cimons is a freelance writer who specializes in science, health and the environment.