Women: The Unsung Heroes of the Environment

 As the Cree proverb warns us:
Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize
we cannot eat money.

By Bianca Jagger  10 March 13  Reader Supported News

Bianca Jagger discusses the important role women play in environmental conservation. (photo: unknown)

esterday I delivered the keynote speech at the exhibition, “Women Pioneers for the Environment and Nature Conservation – 1899 to the Present” in Berlin, Germany, organised by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment to celebrate International Women’s Day.
The exhibition celebrated twenty one visionary women. I was humbled to be included. These women are from all over the world, from very different disciplines. But they have all made outstanding contributions to the protection of the environment. From Wangari Maathai’s pioneering Green Belt Movement, which has helped thousands of communities in Africa and transformed sustainable development, to Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking conservation work in Tanzania, to Ursula Sladek’s innovative energy entrepreneurship in Germany, to Angela Merkel’s leadership as the first woman to head the Federal German Ministry for the Environment, and to become Chancellor of Germany, to Birkel Lemke’s campaign in Turkey to prevent gold mining companies from fatally contaminating ecosystems with arsenic: they have all improved lives, and effected substantial change for good.
It was a privilege to be in the company of so many extraordinary and dedicated women. You can find more details about the exhibition and a full list of the honourees here.
When I was first asked to give the speech, I was aware that women have played an important role in conservation, environmental protection, and in addressing the threat of climate change. But I didn’t know how much they have contributed, often invisibly, to preserving and caring for our planet’s precious natural resources. In the course of researching and preparing the speech, I learned a great deal. Women are the unsung heroes of the environment.
What is clear is that, as we waver on the cusp of various global crises, the services women provide to environmental protection become more indispensable every day. More than ever, as we face the challenges of combating climate change, deforestation, the melting of the Arctic sea ice, we will need these women: their skills, their wisdom and their knowledge.
The great tradition of women and the environment
When the English dissident preacher John Ball asked, in the early 14th century, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?’ he described an idealised divide between traditional gender roles: between the domestic and the agricultural. Eve stays at home and spins – Adam tends the land.
But a short examination of almost any culture across the world, throughout history, will demonstrate how far removed from reality this idea is. Women have always worked and tended the land. Farming, husbandry, gardening, hunting and fishing, forestry… As often as not, Eve is out in the fields with the plough, as well as inside caring for the children.
The idea of the female sphere being limited to ‘Kinde, Küche, Kirke,’ or ‘Children, Cooking and Church,’ is a prevalent one. It is also erroneous.
The relationship between women and the land, the environment, can be hard to trace since records frequently leave out our contribution. For many centuries history has been written by the patriarchy, which omits women from the canon.
But there is a long and great tradition of women devoting their lives to the land and the environment. They have sown and tilled fields, bred new species of plants and rediscovered fossilised, extinct ones. They have protected their homelands from destruction and saved rare animals from extinction. They shaped the way their cultures relate to the land.

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Examples of women’s contribution to the protection of the environment can be found all over the world in all eras; wherever there have been women, it seems, they have cared for the planet.
Women in hunter gatherer societies and agriculture
For 73, 000 years, which is most of our species’ time on earth, we were made up of hunter gatherer societies. In these societies women largely gathered, and men largely hunted. It was an efficient system which meant that the tribe could have both meat, and plant nourishment at once. Both men and women contributed to the welfare of the community.
12,000 years ago saw the advent of agriculture and cultivation, and the allocation of gender roles. In other words, as the Economist puts it, ‘Agriculture… stands accused of exacerbating sexual inequality. In many peasant farming communities, men make women do much of the hard work.’ This unequal division of labour has persisted for thousands of years.
In 1644, the Reverend John Megalopensis remarked that the Native American women in New Amsterdam, were “obliged to prepare the Land, to mow, to plant, and do every Thing; the Men do nothing except hunting, fishing, and going to War against their Enemies. . .”
Though women didn’t have the right to own land or property in the United States – or elsewhere – until the early 20th century, America has been farmed and tended extensively by women. By Native Americans, and then, during one of the most shameful passages in US history, by slave women. As the great women’s rights campaigner, former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth said at a rally in 1881:
‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’
Until recently the women who have worked the land have had no voice, and no history. They were manual labourers in a feudal system, sometimes slaves, often illiterate; their narratives are not recorded.M Alston refers to women as ‘the silent partners of agriculture. ‘As a consequence of their invisibility,’ he says, ‘women have suffered in a number of ways. Not only have they been denied agricultural training until recent times but, significantly, because agriculture is equated with men, women have been overlooked as future inheritors and farmers leaving many young skilled women with no access to the resources of agriculture.’
Though their legal rights have been frequently ignored, women have exerted authority over both the land and the community. In some 18th and 19th century examples among Native American tribes, this authority takes the form of a strong custodial, protective role in caring for the land – a maternal right.
When the Cherokee tribe was being pushed further and further west by settlers, a group of Cherokee women sternly petitioned the council, reprimanding their ‘[b]eloved children,’ reminding them that they had raised the (male) Council members on that land which ‘God gave us to inhabit and raise provisions,’ and instructing their ‘children’ not to “part with any more lands.”‘
Another Cherokee woman wrote to Benjamin Franklin in 1787, pleading for peace between the government and the Cherokee. She says that he

“. . . ought to mind what a woman says, and look upon her as a mother – and I have Taken the prevelage to Speak to you as my own Children . . . and I am in hopes that you have a beloved woman amongst you who will help to put her children right if they do wrong, as I shall do the same. . . . “

Though denied any legal rights, these Cherokee women assumed authority as ‘mother’ to the land, and the community.
Mother earth
The theme of mother, as representing land and earth, is embedded in many traditional cultures, particularly in Latin America. It is a dominant theme in the pre-Columbian Mayan text Popol Vuh. As the Maya scholar Victor Montejo writes, ‘concern for the natural world, and the mutual respect this relationship implies, is constantly reinforced by traditional Mayan ways of knowing and teaching. [A] holistic perspective of human collective destiny with other living creatures on earth has a religious expression among indigenous people… often expressed in the figure of mother earth.’
This ideological veneration of mother earth in Maya culture, of respect for women and land, is in strong contrast to the treatment of actual women. In ancient and contemporary Maya society women are seen as the preservers of culture. Studies show that women are kept sequestered, away from school, in order that they aren’t contaminated with non-Mayan ideas. ‘Women came to represent Indianness, as a result of the ‘burning western gaze upon them.’ They have become vessels for the Maya way of life, and as such not given the rights and privileges of men.
Early botanists and natural scientists
Great female environmentalists today, like Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson, stand shoulder to shoulder with a long line of women botanists, scientists, paleontologists, and horticulturalists, stretching back into history.
Hilda von Bingen wrote ‘Physica’ and the ‘Causae et Curae’ two encyclopaedic collections of natural science observations, in Germany during the 11th century.
Josephine Kablick, 18th century Bohemian botanist and palaeontologist, gave her name to many of the fossil specimens she discovered. An intrepid explorer, she contributed over 25,000 specimens to museums.
During the 18th and 19th centuries botany was considered an acceptable pursuit for women – but they were largely invisible scientists, assisting their male counterparts. ‘As long as it remained an informal, private pursuit, botany was open to women. As soon as it became a professionalized, public activity, botany became closed to them and directed towards a male audience.’
I could go on and on. The early woman naturalists like Almira Phelps, Margaret Fuller, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Mary Treat; Isabella Preston, the Canadian horticulturalist who produced hundreds of new hybrid species of lily, lilac, crab apple, iris and at least 20 roses; Cynthia Westcott, who devised new methods of plant disease control.
I encourage you to do some research of your own; there is so much to learn.
Women and War
In war, it has always been women who take over the care of the land. During World War II women all over Europe took over conventionally male roles, worked in factories, farmed and produced food. In the UK, the Women’s Land Army cared for livestock, ploughed fields, planted and dug potatoes, harvested crops, killed rats, weasels and foxes, dug and hoed ‘for 48 hours a week in the winter and 50 hours a week in the summer.’ With metal and machinery scarce, they often worked with labour intensive old equipment like horse drawn hand ploughs, and harvested crops by hand.
Their hard work was encouraged, as long as the war was on. When the men returned, their jobs were reinstated, and women were pushed back into the home. The period following, the 1950’s, is rightly remembered as one of the most rigid eras in terms of gender roles. Historian Elaine Tyler Maywrites that the idea of women in the home became “a bastion of safety in an insecure world… cold war ideology and the domestic revival [were] two sides of the same coin.”
Women and environmental campaigning
The Chipko Movement
Women have shaped environmental campaigning, and protest in profound and important ways. One groundbreaking, peaceful movement, the Chipko Movement, changed the course of environmentalism in the 20th century.
On March 26th, 1974, a group of women made a historic protest in defence of the trees on the slopes by Reni village, Chamoli, Hemwalghati, in the Indian Himalayas.
Deforestation and irresponsible contracting had already led to erosion and landslides. When the Indian government contracted out the last remaining timber, it seemed likely the village would literally slide off the mountain.
It was the women who carried out the solution.
As the contractors approached, they hugged the trees, standing around them in groups, embracing the trunks. One girl, Gaura Devi, later described the encounter in vivid detail, including how she put herself in front of the gun of one of these labourers. They were ‘very rude,’ she notes. Gaura challenged the man to shoot her, instead of cutting down the trees. She told them that the forest was her ‘maika,’ meaning ‘my mother’s home,’ in Chamoli. Faced with these determined women clinging to the trunks of the trees, the loggers turned back. The lumber company was eventually forced to withdraw from the area.
This was the first of the forest ‘satyagrahas,’ a series of nonviolent protests to protect the environment, which spread across India, and beyond.
The women faced some opposition from tribal leaders, who demanded that they stop their ‘outrageous’ behaviour, that they go back to their traditional work in the fields and the home. An observer from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) commented, ‘The Chamoli women understood only that the felling of trees is harmful to their well-being, and they simply acted according to that belief. On the basis of their past interaction with government officials, the men are convinced of the great powers of the Government. They consider it wrong to oppose its policies.’
More and more women, in more and more villages, began hugging the trees to protect them from loggers. The practice became known as the Chipko movement. And it worked. The loggers often gave up and withdrew.
Though many of the leaders of the Chipko movement were men, women were the driving force behind it. In some areas these women turned protest into sustainable development. In Gopeshwar the women formed a cooperative, the Mahila Mandal, to ensure protection of the forest around the town. Mahila Mandal is run by watchwomen, who receive regular wages.
At the first World Conference on Women, in 1975 in Mexico City, the great Indian physicist and environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva brought the struggle of the Chipko women to global attention. The Chipko movement went on to become a model for peaceful protest, followed by many environmental groups: it also became a flagship for ecofeminism. In 1987 the Chipko movement was given the Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as the alternative Nobel Prize.
Vandana Shiva later received the award herself, in 1993, for her work in ‘placing women and ecology at the heart of modern development discourse.’ She has tirelessly campaigned againstgenetically modified organisms, and the food giant Monsanto – a cause I share with her.
I received the Right Livelihood Award in 2004 – I am proud to be a part of this great tradition of women campaigning for human rights and environmental protection. Women campaigners have changed the course of human events. They have shaped history.
Helen Caldicott has campaigned for over 30 years against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and the use of “depleted” but still dangerously radioactive uranium in weapons. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
Jane Goodall‘s work in chimpanzee behaviour has revolutionised our thinking – not only about animals, but about ourselves. She continues to carry out groundbreaking conservation work in Tanzania and around the world.
Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, I hope we take a moment to remember not only the great women whose names we know, but the many thousands of unsung woman heroes, past and present – who have worked and campaigned every day for the betterment of the planet.
The Green Belt Movement
No one better demonstrated the power of women to effect change, even in the face of tough opposition, than the late, and truly great Wangari Maathai. Since 1977 her visionary Green Belt initiative has planted over 45 million trees in Africa and assisted nearly 900,000 women to establish tree nurseries. The project has created jobs, taught skills to women, and stimulated local economies. It has changed the model of sustainable development.
The first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari was a pioneer. Labelled a ‘crazy woman,’ by some Kenyan authorities, criticised for her refusal to behave like a ‘good African woman and do what she was told,’ she transformed the discourse of sustainable, ecologically sound development.
Richard Black, environment correspondent for the BBC, writes of her: ‘The UN initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (Redd), the linking of biodiversity to livelihoods, moves to strengthen the rule of law as a pre-requisite for environmental health, and the notion that communities should gain when the natural resources they maintain are exploited – all these in part trace their roots back to Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.’
She will be greatly missed, throughout the world.
With global climate negotiations foundering, it is more vital than ever that we support initiatives like the Green Belt Movement, which benefit local communities, which contribute to reforestation, afforestation and land restoration. It is through them that we can effect change.
Plant a Pledge
That is why, in May 2012, I became Ambassador to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Plant a Pledge campaign, to support the Bonn Challenge target, to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020.
This is the largest restoration initiative the world has ever seen.
The Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration (GPFLR) has mapped 2 billion hectares of deforested and degraded land across the globe – an area the size of South America – with potential for restoration.
The world’s forests store 289 gigatonnes of carbon in their biomass, and can be used as a tool to mitigate climate change. Restoring 150 million acres of forest landscapes could sequester approximately 1 gigatonne of carbon dioxide per year.
Restoration of degraded and deforested lands is not simply about planting trees. We will put people and communities at the heart of the restoration effort, transforming barren or degraded areas of land into healthy, fertile working landscapes. Restored land can be put to a mosaic of uses such as agriculture, protected wildlife reserves, ecological corridors, regenerated forests, managed plantations, agroforestry systems and river or lakeside plantings to protect waterways.
We launched Plant a Pledge at Rio+20 in June 2012, where we announced landmark restoration commitments totalling 18 million hectares. The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service pledged 15 million hectares, the government of Rwanda 2 million hectares, and the Mata Atlantica Forest Restoration Pact of Brazil, a coalition of government agencies, NGOs and private sector partners 1 million hectares.
At COP18 last December we announced new pledges by El Salvador and Costa Rica of 1 million hectares each. This brings us to 20 million hectares, and within reach of 50 million.
BMS Rathore, India’s Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, has indicated India’s commitment to the Bonn Challenge in a pre-pledge of 10 million hectares, at the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP11 in Hyderabad. The Meso-American Alliance of Peoples and Forests has indicated their interest in pledging 20 million hectares. We look forward to them formalising their commitment with the GPFLR and the IUCN.
The success of the campaign, and the number of restoration pledges has exceeded our expectations.
But we still need to persuade governments and others who own or manage land around the world to achieve the Bonn Challenge goal by 2020.
The Plant a Pledge campaign, devised by the IUCN and sponsored by Airbus, aims to do just that. Each pledge at www.plantapledge.com supports a global petition directed at world leaders, calls on governments to put pen to paper on the specifics – ‘where, when and how?’- to achieve the Bonn Challenge.
I urge you to go to www.plantapledge.com, and plant your pledge to support this historic restoration initiative.
Global inequity
We have come a long way in 12,000 years, since the beginning of agriculture. Women are excelling in many fields. We live different lives from our grandmothers, and even our mothers.
The first National Women’s Day was observed in the US, on the 28th of February 1909, to commemorate women’s protests at working conditions in the garment factories of New York City. On the 8th of March 1975, the UN began celebrating Women’s Day.
Now International Women’s Day is a national holiday in many countries including Afghanistan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, China (for women only), Uganda, Vietnam and Zambia, to name a few.
But inequality and discrimination against women are still rife in today’s world, especially in relation to property, land and wealth. Women still don’t own the vast majority of the land they farm and live on. According to UN Women, they carry out 60% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the world’s food – and yet across the world women are universally poorer, and often have fewer rights than men. Women earn only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of its property. 70% of the worlds poorest are women.
Woman farmers make up 43 per cent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries. The number is growing, as more and more men migrate to the cities, leaving the farms in women’s hands. But these women farmers encounter discrimination, they lack access to seeds, agricultural equipment and resources, which lowers productivity. In 2012 Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, stated that empowering women farmers would end hunger for 150 million people worldwide. As Oliver de Schutter wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, ‘Recognizing the burden that the feminization of global farming places on women requires us to overturn longstanding gender norms that have kept women down even as they feed more and more of the world.’
70 million girls each year are denied the right to the most basic education. 64% of the 774 million illiterate adults worldwide are women. It is unconscionable that in the 21st century hundreds of millions of people are excluded from full participation in society – because of their gender. Despite these vast, glaring, global inequities, women continue to transform the fields of science, the law, finance, the arts – and environmental protection.
Indigenous peoples, traditional societies
I recently returned from Nicaragua, where I have been supporting the Mayangna indigenous tribes in their battle to save their ancestral lands in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve which holds Central America’s largest tropical forest. The forests are being destroyed by illegal logging and cattle ranching at the frightening rate of 30,000 hectares per year. If these estimates are correct, one sixth of this vast ecosystem has been destroyed in just the past five years.
Today, many traditional indigenous societies and their territories are dwindling under the encroachment of mining, logging, drilling and development.
Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, and particularly women, is essential to the survival of the planet. Over and over again, indigenous and tribal peoples have been proven the best custodians of biodiversity, of their ancestral lands.
Homogenised large scale farming and development are decimating our ecosystems. Traditional indigenous cultures use natural resources sustainably: forests, grasslands, farms, fisheries, and wildlife, and preserve biodiversity. According to the International Society for Ethnobiology, “native peoples have been stewards of 99 percent of the world’s genetic resources.” Women of the forest-dwelling Kpelle tribe of Liberia, for instance, sow more than 100 varieties of rice, making their fields a wealth of genetic diversity. In many indigenous societies, it is often women who tend and nurture the land.
We must do everything in our power to protect indigenous peoples’ guardianship of the land. Our survival and the survival of the planet depends on it. As the Cree proverb warns us:

Only when the last tree has died

and the last river has been poisoned

and the last fish has been caught

will we realize

we cannot eat money.

Women and Climate Change
Skilled, dedicated women will be vital in the coming years, in the desperate race to keep up with climate change. Climate change is an issue of human rights, and social and economic justice; and it is a feminist issue.
The poorest people will suffer most in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Developing countries will be hit first and hardest by the effects of climate change, and without a doubt it is women in those countries who will bear the brunt of the disastrous effects of a warming world. The struggle for women’s equality is a key part of the struggle to save the planet.
The science points to the acceleration of dangerous climate change. A recent study, published inScience magazine found that the global climate had been cooling since the end of the last ice age. This trend went into rapid, and dramatic reversal about 100 years ago. Global temperatures rose to levels not seen for thousands of years.
The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has risen by 31% since around 1750, when the industrial revolution began. It’s now at the highest levels in 420,000 years.
If CO2 emissions continue to rise, the Science report states, by 2100 global temperatures will reach levels not seen since civilisation began.
The effects of climate change can already be seen in extreme weather events across the world. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy devastated New York; typhoon Bopha devastated the Philippines. Record flooding in Pakistan and China, torrential rains and flooding in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua in 2011 ; heat waves in Russia in 2010 ; flooding in the UK in 2009 and 2012; Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in 2005… The list goes on, and on.
In 1896 Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, observed that if CO2 levels continued to rise, global temperatures would also rise by around 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century. Why has it taken us over a hundred years to come to the same conclusion?
The recent World Bank report, ‘Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° C Warmer World Must be Avoided,’ delivered some alarming, and long overdue facts.
‘The 4°C scenarios are devastating…The inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems…’
We know that even a few degrees temperature rise will drastically change the habitability of the planet and bring about potentially catastrophic changes in water sources, forests, food, health, business… It will affect cities, rural areas, economies, food security and health; the physical shape of the land and coast, every aspect of our lives throughout the developing and the developed world. Climate change will affect everyone everywhere, in every nation and from every socio-economic group – but not in the same way.
Many women have livelihoods highly vulnerable to climatic variations. Rural women are responsible for water collection in almost two-thirds of households, according to UN Women. They are the primary managers of household supplies such as water and fuel, resources which will be seriously affected by climate change.
According to a study by the London School of Economics, women are more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. ‘In other words,’ the report states, ‘natural disasters (and their subsequent impact) on average kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men…. Natural disasters do not affect people equally.’
Nor does climate change affect everyone equally. In addressing the threat, we must also address the issue of gender: the ramifications a 4 degree warmer world will have on both men and women. The recent decision at COP 18 in Doha entitled ‘Promoting gender balance and improving the participation of women in UNFCCC negotiations and in the representation of Parties in bodies established pursuant to the Convention of the Kyoto Protocol.’ is a step in the right direction. But it’s far from enough.
The decision acknowledged that the role of women’s empowerment and climate change are interconnected. Gender will be included as a standing item on the COP agenda from now on – in previous years it has been relegated to a side note under ‘other business.’
I hope that this will usher in a new era of inclusiveness and effectiveness for the UNFCCC – but I have some reservations. We need to do more, much more to tackle the threat of climate change.
Climate change is the greatest threat we face in our time. It is a global crisis: we will only solve it through global collective action – and women will play a vital role.
Dangerous climate change is already upon us. We are not doing enough, and we are not doing it fast enough. In order to avoid climate catastrophe we must be prepared to change everything about the way we live, travel, eat, and shop. We must acknowledge that business as usual is not an option. We cannot, and must not give up.
As the great woman environmentalist Rachel Carson said:
‘We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one less travelled by – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.’
I hope we choose the right road. We simply must. Our fate, the fate of our daughters and granddaughters and that of future generations, depends on it.

By Published On: March 10th, 2013Comments Off on Bianca Jagger> Women: The Unsung Heroes of the Environment

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