Empowering Women and Saving the Environment

Last year, in the run-up to Copenhagen's climate summit, UNDP head and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark outlined how climate change will disproportionately affect the world's poor. "Receding forests, expanding deserts, changing rainfall patterns, and rising sea levels will trap people in hardship," she wrote. Invoking the specter of drought in Africa, water shortages in Asia, and flooding in Egypt's Nile delta, she urged governments to consider how millions of farmers and nomads "will not be able to cope with the additional burden of a changing climate."

Among those poor, the most vulnerable group will be women, says the United Nations. In a report on Women, Gender Equality, and Climate Change, the organization pointed out that women are usually responsible for gathering firewood, water, and food for their families. "The effects of climate change, including drought, uncertain rainfall, and deforestation, make it harder to secure these resources." What's more, women are less likely to be in positions of power to protect natural resources.

Women on the ground are well aware of the devastating effects of polluted rivers, felled forests, and diseased crops. And grassroots leaders from Africa to South Asia are now teaching women to take the lead in protecting the water, fields, and trees upon which they depend.

It's a form of activism that has its roots in organizations such as Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement, which got its start among rural Kenyan women in the 1970s. Maathai founded the group after she witnessed the drastic effects of deforestation on local women's lives. "They didn't have firewood, they didn't have clean water, and they didn't have adequate food," she later said. "The first step was to talk to women and convince them that we could do something about their environment." Maathai paid women a small stipend for planting trees, and communities saw how new growth prevented soil erosion, provided food, and lured back wildlife.

The movement eventually became so successful, it drew the ire of then–Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, whose cronies were growing rich off logging and land grabs. Maathai survived police beatings and jail time to protest Moi's aggressive development plans. In 2004, thanks to her efforts, she became the first African woman—and the first environmentalist—to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Although Maathai is Africa's most prominent female green activist, she is hardly the only one. Fellow Kenyan Lucy Mulenkei, who chairs the Indigenous Women's Biodiversity Network, trains pastoralists to prevent land degradation in Africa's drylands. In South Africa, Deputy Minister for Water and Environmental Affairs Rejoice Mabudafhasi is paying women to clean up the country's polluted rivers. Somalia's Fatima Jibrell, executive director of Horn Relief, helps female herders build small rock dams to combat water scarcity and to learn how to use solar cookers to cut down on deadly carbon fumes. And Chief Bisi Ogunleye, a member of the U.N. Earth Council, founded a network that helps Nigerian women secure microcredit for sustainable agriculture.

Biodiversity is also the life's work of Vandana Shiva, who cofounded India's Navdanya ("Nine Seeds") movement, which assists women in protecting indigenous seed varieties even as multinational corporations try to replace local crops with patented genetically modified seeds, on which farmers must then pay royalties. Shiva has a long history in environmental activism: in the '70s, she joined the Chipko movement, where local women fought against logging companies destroying their forests. Since then, she's gone on to support women in Kerala protesting a Coca-Cola plant that polluted water supplies and coastal women whose water resources were being tainted by the industrial shrimp industry, among many others. In all these cases, Shiva says, "women's movements are protecting [the environment] while also empowering themselves for their livelihoods."

It's a concept familiar to Bina Agarwal, the prize-winning Indian economist who has studied how land issues and deforestation affect rural women. "[Women's] involvement in forest governance would benefit conservation and biodiversity, since they often have considerable knowledge about the species they collect daily," she says. Her research has shown that when women make up a critical mass of 25 to 33 percent of local forest councils, "they can gain an effective voice" and those councils also manage to bring about "a substantially greater improvement in forest conditions." The challenge now, says Agarwal, is for women to sustain these collective actions over long periods of time, which will requiring "negotiat[ing] within families and communities to find a voice. This is often more difficult but also more empowering in the long run."