How small, women-led movements are making big impacts by challenging big business and government.
By Hunter Frint
Photo provided by Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network
Devastating hurricanes spin toward southeastern North America, Puerto Rico and the western coast of Europe, wildfires ravage the western U.S. and Portugal and fatal floods swallow parts of South Asia.
Many attribute the increasing frequency of these natural disasters to climate change. While not all weather extremes are caused by the effects of climate change, the World Meteorological Organization reports that specific extreme weather and climate events, such as wildfires and flooding, actually can be credited to human-caused climate change. While the phrase “climate change” continues to divide communities, it’s become increasingly common to find women working together to spread awareness and implement solutions—on both local and global levels.
The effects of human-induced environmental degradation—such as rising sea levels and polluted waters—severely impact everyone, but studies show that women—often specifically indigenous women—face the brunt of the consequences.
United Nations Women published a report in 2014 that reviewed the effects of climate change on women “Among those most affected [by climate change] are women and girls, given the precariousness of their livelihoods, the burden of securing shelter, food, water and fuel that largely falls on them and the constraints on their access to land and natural resources,” the report reads.
UN Women also reported that women are key players in environmental protection, despite—if not because of—these vulnerabilities: “Women’s knowledge, agency and collective action has huge potential to improve resource productivity, enhance ecosystem conservation and sustainable use of natural resources and to create more sustainable, low-carbon food, energy, water and health systems.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) work reflects environmental advocacy, but the organization has invested time and special efforts into working with women who live in places like India where climate change hits people the hardest, whether due to lack of resources or economic hardships.
Changing climate patterns such as intense heat waves and increased rainfall are especially hard on Indian salt farmers. The Guardian reported that these conditions are making it more difficult for the farmers, many who are women, to successfully continue harvesting the salt flats.
NRDC chief program officer Susan Casey-Lefkowitz says the NRDC’s work with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India encourages women to take leadership in low-income, rural communities. The NRDC is working with women on a project to switch from diesel generators to solar panel energy when working in the salt flats.
“I see women emerging as real leaders in communities, in saying enough is enough when it comes to the impacts of climate change,” says Casey-Lefkowitz. “Women are seeing the impacts on their communities, on their families, on their children in very direct ways.”
Casey-Lefkowitz says clean energy and diverting away from fossil fuels is an important part of fighting climate change, but many large corporations are resisting in fear of losing money.
“One really critical role for women in the environmental movement—in communities across the country and around the world—is to really put pressure on our government leaders and on corporate leaders to say that we can make this change to a clean energy future, and we need to be doing it now,” says Casey-Lefkowitz. “This is not the time to wait or delay.”
THE FIRST AND WORST
Osprey Orielle Lake is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network (WECAN), based in Mill Valley, Calif.
Similar to the findings in the UN Women report, Lake says the knowledge held by indigenous women—who experience the effects “first and worst”—is invaluable to battling climate change. Other outlets like the Guardian report similar findings.
“It’s important to listen to [indigenous women’s] solutions as well as to understand that they also have a great deal of traditional ecological knowledge of living intimately with the land because their communities are still living directly from the forests, from the oceans, from the rivers, from the land,” Lake says.
Because of this and witnessing what she describes as the failed attempts of the Copenhagen Climate Negotiations to internationally address climate change and provide possible solutions in 2009, Lake began to conceptualize the establishment of WECAN.
In 2013 she organized a summit in New York City that brought together women from all over the world and from many sectors including Jane Goodall, former Ireland president Mary Robinson and many grassroots organizations, including those led by indigenous women from various parts of the country. The women discussed and produced green models for food, energy and sustainability on local and international levels.
This summit resulted in the Women’s Climate Action Agenda, a compilation of the views and statements of women who attended the summit. It includes solutions such as transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy usage and the preservation of forests and biodiversity.
“In a variety of ways, women worldwide are modeling small-scale, local solutions with potentially very large impacts, and I think that’s really critical to creating the future that we want to see,” Lake says.
WECAN officially formed in 2014 to continue to strengthen the international network of women involved in confronting climate change and to bring about solutions from a climate justice framework.
“The vision for me has always been around the central role women are playing in solutions to climate change but also how they’re impacted the most. That’s really what began the organization,” Lake says.
According to the Women’s Environmental Network, of the estimated 26 million people displaced by climate change, 20 million of them are women. Lake says she believes the high number of women impacted by climate change is the reason indigenous and grassroots-oriented women are taking the lead in this movement.
WECAN is currently working on a web-based research database called “Women Speak: Stories, Case Studies and Solutions from the Frontlines of Climate Change,” which contains stories from women leading struggles and solutions regarding climate justice. The database will launch in November, and Lake says she hopes it shifts the narrative toward the issues women are facing on the local level.
“There’s a direct relationship between the struggle for women’s rights, women’s vulnerability and poverty in patriarchal societies and why they’re being impacted the most,” she says. “It’s very challenging for a lot of indigenous women who are also in regions where there are extractive industries bearing down on their homelands. Yet in the face of great odds and struggles, women everywhere in every sector are rising up to demonstrate a way forward that protects people and planet.”
Eriel Deranger of First Nations—the predominant indigenous populace in Canada—is an indigenous woman living in an extractive industry region. Deranger, originally from Saskatchewan, now lives in Alberta where her community, the Athabasca Chipewyan, is downstream from the Alberta tar sands.
The tar sands are a byproduct of Canada’s largest private sector investor—the oil industry. The mining of bitumen, which is processed into oil, creates the waste that impacts surrounding water sources and air quality.
According to an article from the United Nations University, contaminated water containing cancer-causing pollutants migrates to the groundwater below, threatening the health of surrounding people and animals.
“While every other sector is looking to decrease their emissions, [the oil industries] are the only ones that are projecting increases of emissions,” says Deranger.
Deranger’s parents advocated for the implementation and respect for indigenous people’s rights to live off the land, and she followed in their footsteps challenging these extractive oil industries.
“I don’t think I ever considered myself an environmentalist or a climate activist, but I came by it honestly,” says Deranger. “As I got older I ended up involved in the sector to challenge projects that impacted the rights entitled to indigenous people—mainly my own community.”
After advocating for clean ecosystems in her community, Deranger realized climate change is a much larger problem. For this reason she founded Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) in 2015. ICA is comprised of a volunteer indigenous committee of First Nations people and was created to bring together First Nations all across Canada for climate talks and networking for solutions. Deranger recently quit her job to take the project on full time. She is one of the only full-time, paid employees, but the organization is searching for people to fill several other full-time positions.
Still in its beginning stages, Deranger says ICA has started with a research project collecting data on the needs of each indigenous community in Alberta, Ontario, the Prairies, the Maritimes and others.
ICA discusses issues they face in regard to climate change such as sustaining the local caribou species, a vital part of their culture for hundreds of years. The group members share resources like technical workers or writers for government grants to fund potential solutions.
Deranger says she wants to foster original ideas from indigenous people and not just the corporate large-scale ideas such as energy-efficiency, solar panels, wind energy, geothermal or hydro-development.
“What we’re really trying to do is find ways not to just talk about how climate change is happening in communities, but work with communities to help define what solutions are without giving them prepackaged ideas,” says Deranger.
Deranger says she believes the increasing number of women leaders speaking out about climate change has to do with the restoration of balance.
“We can’t be talking about climate justice without talking about gender justice and reestablishing the balance of man and woman,” says Deranger.
PROTECTING THE FUTURE
Crystal Lameman, also a member of First Nations, works in Alberta to enhance sustainable living. She has traveled throughout Alberta, speaking about issues like tar sands and climate change solutions in 17 of the Treaty 6 First Nations communities.
“As [a] female our counterparts are Mother Earth and the water, and it’s our responsibility to protect them,” says Lameman. “That’s probably why the majority of the work you’re seeing is being done by women.”
Lameman is Cree, one of the largest groups of First Nations peoples, and her relationship with the environment is deeply rooted.
“I was born into it,” says Lameman. “What I mean is: As an indigenous woman, as a Cree woman, I was born and raised in my community on the land.”
The community Lameman grew up in faced oppression and the repercussive side effects of broken governmental promises to protect their land rights. Many Cree, including her parents, faced poverty and alcoholism linked to Canadian assimilation practices like residential boarding schools—institutions put into effect in the early 19th century to impose the English language and Christianity onto young indigenous Canadians. The last boarding school didn’t close until 1996. Lameman’s grandmother took her in when she was five years old and taught her to love the land her people lived on for hundreds of generations.
Lameman says she believes healthy people have a direct correlation to healthy land, which is one of the reasons she fights against oil companies such as Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, Shell and BP that contribute to water pollution and the resulting death of surrounding wildlife.
One of the Cree people’s largest ongoing environmental fights is against a major opponent—the Canadian government. Under the Confederacy of Treaty 6 West, a political agreement established in 1876 between the Canadian Monarch and the Plains and Woods Cree, indigenous people were promised environmental security. The promise has been disregarded as the government continues to support fracking and drilling for oil, and the Cree people are currently engaged in a lawsuit filed against the province of Alberta.
Under the Treaty 6 legalities, the government is obligated to discuss matters of oil drilling and fuel extraction with the Cree, and it is the indigenous people’s right to approve what happens to their land. Thus far this has not been the case. Lameman’s uncle Al Lameman began the litigation in 2008. She says she just carries on the fight.
Lameman has recently taken time off from traveling and speaking to focus on matters closer to home including her children and getting her master’s in educational policy studies and practice at the University of Alberta.
“Now I’m teaching my children those same practices—especially my daughter,” says Lameman. “My son goes out and hunts with my dad, so he’s giving those teachings, those responsibilities, about harvesting animals and the respect that you give them.”
Lameman says she works to spread these values to other children in her community as well.
“We are still a self-sustaining people,” she says. “We need that to be healthy—mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
Hunter Frint is a student at Western Kentucky University where she majors in journalism as well as anthropology with a concentration in biological studies. Originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, she graduates in December 2017 and plans to continue to do what she loves the most—telling people’s stories and traveling. Follow her on Twitter @hunterfrint.