Intersectional Environmental Justice: Empowering Women on the Frontlines

“We are not victims. Yes, we’re being impacted. We are being impacted terribly. But we are the solution.”

While women throughout the world more heavily bear the burden of the climate crisis’s worst effects than men, their voices are still incredibly underrepresented within movements, organizations, and initiatives intended to address climate change. In the following conversation, three climate justice leaders discuss the ways in which their organizations and those they’ve worked with are successfully empowering women in frontline communities to solve enormous environmental challenges in intersectional ways.


Zainab Salbi

ZAINAB: We’re here to talk about the interconnection between women and climate action and climate justice. 

Women get two cents out of every dollar that goes to environmental issues and solutions. They’re being impacted, and they’re doing a lot of work, but they’re not getting resources, and they’re definitely not included in decision-making. I find it amazing that the biggest crisis confronting humanity – a climate crisis – is excluding 50% of the world’s population in solving it.

We are here to talk about solutions. Osprey, can you take us into more depth about the issue we’re facing?

Osprey Orielle Lake

OSPREY: When I first learned about the climate crisis, I was looking for an entry point for what would be the most effective use of my time. What was I going to dedicate the rest of my life to on this issue? Through a lot of research over a decade ago now, I found that the nexus between the role of gender and women leading is a key to resolving the climate crisis.

Because of unequal gender norms all over the world, women are impacted first and worst. Some of that is because they don’t have access to funds. In some countries, they’re not taught how to swim, so if there are floods, they die. They’re displaced. They’re taking care of their children and elders. The list goes on. 

And at the same time, we work with women in 50 different countries in different capacities, and all of them will tell you, “We are not victims. Yes, we’re being impacted. We are being impacted terribly. But we are the solution.” And they’re absolutely right. 

Just to give a few examples: 60-80% of household food production in developing countries is done by women. Studies show that if you don’t involve women in water collection and water practices, they don’t work because women are the ones who know what’s going on in the environment and what’s happening with water and their families. Counties with women in charge are doing far better on environmental laws. And in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries led by women did far better in caring for their populations. 

I mention these examples because people sometimes like to degrade this conversation to “It just feels fair that women should be in charge.” That’s true, we’re fighting for equity, but women’s value in leadership is also a fact. We need to be in decision-making places.

I have been attending climate negotiations every year for a decade, and 74% of speaking time is occupied by men. We’re not where we need to be.

I also want to consider a larger arc for a moment to understand how we got here. We talk about the climate crisis and the environmental biodiversity crisis and the crisis of violence against women. We can weave these crises together when we understand that we do see a mirror image of the violence against the Earth and violence against women. In my opinion, we all need to start taking deep responsibility for our own education, our own research, and our own historical analysis of what this moment is. I believe if we don’t look to the past and learn from our ancestors and our histories — including the roots of patriarchy, extractive and dangerous economic structures, and colonization, even if they’re really uncomfortable — if we don’t step back and really look at where this comes from, it’s very difficult to come up with a deep enough analysis to meet the moment.

We’re in this huge moment of transformation. We’re either heading into deep peril or into deep promise. Everything we do and everything we think and how we’re thinking about it absolutely matters. 

ZAINAB: What I’m hearing from you is that it’s not enough to only act. We actually need to redefine our relationship with Earth and our leadership. It’s not only reacting to the crisis, it’s owning our voice and our leadership in acting about it. 

OSPREY: That’s exactly right. The crisis is here, and we want to move with haste. At the same time, we have to slow down and go deep. Both are happening, and it’s quite an amazing time.

ZAINAB: Leila, can you tell us more about the work you are addressing at Amazon Watch and what women are saying there?

Leila Salazar Lopez

LEILA: Our work at Amazon Watch is about protecting and defending the Amazon rainforest and our climate in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. I don’t live in the Amazon. I live in the Mission District of San Francisco, and we have lots of our own battles in our local community. But my work is about standing in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, forest peoples, our NGO allies, and our partners across the Amazon and around the world.

When I first started working in the Amazon in 1995, one of the things I first noticed was that all of the leaders were men. I was working on campaigns, and there were always very few women, if any, in the room. Any time I would go to a meeting, I would literally say, “Where are the women?” We have to ask that question with a lot of respect. The dynamics between men and women in some of the communities are very different than in our cultures and our communities. 

We weren’t the only ones asking those questions. In 2013, the first Indigenous women’s march took place in Ecuador. The men had negotiated with the government to allow oil companies onto their land. Women from all of the different Indigenous nationalities of Ecuador came together, held a press conference, and said, “We are Mujeres Amazónicas. We are Amazonian women, and we are organizing in defense of the Amazon and Mother Earth against extraction.” 

And that began their march from the rainforest all the way to Quito: days of walks with their babies on their backs. It began their challenging of their brothers who were in leadership. They were saying, “We don’t agree with you; you do not speak for us. You cannot negotiate our rivers and our rainforests and the water that we need to survive and to live.”

That began a movement of Amazonian women that is now very well known in climate justice work. It’s inspired many other women across the Amazon. Where the men used to fight each other, the women from the nationalities have come together, and they’re united in this collective. They’re inspiring their young people, their young women, and they’re connecting with other women across the Amazon.

ZAINAB: It just really speaks to the power of storytelling. Women are not well-known in the space of climate discussion. But they are getting the job done, and these stories keep us going. We need to tell these stories to each other, to our daughters, and our granddaughters.

Amira, tell us about what were you doing in Indonesia recently. I think you have some inspiration to share with us.

Amira Diamond

AMIRA: I am just back from eight months in Indonesia. I was there with my husband and my two sons, and we had the opportunity to visit a lot of Women’s Earth Alliance projects around Bali. Women’s Earth Alliance started our programs there in 2019, and our organization was founded in 2006 to address the issues that frontlines women leaders are facing. It was a moment when there really was not a lot of widespread recognition that women’s voices were needed at decision-making tables.

When I think about our challenges, I think of my colleague, Sumarni Laman from Kalimantan, who is with Ranu Welum and the Heartland Project. She would tell you that fires have been burning in her community since she was a small child and that the destruction caused by palm oil is ravaging her community. My colleague Lil Milagro in the East Bay who runs Mycelium Youth Network would say the youth are demoralized and don’t know what to do in the face of climate change; we need to activate programs and stories to make sure they know there’s a future they can be part of building. My colleague Morning Star Gali, who is with the Pit River Tribe and runs an Indigenous Justice, would tell you that missing and murdered women is an epidemic around the world, and in particular in Northern California, and that it needs to be addressed; our sisters are going missing, and there’s very little attention on that fact.

These are the voices that are arising throughout our work. The beautiful thing is that the women I am naming now, and there are literally thousands more, are actually raising their hands to do something about it. 

I think one of the things that we can all possibly agree on is that we’re experiencing a bit of a leadership crisis right now in our world. When I talked with Sumarni, she shared with me how she had just gotten back from doing a rescue mission in the floods. And she doesn’t know how to swim. But people weren’t raising their hands, so she put on her life vest, and she got on boats, and she traveled hours and hours through the jungle to find families that hadn’t had food or water for days. 

Her mission is to mobilize 10,000 forest guardians, and she’s doing it. In the face of these incredible difficulties, there is so much power and strength rising right now. 

ZAINAB: I have a question for everyone because you all touched on, directly or indirectly, the intersectional aspect of movements related to women, climate, colonization, the patriarchy, etc. I am not from the climate movement. I’m in the women’s rights movement. But for a while, I was very sick, and I ended up spending a lot of time in nature. I came out of that personal experience saying I am going to do everything possible in the rest of my life to help Mother Earth because I owe it to Mother Nature. So it’s very personal.

But I’m learning in the climate movement. And in the process of learning and in my travels, I have come to discover that there is a huge gap between the discussion and the narration of climate issues in America or in Europe and the rest of the world – in the language we’re using and in the attitude we’re going about it with.

What I’m seeing is a Western-centric narrative of how we should engage in the discussion. I’m curious to learn about your experiences of how women at the grassroots level are changing that narrative.

OSPREY: I think it’s important to realize that there are many realities. As we’re talking about intersectionality, the idea is sort of that you can’t just pull on one thing without pulling on something else because they’re really tied together. But there is no question that there is a huge inequity happening right now, which is why it’s called the climate justice movement, because it’s not impacting everyone the same.

We’ve been working for about eight years now with a wonderful woman in the DR Congo, who is a force of nature herself. She’s incredible. She is disabled. She has been walking with support for most of her life. 

Some of you may know that the DR Congo is one of the most violent countries in the world for women. It has one of the of the highest rates of rape. It’s extremely patriarchal, and additionally, it’s a war zone. Getting anything done there is miraculous. 

At the same time, they’re facing terrific droughts and starvation because of the climate crisis. 

So the project that we started with her needed to be really intersectional. We were given funds for them to reforest areas that have been completely damaged through different techniques of agricultural business that are industrialized. We’re talking clearcut to the point of—it’s not sand, but it’s as close as you can get to sand. And the region we’re working in is a rainforest. The complexity was that the Indigenous populations there are now engaged in chopping down trees and the old-growth forests because of the desperate situation of war, and also safety. They have to feed their families and build their homes. 

Over the course of about eight years, we’ve been reforesting areas. Some fast-growing trees were purposely grown so that the communities can now start using their firewood and growing their own medicines and their own food. So 25% of the trees are for human use, and 75% of the trees are intended to bring back the natural forest and more local species and native species. It’s this very complex reforestation project. 

Then we started growing food because food security is a major issue. Iit’s been really amazing. We’re actually reforesting this incredibly damaged land and now protecting 1.6 million acres of old-growth forest. That’s helping the climate, helping the communities, and it’s also positive because these women are now more valued because they’re bringing in food. They are becoming leaders in a very patriarchal society. 

LEILA: We call it “climate change” or “climate crises,” but people on the frontlines may not call it that, especially people in very remote communities. But when there are floods, for example, in Sarayaku, that haven’t happened in 100 years … like even the grandparents didn’t remember floods like this. Then the younger people will come in and say, “This is climate change,” and they’ll talk to their elders and say, “Has this ever happened before? Has the river ever been this high? Did it used to rain like this?”

When you break it down like that, then people are like, “Oh yeah, that’s climate change.”

Lots of people say to me, “That’s why we want to speak for ourselves. We want to speak for ourselves about what’s happening in our own communities, and we want to address it ourselves.” We need to be directly supporting Indigenous Peoples on the frontlines.

AMIRA: You know, there’s a nasty legacy of development where, in so many cases, well-intentioned or potentially not well-intentioned organizations have come into communities and delivered solutions from a charity perspective, from a top-down perspective. And as Osprey was saying, our colleagues are saying every day, “We’re not victims; we are here as agents. We know how to lead our communities forward. We know what the solutions are.” 

The Women’s Earth Alliance model is based on being responsive. It’s about listening to communities and what the community sees as an important solution. Sometimes the first thing isn’t to talk about climate change, as is the case in Nigeria where my colleague Olanike Olugboji

Olanike launched a really robust clean cookstoves initiative, and clean cookstoves are a clean energy intervention that have a ripple effect of benefits. So women are no longer making a long walk to cut down fuel, to cut down forests. Deforestation is minimized. The danger that women face when they make a long walk and often encounter sexual violence is diminished. The time that comes back to them because they’re no longer making that long walk allows them to engage in other potentially income-generating opportunities or in going to school. And then the health benefit is really the first thing that turns women on to wanting to take this step, because they’re tired of coughing. They’re tired of their babies on their backs having asthma and smoke inhalation-related diseases.

The critical thing is that there’s a trusted community leader who’s actually saying, “Hey, this is an intervention that works.” It’s not someone from the global North walking in and handing someone something.

Our model also integrates economic sustainable livelihoods work. In all of the programs we run, women are either learning how to sell some kind of sustainable technology or they’re learning about how to fundraise for their community-based organization.

I think that it’s really important, as someone from the global North, that I’m not coming in with my language and trying to tell my colleagues what to think or what to say. Instead, I should listen, really long and really hard, about what someone’s experience is and find ways to connect. As part of our accelerator program, women leaders fill out a strategic framework where they get to look at their impacts as they relate to the sustainable development goals.

What we find is that women feel empowered by that information because they’re choosing to think about who they are as it relates to achieving these global goals. So rather than importing these goals that have been created not necessarily with their voices at the table, it’s an opportunity and a launchpad for leaders to really see how powerful they are and how connected they are to all of the solutions that, frankly, people at decision-making tables are looking for. 

I believe that it’s time to let the innovating rise from the ground, and really listen, because clearly those who are in power haven’t been able to figure out a solution that’s working well for all. It’s really time for listening.

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