This blog is a collaboration with Marilyn Martínez, of the Latin America Project at NRDC.
Across the world, women are actively protecting the natural environment. In Latin America, despite consistent threats of violence and widening gender inequality due to climate disasters, women have taken a leadership role. This International Women’s Day (March 8th), women will take to the streets in historically machista countries to fight for equal rights and representation. Achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires transformative shifts, integrated approaches and new solutions, particularly when it comes to advancing gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. In honor of this International Women’s Day, we want to highlight some of the amazing environmental activists in Latin America.
In Chile, Katta Alonso, founder of the group “Mujeres de zona de sacrificio Puchuncavi Quinteros,” has organized and litigated against sacrificial zones. Alonso created a coalition of women and local and international NGOs to test for contaminants in Puerto Ventanas, a sacrificial zone on the Chilean coast. This was the first time that the community had the ability and access to test for contaminants, although they had noticed the health effects on local residents for years. Also in Chile, Millaray Huichalaf is a Mapuche Indigenous leader who has been active in the fight to protect rivers throughout the country. In particular, she helped organize her community to defend the Pilmaiquen river against the construction of a dam that would flood sacred Mapuche sites.
In Brazil, women are leading the fight against president Jair Bolsonaro’s far right and environmentally repressive government. Representatives such as Joenia Wapichana (the first Indigenous congresswoman in Brazil), Erika Kokay, and Fernanda Melchionna are just some of the many women who are working in Brazilian Congress to lead the opposition against Bolsonaro. In the Amazon region, Juma Xipaya was recently voted cacique (chief) of her community, the Tukama. Xipaya was active in the fight against the Belo Monte dam and has advocated to end infant mortality in Indigenous communities through a mixture of Western and traditional medicines, as well as organizing against illegal ranching that has deforested large swaths of the rainforest.
Young women have also joined the environmental movement in Latin America. 18-year-old Chilean Catalina Silva presented a project with Concausa, a UNICEF initiative to promote environmental awareness and actions in young people. Julieta Itzovich of Argentina started Fridays for Future in the country and has helped organize hundreds of people every Friday to protest in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires.
Perhaps the most famous and tragic example of a female environmental leader is Honduran Berta Caceres. Caceres was a Lenca Indigenous feminist and environmentalist who waged a successful grassroots campaign to pressure the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam at the Río Gualcarque. Caceres co-founded and coordinated the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), an organization to support Indigenous rights. She led campaigns on a wide variety of issues, including protesting illegal logging, plantation owners, and the presence of United States military bases on Lenca land. In 2015, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes environmental heroes who have sustained significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. That personal risk was great indeed, as Berta Caceres was assassinated in her home in 2016 by armed intruders, after years of threats against her life. Despite her death, Berta’s legacy lives on. Her daughter, Bertha Zuniga Caceres, leads the council her mother founded, along with fellow activists determined to fight for social and environmental justice.
These women are particularly inspiring considering the challenges they face. There is a historical neglect and underrepresentation of women, as shown in part by a lack of access to technology and on average less access to land ownership. To put it simply, climate catastrophes make women poorer and more vulnerable as a result of continued gender inequalities. Although the percentage of women in Latin America in the labor market has increased, particularly in the last ten years, women in countries such as Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Peru continue to be paid less than men, especially among top professions. Environmental disasters are shown to widen this gender gap.
Campaigns around the world are taking place to protect the rights and safety of women and environmentalists. Protests against the status-quo rocked Latin America throughout 2019, and women also took an active role, creating movements such as “un violador en tu camino,” or a rapist in your path, which started in Chile but has taken on worldwide prominence. This public performance highlights the role of the state in creating gender violence and inequality. Through a series of chants and dances, women make it clear that “El estado opresor es un macho violador,” (“The oppressive state is a male rapist”). Through challenging governmental systems, as well as grass-roots organizing, women are forging a new path forward.
The link between women and the environment has been built and continues to grow with multiple forums and movements such as 'cuerpo y territorio' (body and land) on the agenda at Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Gathering (EFLAC), where many women who fight to preserve the environment came together to share stories and create new alliances. The momentum for women in the fight against climate change is growing. Global agents are helping to strengthen local women, who are fighting for a clean environment. Entering alliances between the environmental and women's movements and making women's struggle visible is an important part of creating change. The role of women is critical to carry the torch of “body and land” protection.