Sara Schonhardt
Women from different communities in Guatemala came together last summer to share conservation strategies and to learn how to quantify the value they derive from the environment. By sharing their experiences, women are learning to adapt to a changing environment and make their needs heard.

Where women lead on climate change

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In Guatemala, as in many parts of the world, women are often responsible for providing water, food, and fuel for their homes. In recent years, those chores have grown more difficult because of shifts in weather patterns, water scarcity, and soil degradation. Because women’s work is often connected to the land, women have long fought to protect their natural environments, often from extractive industries and agribusinesses that compete for access to resources. Now, some are linking this activism to the impacts they feel from a changing climate. Last summer, women from Guatemalan highlands gathered in the wind-whipped hills of the Sierra Madre to share conservation strategies and to learn how to defend their rights as stewards of the land and as women. Since that meeting, several participants have worked to empower other women to participate in local forest management efforts. But more important, they say, they have learned that they can question the government and stand up for their rights.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes the best people to solve a problem are the ones most affected by it. In Guatemala, women have become some of the country's most visible environmental activists.

The site of devastating landslides, fierce winds, and volcanic peaks, the hills in Guatemala's Sierra Madre can be inhospitable. But the women are just the opposite.

Last summer, dozens of women from across the country gathered to share strategies about water and forest conservation and improving crop yields, and they got a crash course in social auditing, a way for them to understand their rights and get involved in decisionmaking.

“We welcome our companions with happiness whenever they visit,” says Diega Rodriguez, one of the organizers of the Ut’z Che’ network of community forestry groups. “We have to keep working and we have to keep fighting.”

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes the best people to solve a problem are the ones most affected by it. In Guatemala, women have become some of the country's most visible environmental activists.

The relationships forged on those wind-whipped hills have become a kind of scaffolding for an increasingly connected network of community leaders, activists, and groups throughout the country that are working to empower women to fight for their land and their environment.

Increasingly forced to bear the brunt of more extreme weather and environmental degradation, these women are gaining the tools and the support to act on it.

The same is happening globally, as environmental justice increasingly intersects with women’s rights.

Women are urging those in power to address problems they feel most acutely, such as drought and deforestation. They’re also finding their own solutions, drawing on traditional knowledge about seeds or conservation, and leading efforts to put this knowledge to use.

As women become more empowered, they’re better able to take on leadership roles and know they have the right to do so, say advocates who support these efforts.

At the meeting in Guatemala, where much of the population depends on subsistence farming, the women spoke different languages and came from different ethnic groups, but all could share stories of how the soil was less fertile, the seasons increasingly unpredictable, and the rainfall more erratic.

“In Santa Eulalia there used to be an order of time: a month for the frost, a month for rain, a knowledge of where to farm so the frost won’t ruin the crop. Now there isn’t,” says Eulia de Leon Juarez, who helped found a women’s rights advocacy group in her town in Guatemala’s western highlands.

As in many places, problems here often revolve around water scarcity and soil degradation, conditions that increase the workload for women responsible for providing water, food, and fuel for their homes. When those resources are scarce, they must travel farther, sometimes walking for hours to reach the nearest water source.

Because women’s work is often connected to the land, women have long fought to protect their natural environments, often from extractive industries and agribusinesses that compete for access to resources. Now, some are linking this activism to the impacts they feel from a changing climate.

Building bridges

“What we’re seeing more and more now is the urgency to address these issues and really support these women so they can lead in these struggles,” says Maite Smet, a program coordinator with Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA), a nonprofit that brings together women's rights and environmental justice movements.

The issue has also gained traction as the number of women-led households in rural areas has grown.

“This is due to migration – men are migrating to cities – but also to conflict,” says Solange Bandiaky-Badji, Africa program director for Rights and Resources Initiative, where she focuses on land tenure rights and gender. Women “are then assuming greater responsibilities for the management and governance of the resources in their communities.”

“It’s not that it’s new,” she adds. “But these factors have helped people see that women are really working around managing their forests and resources.”

Pressures from climate change have worsened poverty, food insecurity, human trafficking, and child marriage, activists argue. For a long time, says Ms. Bandiaky-Badji, people have focused on rural and indigenous women “as victims.”

“But what we’re seeing actually,” she says, “is how these women are organizing themselves to really overcome those challenges.”

They’re doing so by challenging political and social barriers but also finding their own way forward, particularly in places like Guatemala, where political instability can often worsen environmental problems.

“In many cases, as women become involved in environmental activism, they get in touch with others and so it builds their capacity to engage with local governments and even then, to figure out how to make their stories visible on the international stage,” says Eleanor Blomstrom, co-director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), a women’s advocacy group.

WEDO works to get women’s rights and gender justice included in climate change negotiations at the national and international levels. In 2015, it helped launch a program to train female climate-justice advocates to share their stories with international policymakers during climate negotiations. The organization has also created an app that tracks how often and in what way gender or women are mentioned in policies, research, and other action related to climate change.

“Women have always been leaders at all levels, it’s just not been recognized in the same way,” Ms. Blomstrom says. Part of that is a broader recognition that the effects of climate change are so varied and widespread, as well as stronger efforts to recognize women as human rights defenders.

“Even without scientists saying it, women are feeling it, so there are a lot of young feminists and activists who may be more engaged than young people were in the past or more empowered but definitely more vocal.”

Among the groups supporting those efforts is international women’s rights organization MADRE, which helps create networks where different communities around the world can share strategies for addressing climate-related problems. In late April it brought indigenous women from countries such as Nepal and Nicaragua to Arizona to hear how indigenous communities along the US-Mexico border were impacted by Trump administration policies on migration and climate change.

Women still face discrimination and resistance for taking on leadership roles, particularly in more unequal societies. Another challenge is making sure goals and plans to recognize women are put into action.

No longer invisible

Since the meeting in Guatemala in August, several women have come together to audit state-supported forestry programs that help small landowners earn money from reforestation and natural forest management. Women often face challenges participating in such programs because they lack land titles.

The group hopes to create a database of projects in a northern part of the highlands, so they can show how land tenure is distributed by gender and talk with officials about strengthening the roles that women play in environmental projects.

“We are invisible to a lot of people,” says Ms. Rodriguez.

But bringing women together to share their struggles helps improve their visibility. Since gatherings like the one last August started, topics have gone from building self-esteem to getting women more politically involved in their communities, says Dina Juc Suc, a former coordinator with Ut’z Che’, a network of dozens of community forestry organizations that helped organize the meeting.

Before the women talked about lack of education or violence they faced, says Ms. Juc Suc, who has been leading programs like these since 2010.

“Nowadays, women dare to talk about questioning a government official,” and share tips on how to adapt crops to changing weather and improve their livelihoods. “Now they are looking to create strategies,” she adds.

Sara Schonhardt reported from Guatemala on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).

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