Women’s History Month - Environmental Defenders
By: Naomi Ages
Greta Thunberg’s name is now synonymous with climate action. The teenage Swedish activist is one of the faces of the global movement to demand a safe climate for people and the planet. But as Thunberg herself points out, she is far from the first, or the only, activist there is. She regularly “passes the mic” to make sure that activists from more marginalized communities have their say. She is one in a long line of women environmental defenders - So in honor of Women’s History Month, the Climate Action Team wants to highlight a few of the women around the world who have been doing the hard, often dangerous work of environmental protection and seeking environmental justice. It is a privilege to be able to introduce:
Cáceras was a Honduran environmental activist, indigenous leader, and organizer. She was brutally murdered in her home in 2016, almost certainly for her longtime environmental activism, and in particular, the opposition she led against a hydroelectric dam on the sacred Gualcarque river (executives from the company were ruled to have ordered her killing). Cáceras was a Leneca (an indigenous group in Honduras) leader, and founded Copinh (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras) - Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, dedicated to fighting illegal logging and other corporate environmental degradation in traditional Leneca lands. Cáceras won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. You can learn more about Berta Cáceras, and Copinh, which continues her important work, here.
Houska is a Couchiching First Nation activist and tribal attorney, who advised Bernie Sanders on Native American affairs. She has been on the front lines of environmental defense - at Standing Rock (against the Dakota Access Pipeline), and a longtime advocate to stop major banks from funding pipelines. Houska, like many Native American environmental advocates, is a fierce believer that we must use indigenous principles and knowledge for restoring ecosystems, and achieving environmental justice. In a recent lecture, she said “I chose fighting for Mother Earth because she IS everything. The land is the people; the people are the land.” Follow Houska’s Not Your Mascots organization here.
Nakate was the sole Fridays for Future protestor in Uganda for months, spurred to action by heat waves and crop failures. She, unfortunately, gained prominence when she was cropped out of a photo with other youth climate activists who were white, in Davos in January 2020. Nakate’s experience, in which climate activists of color are erased, and climate change’s disproportionate impacts on people of color are downplayed, is all too common. Nakate has gone on to found two climate action organizations in Uganda focused on renewable energy and amplifying African voices in the climate movement. She recently spoke to Angelina Jolie about climate change’s disproportionate impact on women and girls.
Nguy Thi Khanh
Khanh is another Goldman Environmental Prize winner, who founded one of the only environmental NGOs in Vietnam, which is no easy feat in a country where demonstrations are almost unheard of. Khanh is taking on the coal industry in Vietnam, raising awareness about air and water pollution and the effects of industrialization. She successfully helped convince the government to lower its coal use targets, and weathers harassment campaigns and threats of imprisonment. Khanh says she got inspired to environmental action even though she planned to become a diplomat due to “… mostly the vulnerability of the affected communities of climate change. For me, that’s always in the frontline.” She does the work “because I want a better life for my children and the future generations. It is time to act!”
This small list is a somewhat meager glimpse into the thousands of women we could celebrate for the work they do in building a better future. Women disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change, and simultaneously lead the fight to confront the companies, organizations, and governments that have enabled the crisis. We honor their work this Women’s History Month, and hopefully, we are inspired to fight in our own ways!
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