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Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment

Women’s critical role in saving the environment took a new twist when on February 7, 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat-New York) introduced a new climate change resolution which intends to push the U.S. to take the lead role in reducing carbon emissions to the environment. The proposal, “Recognizing the Duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal,” strives for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

According to this proposal, the U.S. economy would shift from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, and replace them with renewable resources such as wind and solar power. Republicans have called the plan a pipedream that would ravage the economy and lead to a huge tax increase. President Trump said that it sounds like “a high-school term paper that got a low mark.”

Representative Ocasio-Cortez is part of a group of women that have been working worldwide in defense of the environment. This is happening at a time when the global demand for a wide range of natural resources is threatening the world’s environmental health to an unprecedented degree.

In Sweden, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old girl, has become an ardent advocate for the environment. She protested in front of Sweden’s Parliament handing out leaflets that read, “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” Last January, she gave an impromptu speech at Davos in front of a star-studded guest list. Thunberg told them, “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”

Traditionally, women are protective of the quality of the environment, which they believe is essential for the healthy growth of their children. A global survey of public attitudes on the environment sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program showed that more women than men prefer to choose a lower standard of living with fewer health risks than a higher standard of living with greater health risks.

Pregnant women, particularly, are vulnerable to environmental contaminants. Each step in the reproductive process can be altered by toxic substances, which increase the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, fetal growth retardation, and peri-natal death. Women and children are more affected by environmental disasters.

Eloisa Delmonte, a high school teacher in Entre Ríos, Argentina, told me, “In Argentina it is the rural teachers who were carrying out to a large extent the fight against Monsanto and other agrochemical companies that carry out aerial fumigations with glyphosate (among other toxics) in the fields without taking into account the presence of schools in those areas. Entre Ríos has, for this reason, the sad record of being the province with the highest rates of childhood cancer in the country.”

On January 22, 2019, the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, declared at the World Forum in Davos: “Brazil is the country that most preserves the environment.” Three days later, a dam from Minera Vale, in Minas Gerais, collapsed, and 12 million cubic meters of toxic mud flooded 290 hectares, leaving 150 dead and 238 missing. “The dam had a safety factor in accordance with the world’s best practices,” stated Vale S.A., the builder of the dam that collapsed.

In 2018 in Argentina, the deforested area of protected forests in the provinces of Salta, Santiago del Estero, Formosa and Chaco was 112,766 hectares, equivalent to twice the territory of the city of Buenos Aires, according to the environmental organization Greenpeace. Noemí Cruz, who coordinates the organization’s forest campaign, said, “Governments cannot continue to violate national regulations by allowing forest clearings where these are prohibited.”

Last September, then California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in three northern California counties after wildfires burned thousands of acres, destroyed homes and critical infrastructure, and threatened ancient trees in Yosemite National Park. These are just a few examples of threats to the environment and to the ensuing quality of life.

In Latin America, indigenous women have become especially active in the use of techniques to protect the environment, and in developing strategies to reduce poverty and promote sustainable development. They respond to threats that affect their quality of life, such as climate change, and the interests of mining and petroleum exploiting corporations on lands belonging to indigenous communities.

After Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras, women from the Garífuna Afro-indigenous community located on the Caribbean coast of Honduras created the Garífuna Emergency Committee. It organized seed banks for food security, planted fruit trees to limit the erosion of coastal areas, and helped to relocate communities away from high-risk areas, among other activities conducive to the improvement and recovery of community life.

Máxima Acuña, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, played a leading role in the Resistance to the Conga Project of gold and copper exploitation in the Cajamarca region, in the Northeast of Peru. Despite threats of violence against her and her daughter, they continued their activities against the project, considering it a serious threat to the ecosystem and water sources in the area. In 2016, the project was abandoned, largely due to the opposition of people like Acuña, who risked their lives in this endeavor.

Berta Cáceres, murdered in 2016 because she opposed a dam that threatened the sacred lands of the Lenca Indians in Honduras, did not have the same luck. Her daughter, Bertha Zúñiga, has continued her mother’s work, despite serious physical attacks against her life and that of the members of her group.

Fortunately, there is increasing evidence that women in various countries around the world are assuming central roles in the grassroots environmental movement. And there is a growing belief among those concerned about it that development policies that do not involve women and men on an equal footing will not be successful in the long term.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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