Feature: Women working for the environment

By K.L. CAPOZZA, United Press International

Every day the Earth loses some 137 plant and animal species to extinction and 41,000 acres of productive land to desertification.

Over-development and a dwindling water supply are taxing the planet's ecosystems and the surviving species -- including humans -- that depend upon them for survival.


There is at least one heartening exception to this otherwise foreboding progression, however. A report by the United Nations Environmental Program finds small, local efforts led largely by women are staving off environmental destruction.

The report, "Women and the Environment," highlights the isolated and overlooked examples of how women contribute, in subtle ways, to the protection of their local ecosystems. Thai villagers are rescuing native plants from the destructive path of developers by transferring them from the forest to their homes. In rural Kenya, grassroots groups are planting thousands of trees in an effort to halt erosion.


Women often make decisions about meals, the home and health and therefore have a larger stake in ensuring they will have continued access to water, arable land and medicinal plants, the UNEP report said. This revelation is hardly new, but the report tries to elucidate the complicated and intimate relationship between women in the developing world and their natural surroundings.

In rural Burkina Faso, for example, women use edible wild plants to supplement scarce meals with baobab, sorrel leaves and tigernut tubers. In Guatemala, women manage the genetic diversity of maize varieties in their villages, recognizing and propagating new hybrids and managing plant biodiversity.

By the same token, damage to natural resources often affects women first.

"During times of stress and insecurity, it is generally the women who must forage further and further for food, water and fuel," Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director, wrote in the report's introduction. Indeed, women in the developing world are not necessarily motivated by an environmental ethic. Many have become protectors of natural resources out of economic necessity.

In southern Africa, two-thirds of women depend on land and other natural resources for their livelihoods. They also produce an astonishing 90 percent of all food crops and provide 80 percent of farm labor, the UNEP report said. Destruction of arable land, wild food sources and dwindling water supplies devastate subsistence farmers -- in this case poor women.


This near total economic dependence on the land has taught many women in the developing world to carefully exploit and safeguard natural resources -- a fact too often ignored by policymakers, said Women's Environment and Development Organization spokeswoman Irene Dankelman, who co-authored the UNEP report.

Understanding what motivates women to conserve and protect their environment may be the key to sparking a successful global conservation movement, she said.

Specifically, resources and money need to be devoted to "strengthening local-global linkages, and advocating for equal participation with special focus on the position of women living in poverty, indigenous women, rural women and local communities," Dankelman told United Press International.

Such initiatives are already underway and with notable success.

In the Philippines, the Los Banos Institute of Biological Sciences partnered with women on the island of Mindanao to teach them about the medicinal properties of herbal plants. Villagers now produce marketable herbal remedies that generate income for the community while also creating an incentive for species and habitat conservation.

In China, female farmers outside of Beijing are experiencing water scarcity -- as are two-thirds of the world's population. Desertification, erosion and diminished soil fertility force women to travel longer distances to find water and fuel. In response, however, Chinese women have mobilized to stabilize arable soil and control erosion by planting acres of willow and poplar tree cuttings.


Local initiatives such as these also are catching the eye of non-governmental organizations and international aid agencies. The United Nations Development Fund for Women is partnering with women in Ghana and Nigeria to build renewable energy systems using agricultural and human waste. In Burkina Faso, the fund is supporting a project to train 300 women to produce Shea butter sustainably from the nuts of the Shea tree.

Although women are addressing local needs successfully with small, innovative projects, their voices remain shockingly absent at the national and international level, said Liz Sutton, spokeswoman for the Women's Environmental Network.

"It is a scandal that despite decades of fine words and policies about gender issues at U.N. fora, women are still afforded low status and their roles and contributions ignored and undervalued," she told UPI. "An irony is that the low status given to domestic and community roles is one of the reasons women have retained this environmental expertise."

As the world gradually recognizes the role women play as the shock troops in the battle to save the planet's natural resources, they likely will assume leadership roles in the previously male-dominated policymaking echelons. Global conservation efforts that appeal to women's concern for their families are destined to succeed, said Jill Becker, executive director of the Women's Health and Environmental Network.


"There's a symbiotic relationship there," Becker told UPI. "Women will always care about the environment when it affects the health and wellbeing of their families and themselves."


Koren Capozza covers environmental issues for UPI Science News. E-mail [email protected]

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