As a woman and an environmental defender, I find it necessary to commemorate the role of women in the protection of our natural heritage. I feel a special pull toward making visible the links between environmental defense, courage, and gender.
Women are the first victims of environmental deterioration, but they’re also the greatest protagonists in the defense and conservation of nature. Although it may seem like women and the environment are two different topics, there are subtle—but strong—links between the two, particularly when it comes to water.
Women have an important relationship with water—they are both sources of life and fundamental to existence. It’s not surprising, then, that women can often be seen leading struggles in defense of water, especially within indigenous and rural populations.
Joan Martínez Alier, professor of economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and an expert in political ecology, explained to Agencia EFE that often, socio-environmental conflicts involving mining or the privatization of water directly affect the survival of communities and, for that reason, women act in defense of water as they would in defense of their land or their family: bravely and completely.
A subsistence farmer in Peru’s northern highlands, Máxima Acuña stood up for her right to peacefully live off her own property, a plot of land sought by Newmont and Buenaventura Mining to develop the Conga gold and copper mine. | Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Little is known, however, about the knowledge and experience of women in water management. In many cases, especially in the Global South, the administration of water resources, as well as the elaboration and implementation of related policies, doesn’t take into account gender roles and lacks a differentiated approach. In rural Colombia, for example, women bring water to their homes from rivers or springs, boil it for use in the kitchen, and care for it. Despite their central role, they are not consulted when decisions are made locally or nationally about the water supply.
It’s necessary to bring visibility to the role women play in water management, give equal recognition to the interests of men and women, and promote equal access to decision-making spaces. Only in that way can we advance towards greater equality.
It’s important to remember that Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be an environmental defender, and more dangerous still for women. Many women, who fight silently from their communities or from their leadership roles, have suffered the violence and injustice that comes with defending what is theirs.
I must take a moment now to remember and honor Berta Cáceres, the indigenous activist and leader of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), who dedicated her life to the defense of the Gualcarque River. Berta was murdered in March 2016, after years of threats stemming from her opposition of the Agua Zarca Dam. She may be gone, but her spirit, and her commitment to justice, is still very much alive.
Berta Cáceres on the banks of the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras. The river is a source of water, food, medicine, and spiritual identity for the indigenous Lenca people. | Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.
I’d also like to mention my colleagues, courageous friends, and allies who through their struggles are shaping a more just and equitable world. They believe, with all their hearts, that gender justice comes hand-in-hand with environmental justice.
In our current reality, equality, more than a starting point, is a goal we must work towards. Concrete actions are needed to counterbalance the discrimination that affects us all. That’s why it is fundamental to incorporate the gender approach in any plan, program, project or mechanism of public administration.
As the World Bank mentions in a 2002 report, the way to ensure both men and women benefit more equitably from policies is to make their needs and experiences an integral part of them.
Life depends on women, as it does on water. That’s why we proudly act as stubborn defenders of not just water, but of all natural resources and of those who depend on them.
Although not always visible, our struggle is as present as the water that travels in so many ways across our planet. It’s important that we come together in support of one another—in our victories and our defeats. May we continue sharing our fears and our fights and, above all else, may we never abandon the defense of our territory—because it defines us and to it we owe everything.
I’ve always thought that water has the face of a woman. Every day now, I see it more clearly.