Women’s work: Fighting for nature

Maasai women singing, pictured above, in Kenya. (© Marc Samsom/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: Jennifer Morris is president of Conservation International.

In my more than 20 years in the conservation field, I’ve come across many inspiring women who are working to protect nature while improving livelihoods around the world.

I can’t possibly include them all here, but these five women stand out in my mind as we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8.

Christiana Figueres – a global leader in climate action

Global climate negotiations reached an all-time low in December 2009. Discussions at COP 15 in Copenhagen failed so miserably they were affectionately called “Dopenhagen,” leaving us to believe there was no chance that 195 countries could ever agree to meaningful, measurable carbon emissions reductions in our lifetime.

Enter Christiana — a diplomat from Costa Rica whose determination and conviction landed her the role of Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Over the course of six years, Christiana worked tirelessly to right the ship, culminating in the first-ever, binding global agreement on climate change.  This agreement, coupled with a focus on climate finance through the Green Climate Fund, gives me hope — not just for the future of climate action, but for the many women and girls who now have Christiana as a heroine who conquered the impossible.

In the more than two years that have passed since she led the historic Paris meeting, Christiana continues to lead global efforts to fight climate change. As a Conservation International Lui-Walton Distinguished fellow, Christiana is an outspoken advocate for the role of businesses, civil society and women’s leadership in the most important movement of our lifetime.

Jessica Donovan — from intern to country director

I first met Jessica Donovan in Washington more than 20 years ago. Jessica works in Liberia, a country that has recently overcome tremendous political strife and is entering a new era of social and economic development.

But this also comes with challenges for conservation. Since 2009, four major companies have been granted concessions in Liberia for palm oil production on more than a million acres of land. This could be tragic for the Upper Guinean rainforest in Liberia, a relatively intact forest, which has the incredible ability to mitigate climate change through its vast stocks of carbon. All of this could be lost to palm oil plantations were it not for the perseverance of Jessica and her dedicated team from Conservation International-Liberia.

Jessica is leading Conservation International’s team in Monrovia to support the country’s interest in sustainable growth for its 4.6 million people. She leverages her two decades of experience in Liberia to bring together communities, palm oil producers, mining companies and government officials to help influence where palm oil production takes place, and how mining needs to support conservation. She is a tireless advocate on behalf of responsible land use that doesn’t decimate the country’s ecosystems on which so many Liberians depend. Jessica has endured incredible challenges in post-war Liberia including the Ebola crisis, but through it all, Jessica continues to raise all of our hopes for a prosperous Liberia that values the conservation of nature as a core aspect of economic development.


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Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim – advocate for indigenous peoples’ knowledge 

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim grew up in south-central Chad in the Mbororo community — a nomadic community of about 250,000 subsistence cattle herders. Hindou recognized the incredible depth of traditional knowledge that existed within her own community on adaptation to climate change and noticed this knowledge wasn’t being incorporated into national conversations.

She co-managed a project in Chad which used 3D mapping to engage indigenous herders, giving them a platform to share their traditional knowledge as a part of national conversations on climate change and other issues.

She has since spent her professional life advocating for indigenous peoples to have a seat at the table, especially at international climate change negotiations, so that decisions can be made with direct input from the people closest to the changing world.

Not yet 35, she is an incredible reminder that every generation will play a part in the climate solution.

Ria Kakelo – Namibian farmer seeing climate change firsthand

I can attribute my career in conservation to Ria Kakelo.

In 1992, I was a volunteer working on a women’s education project in rural northern Namibia. I went there as a naive 22-year-old thinking I would study public health — and then I met Ria. She was a mother of six who grows millet on two hectares of land.

I would spend my weekends at Ria’s house learning about her family and the history of the area. Ria’s home — an arid region where every raindrop is precious — used to be flourishing. When Ria was a child, she grew corn instead of millet, and there was plenty of grass for their livestock. But rampant deforestation for charcoal and fencing for cattle had, little by little, changed their rainfall patterns. Those changes, paired with the onslaught of global climate change, meant that Ria’s community struggled to obtain food and water. Many of the diseases I came to study were directly related to malnutrition caused by decreasing crop yields and limited access to clean water due to drought and climate change. In addition, women were often the sole providers of the household, but were not receiving any support to help them grow more food.

Ria helped me realize that community conservation was key to the survival of women like Ria and her children. We need to address land use and climate change adaptation if we were ever going to tackle other issues, like public health.

Berta Caceres – environmental activist

When community members in the Rio Blanco region of Honduras woke up to construction equipment mysteriously arriving in their back yards, they turned to Berta Caceres for help. With the backing of an organization Berta co-founded, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), she helped lead a peaceful resistance campaign against the planned construction of the Agua Zarca dam. The construction site on the Gualcarque River was considered a place of spiritual importance by the local Lenca indigenous community, who weren’t informed or consulted about the project. This is an all-too-common story in a country that has given away hundreds of mining concessions since the government coup in 2009.

Berta was a force to be reckoned with, setting up road blockades to prevent access to the dam site, filing complaints against government authorities, and holding local assemblies to engage the community.

Berta won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her successful efforts in stopping construction of the dam.

She was tragically shot and killed in 2016.

Recently police in Honduras arrested a construction executive in connection with the murder. He is the ninth person to be arrested, of which eight are already serving sentences. While this latest arrest is an important step in the justice for Berta’s murder, it reminds me that there are thousands of activists on the “front lines” of conservation that risk their lives for the protection of this planet.

 Jennifer Morris is president of Conservation International.

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