Amazon Women: On the Front Lines of Grassroots Climate Leadership

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Above: Amazon women clash with riot police during a protest against the Federal Government and the resolution about oil exploitation on October 17 2013 in Quito, Ecuador. Credit: Edu Leon/LatinContent/Getty Images

Women activists and leaders have been at the core of the environmental movement since its inception

Women have organized and battled for centuries to win basic rights, to be treated with respect and equality. Meanwhile, patriarchal institutions driven by the thirst for power, accumulation, and economic growth have fought hard to maintain their seat at the top of the social and political hierarchy. Indeed, our current political and economic institutions are overwhelmingly led by men. Of 196 nations in the world, only 17 have women as elected heads of state. Women CEOs make up only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Some women leaders, like Mayalu Txucarramãe of Brazil's Kayapo Waura people, have been the first to openly represent their tribe on the international stage. Photo by Cacá Meirelles

Some women leaders, like Mayalu Txucarramãe of Brazil’s Kayapo Waura people, have been the first to openly represent their tribe on the international stage. Photo by Cacá Meirelles

However, women are also uniquely capable of shifting the way the world operates in fundamental ways. Indeed, women activists and leaders have been at the core of the environmental movement since it’s inception. From Rachel Carson to Vandana Shiva, from suffrage to climate talks, women have pushed the boundaries of what is possible, and what is just, in our society. This is true not just in the world of activism and social justice. Research suggests that governments and corporations with women at the helm are more profitable, efficient, inclusive, and environmentally minded than those run by men. Women today are fighting against all odds in a climate of resistance, and winning.

Cindy Rosenthal, in her book When Women Lead, suggests that women use strategies that have an “integrative style: sharing power and empowering others, being noncompetitive and inclusive, seeking consensus and mutuality in relationships, and inviting participation rather than imposing dominance.” Women in positions of leadership have also been shown to be more concerned with environmental risk, and less willing to impose those risks on others. This suggests that as women’s rights are advanced, and as they gain further access to higher levels of power in society, environmental and social concerns may be more thoroughly addressed in our civil institutions.

In others words, women in leadership positions who are working for environmental and social justice are not only reshaping our world by addressing the issues, they’re also fundamentally changing the terrain of our institutions by introducing more effective leadership qualities, and by shifting and transforming our systems from the inside out.

This is true of high-profile women leaders like Maggie Fox, former Deputy Director of the Sierra Club, and now president and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, as well as Francis Beineke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was appointed by President Obama to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Beineke has worked with the NRDC to protect marine ecosystems from oil and gas development for more than 30 years.

Another example is the Hon. Marina Silva, who served as Brazil’s Minister of Environment from 2003 to 2008. Raised as one of 12 siblings in an Indigenous Amazonian rubber tapping family, Silva is deeply committed to liberation theology, environmental protection, sustainable development, and non-violence. She was responsible for drastic measures to protect the Amazon, and has been credited with reducing deforestation in Brazil up to 60 percent.

Atossa Soltani of Amazon Watch

Atossa Soltani of Amazon Watch

In addition to these high-level examples, there are many women leaders building movements at the grassroots level. As an activist working on Latin American Indigenous rights issues, I have been particularly inspired by the work of Atossa Soltani, founder and executive director of Oakland-based nonprofit Amazon Watch. Last September, Soltani was honored as the Hillary Institute’s 2013 Global Laureate for her leadership in climate equity. I had the opportunity to interview her recently.

Atossa Soltani left Iran at the age of 13, having just witnessed a few scattered street protests erupt into a full-blown mass uprising in a matter of months. Seeing the power of collective action had a deep impact on her. She moved to the United States to live with her uncle and immediately began to pursue a path of activism.

For the last 20 years, she has been working in partnership with forest communities in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia, leading campaigns that have resulted in numerous groundbreaking victories for Indigenous rights and forest protection. Amazon Watch has played an important role in amplifying Indigenous voices on cultural survival and environmental issues.

Soltani recognizes the importance of her work in the Amazon for women’s issues as well. “The violence that’s perpetuated in rape, and violence against women in general, is rooted in the same mindset that you see in our industrial societies attempt to conquer and tame nature. In contrast most Indigenous cultures see the Earth as the mother deserving reverence and respect.”

In her work with Indigenous Amazonian communities, Soltani has found that the Indigenous governance structures of representation, much like the Islamic ones she witnessed in her youth, have historically been male-dominated, and that traditional gender roles tended to restrict the role of women to family and community affairs. However, over the last 20 years, she has also seen a significant rise in the number of women leaders of grassroots indigenous movements in the Amazon as large scale forest destruction hits close to home threatening the food security, health and livelihoods of their families. Soltani noted, “Indigenous women are a growing voice on the national and international stage. And, the majority of forest protection NGOs and movements in the Amazon basin are either founded by or increasingly led by women.”

Some women leaders, like Mayalu Txucarramãe of Brazil’s Kayapo Waura people, have been the first to openly represent their tribe on the international stage. Txucarramãe is organizing the Kayapo youth against the massively destructive Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. Others have been leading various local efforts with a focus on women’s and children’s rights, and the preservation of the forest.

Patricia Gualinga

Patricia Gualinga

Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous leader of the Kichwa people of Sarayaku, helped organize an Indigenous women-led march last October where several hundred women from seven different tribes marched, along with their babies, children and husbands, 300 miles from the Amazon to confront the government over the licensing of oil blocks. Their message was: “We can’t feed our children oil. We have to defend life.”

While nonprofits and Indigenous peoples alike are working to defend their communities and ecosystems, not all women leaders are working on behalf of the environment. Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff is notorious for her anti-environmental, pro-industry track record, and her commitment to what will likely become the third largest dam in the world, the Belo Monte “monster dam”.

So much more than a battle between genders, the shifting face of leadership today is a reflection of two competing worldviews: one that sees dollar signs in nature, and one that sees life.

Nathan Heintz, is a change agent, storyteller, and social scientist passionate about Indigenous rights and Latin American social movements. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Politics from the University of California at Santa Cruz and a Master of Arts in Social Sciences issued jointly by Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany, and the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN) in Durban, South Africa. He has also studied at the Center for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India.