When We Protect Indigenous Women We Are Protecting The Environment

More than 50% of the world’s land is community land collectively held by Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples live in some of the most remote and resource-rich areas in the world including forests, mountains, deserts and the arctic. They survive on the agriculture of these lands but unfortunately only hold a fraction of legal rights to the territories they occupy (and HAVE occupied for generations). Their lands and their lives have been vulnerable to the exploitation and colonisation of extractive industries resulting in many communities being forced from their homes for “development” and “conservation” schemes. Even climate change initiatives such as wind farms or geothermal energy threaten indigenous rights where they continue to face the loss of their lands, livelihoods, sacred sites and self-governance in the name of these projects.


The women in these communities have historically been recognised as the main cultivators, workers and protectors of these lands. “They are also cultural practitioners, healers, teachers and knowledge holders who have a central role in the transmission of language and culture to younger generations.” For these reasons indigenous women are most likely to experience the first and worst effects of climate change globally, thus they are often found on the frontlines of resistance campaigns- defending their lands, their rights and the health of the environment. Protecting the rights of these women allows them to provide security for their community, and by having legal ownership over their lands allows them to preserve their resources, knowledge and history for future generations. Indigenous women have routinely challenged the threats to their existence over centuries and as a result, their lives are constantly at risk not just from the deterioration of the environment, but from the violence, typically at the hands of their governments. 


When it comes to environmental justice, the contributions and significant roles women have played in its development are often left out of academic and social narratives. Feminism, specifically the activism of indigenous women and women of colour, and environmental justice have gone hand in hand for centuries. Not only have Indigenous Peoples historically and systematically been placed at the wrong end of the power spectrum, but it is the women who are the main victims of violence and authoritarianism.  A study by Global Witness found that 2017 was the deadliest year so far for environmental activists whereby 207 environmental defenders (more than half being women) were killed for defending community land or natural resources. The majority of these occurred in Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines where protests against agribusiness, mining, illegal logging and organized poaching crime syndicates were found to be key motives for these murders. 

The plight of these communities is one of constant construction and reconstruction of their communities, cultural values of collectivity, solidarity with nature, and reciprocity even amidst the life-threatening challenges they face. For example, indigenous activist Kandi Mossett helped lead the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) which garnered international attention in 2016 after thousands of protestors were met with violence by security forces. Mossett highlighted that Indigenous Peoples and their communities are disproportionately targeted for such “development” projects, stating “you don’t see a frack well in Hollywood or on the White House lawn. You see it in low-income, minority populations.”


Indigenous women’s exposure to the effects from such exploitative industries not only makes them vulnerable to absorbing toxic contaminants, but their activism is often labelled by big corporations as terrorism resulting in the violence and injustices against them almost always state sponsored. Consequently, the continual violence against indigenous defenders and even their murders go unnoticed. For instance, Ecuadorian activist Margoth Escobar belongs to a collective made of indigenous women called Mujeres Amazonicas, a group of activists defending their land and the environment against oil extraction and mining. Escobar found her home set on fire which was one of the many attacks the collective faced alongside threats, smear campaigns and physical violence against women human rights defenders across South America. Women like Mossett and Escobar face sexism, racism and colonisation as a result of their gender and identity, risking their lives at the hands of companies and governments that are never held accountable for their actions. 

In Bolivia, a recent WRI report found that in Bolivia, deforestation rates are 2.8 times lower within “tenure-secure” indigenous lands, mainly areas that were legally recognized by the government and protected from external threats. By giving indigenous groups legal rights to the lands they occupy, Bolivia would be able to prevent the production of 8-12 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. Despite these findings, Bolivian activists such as Amparo Carvajal continue to denounce state security forces for arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force against agricultural workers. As a result, government officials at the highest levels have attempted to destroy her credibility and her reputation. She states:

The government must give Mother Earth her rights back, and give indigenous peoples the recognition they deserve. Nature is screaming at us that we must love and care for this planet, for we all depend on it.” - Amparo Carvajal


We cannot deny that Indigenous women are continuously in a fight against the triple threat of oppression: patriarchy, racism and colonialism. When Indigenous rights are safeguarded and legally implemented, this allows them to flourish as guardians of the world’s forests and biodiversity. “Secur[ing] land rights for Indigenous Peoples is a proven climate change solution, and denying indigenous land rights and self-determination is a threat to the world’s remaining forests and biodiversity.” Despite the terrifying statistics, these women are not deterred and continue to fight against the governments, corporations and powerful elites costing their lives all to protect the environment so their communities can live on. By acknowledging their contributions to environmental justice, governments and global institutions will be able to formulate “effective gender-sensitive and culturally appropriate measures to protect them.” We must continue to advocate for their rights, their existence, and their message by giving them the protection AND the platforms necessary to trigger real change and sustainable solutions. 

Article by Social Media & Content Manager Yaz Omran

More Articles By Yaz