Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Gender: Climate Change is a Feminist Issue

As evidence of climate change becomes ever more compelling, the battle over who gets to frame its causes, effects and solutions will intensify. Whose voices get heard and whose don't will continue as a key political issue of our time, bringing class, colour, age and gender divisions to the forefront. Women and children living in poverty are the least responsible for climate change yet the most burdened by its impact. Excluded from channels of information and shut out from local and international decision making structures, those that resist are criminalized. Such is the case of the Mapuche indigenous woman that has been in jail for more than five years defending her territory and their forests against the forestry companies in Chile.

Climate change has a disproportionate impact on women in poorer rural regions. Women here fulfil combined roles as producers and providers of food, water and fuel, income earners, household managers and care givers. Their responsibility for using and preserving land for food and fuel production and their resulting dependency on the soil make them vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as desertification, erosion and soil degradation. Decreasing crop yields and capacity to sustain livestock, less productivity and lower income are consequences of these effects. The decreasing biodiversity affects women’s role in healthcare and their access to medical plants. We quickly forget that about 80% of the world’s population uses traditional medicine to meet their basic health needs. So when the resource base on which these women rely is undermined, their food security and family well-being are seriously threatened. The depletion of natural resources and decreasing agricultural productivity only increases women’s workloads and further reduces their time available to participate in decision-making processes (that is, if they are allowed to participated in these processes in the first place).

In many areas, women are the primary guardians of the forests and their rich biodiversity. Women possess extensive local and/or indigenous knowledge on tree species, edible plants and those with healing capacities, but their role in forest conservation has yet to be acknowledged: Women are virtually invisible in formal forestry and particularly in decision-making positions. Their voices are ignored when the same forest has to make way for large corporate-run eucalyptus plantations – a fast-growing hardwood tree that is a favourite of the international forest products industry, which plays a key role in international governmental climate change agreements. In their approach to carbon trading, and games with ficticious carbon accounting systems, international negotiators favor these large-scale CO2-absorbing projects in the South while marginalizing non-corporate, non-state and non-expert contributions toward climatic stability.

In Minas Gerais, Brazil, for example, the Plantar S.A. Corporation has asked for carbon finance for its expanding monoculture eucalyptus plantations. These plantations not only occupy public lands that according to Brazillian law belong to poor peasants, they deplete and divert the water supply away from local villages and greatly reduce biodiversity. The Kyoto Protocol's 'Clean Development Mechanism' has effectively shut the door to small-scale, non-corporate, grassroots solutions - such as systems that encourage local control of existing forests and improvements in their ability to absorb CO2 while producing, sustainable fuelwood supplies. Instead, new exclusionary forms of property rights are created that cut women off from their fuelwood collection and food and seed domestication. Nor will these women have access to the few 'forest guard' jobs that will be created.

The struggle for land is fought alongside the struggle for water. Due to climate change, fresh water will become more scarce as temperatures rise and natural water sources dry up. Privatisation here adds further pressure to a just water distribution. Low-income households, particularly those headed by women, struggle to pay large lump sums for water connections and additional monthly payments. Therefore, women have been central in the struggle against the sale of public water services to transnational companies.

Women suffer greatly in wars, which will inevitably increase as people battle for access to decreasing supplies of resources such as fresh water and arable land. In war, women are often ruthlessly violated when rape is used as a military weapon, and are left to single-handedly care for their families in precarious conditions when their husbands are required to fight.
When it comes to immediate natural disasters – such as hurricanes or tsunamis – the forecasting information networks and early warning systems are oriented towards males and often don’t take into account women’s channels of information. Due to their limited access to information, women are running bigger risks. Cultural restrictions on women's mobility can add to the problem. During the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh many more women died than men because early warnings were displayed in public spaces from which women were prohibited and women delayed leaving their homes for fear of breaking cultural modesty standards. The field of disaster management is similarly dominated by men, and women's needs for information and services are often neglected in disaster response.

Poor women in particular are excluded from information that will give them agency to act at the moment of impact; or in the long-run, information that helps them recognise systemic patterns, and recognise that injustice, as well as justice, is social and has a long history.

Climate change is real, but it is also used as a new rhetoric to fuel old systems of control and repression. This means we need to keep an eye on well-publicised concerns about the threats posed, and judge whether they are justified or used for alarmist discourses that serve other more problematic objectives and reinforce repression. For example, the population threat: Predictions of population growth overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet have long been popular in environmental circles. Those seeking to shift the blame for climate change from Northern consumption and production patterns to poor people in the South are safely letting capitalism off the hook. Their ‘overpopulation’ argument does not dare ask for a new form of social organisation that might see land and resources accessed and shared more evenly, contributing to less poverty and more sustainable lifestyles, but is implicitly stating that the fertility of a certain group of women must be controlled. In the past, such reasoning has contributed to the implementation of oppressive population policies, deeply harmful to the health and rights of impoverished women all over the world, women of color and women of working-class.

In the context of climate change poor women see themselves faced with fighting multiple battles: in combatting partriarchy, in regaining control over their land, their food and water resources, in claiming access to medicinal herbs and information, and finally in keeping control over their bodies.

The exclusion from international climate negotiations of women, children, the poor and in general the voices of the majority of people who will be most affected by the consequences of climate change, means that such negotiations are entirely undemocratic and ignore the solutions already lived by such peoples, favouring instead a series of false solutions that create huge profit for the special interests who are permitted a place at the negotiating table, at the devestating expense of those who are excluded.