5 March 2021 (UNEP)* — Women are playing a lead role in tackling some of the planet’s biggest environmental threats, from climate change to species loss, to pollution. International Women’s Day, which falls on 8 March, provides an opportunity to reflect on women’s contributions as caretakers of people and nature, defending environmental and human rights and representing the interests of those whose voices may otherwise go unheard.
Meet seven extraordinary women who are using their powers to save the planet.
Mindy Lubber is CEO and President of Ceres, a non-profit organization that uses hard data to show investors and corporations that clean technologies, like solar power, wind energy and water recycling, are not only environmentally and socially responsible, they’re also good business.
Change, explains Lubber, is not only a matter of policy and people. “It’s also markets because whether we like it or not, they drive so much of the world.”
Climate Action 100+, an initiative Ceres helped co-found, has more than 500 investors with $47 trillion in assets under management. Sustainable development and the Paris climate change agreement, Lubber says, “must be part of the imperative of business, not something to hold your nose at and fight against.”
Her blood, she says, is “warrior blood.” But Nemonte Nenquimo’s battleground is the courtroom and she fights with facts.
Activist and leader of the Waorani people living in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, Nenquimo’s most famous lawsuit might be the one filed against her own government. In 2019, the Waorani people successfully stopped oil drilling in the Ecuadorian rainforest – protecting 500,000 acres of the Amazon from exploitation, safeguarding lives and livelihoods, and establishing a legal precedent for regional indigenous rights.
“I grew up surrounded by the songs of the wise women of my community who said the green forest that we see today is there because our ancestors protected it,” she says.
Nenquimo is also the co-founder of Ceibo Alliance, uniting indigenous communities to protect land and address to rainforest territories and cultural survival – including the promotion of solar energy and the creation of economic opportunities for women. In 2020, she was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in the world.
Julia Carabias Lillo’s contribution to science and nature is well documented. Mexico’s former Environment Minister is also a member of the Faculty of Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has conducted research on rural development in some of the most impoverished Mexican communities, and is the author of numerous scientific articles on natural resource management, ecological restoration and conservation.
At the end of last year, when UN Secretary-General, António Guterres called for an end to humanity’s suicidal war on nature, Carabias Lillo was a first responder. A contributor to the newly-released report Making Peace with Nature, she has drawn on science to inform the blueprint for tackling the crises of climate change, biodiversity and pollution. The report explains that unsustainable production and consumption is degrading the Earth’s ecosystems and, consequently, harming human well-being.
The way forward? Transformative, systemic change across the world and throughout every sector of society, says Carabias Lillo. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions, conserve and restore biodiversity, and minimize pollution and waste. This isn’t just her opinion. It’s science.
Nzambi Matee was unsettled by the ubiquity of plastic bags on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. “Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood,” says the former engineer. “The potential is enormous, but its after life can be disastrous.”
Matee is the founder of Gjenge Makers, a company that uses discarded plastic to produce paving blocks. She developed a machine that compresses a mixture of plastic and sand into sturdy bricks that are both lighter and more durable than cement. Used to build walkways, her business now produces 1,500 pavers per day, while reducing the amount of plastic waste on the streets and in landfills.
Matee makes it all seem simple but developing the technology to produce the bricks required a year of her time and demanded that she quit her job at a Kenyan oil company – a move she likens to jumping off a cliff without a parachute. But she asks, “Isn’t that how great things are done?”
“I live in one of the richest countries in the world,” says Fatemah Alzelzela of Kuwait.
However, she explains, the country has yet to embrace sustainable waste management. Kuwait generates 1.5 kilograms of trash per person per day – twice the global average – and 90 per cent of it ends up in landfills.
That prompted Alzelzela to found Eco Star, a non-profit group that recycles trash from homes, restaurants and schools across Kuwait. Getting started was no simple task, she says. She confronted stigma surrounding waste collection and was frequently dismissed on the basis of her age and gender. So Alzelzela led by example, using her own money to fund Eco Star and taking her message to Instagram, where she built a following of more than 20,000 people.
Since its launch in 2019, the company has recycled over 3.5 tonnes of plastic, 10 tonnes of paper and 120 tonnes of metal. Says Alzelzela, “We can all take action and inspire others to take action on a bigger scale.”
“Water should not be a luxury item,” says Xiaoyuan “Charlene” Ren.
With an estimated 50 per cent of China’s shallow groundwater contaminated by agricultural runoff and factory waste, Ren has focused her attention on providing rural communities with safe drinking water.
She is the founder of MyH2O, an app that charts groundwater quality so that people can find clean sources of drinking water. The app also connects communities with water filtration companies and other water solution providers. Since its launch in 2015, the platform, which services 1,000 villages in 26 provinces, has helped tens of thousands of people access clean water. “If you see something that needs to be changed,” she says, “be the one there to change it.”
To be precise, Niria Alicia Garcia runs 480 kilometres over the course of two weeks, every year.
Garcia, a graduate in environmental studies and a Xicana human rights advocate, is an organizer of Run4Salmon, a trek that follows the journey of salmon from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the McCloud River. Chinook salmon has been in decline for the past 150 years and some consider the fish canaries in the coalmine of climate change.
Affectionately referred to as the “Indigenous Ironman”, Run4Salmon participants walk, run, cycle, paddle or ride on horseback, raising awareness of the diminishing Chinook salmon and calling for the protection of all wildlife. While the distance may seem daunting, for Garcia, the greater challenge is “seeing the government carrying on business as usual, acting like the world is not burning and the rivers are not drying up.”
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