Building a fossil fuel-free feminist future: An Indigenous perspective

Climate change has become an enormous threat to humanity.

It is very apparent that women are more vulnerable to climate impacts because they make up the majority of those who are involved in subsistence farming and care work. As Climate Justice Action researchers on a regional project to empower local women to determine their own solutions to climate change, we have documented the climate impact stories of women from Cataret Island, Papua New Guinea as being amongst the world’s first climate refugees, along with survivors of Typhoon Haiyaan in Philippines, Indigenous peoples in the mountainous region of Nepal and those in the coastal area of Bangladesh, who are losing livelihood due to the rising temperature and sea level.

Our research showed that  the root cause of climate change is the neoliberal capitalist system.

To address it we need to build a strong local women’s movement. Climate change is an issue of survival for rural, Indigenous, urban poor and migrant women. We need to produce feminist knowledge around climate change, to challenge the prevailing discourse on climate change, which focuses on conservation and protection of the environment, entirely ignoring the human side.

As Indigenous women’s rights leader, Myrna Cunningham pointed out at the 13th AWID Forum in Brazil last month,  “Indigenous peoples have had very difficult relationships with environmentalists; they look at the environment but do not see the people”.

The close relationship of Indigenous peoples with nature has made them most vulnerable to climate change. We have traditionally been protectors of natural resources because of our Indigenous knowledge, skills and practices. For example, my community in the eastern hills of Nepal has long been preserving communal forests through our customary practices. But instead of acknowledging the work of the Indigenous community, world leaders are signing Free Trade Agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP),which will continue to exploit resources and profit the richest few.

For example, provision of carbon trading in Paris Agreement would let international companies pay for planting trees in Nepal to stock carbon so that they can keep polluting without having to curb their emission. Nepal has committed to selling carbon credits in ‘better price’ from its REDD+ programs in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC),  submitted to UNFCCC prior to signing of Paris Agreement in April 2016. Which means further enhancing conservation programs in expense of displacing Indigenous peoples from their ancestral land - 60% of Indigenous ancestral land in Nepal has been already converted into conservation areas.

Signing of the FTAs with mechanisms such as the Investor-state Dispute Settlement (ISDS) – which allows private companies to sue the host government for violating any trade agreements - will trump the Paris Agreement signed by the same world leaders during the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change last year (COP 21). Very little has been achieved during COP 21 in terms of keeping the planet ‘well below 2 ̊C’ and ‘transition from fossil fuel’. Furthermore, such trade agreements will infiltrate into climate solutions in the form of REDD+ mechanisms based on principle of carbon pricing, continuing the unending process of green-washing the economy for a profit, and increasing land grabbing from Indigenous communities to plant forests under REDD+ projects.

For those of us living in the global South, this means business as usual; we will be the ones to die first from climatic events.

On the other hand, it is also a realization for us that given that world leaders have failed to save us, we have to build our own climate movement grounded in community.This is why we need feminist knowledge to demystify these tricky technical solutions and let the world know how false solutions to climate change exploit the human rights of women.

The AWID Forum umbrella session on Environmental and Climate Justice was crucial in exploring how we can integrate connections between women’s rights groups, climate activists and Indigenous women’s movements to envision a just and a healthy planet. The session critically analyzed climate change from a gender perspective, connecting its roots  to the complex nexus of capitalism, patriarchy, militarization and fundamentalism. Climate change is reproducing existing social inequalities, gender inequalities and violence. Participants pointed out  that Indigenous women are at the center of climate injustice,  while women with disabilities are often left behind during the times of disasters.

The sessions raised the question of what a system change looks like. What would it look like to shift away from the system of dirty fossil fuel energy that is feeding climate change?  Are the technical solutions designed against climate change working? The answers cast doubt on current solutions to climate changes, which are painted green but  driven by the same corporates who have commodified nature – privatizing water, wind and solar energy.

As Fijian activist Noelene Nabulivou warned, “Do not apply the technology unless it is clear that it is not going to do further damage”. In fact, a  just transition to clean energy should take us out from capitalism and patriarchy and ensure our rights to some of the key elements which are under threat of climate change: the right to land and resources, housing, clean water, transportation, and food sovereignty. Because, as Indigenous activist Jihan Gearon from the Black Mesa Water coalition has said, “Just Transition is about justice and equality”. 

Indigenous women have proved to be the agent of climate solutions as they use their traditional knowledge and skill in adapting and mitigating climate change, focusing on local solutions which benefit local community. Such strategies will help us to come out of this corporate system to build a “fossil fuel free feminist future” where women are respected, organized and powerful. It is everyone’s responsibility - not just on Indigenous peoples and frontline communities - to build the climate justice movement, and it has to be collective because “climate justice is incomplete without social justice . The Water Protectors of Standing Rock have proved the strength of coming together and building a movement.

One way we can create collective movements is by mobilizing around the globe to call for a climate strike - holding our governments accountable at local and national levels. The Climate Justice Movement started by a network of women’s organizations around the world called “Women’s Global Call for Climate Justice”  has been able to reach diverse communities  across the globe. It calls for solidarity and participation of women in saving planet earth.

“We will take action everywhere – in our homes, neighborhoods, village squares, agricultural gardens, fishing grounds, sacred places, worship sites, community organizations, workplaces and schools” - Women’s Global Call for Climate Justice

By building stronger solidarity amongst diverse movements we can fight the interlinked problems of gender, climate change and capitalism.

When local women unite to demand a gender-just climate solution with their local governments, the process empowers them to demand other rights and needs as well. Since local bodies are the initial link of the chain connecting community to international decision-making bodies, actions led by Indigenous women at the  local level, who often lacks access to resources and services, to influence global policy-making.

At the 13th AWID Forum I witnessed the solidarity between femininity movement coming into force to address the diversity within us, connecting and uniting us to make us more stronger to fight Patriarchy, fundamentalism, militarization and growing environmental problem from one space. If it was not for the AWID Forum, we might have waited longer to break the silence about intersectionality and intergenerational perspectives, as they pertain to a women’s rights movement which has unequal power dynamics within it.  The AWID Forum opened a way forward and is weaving connections within the women’s rights movement by bridging the divides within and across movements.

“It takes roots to build the movement. It is important to take our movement out of the box, to take it beyond our wall, beyond our neighborhood, beyond our country, beyond our issues and gender because we are fighting a system which we cannot fit in a box and paint it in certain way we like.” – Graca Samo, World March of Women


About the author

Alina Saba is a young Limbu Indigenous woman from Nepal with a passion for working in women’s rights and climate justice movement. She currently works with the National Indigenous Women Forum (NIWF), an organization which works with marginalized Indigenous women of Nepal.

AWID Forum