Mother Earth: indigenous women are the true guardians of the forests

By Renata Koch Alvarenga, Director of EmpoderaClima

Note: This weekend, EmpoderaClima is at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, which has as its theme for 2019, "Are rights the solution to climate change?". Thus, in honor of this amazing conference, the theme of the month for our platform is women and forests. Enjoy the read!


The conservation of forests is imperative for combating climate change. That's common knowledge for those who care about the environment. Life in general depends on forests, including the lives of future generations, as 30% of the Earth's surface is covered by forests. But did you also know that the planet depends on female defenders of forests?

When it comes to forests, talking about indigenous women is fundamental. About 85% of the world's biodiversity is located in the territories of indigenous peoples, and over a billion and a half individuals are directly dependent on forests for daily necessities such as food and water, clothing and traditional medicine. Given the tasks usually assigned to women due to conservative social norms, indigenous women are frequently responsible for ensuring their households have these basic necessities, which exposes them to larger impacts of forest degradation.

The Earth depends on female defenders of forests, and that is because of their extensive knowledge of the forests - given the time they spend in it as part of their societal roles and culture. Women in rural areas, especially indigenous women, have expertise on conservation practices, sustainable forest management and biological diversity, all crucial skills to those in the forestry industry. Furthermore, indigenous women are usually responsible for keeping the origin and culture of their local communities alive, thus, they have a special role in leading indigenous peoples in all areas of everyday life.

In Brazil, specifically in the Amazon region, many women have taken the lead in forest conservation, including in social and environmental initiatives such as the Movement of Rural Workers in Basileia, founded by Chico Mendes. Francisca Bezerra, the current president of the Movement, is the first woman to ever win the elections for its presidency, in 41 years of existence.

Women are the guardians of the forests, meaning not just their leadership on the ground for conservation efforts, but also their presence in decision-making meetings, locally in their hometowns and countries, and globally, at high-level conferences. In 2018, Joênia Wapichanga, from Brazil, was the first indigenous woman to be elected to Congress, representing the rights of those living and working in forests in the political world.

Sônia Guajajara, in the same election year, ran for vice president of Brazil - also the first indigenous person in history to run for that position. Sônia was a guest speaker at the Global Landscapes Forum this weekend, at the session "getting it right: a rights-based approach for landscapes", and in her speech, the Brazilian indigenous leader highlighted the importance of indigenous peoples' participation in politics, and the significance of Mother Earth as a guiding principle for human and environmental rights.

Renata Koch Alvarenga, Director of the EmpoderaClima, talked to Sônia Guajajara at GLF Bonn 2019 about indigenous rights and feminism, and told her about our new platform!

Renata Koch Alvarenga, Director of the EmpoderaClima, talked to Sônia Guajajara at GLF Bonn 2019 about indigenous rights and feminism, and told her about our new platform!

These examples from Brazil show how the narrative regarding leadership for gender equality in discussions about forests is changing, for the better. However, for now, it is still a challenge (even legally, in some regions), to recognize women as legitimate stakeholders in the forestry sector. There needs to be a gradual shifting culture of change, including the support of male leaders to gender equality.

To achieve sustainable development by 2030, one of the first issues that need to be addressed is poverty, which is even more common in rural areas. This means that forest landscape and agroforestry projects need to include gender in their actions, because equality is a key accelerator toward a more sustainable planet. The approach towards tackling deforestation must be intersectional.

Simply put, if there aren't gender-responsive policies in the forestry sector, there won't be social justice or sustainability in the economies of the future. The implementation of gender-transformative landscapes initiatives is not as difficult as it may seem, and there are many academics, policy makers and experts discussing this already - check out the discussions going on at the Global Landscapes Forum this weekend to learn more!

Cover photo credit: Caroline Bennett