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Women Leaders Defend the Earth and Champion Human Rights

by Sharon Hartzell

Happy National Women’s History Month! As environmentally conscious women, we have no shortage of role models from whom to draw inspiration as we advocate for a greener planet. Women have steered the environmental movement in innovative directions, highlighting interconnections between environmental issues and human right struggles in the U.S. and worldwide. Here are four female environmental leaders who advocate for both the environment and human rights.

Wangari Maathai

In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai took a holistic approach to environmental advocacy, recognizing connections between resource management and economic empowerment. One of her lasting contributions was the Green Belt Movement, an organization dedicated to empowering communities, particularly women, to preserve the environment. It was founded in response to concerned rural Kenyan women facing water scarcity, insecure food supply, and a lack of accessible resources for firewood. The Green Belt Movement encourages tree planting to conserve biodiversity, promotes ecosystem restoration, and combats poverty by providing economic resources.

In addition to the Green Belt Movement, Maathai became the first woman in Kenya to earn a doctorate degree, the first woman to chair the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi, and a participant in the National Council of Women in Kenya, which led to the creation of the Green Belt Movement.

Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke is a powerful advocate for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights, particularly for women. A member of the Ojibwe tribe, LaDuke became an activist while working on the White Earth Reservation as a school principal, where she helped to found the Indigenous Women’s Network. LaDuke recognized the necessity of conserving both environmental and cultural resources, and founded White Earth Land Recovery Project to recover land that has been taken from the people on her reservation. The organization also implements programs on these lands to preserve the environment and fosters economic opportunities for indigenous people.

LaDuke then founded the nonprofit Honor the Earth, which provides “a voice for the earth and a voice for those not heard.” Honor the Earth promotes environmental justice and works to enhance the political power and leadership of indigenous people. According to the nonprofit’s website: “We believe a sustainable world is predicated on transforming economic, social and political relationships that have been based on systems of conquest toward systems based on just relationships with each other and with the natural world.”

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to the preservation of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge, which she sees as intrinsically linked. In 1991, Shiva founded the NGO Navdanya (nine seeds), which is committed to the protection of biological and cultural diversity. The organization has set up seed banks across India, promotes fair trade of organic seeds, and trains farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture.

Since the preservation of biodiversity is the foundation of Shiva’s activism, she has been an outspoken critic of seed monocultures, industrial agriculture, and genetically modified food products. Shiva also makes a philosophical argument against a system that attempts to patent life forms, and questions the loss of indigenous knowledge and control over traditional agriculture systems that might result from the practice. Ecofeminism is fundamental to Shiva’s work, and she asserts that more sustainable agriculture will go along with centering the leadership of women in India and worldwide.

Majora Carter

Majora Carter is a visionary advocate for environmental justice and an innovative steward of the urban environment. A resident of the Bronx, Carter has committed her life’s work to improving both the environmental quality and the economic sustainability of her community. In 2001, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, which spearheaded the initiative to develop the Hunt’s Point Riverside Park in an area that had previously been an illegal garbage dump.

Through Sustainable South Bronx, Carter has also established the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Program, an initiative to train urban residents for green-collar jobs in ecological restoration, green roof installation, urban forestry, and other sustainable fields. Carter’s work recognizes many interrelated struggles facing low-income communities of color, and strives to tackle them in a holistic way. These communities must bear the brunt of environmental pollution, and face less access to green spaces and fewer opportunities for green jobs than wealthier communities. “Green For All,” an organization that Carter founded in collaboration with civil rights advocate Van Jones, strives to tackle poverty and crime by providing economic opportunities for low-income communities while simultaneously building a green economy.

Across continents and communities, women are making vast contributions to the environmental movement and strengthening the linkages between preserving the earth and defending the rights of humans who inhabit it. Which female leaders have inspired you this Women’s History Month? Comment below!

Sharon Hartzell is a graduate student at the University of Maryland College Park, where her research and coursework focuses on Chesapeake Bay contaminant issues. She is a regular blogger on environmental topics with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, and is always seeking more opportunities to write. She spends her free time enjoying everything the D.C. area has to offer, from the Natural History Museum to Nando’s portobello wraps.


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