Happy Women’s History Month! My name is Esperanza, and I recently joined the Alliance Center as the Programs and Communications Intern. I was born and raised in Las Cruces, in southern New Mexico. I graduated from Amherst College last year, where I studied Environmental studies and Latin American studies and became especially interested in environmental justice issues. After graduating, I worked abroad for a summer as a research assistant studying Peru’s forest conservation program. After that, I moved to Colorado to be close to family. I found The Alliance Center because of my interest in exploring an environmental career, and because the organization’s holistic view of sustainability especially resonated with me.
Because March is dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements, I’d like to spend some time this month reflecting on the environmental accomplishments made by women around the world.
Climate change will affect all of us, but the poorest and most vulnerable people in our societies will experience especially acute consequences. On a global level, the majority of the world’s poor (70 percent) are women, and poor women continue to face unequal representation in climate-related decision-making processes (IUCN). Despite this, women everywhere are some of the most persevering and effective climate leaders in the world and in their communities.
Today, I would like to honor the work of five incredible women environmentalists and climate leaders who inspire me to believe in and fight for an equitable and sustainable future:
1. Wangari Maathai (1940- 2011)
“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!”
Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts in establishing The Green Belt Movement in Kenya. The Green Belt Movement began in 1977 as a way to improve rural Kenyan women’s livelihoods, while simultaneously combating environmental degradation, deforestation and food in security. The idea for the movement started off simply – engage women in tree planting – but evolved into a powerful, multi-pronged approach to address issues of equity, democracy and government accountability.
Wangari Maathai’s legacy lives on today as The Green Belt Movement continues to plant trees and work on issues related to climate change, advocacy and gender livelihood issues.
2. Terri Swearingen (born 1956)
“We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.”
Terri Swearingen, a nurse, led her community and the United States to take action against toxic waste incinerators. When Waste Technology Industries began attempting to construct a waste incinerator in her hometown of Chester, West Virginia, Swearingen became extremely concerned about the health effects this construction would have on her family and community. By 1991 she organized over a thousand residents to protest the construction of the incinerator in West Virginia and went on a nationwide-tour protesting similar constructions around the country. She was arrested in front of the White House for a demonstration in 1992. The day after her arrest, the Clinton administration announced the decision to improve the EPA’s regulations overseeing hazardous waste incinerators, which is what Swearingen had proposed a year earlier. She was awarded the 1997 Goldman Environmental Prize for her achievements as a grassroots environmental hero.
3. Liz Chicaje Churay (born 1982)
“We, the indigenous peoples, are the guardians of Yaguas.”
Liz Chicaje Churay, an indigenous woman belonging to the Bora community of Pucaurquillo in Peru’s Loreto region, was awarded the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights in 2018 for her contributions to the creation of the Yaguas National Park. Covering over 2 million acres of tropical rainforest, this national park is an amazing global conservation achievement that also uniquely includes a Communal Reserve and acknowledges native peoples. The year before that, in 2017, Liz Chicaje Churay was invited to represent her region’s Federation of Native Communities in the COP 23 in Bonn Germany. In the summer of 2019, I had the immense privilege of visiting her home in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest and listening to her first-hand discuss the critical importance of meaningfully including indigenous peoples’ in conservation and global climate change efforts. Her humility, passion and dedication to the future of her community and our planet inspires me every day.
4. Ridhima Pandey (born 2008)
“I want a better future. I want to save my future. I want to save our future. I want to save the future of all the children and all people of future generations.”
Ridhima Pandey is a 12-year-old climate activist from Haridwar, India who, alongside Greta Thunberg and 14 other youth activists, filed a petition to protest the lack of international government action on climate change. In addition to being passionate about pushing governments around the world to take meaningful action on the climate crisis, she is also passionate about speaking out against the pervasive use of plastics. Young, outspoken leaders like Ridhima Pnadey, give me immense hope in our future.
5. Kimberly Wasserman- (born 1977)
“My community is my family. They are my boss, my co-worker, my inspiration, my drive, my fight, and I will do my damnedest for them.”
Kimberly Wasserman was the recipient for the 2013 Goldman Prize for her successful leadership in closing two of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants in the United States. Born and raised in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, this Chicana joined Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) after her 3-month-year-old baby suffered an asthma attack. The doctors told her it was related to environmental pollution, which made her determined to stand up for her community’s health. After 12 years of ongoing negotiations with the local government, the coal power plants finally closed in 2012. After this closure, LVEJO and other partner organizations created the Community Benefits Agreements, which prohibits the fossil fuel industry from operating on the newly closed property and ensures residents have a say in how the property develops in the future. Today, Wasserman continues her leadership by training young people in her community to transform old industrial areas in Little Village into public, recreational spaces.
These five incredible women, geographically spanning the globe and coming from very different cultures and backgrounds, all share a common vision: a more equitable and sustainable future. They inspire me this month, and every month, to continue fighting for a world I know is possible. Once again, Happy Women’s History Month!