Did you know that Indigenous people are saving 80% of the world’s biodiversity? Despite their deep connection to and knowledge of, precious natural resources like the Amazon rainforest and Arctic Ice, Indigenous peoples voices are rarely heard on the world forum. For International Women’s Day 2021, we want to celebrate a few of these incredible women around the world fighting for environmental justice.
Young and old, these women represent the frontlines of climate activism, often risking their lives. They represent the legacy and the future of the environmental movement. For time immemorial, Indigenous communities have warned of the damage we are doing to the planet and the danger of disrupting nature’s rhythm for endless development. They have fought hard to protect their land from deforestation, pipelines and mono agriculture. We’re going to take a look at six Indigenous women fighting to protect people, traditional lands and water whose stories share a profound spiritual connection to and respect for the planet.
Autumn Peltier, Canada
Meet 16-year-old Anishnaabe “water warrior”, Autumn Peltier. Peltier is from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario in Canada and has been fighting for access to clean water since she was just 8 years old. Peltier comes from a lineage of activists and was inspired by her aunt Josephine Mandamin, who founded The Water Walk Movement. On a mission to bring awareness to water pollution, Mandamin walked 25,000 miles around the Great Lakes and other waterways of North America.
Although she and her family had access to clean water, Peltier learned at a young age that 73% of First Nations’ people in Canada do not. While tap water is generally safe to drink in Canada, boil water advisories are in place in First Nation reservations and many of their systems are at medium or high risk of contamination.
When she was just 13, Peltier addressed the UN General Assembly on the issue of water protection and gave a moving speech about the sacred connection that people have to water. She explained that in her culture, water has a spirit – it is alive and is revered because of its connection to life. At 14, she was named Chief Water Protector for the Anishnabek Nation and made headlines when she met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and questioned his government’s policies on clean water. She has now spoken at over 200 events and continues her fight for clean water for Indigenous people all over the world.
Amelia Telford, Australia
Amelia Telford, from Bundajalung, is a young Aboriginal and South Sea Islander woman who founded the first climate network for Indigenous Youth – SEED, a grassroots network that connects young Indigenous people and amplifies their voices. The organisation’s vision is for a just and sustainable future with strong cultures, powered by renewable energy.
When it comes to climate change, Australia is an interesting case. Already a hot, dry climate it has been ranked as highly sensitive to the impact of global warming and extreme weather like storms, floods, rain and bushfires. Australia has already warmed by more than 1 degree since 1910 and yet continues to export more coal than any other country in the world.
For Indigenous people in Australia, climate change is already having a major impact on their daily lives and wellbeing. The temperature increase is reducing native food, sea levels rising is forcing people off their land and extreme weather events causing communities to be cut off from services. Perhaps the most devastating of all, the connection that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to their ancestral homelands and seeing the destruction of it is having a negative impact on mental health.
Telford witnessed land erosion in her hometown and the impact of climate change on Indigenous people. At the same time, she was learning about climate change in school and noticed the disturbing lack of Indigenous voices at all levels of the environmental movement. In 2014, SEED was born and her work has earned Telford the honour of National NAIDOC Youth of the Year, Bob Brown’s Young Environmentalist of the Year and the Australian Geographic Young Conservationist of the Year.
Quannah Chasinghorse, Alaska, US
18 year old, Quannah Rose Chasinghorse, is a passionate environmental justice activist from Alaska, US. She is an advocate for the protection of their land from oil drilling – a decades-long battle for the Indigenous population of Alaska. Chasinghorse says there was no one moment that prompted her activism.
Growing up in the Indigenous Han Gwich’in community and seeing the struggles of her people often left her feeling hurt and angry and she knew that she had to take action. Her mother, who is on the board of the Alaska Wilderness League and regional director for Native Movement is a strong inspiration.
While there may be a new president in the US, the legacy of their previous leader lingers and there are many climate deniers who want to continue the growth of the fossil fuel industry. The Arctic, where Chasinghorse’s people have lived for generations, is thawing at twice the rate of the rest of the world. The impact of global temperature rise in this region is already taking its toll on indigenous Alaskans. The people here rely heavily on Caribou and the changing climate is impacting the Caribou population. Coastal erosion is forcing people to relocate and the costs of food supplies are increasing.
Chasinghorse is dedicated to protecting the Artic to National Wildlife Refuge, known to her people to be “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins”. She is a member of the International Gwich’in Youth Council and the Gwich’in Steering Committee. In 2019, she spoke at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention and was recently interviewed by Jane Fonda for Fire Drill Fridays.
Sonia Guajajara, Brazil
Sônia Guajajara is a Brazilian indigenous activist, environmentalist, and member of the Socialism and Liberty Party. She is the leader of the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, “APIB”), an organization that represents indigenous ethnic groups in Brazil.
Born to a Guajajara family on Araribóia Indigenous Land, in the Amazonian rainforest, Guajajara says she “was born an activist. I’ve spent my whole life fighting against anonymity, against indigenous peoples’ invisibility. I always wanted to find a path, a way to bring the history and way of life of the indigenous people to light for society as a whole.”
In a piece, she wrote for the New York times, Guajajara describes a childhood of abundance, where water is considered sacred and animals to eat are plentiful. Her anguish is palpable as she describes how the government mined for gold, iron and timber while simultaneously calling Indigenous traditions primitive. Plants and animals that have been part of their rituals have disappeared and the shortage of their traditional food sources means they are no longer self-sufficient.
Guajajara is a prominent opposition figure of the Brazilian government and described President Jair Bolsonaro as “a threat to the planet” due to his deforestation policies. In 2015, she was awarded a medal by Maranhão state. Guajajara has travelled around the world to attend speaking engagements and bring awareness to the destruction of the rainforest and abuses faced by Indigenous populations.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Chad
TED speaker and environmental activist, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim comes from The Lake Chad Basin and is a member of the indigenous Mbororo people who are traditionally nomadic farmers, herding and tending cattle.
Oumarou Ibrahim is a passionate advocate for Indigenous people’s rights and is working to ensure that their knowledge of the land is recorded and included in environmental research to complement existing climate science. In 1999, she founded the Association of Indigenous Peul Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), an organization promoting the rights of girls and women in the Mbororo community and inspiring leadership and advocacy in environmental protection.
Lake Chad is a freshwater lake in the Sahara desert, an area that millions of people and the animals they rear rely upon for survival. Due to rising temperature, the lake is now just 10% of the size it was in the 1960s. This, in addition to the conflict in the area, has led to a humanitarian crisis that affects over 10 million people and has forced at least 2 million to evacuate. Many are living in desperate conditions without access to food or clean water leading to malnutrition, disease outbreaks and alarming rates of violence towards women and children.
In the face of such crises, Oumarou Ibrahim is concerned that with younger generations migrating to urban areas for work, elders with traditional knowledge are unable to pass it down as it was passed down to them and there is a risk it will be lost forever. To preserve this critical knowledge of the land and animals, she is working to collect indigenous knowledge about natural resources in Chad as part of a 3D mapping project. She has spoken of how the women in her community observing the behaviour of animals and using that to predict whether the rainy season will be a good one, often with much more accuracy than scientists studying the area.
Oumarou Ibrahim has received many accolades for her work. She received the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award and was appointed as a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Advocate. She serves on numerous committees the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues and Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC). In 2017, she was featured as part of the BBC’s 100 Women project, recognising 100 influential and inspiring women every year and in 2019 she was listed by Time Magazine as one of 15 women championing climate action.
Maxada Märak, Sweden
Swedish singer, rapper and actress Maxada Märak belongs to the Sámi peoples of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland and northwestern Russia.
Sámi livelihoods are connected to the land, and in particular, reindeer. Climate change is rapidly changing the Arctic landscape, with temperatures rising twice the global average and ice melting. Like many of the Indigenous groups, the Sámi people face the twin struggles of watching their ancestral lands deteriorating because of global warming and being discriminated against for their customs and traditions.
Märak is a vocal advocate for her people and their rights. She produces her own music, a fusion of hip hop and traditional culture references her activism in her songs, most notable in a protest song against mining in traditional Sámi lands.
In 2015, Märak was the subject of a documentary series, Sampi Sisters, with her sister Mimie Märak. She recently appeared in a film with Amnesty International which highlights the human rights violations faced by Indigenous people in Sweden.
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