Protecting the Amazon by Empowering Its Women

17 February 2021   ·   Maiara Folly, Adriana Erthal Abdenur

Climate change and environmental crime endanger food, health, and economic security in the Amazon region. This disproportionately affects women who play an important role in agricultural production, yet are excluded from resource governance. Germany should support community-based initiatives and include climate security when implementing the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

The climate and security debate has focused heavily on how climate magnifies security risks, but the inverse is also true: insecurity feeds into climate change through complex pathways.  These include illegal deforestation, which is fed by criminal activities such as illegal land invasions, logging, and mining, and accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the Amazon basin, this vicious cycle has not only fueled rampant environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions but also widespread crime, violence, forced displacement, and inequalities. Since the gender dimension of this phenomenon is still poorly understood, mitigation and adaptation responses fail to harness the immense pool of knowledge and action that women of the Amazon represent.

Climate Change and Low Levels of Governance Lead to Insecurity in the Amazon

Climate change affects the security of those living in the Amazon region in numerous ways. In particular, health, water, and food security are of concern: Scientific evidence showsthat temperature rise associated with climate change is already contributing to the ever prolonged droughts and erratic periods of heavy rainfall hitting the Amazon. A rise in temperature of up to an average of 1,45 ºC could further increase the incidence of wildfires and floods. A warmer and drier environment in the Amazon could transform anywhere from 20% to 60% of the region into dry savanna, provoking a significant loss of biodiversity and disrupting agricultural production and water supplies even further. Since agriculture – especially small-scale and subsistence farming – is one of the main activities in rural parts of the Amazon, the consequences for local and traditional communities, including indigenous, quilombola (Afro-descending), and riverside fishing communities are dire.

The impacts of climate change in the Amazon interact with, and are exacerbated by, a historical pattern of low state presence and a national vision of development that pits the forest against development. The effects of this combination, far from being evenly distributed across the population, are deeply gendered – one of many social cleavages that also include race and ethnicity, class, and geography. Women and girls in the Amazon – especially of indigenous and quilombola origin – are disproportionately affected by the deadly combination of historical inequalities, intensifying climate change, rampant environmental crime, and exacerbating disputes over natural resources. For example, Amazon indigenous women play a central role in collecting water for plant irrigation, cooking, and agricultural production. They make an essential contribution to food security and are consequently the first to feel the impacts of changes in river flows and the reduction in access to clean and fresh water resulting from climate related phenomena, such as the increase in river water temperatures.

Amazonian Women Are at the Intersection of Economic Insecurity and Gender-Based Forms of Violence

Just as in rural areas of Latin America in general, where only 30% of rural women own agricultural land and just 5% of them have access to technical assistance for agriculture, Amazonian women disproportionately lack access to land tenure, technical and financial assistance to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This gap renders them disproportionally impacted by economic marginalization and health complications magnified by climate events: be it as a consequence of respiratory diseases associated with air pollution caused by wildfires or because of malnutrition, which is magnified by low agricultural production and is more prevalent among indigenous children and pregnant indigenous women. These challenges are juxtaposed onto glaring gender-based vulnerabilities. The Amazon features high rates of gender-based violence (particularly against women, girls, and LGBTI+), which includes human trafficking, sexual exploitation, forced labor, and even lethal violence. In 2019, the Brazilian Amazon state of Acre recorded the highest femicide rate in the country, with the state of Amazonas recording the fourth highest. At the same time, women in the Amazon often act as environmental defenders, and they are frequent targets of threats, attacks, and assassinations. 

Despite Fierce Activism, Women Remain Excluded From Resource Governance

However, women of the Amazon also represent powerful leadership against climate change. Women are guardians and key repositories of traditional knowledge about environment and climate. For instance, in Brazil, indigenous women are playing a key role in helping map climate change hotspots in the Amazon region, including by gathering and sharing information to feed into an “indigenous climate alert system”, which has been built to send real-time alerts about illegal activities taking place in indigenous land, including illegal deforestation, illegal mining, and illegal logging.

Yet predominant approaches to environmental conservation and development in the Amazon fail to draw on this pool of peacebuilding capacity. Even worse, they often reinforce gender inequalities and suppress women's agency. The accelerated dismantling of environmental institutions led by the government of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has decreased not only forest protection, but also weakened the rights of vulnerable groups in the Brazilian Amazon region, including isolated indigenous peoples. At the same time, an increasingly militarized approach to the Amazon, with top-down decrees for deployment of the Armed Forces for purposes of environmental conservation, focuses on heavy-handed operations. These often fail to curb environmental crime and that can bring their own negative consequences for women in the region, including by disrupting community life, leaving behind pregnant women and spreading venereal diseases. More broadly, the continued exclusion of women from climate and natural resource governance perpetuates all of these challenges.

The German Government Should Provide Technical and Financial Support to Initiatives Led by Marginalized Groups

How can external actors, including Germany, help mitigate gender, climate, and security challenges in the region? To start, it can support research and knowledge generation about capacities and gaps. In addition, more support – both technical and financial – is needed for community-level initiatives and networks, especially those led by groups who traditionally lack access to funding opportunities, including indigenous women, quilombolas and LGBTI+ groups. It is also essential to enhance communication channels that allow an expanding cohort of young climate women leaders from the Amazon to amplify their voices and make use of international arrangements, including Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, to denounce the violations taking place in their territories.

Germany Should Include Climate Security Considerations Into EU-Mercosur Talks

There is also an urgent need for nested mitigation and adaptation frameworks and strategies, from the local to national and regional levels. Member-states that work to promote women's rights, such as Germany, should advocate for the inclusion of a climate security perspective within UN discussions and resolutions regarding the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. These actors should equally incorporate specific targets and indicators to address the gender, climate, and security nexus in their National Action Plans for the implementation of the WPS agenda. In addition, new local initiatives for curbing illegal deforestation could be both developed and financed by the Amazon Fund, once it resumes full function. The potential gender, climate, and security risks for Amazonian peoples that may be generated by an increase in international trade and investments should also feature in discussions regarding the implementation of the EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement. Finally, Germany’s support to regional organizations such as the Amazon Treaty Cooperation Organization (ATCO) should prioritize the development and implementation of gender-sensitive climate policies and frameworks.  

More broadly, a paradigm shift is needed – away from the view of the Amazon as a vast, sparsely populated territory to be occupied and pilloried, towards an approach based on the understanding that the region is home to over thirty million people. Policies must be based on the idea that, rather than posing an obstacle to development, the forest can provide solutions – as long as sustainability and inclusiveness are kept among the list of priorities. Both national, subnational, and external actors can help promote a gender-sensitive, sustainable vision for the Amazon which prioritizes the eradication of gender inequalities and enhances the leadership of women in the region.

Gender South America Climate

Maiara Folly

Maiara Folly is Programme Director of Plataforma CIPÓ, a women-led research institute based in Brazil aimed at promoting climate action, better global and regional governance and peacebuilding in Latin America and across the Global South. @mafolly

Adriana Erthal Abdenur

Adriana Erthal Abdenur is Executive Director of Plataforma CIPÓ and a Senior Policy Fellow at the United Nations University. @AAbdenur