(This story was first published on 23 April 2020. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark World Environment Day.)
Climate change, like all other problems in the world, leaves women and children disproportionately vulnerable by its impact. The UN Sustainable Development Goals clearly outline that we can combat climate change if women are allowed to become equal partners and lead the fight from the front. This World Environment Day, we celebrate nine women eco-warriors who have fighting to keep our planet safe.
Arguably the world’s foremost primatologist and legendary conservationist, Jane Goodall’s research on wild chimpanzees has changed our understanding of the relationship between humans and animals. Goodall has spent more than 55 years studying chimpanzees in Tanzania. At the age of 26, Goodall, known for her unconventional approach in field research, chose to immerse herself in the habitat of the chimpanzees, living more as their neighbour, than a distant observer. Her 1960 discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools is considered one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century. Today she is one of the leading voices against climate change and travels around the world, engaging with young people to talk about living in ecological harmony.
In 1960, Wangari Maathai got the opportunity to leave Kenya to study in USA. She returned after completing her education, well aware of the twin problems plaguing her country – land conservation and women’s rights. So, she started The Green Belt Movement, to train women to sustainably draw income from the land and also do their bit to protect and conserve the environment. For her contribution to environment conservation, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
In 1962, Rachel Carson, wrote a book called The Silent Spring. The book, for the first time, pointed out the dangers that indiscriminate use of pesticides can cause to the environment. The book is widely acknowledged for waking up the collective consciousness of young Americans against the dangers of unscrupulous and widespread industrialisation – the reason why Carson is often referred to as the founder of the modern environmental movement. Despite stiff opposition from the chemical industries lobby, her book fuelled enough public interest and outrage and ultimately led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US.
Vandana Shiva has been fighting to protect the forests, mobilise women’s networks and conserve biodiversity for over three decades in India. In 1991, she founded Navdanya, which aims to protect the diversity and integrity of native seeds and also encourage fair trade practices. She and her institute, continues to address the most pressing environmental and social justice issues.
Gauri Devi is the often forgotten hero of the Chipko Movement. In 1974, she led the women in her village to stand up against the lumbermen who had come to chop off the trees in their area. The women stood in front of the trees, forming a fence to protect against felling of trees. The lumbermen eventually left, but the story of the brave women from this small village in Uttarakhand motivated women from nearby villages to also stand up and protect their trees.
Sylvia Earle is an American marine biologist who is known for pioneering ocean exploration. She has spent more than 6,000 hours underwater and was one of the first explorers to use SCUBA gear. She also started Mission Blue, which established marine protected areas around the world. Earle has also helped design research submarines and was named TIME magazine’s first hero of the planet in 1998.
She’s called the Queen of Recycling and for all the right reasons. Gambian Activist Isatou Ceesay started a recycling movement in her country that gave women a livelihood opportunity and also reduced the huge amount of plastic waste generated in Gambia. Her movement, called One Plastic Bag, has provided employment to hundreds of West African women and also encourages upcycling of plastic waste, creating plastic yarn and reusable bags.
The girl who silenced the world for 12 minutes, Severn Cullis-Suzuki has been fighting for our planet from a very young age. The Canadian and her friends started the Environmental Children’s Organisation that eventually took her to the first ever UN Earth Summit, where she addressed all the delegates on the dangers of climate change. She was 12 years old then. Today she continues to be a climate change activist and is an Earth Charter International Counsellor.
She is the angry young girl who sparked a revolution in schools across the world. She has become the face of our fight against climate change and Greta Thunberg is not afraid to ask the tough questions – or stare you down, if you fail to provide an answer. Thunberg started the School Strike for Climate in 2018, inspiring thousands of children to miss school and ask for decisive climate action using #FridaysForFuture. She was named the TIME magazine person of the year in 2019 and got over 4 million people to join the global climate strike in September last year. Her disapproving and angry death stare aimed at climate change cynic and US President Donald Trump has made many believe that Greta is the future we all need to believe in.