To solve the climate crisis a power shift is needed


by Sarah Pentlow

Much attention has been placed on the issue of climate change within the past year; indeed, the economic, social, political and environmental fragility we see in the world is not going away — it is our new normal and we need to think seriously about how we are going to adapt to this reality as well as consider what action is needed to mitigate further devastation to the environment. However, part of the problem within these conversations is that there is a more fundamental issue underpinning all of the discussions related to carbon footprint or CO2 emissions that no one seems to be talking about, and that is the issue of power.

Only a small few are willing to talk about the impact of colonialism on climate; that power holders have exerted their influence to control natural resources, displace people, and propagate unjust systems of governance favouring the interests of the wealthy. However, these conversations need to happen in more public spaces and even then, would only be the beginning of a much larger process that must unfold. Feminist foreign policies are helpful in centering the notion of power within the development discourse but once power is named, it becomes then the responsibility of the very actors who are trying to bring about change: privileged people from resource-rich nations (like NGO workers), to go one step further, let go of their power and give space for other voices to lead the way.

Cuso International, in partnership with the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP), has started to explore what this might look like in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Field research has been conducted within Indigenous Communities and during the first week of December, women from a variety of Indigenous and ethnic groups will gather in Bangkok, Thailand to share their experiences and build momentum for a more inclusive climate policy in the region through collective organizing and consensus building. Indigenous women are more affected by the impacts of climate change because of their reliance and connection to the land as well as through the gendered division of labour (i.e. fetching water) which places them at the forefront of their habitats

The findings from the research point to the fact that Indigenous knowledge tends to be shared only at the local level and there is a need for wider engagement; this knowledge is also at risk of being lost as women migrate and traditional livelihood practices disappear in Indigenous Communities. Women are losing social and economic power in their communities as recognition for their work decreases.

Four recommendations have been brought forward as a way to shift the power to respond to climate change.

1. Conduct cross-sector analysis of climate change in relation to economic development: This is both in terms of sectors of work — agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, fishing, as well as between governments, communities, the private sector, and within different levels of government. Including a wide array of actors can help to redistribute power by ensuring that the issues are not centred within one body. This analysis should also include social determinants as well as human rights considerations.

2. Improve access to land rights and ownership for Indigenous Women: Although Indigenous Women have an innate connection to their land, in some cases they are unaware of their rights under law. Due to social and political environments, they face a threat of losing access to land due to the patriarchal norms of their communities, or through large scale development projects. Indigenous Women need to be consulted in the development of these projects and their voice listened to. Sustainable infrastructure development is possible and the field research documents one example of a small-scale irrigation system which has proved to be effective in Pu Chhorb village in Cambodia.

3. Increase engagement with Indigenous Women in monitoring and evaluation of climate change and natural disaster management initiatives: In order to mitigate the consequences of climate change and prepare extensively for natural disasters, it is important that Indigenous women are consulted throughout the project cycle of all programs to adapt to local needs. In many cases Indigenous Women are more engaged at grassroots organizing levels and their involvement in local and national policy formulation and decision-making on climate change policy is limited. Monitoring processes would also be enhanced by having protocols in place for gender-sensitive data collection to inform policy.

4. Integrate an intersectional gender lens into policy and strategic planning — The policy frameworks for climate change in the four countries vary in terms of the extent to which gendered considerations are accounted for. However, in all cases, more can be done to strengthen the unique position of Indigenous Women. Furthermore, governments should aim to enhance local, regional and national-level civil society and private sector capacity on gender-integrated planning in climate and adaptation policy processes via financing and decision making to reduce gender inequalities

As noted by Le Thi Hoa Sen, Cuso International field researcher in Vietnam, “In the context of climate change today, the role of Indigenous Women is more important in the implementation of adaptation strategies. They participate in reproductive activities and income-generating activities. They play an important role in preserving Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous culture in the community. Moreover, in order to maintain and develop livelihood activities, Indigenous Women are also more committed and willing to make changes to ensure their livelihoods”

Sceptics may wonder about the feasibility of such power shifts, however, if there is anything to be learned from the example of Greta Thunberg, it is that even among the unlikeliest of actors, we all possess power within. Change is possible when those who traditionally have not held power, decide to exert their power. It may take time, but the momentum is building…. for Indigenous Women in Southeast Asia, their moment is now.

For more information on the Climate Smart Women Connect: Climate and Gender Justice for Indigenous Women in Asia Conference please visit our Facebook page. Certain sessions will be livestreamed on Dec 2–4.

Sarah Pentlow works as a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion consultant for Cuso International.