In November, all along the busy maze of pavilion buildings in Sharm el Sheik, an estimated 45,000 people snaked along corridors hoping to inform crucial discussions surrounding climate policy at the United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention’s 27th Conference of Parties (UNFCCC COP 27). Among these delegations was a group of Indigenous women leaders working to build capacities and train emerging Indigenous women leaders from sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
Lola Cabnal, the Director of Environmental Advocacy for Ak’Tenamit and Lucy Mulenkei, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Information Network (IIN) are globally recognized Indigenous women leaders advancing the rights and roles of Indigenous Peoples in climate and conservation action — promoting especially women and girl’s rights. With support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Forest and Farm Facility, IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP), as well as and the United States Agency for International Development under their joint initiative with IUCN on Advancing Gender in the Environment (AGENT) — Lucy and Lola worked alongside partners to help introduce and support Neema Michaels Lekule of Tanzania’s Ujamma Community Resource Team (UCRT), Sara Bo Che of Guatemala’s Asociacion Tikonel and youth representative Aisatou Musa of Cameroon’s Anura Ntabang Women’s Group under a campaign called Indigenous Women’s Insights – Stewarding the Earth.
Indigenous women are powerful advocates for both Mother Nature and the Indigenous cosmovision. As Lola explains, "Indigenous women possess ancestral knowledge and practices that for centuries have been adopted from generations of grandmothers and mothers, and play a very important role in climate change action." Indeed, though Indigenous Peoples steward an estimated third of the world’s most important ecosystems for climate mitigation and biodiversity protection, recent studies show that of climate funds intended for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, only 17% reaches them – and Indigenous women are the most left behind, receiving 5% of funding. This barrier prevents the full and effective participation and engagement of Indigenous women and girls, who are a crucial part of what are often the front lines of climate action.
These considerations mean that conditions doubly worsen when women's voices and contributions aren't included in environmental decision-making while climate change threatens nature and livelihoods. Lola explains, "The lack of opportunities for Indigenous women – and especially girls and youth in rural communities – lead to worsened consequences. They are increasingly on the frontlines of unequally suffering from climate impacts, with poverty getting worse as well as growing violence, emigration and underage pregnancies." Lucy concurs, sharing that, "Indigenous women carry the heaviest load in our community."
Initiatives like Stewarding the Earth are a crucial pathway for ensuring the voices and experiences of Indigenous women and girls are part of climate decisions and actions alike. As Lucy shares, “What a privilege for IUCN to think of organizing this wonderful process. It is one that has come at the right time and I feel proud to be walking and taking a journey with the young Indigenous women in a process of advancing Indigenous women’s leadership in global climate policy. Through “Indigenous Women’s Insights – Stewarding the Earth” together we continue advocating forward."
We hold the lives, health and feed our communities and are proud when we have this opportunity to pass knowledge, share and motivate the young women to take the mantle and take steps together one at time. To let them understand that they are our today, tomorrow and the future. They have to understand this monster called climate change that is threating our humanity, our resources – and as young women they have to take the lead in understanding policy debates and come up with actions that will restore – and together, collectively make a difference.”
Lola adds, "This is why supporting and promoting the leadership of Indigenous and young women in these global spaces is of utmost importance, to raise our voices for those women who do not have the opportunities and possibilities to be in these spaces to express what they live."
As a part of preparations, Neema, Sara, and Aisatou participated in several virtual pre-COP 27 onboarding meetings, UNFCCC COP orientation and trainings on gender and climate policy. Once on-site, leaders like Lola, alongside many others such as IUCN, supported the women to learn and engage in the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform and attended daily Indigenous Peoples and Women’s Constituency Group Caucus meetings to stay updated on key activities, messages, and opportunities to engage in climate policy. They also worked with IUCN on learning more about negotiating gender under the UNFCCC, shadowing and participating in negotiating rooms.
Most crucially, as locally based leaders, Neema, Sara, and Aisatou brought crucial insights into key discussions and events to ensure policymakers hear firsthand accounts about how climate change affects the rights and opportunities of Indigenous women and girls – and how their creativity, resilience, and innovation is key for climate solutions. For Neema, Stewarding the Earth was the first time she left Tanzania and at Sharm, she engaged environmental decision-makers at an international level – telling them how climate change affects Indigenous pastoral community livelihoods and the impacts it has. Neema went to Sharm armed with a key message, there is a need to “promote women’s land rights to bring about an equal community in terms of land access, control, and ownership of other property by considering gender inclusion.” She shared insights with global representatives on how girls are more and more often pulled from school to help at home or face growing risks of child marriage to support families through bridewealth as climate change thins the cattle herds her community relies on – affecting the opportunities of girls and the capacity of communities to rely on their participation in land and resource management.
Sara shared that the importance of youth and especially Indigenous girls in climate action is something she thinks about daily: “For indigenous peoples, Mother Earth is not an object, it is a source of life and sacred, and we must live in harmony with it and find a balance so that it can serve current and future generations.” As the leader for youth professional placement and education in Tikonel, it was important for her to share the impact programs like those funded by USAID have had in Guatemala, and she shared these insights with Dina Esposito, Acting Assistant to the Administrator and Ann Vaughan, Senior Climate Change Specialists at a meeting with USAID’s Bureau of Resilience and Food Security. She also shared that support for Indigenous women and girls to access climate policy is important, “because not many of us have the opportunity or access to contribute in global events such as the UNFCCC” adding that, “it is important to support and give women the opportunity to carry these messages to girls, young people, and other women who are most exposed to climate crisis impacts.”
For Aisatou, the meeting with USAID was not only her first time meeting with high-level government officials but also the first time she laid her eyes on a vast lapis-colored blue sea, mirroring her own vast potential for leadership. “This opportunity was an extraordinary learning experience with the coaching of Lucy Mulenkei helping me grow as a leader and a person, seeing her represent the voices of Indigenous People at these events gave me the confidence to be able to express myself and know that my voice and that of my community can be heard.” A young 25 years old, she is interested in technology and not only enjoyed discussions about seed engineering and food security, but also the opportunity to emphasize the value and importance of including youth voices like her own within environmental policy: “the team was super supportive and helped me navigate my way through the process and makes me believe together we can achieve great things.”
In 2023, Stewarding the Earth will continue its work to amplify the priorities, voices and insights of Indigenous women and girls – a program by Indigenous women for Indigenous women to support their engagement within global policy. For now, there remains much to be done to ensure the leadership and contributions of people like Neema, Sara, and Aisatou reverberate. As Lola declares:
When we ask for full and effective participation as Indigenous women, it is not a favor, it is a dignified right. The life of Mother Nature is at risk and therefore the life of humanity in vulnerable conditions such as Indigenous girls and women who do not have opportunities for development and without alternatives to confront the climate crisis. Indigenous women want to be part of the solution, we want to be participants and included in the processes.”
You can follow each leader on social media:
- Neema Michaels Lekule, UCRT, Tanzania — Instagram: @ujamma_crt
- Sara Bo Che, Tikonel, Guatemala — Asociacion Tikonel on Facebook
- Aisatou Musa, Anura Ntabang Women’s Group, Cameroon on Instagram — @anura_ntabang_women
- Lola Cabnal, Ak'Tenamit, Guatemala — Twitter: @tenamit
- Lucy Mulenkei, Indigenous Information Network, Kenya — Twitter: @IndigenousInfo1
For more information on Stewarding the Earth you can contact:
- Anita Tzec, Program Officer for Indigenous Peoples and Conservation, IUCN - Anita.Tzec@iucn.org
- Jamie Wen-Besson, Senior Gender Programme Manager, IUCN and AGENT Chief of Party - Jamie.Wen@iucn.org
- Visit Indigenous Insights – Stewarding the Earth online
At UNFCCC COP27, Neema Lekule of the Ujamma Community Resource Team in Tanzania shares her experience engaging a global audience for the first time under Indigenous Women's Insights - Stewarding the Earth, a programme designed by IUCN with Indigenous women -- for Indigenous women and girls.