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Women conservation leaders ‘a tide lifting everyone’

© David Poller Photography

In partnership with Conservation International, ELLE magazine dedicated its July issue to women in conservation.

The climate crisis affects women disproportionately: They’re 14 times more likely to die during a disaster and constitute 80 percent of all climate refugees.

But a new wave of women conservation leaders is spearheading efforts around the world to prevent and adapt to the impacts wrought by climate breakdown.

ELLE magazine dedicated its July issue to women in conservation — from indigenous leaders and politicians to scientists and activists. Three of these women, from Conservation International, spoke recently about their experiences on the front lines of conservation.

Jennifer Morris, President, Conservation International

South African colonial rule had basically ended. Namibia was cutting ties with Afrikaans, the language of apartheid. Jobs now required English. Jennifer Morris was there in 1992 to teach English to women who would teach their networks.

She lived next to a hospital, she saw the full scope of life and death, birth, diseases — contracted malaria several times herself. She’d approached things form a public health perspective. Here, it expanded.

Morris learned from women of the Ovambo tribe, like Ria Kakelo, that diseases were caused by hunger and thirst for scarce clean water, and what did not grow in the soil. The malady at the root of illness was rainless sky, hot Earth, dead crops.

Morris saw what defined lives here: “Systemic poverty and environmental degradation.” That a family should survive within those parameters was primarily the work of women.

It was bound, life and death, on the relentless need for water and firewood. It was a dry, hot place. Clearing forests for firewood, shelter, grazing cattle made the place drier and hotter.

Four, five hours a day of a woman’s life was lost on gathering. Girls would go alone far away, farther and farther as the resources close to home were used and gone. They’d go to remote areas. Sometimes, the worst happened.

What women needed were jobs. “A little bit of income just to take the bus,” Morris explained.  Taking a bus to firewood or the watering hole meant more time. More time meant more choices, more control. It could change everything.

Understanding this changed Jennifer Morris’ trajectory. Today, she serves as president of Conservation International, which confronts the dual, bound matters of poverty and environmental degradation through community conservation projects that generate uplifting income.

“Women are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and they are powerful agents to halting it,” Morris said. “We call for women to play central roles in all aspects of conservation.”

Morris taught English, attributes her own career in conservation to what she learned from Kakelo, and noted, “A critical part of the solution is women helping women.”



Meity Mongdong, Program Manager, Bird’s Head Seascape

This is an edited version of prepared remarks Mongdong delivered at the “Women on a Mission” event co-hosted by Conservation International and ELLE to celebrate the launch of the July issue.

Indonesian tribes respect the power of nature. She is a Mother, Ibu. She gives all life. I think her heart is a place called the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua. It is alive with many kinds of coral, fish, reefs.

When I started my work, I saw:  Poaching, stealing, fishing in destructive ways. With dynamite. With poison. Without care for Mother Nature. Without care for the Island mothers and families who need Mother Nature to survive.

You see, it is a subsistence way of life on the islands. Destroying coral, destroying fish, will destroy its people. Conservation International is working in communities to protect Mother nature, to use her gifts wisely, and to find ways to improve the quality of life for the tribes who take care of her.

In the beginning, we have meetings with the whole community. Who is interested? Everyone.

In the next step, and step after, who sticks with it? Can you guess? The women.

Women are most likely in the home cooking, cleaning, caring. Conservation International helped start businesses, they are self-sufficient, and run totally by women.

And women making virgin coconut oil, coconut soap, they are powerful in a new way. They build a network. They hire other women. They donate to church. They start programs to feed their pregnant sisters and schoolchildren. They feel dignity. They realize, like Mother Nature, they are a force.

Conservation International is with them. When they wanted to work together to stop illegal fishing, it helped create the first all-women patrol in West Papua.

If a violator from the community is caught, the funny thing: it’s like being caught by his friends’ moms or wives, he is ashamed and will never do it again!

The serious thing: women are educating the community about nature. And by showing their husbands, showing their children, as they run businesses, as they run patrol, they are changing minds about women.

Ibu is our Mother Earth, her heart is in this place. Working there now, I see: a tide lifting everyone because these women are rising.



Emily Pidgeon, Senior Director of Blue Climate program

Emily Pidgeon recalled she was with Conservation International’s Jocel Pangilinan (CI Phillipines), on a beach in a small village of Bagongon in the Visayas region of the Philippines, surrounded by women who had lived to see their village decimated by the 2013 super-typhoon Haiyan. Eye to eye, Pidgeon said, “You could see that they were truly scared by the prospect of the next storm.”

Pidgeon and Pangilinan stood among their skepticism under the blazing sun answering astute questions hour after hour. “They were clearly not going to open themselves and their village to any fool-hardy solutions,” Pidgeon said. She explained green-gray infrastructure, an idea that combines mangroves and the nuts and bolts of engineering to prepare for when the next storm comes, work the village would lead.

Pidgeon sees globally: “Women are the foundation of mangrove conservation in almost all of the place we work.” Why? She thinks it has to do with time and space and connection: “Women spend time with all the generations of a community and so understanding the past, present and future of how these coastal ecosystems provide food, shelter and stability for their communities.”

Trisha Calvarese is a senior writer at Conservation International.

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