Ángela Cuenca: “Climate justice is not possible without gender justice”

“Faced with false solutions, we ask ourselves: What are the real needs of the communities? Are women really asking for turbines, batteries, transgenics? ”. Ángela Cuenca from Colectivo Casa (Bolivia) participated in the panel called The Resistance of Women Environmental Defenders in South America and the Keys to Feminist Funding, organised by Fondo de Mujeres del Sur (FMS) at CSW66. We would like to share what she had to say.

Good afternoon everyone. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge all my colleagues who have spoken already, your work is truly inspiring.

In order to be able to talk about the struggles and resistance of women in Latin America and, in particular, about the experience in Bolivia I want to reflect a bit on the context in which we are living.

Firstly, I want to point out that the climate crisis unleashed by this economic, political, extractivist, capitalist, patriarchal and criminal system is based on the rampant extraction of our natural resources.

Life is being commodified. The rights of women and the rights of Mother Earth are not being respected. This system generates violence on bodies and territories, with differentiated impacts on women.

Rosalba Gómez and Luciana Fernández already shared cases in which some activities that seek to exploit, extract our natural resources, do not consider the impact they have on our living conditions, fundamentally on our access to water. Without water, there is no life. Without water, there is absolutely nothing.

But I would like to add that this patriarchal system tries to make the productive and reproductive roles of women invisible. It fails to take into account that it is women who sustain life, and that there is a strong interdependent relationship between nature and communities.

Governments are taking advantage of the term “climate justice”, which has become so fashionable. They are using it to further their predatory practices. They are investing in false solutions such as the mega hydroelectric dams, which produce a large amount of greenhouse gases and lead to forced evictions of indigenous populations, floods. While they generate energy, that energy is not used by the communities but rather it is exported to other countries.

Biofuel production is another false solution. They are clearing forest land, expanding the agricultural frontier, planting monocultures at the expense of the indigenous peoples. In Bolivia, for example, despite the fact that the National Political Constitution prohibits the use of transgenics, other laws are being pushed to facilitate their production.

Another false solution is wind turbine manufacturing. They are extracting minerals from the territories, generating pollution and violating rights.

I come from the Bolivian highlands, where there have been mines since colonial times. Now, due to the pandemic, due to economic reactivation and, also, due to climate justice and energy transformation, they are moving significantly into the territories for mineral exploitation, and they are not respecting the rights of the indigenous peoples. They are not adhering to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169 nor conducting preliminary consultations or respecting the self-determination of communities. Or, if they do happen to conduct a preliminary consultation, they later apply other laws, such as the Mining Law. Or they do a consultation, but then the Ministry of Mining makes a final decision. What is the point of consulting with the peoples if we know that the Ministry of Mining is going to support the mining companies, right?

Also, as Luciana Fernández (Antofagasta Resiste) pointed out, it is extremely important to mention the exploitation of lithium. In Bolivia we have a tiny salt flat, in addition to the one in Uyuni. We know that lithium means water exploitation, massive water extraction. It’s terrible. All this leads to a violation of rights, but also to a form of environmental violence against women.

Faced with false solutions, we ask ourselves: What are the real needs of the communities? Are women asking for turbines? Are they asking for batteries for electric vehicles? Are they asking for transgenics?

Today, March 22, on World Water Day, I went to a massive protest with brothers and sisters from different communities. The protest was mainly to demand of the government a water law that guarantees water for life, not water for extractive activities. We know that water is the connection to our rights. If there is water, there is health, work, economy, production. However, in this area there are communities that only have one hour of water a week! Often when people visit from other places, they ask how do they live with an hour of water a week. The women have to find a way, go get it from wherever, or go to the city with their water drums.

We need to invest in the restoration of the rivers, in the restoration of the lakes, to protect the fresh waters we do have, and to respect the rights of women.

The struggles and resistance that we promote do not only relate to our territory. We are defending our rights, resisting dispossession, the overexploitation of natural resources and the forms of violence that are made invisible. Sometimes we think of violence as only being physical, but there is a form of economic violence that is affects us even in the way we participate, in the way we express ourselves, because as women we are being silenced.

And we are again talking about climate justice and resistance to adaptation, because we don’t believe that adaptation should mean resigning to living with the consequences of the climate crisis.

We resist the false guilt that is put on communities for their use of water or for solid waste generation because it is really large companies and multinational corporations that are polluting.

The GAGGA* campaign, We, Women are Water, shows how multinational companies, backed by laws, can easily use as much water as they want, but the communities have to pay even for the little water they have.

So what kind of justice are we talking about. The work that we articulate with GAGGA, between communities, organisations and women’s funds, is based precisely on promoting climate justice with gender justice.

A little while ago I mentioned that we were supporting the National Network of Women in Defence of Mother Earth, who are colleagues from communities affected by mining.  For women, the struggle is twofold: on the one hand, to be heard, to achieve greater representation even within their communities; on the other, against dispossession, exploitation, the large transnationals that are being supported by governments.

We condemn environmental violence, the physical and emotional violence that comes with extractivism. We do it with non-violent actions, with demonstrations, with meetings, documenting the violations. We are reappropriating the spaces that are being dispossessed, carrying out afforestation with native species, which is key, because if not, in the name of climate justice, they bring us trees, they bring us plants that are not even from the area.

As Nancy Cachambi from Chiquitanía said, if we don’t have our plants, if we don’t have our trees, if we don’t have our nature, the one that our ancestors left us, then they are also taking away our culture, they are also taking away even our medicine cabinet.

We need to continue strengthening these struggles, this resistance, to continue strengthening ourselves as women; ensuring that our rights, our voices, our feelings are respected.

We are recovering the ancestral knowledge of seed sowing, of harvesting water. We are supporting each other among women in agricultural work, with seed exchanges, contributing to the food security and sovereignty of the peoples, maintaining our rituals, giving thanks to Mother Earth for the fruits that she gives us, and that also contribute to the economic autonomy of women.

I want to end with a short phrase that my colleagues from Central America used to use, speaking precisely about what climate justice means to us. They used to say: “We believe climate justice means respect for the rights of nature, the rights of women, the rights of peoples pursuing balance and harmony in order to care for the web of life. We need to once again take up the views and proposals coming from women and the defence of the territory-body, which contribute to a vision of community and collectivity in which respect is given and received, because if not, there will be no climate justice. There won’t be climate justice if there is no gender justice”.

Thank you!

* Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA).