A leading researcher on the need to rescript our narratives about women and the environment.
To argue for the importance of approximately half of the world’s population in addressing one of Earth’s biggest threats might seem like stating the obvious. But for the past twenty-five years, Lorena Aguilar has been working to convince leaders of the value of considering gender in global climate change response.
As the global senior gender adviser at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, our largest environmental organization, Aguilar consults with intergovernmental organizations, nonprofits, and national and local governments to design policy and development plans that promote gender equality and the empowerment of women in the areas most affected by climate crisis. When she started, the field was not only undeveloped, but entirely unrecognized: “[The UN conventions] did not look at social issues at all,” Aguilar tells me. “The Kyoto protocol was basically for the reduction of greenhouse gas, so there was very little room to bring gender into it.”
Yet, as Aguilar’s years of research and over seventy publications attest, gender has a significant bearing on the effects of climate crisis. The ability to receive news about extreme weather conditions or contaminated water and food sources can be hindered by illiteracy or lack of access to public spaces, both of which are often predicated on gender in many of the world’s worst-affected regions.
Aguilar’s current work aims to address these disparities without reinforcing notions of women as an afflicted, vulnerable population. In other words, women affected by climate crisis may also play a significant part in helping to address it. In recent years, Aguilar has led the development and implementation of the Environmental Gender Index (EGI), a reporting tool for tracking how countries include gender awareness in their response to climate change. The EGI is key in broadening the scope of our understanding of the role of women in adapting to and mitigating climate change, and, according to Aguilar, is a first step toward framing women as the diverse, valuable, and powerful resources they are.
Aguilar was born in Costa Rica, where her family worked in medicine, “dealing with very poor people.” As she notes in the following interview, she was inspired as a young person by observing the ways in which humans and their environment impact each other. Encouraged by her family to marry at age seventeen, Aguilar found herself reaching an early adulthood of sorts, and managed to parlay this experience into her first field of study: anthropology. “They tried to cut my wings,” she says. “But I have a saying: if life gives you lemons, make margaritas.”
I spoke with Aguilar over Skype from her office in Washington, DC. When we logged on, she suggested that we use the video function, which reminded me that, although her work deals with issues of global importance, recognizing the value of a whole population also hinges on personal relationships and face-to-face connection. If we are to reach a global consensus and inspire collective action from top-level officials and decision-makers, nothing can be taken for granted.
—Allyson Kirkpatrick for Guernica
Guernica: Your work deals with the intersection of gender and climate change. Can you describe some of the ways in which climate change impacts women specifically?
Lorena Aguilar: Well, climate change is impacting everyone on the planet, but the condition that climate change finds women and men in is separate. When you consider, for example, that women make 80 percent of the consumption decisions in the world, and that a lot of reducing emissions is about changing our consumption patterns, women are an incredible power. When you understand that, combined, women will be the strongest source of income—even greater than China and India—it means that the women of the world have a lot to do, and can enhance a lot of the action when it comes to climate change. But for women in less developed countries, it’s generally a situation of disadvantage. Women produce a great amount of staple food but they own very little land. They have very little access to credit, very little access to services.
Or you can look at the rise in sea level. Yes, it’s going to rise everywhere, and impact everyone. But look at what is happening in Bangladesh: pregnant women are drinking saline water, like everyone else, due to the intrusion of saline water into the wells, but they have a special condition. Because they’re pregnant, they’re predisposed to higher blood pressure. This has increased maternal death from preeclampsia in numbers we have never seen before.
It’s completely different between men and women; their needs are different, we do not act the same in relation to our environment, therefore the solutions have to take that into account. But, usually, that does not happen. [Our relationship to the environment] also gets mixed with our ages, and with our ethnicity, which is very important. I, as a woman from a city, San Jose, do not have the same knowledge as indigenous women in Costa Rica who live in a protected area. And that needs to be recognized. It’s about the value of diversity.
When women are not allowed to participate in meetings in relation to disaster prevention due to social-cultural elements, you see data like in the Bangladesh flooding, where 90 percent of the bodies recovered were women’s bodies. They didn’t know what to do; they weren’t allowed to leave their houses without a male relative. They remained in their houses rather than face social shame.
This gender condition—the way you’re being raised, being told you’re not allowed to swim, go to meetings, access credit—means women are not seen as agents of change for the solutions and initiatives for that country. Women’s levels of literacy are below those of men in many countries. It puts women in a very vulnerable position when it comes to climate change.
Guernica: In your current work, what are you doing to address these differences, and the lack of awareness that persists?
Lorena Aguilar: I am responsible for the Global Gender Office at the IUCN. It is based in Washington, DC, and we have the biggest gender team of any environmental organization in the world. We are fifteen people in total. That is very unique for an organization that deals with rhinos, zebras, and fish.
In 2005, we realized there was no knowledge for making the linkages between gender and climate change, so the first thing that we had to do as a scientific institution was to generate that knowledge. We asked: What are the linkages between gender and response to climate change when you talk about disasters, agriculture, and water? How is gender an issue when you talk about coastal cities, energy, and forests?
We researched those topics and created a training manual for incorporating gender into climate change response, making sure that it did not only address the why from a legal point of view, but the how: How can you do it? When we first started bringing our research to the UN conventions, they did not look at social issues at all. The Kyoto Protocol was basically for the reduction of greenhouse gas, so there was very little room to bring gender into it.
After 2007, we developed a capacity of more than 2,500 decision-makers at the UN Climate Change Convention to get the attention of the ministers, to engage the people who make the technical decisions and the political decisions. We are happy to say that we now have fifty decisions from the COPs [the supreme decision-making body of the Convention] that address the importance of gender in different climate response areas, from adaptation to technology to capacity building to mitigation and mechanisms such as REDD [Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme].
We’re very proud to say that. But having that international legal framework was not enough. All that capacity building and pushing forward on the international level didn’t have any immediate effect in the lives of those women and those men who need to adapt to climate change. Then, in 2010, Mozambique became the first country in the world to approach the IUCN to ask for our aid in developing what we now call Climate Change Gender Action Plans, or ccGAPS. At the moment, we have eighteen countries that have developed ccGAPS. These plans are unique in the sense that they bring together all the different sectors into a coalition to define how best to incorporate gender considerations into climate change response. For some countries, like Tanzania and Mozambique, the majority of the discussions on climate change had been led by the ministries of the environment, so they really do not convene with other sectors. ccGAPs was not only a first open space to discuss social considerations such as gender, it was also the first time that civil society could sit down with the government and with other sectors.
So, now we find ourselves at the doors of Paris [the site of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference] with a package of knowledge on the how—because, after Paris, our major challenge is implementation.
It was not an easy ride, let me tell you, in an institution that was basically concerned with butterflies and endangered species, to bring in the social component.
Guernica: Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you come to work in this field?
Lorena Aguilar: I think I was born a green heart because of the country I am from: Costa Rica. The environment has surrounded me all my life. My family worked in medicine dealing with very poor people, and I have been inspired by the combination of humans and their environment since I was growing up.
I married when was very young; I was seventeen. There was pressure socially, and from my family, to do so. By living such an experience I can connect with other women who go through similar situations. It is not just a “story” that I hear. I lived it and suffer it. It also made me a survivor.
They tried to cut my wings. But I have a saying: if life gives you lemons, make margaritas. With marriage, [my family] made me an adult, and I was able to decide who I wanted to be. I decided to study anthropology—my first area of work was Egyptology. I liked that I could understand the relationship between the environment and its people; at that time, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the topic of environmental anthropology was not even under discussion. From there on, it was a very interesting process: I got involved with the Canadian government, which learned about the work I had been doing as an undergraduate. I started working primarily in the water sector, and was led by the Canadians to other institutions that wanted to develop their social component. And that’s how I ended up at IUCN.
It was not an easy ride, let me tell you, in an institution that was basically concerned with butterflies and endangered species, to bring in the social component. Just to let them know that the populations were very diverse and very different, and we needed to generate precise knowledge about them. At that time—I’m talking twenty-three years ago—there was basically nothing about this. So we began by developing knowledge on gender and protected areas, coastal marine issues, and biodiversity, and at the beginning, they looked at us…well, literally at me, because I was the gender unit—it was just me, there was nobody else [laughs]—they would look at me like, Oh my god, that crazy woman from Latin America, what is she talking about?
But, I have to say, I am very proud the IUCN came to embrace gender in a very cool way. We now have one of the centers of excellence when it comes to research on gender and the environment.
Guernica: You emphasize the diversity of how women interface with their environments. Was that something that surprised you in your work?
Lorena Aguilar: No, to me it was very obvious. As an anthropologist, it was something that was part of my education and my upbringing. People in different parts of the world, due to their culture and their ecosystems, are very different. Diversity is part of what people misunderstand when it comes to human populations. The problem, in the climate change arena, is that this has not been so obvious. People say “women”—yes, but we’re so different, and in so many parts of the world, with different assets, and different possibilities. That’s why, for example, in sustainable development goals now there is constant mention of women and men from different cultures and different regions, in order to mitigate that misunderstanding that everybody is the same.
It’s the women who have an understanding of the different plants and how they’ve changed, and that understanding is what’s contributing to the resilience of the communities.
Guernica: Was there anything that did surprise you when you first started your work?
Lorena Aguilar: Well, I have to say that with climate change a lot of new risks have been introduced, and I wasn’t aware of how intense the impacts were going to be, and that they would be so differentiated. We’re seeing it more and more—not only the impact, but also some of the solutions. For example, I was just reading about a study based in the Amazon in which researchers were able to acknowledge the fact that, due to the variance in climate, a lot of the crops the indigenous people in the Amazon have been using have been affected. Some of the roots are rotting because there is so much water, and there is a decrease in the flowering of some of the trees that some of the animals eat, so there is a reduction in the access to food. But what has been interesting to see is that it’s the women who have an understanding of the different plants and how they’ve changed, and that understanding is what’s contributing to the resilience of the communities.
Guernica: You have spoken about gaps in data in relation to your research. Is that still a problem? Where are we with understanding how women and climate change are linked?
Lorena Aguilar: We’re still trying to fill that gap. When we were developing one of the ccGAPS in Nepal, in early 2011, we were presenting all these great things that we achieved at the international level, and one of the women from the community asked me, “But how has that changed my life?” And I said, “I can’t tell you right now. But I promise you, I am going to do something to have that information.” So, in 2013, we launched the Environment and Gender Index, which is the first of its kind. We launched the first phase with seventy-three countries, and since then we have been growing and developing new data sets. Today, UN Women has partnered with our office to enhance the EGI, so we are launching the next phase, which is the world’s first analysis of women in decision-making bodies in the environmental sector. We’re looking at many ministries associated with environment that have gender focal points or policies. We are not judging how good or bad they are, just the presence or absence of this gender awareness.
We’re also looking at how ministries of women are embracing the principles of the environment. We are trying to fill in that gap. It’s not very easy, because people claim there is no data, but no one wants to give you money to generate data. Our data sets have proven to be an incredible value—for example, Ghana, Uganda, and Cameroon did not previously recognize women’s rights to land tenure, so we developed the gender REDD road maps in Cameroon to address the issue. Since that gap of rights of women to land was recognized in the EGI, women now have rights to own land for the first time. The EGI is good for that—identifying gaps, and pushing forward with information and action.
This whole thing of portraying women as barefooted and pregnant and poor, it is not good.
Guernica: Your research seems to emphasize women as agents of change, rather than solely as the victims of climate change.
Lorena Aguilar: Definitely. One of the things that we at IUCN have to do is to move away from this idea of women being the vulnerable and the weak, because when you’re vulnerable and weak, you need someone to look after you, which means that women are not seen as agents of change. This whole thing of portraying women as barefooted and pregnant and poor, it is not good. We have hundreds of stories from all around the world in which women are leaders when it comes to mitigating and adapting to climate change. For example, you have the women in Australia doing the 1 Million Women campaign, which inspired more effective and more efficient energy consumption patterns by women. It is as if they had taken 240,000 cars off the street. Or you have the example of these incredible women in Thailand who have built the biggest energy solar farm in Asia. That is one of the reasons that we are going to launch, at this upcoming COP, a new book that displays this other face of women.
Guernica: What is the book about?
Lorena Aguilar: The name of the book is Roots for the Future: The Landscape and Way Forward on Gender and Climate Change. It analyzes the state of gender and climate change in areas such as international and national policy, adaptation, mitigation, finance, and cities, including no less than thirty case studies that show the power of women as agents of change. Each chapter contains a set of recommendations that will allow the development of gender initiatives and policies. The book will launch on December 8 during Gender Day at the Momentum for Change awards, under the Women for Results pillar.
Guernica: What do you see as the role of storytelling in developing policy for social change?
Lorena Aguilar: The only way that we can address the social issues of climate change is with a human face, and storytelling is about that. It’s putting a face next to the numbers. Both things are fundamental. The data, the facts, the scientific information—but in the end it’s about the stories of the thousands of women and men around the world.
Many years ago, pushed by my friends, I decided to start a blog. I needed to tell these stories to bring those voices of the unheard, the ones that cannot get to these forums. So, yes, I am a storyteller. But I see myself more like a bee that goes to one camp and brings the pollen to another camp, and tries to produce a fruit afterwards. That is the improvement of the livelihoods of these women.
Every time that I speak in public, I have little papers with the names of those women and those men in my pockets. Because at the end, I am working for them. I don’t work for IUCN. My real bosses are those women and those men. I’m just the lucky one. Sometimes people say, “Why do you work twenty hours a day? Why wake up at 3 a.m.?” I say, “Because they do. Because this is a struggle that doesn’t have time. This is a struggle that can’t wait.”
So, yes, I think the value of storytelling is very important. It brings the lives of those people into the discussion. We’re not dealing with objects. We’re dealing with those people who have to pull the bodies of someone they love out of the river because nobody took the time to tell them what to do prior to a disaster. Those people have names.
Guernica: The scale of the problems you’re working with is obviously immense. Do you sense that people are overwhelmed by it?
Lorena Aguilar: Oh my god, sometimes that’s a big challenge. Because when you work with a lot of communities, they think that what they’re seeing is temporary, that it might be due to something they’ve done. I’m talking about communities in Mozambique, or in Nepal, or in Bangladesh, or in the Congo. They cannot see this as something that somebody else is causing. And when you try to explain that, it generates fear and a certain level of “It doesn’t matter what I do, I cannot change it.” And that is a feeling that, more and more, not only with people in those communities but also a lot of us that work in climate change, are feeling every day: that this is such a global crisis. There are so many actors who are responsible and have to make big decisions. It’s not about “Let’s stop polluting a little river in Tanzania.” It’s about consumption. It’s about changing our energy sources. It’s so beyond some of us, and you and I, what we can do is so little for this. There is a sense of “How do you make big institutions and companies and governments move forward with solutions?” And sometimes you end up with your hands empty, and no solution. So there is a tremendous struggle with a sense of hopelessness in some of the communities, and in some of us.
My whole inspiration has really been those women who struggle every day. They are the ones who taught me hope, and strength, and the capacity to not let things go.
Guernica: Who do you look to for inspiration? Have you had a mentor or guide who’s helped you with this work?
Lorena Aguilar: Unfortunately, I never had a mentor. I wish I’d had one. My whole inspiration has really been those women who struggle every day. They are the ones who taught me hope, and strength, and the capacity to not let things go, no matter how bad it is. They have been my sources of inspiration.
Guernica: As you mentioned earlier, we’re approaching the twenty-first gathering of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. How will you determine your success there?
Lorena Aguilar: Paris is just the beginning; it is the beginning of this world moving forward in the commitments that it has been deciding on in past years. Paris should be seen as that breaking point in which we, and the majority of the countries in the world, have to really show an impact. We’ll measure success by seeing a decrease of emissions, and by seeing resources going to adaptation in the right way and in the right form. We will start seeing success when people do not lose their livelihoods because of climate change. Success, for me, has very concrete numbers attached to it. And that’s where you have to make countries accountable, at the forefront, and of course that will be accompanied by the efforts of thousands of women in those countries. The governments themselves and the big companies and the financing mechanisms have to show, in numbers, what they’re doing. I won’t take anything else as success.
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