This article was contributed by Natalie Prolman, Sophia Cheng and Jaye Renold for International Women's Day.

“To be a woman is hard. We are plundered as Mother Earth is plundered, demeaned and destroyed by the ambition of humankind. Yet even with those obstacles we are strength, we are firmness, we are struggle.” — Dina Júc,  Maya Poqomchi’ and Q’eqchi’ leader from Guatemala.

Indigenous women across the world are leading movements against natural resource desecration, land grabbing, and rampant deforestation. These are the latest chapters in centuries-old struggles against colonial exploitation and erasure.

These women are raising the next generations of indigenous activists, often carry the bulk of food-gathering tasks, and are the first to experience the effects of climate change. Not only are they most likely to be without the resources needed to adapt to climate change, these women are themselves on the frontlines of the fight against it.

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Female leadership at Standing Rock has played a central role in the Sioux’s movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and protect the water of the Missouri River.

In Ecuador, women have taken leading roles in fights against oil extraction in Sarayaku. In North Sumatra, Indonesia, women led the fight against plantations for pulp and paper after the men were arrested and beaten; after a long fight their forest has been recently recognized.

In Brazil, the babassu nut breaker women have led campaigns against the privatization of the babassu forests. And, of course, Berta Cáceres, who was murdered one year ago for leading opposition to the construction of a dam on community lands in Honduras, has become an icon of indigenous female leadership.

This list could go on. However, the majority of their stories do not make headlines.

Indigenous peoples represent 5% of the global population yet they protect more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Their voices must be at the forefront of the fight to protect our forests, our water, and our earth against climate change and pollution.

We spoke with two indigenous youth leaders from Central America about the role that indigenous women play in the global struggle against climate change. Dina and Yuam are both contributors to If Not Us Then Who, a campaign to communicate firsthand the unique personal stories of indigenous and forest peoples, as they battle to protect their lives, their cultures, and our forests.

Dina Júc is an indigenous Maya Poqomchi’ and Q’eqchi’ leader from the Association Ut’z Che’, Guatemala. Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in Semuc Champey have suffered violent evictions from their lands, which were pronounced a Protected Area without consultation of the communities that have cared for those forests for centuries.

While Dina welcomed the honouring of women through International Women’s Day, she insisted that “this should be a day of analysis, to evaluate how far we have advanced as women, men, governments and the population in general in supporting and facilitating conditions to really exercise the rights that correspond to WOMEN. This should be a day to devise government plans and new commitments to join efforts with women.”

Why is it so important that we recognize indigenous women when we tell the climate change story?

Dina: Indigenous, rural and fisher women from Guatemala and various countries around the world exercise an important role in the life and continuance of a healthy environment. Why? From our homes to the land we work arduously with our children, transferring knowledge from our grandmothers such as the care of a seed for sowing, the respect we must have for the corn.

“If you see a corn on the ground, pick it up for it is sacred. This season is very good for collecting seeds.” These are among many phrases that I have etched in my memory from my grandparents, knowledge that is especially passed on and applied in communities and families by women.

We see examples like in Totonicapán, where Mayan K'iche' women play an important role in the forest patrols to ensure that predatory illegal loggers do not enter. The Mayan Q'anjob'ales women of Santa Eulalia Huehuetenango continue rescuing native seeds from species of trees that are at the point of disappearing in the region.

The Q'eqchi' women from Semuc Champey defend their lands and those beautiful waters as if defending a child, lands which today are in the hands of the National Council of Protected Areas. They risk their life without caring that they are in danger, while the government can only think of sending armed men to evict them.

On the southern coast of Guatemala we see women fighting the sugar, palm oil and African oil corporations to defend their lands and put a stop to the devastation of mangroves and forest; a stop to the pollution and diversion of their rivers where they and their husbands fish to feed their family and have an income.

This March 8th women throughout Guatemala raise their voices to say “Stop the violation of our rights! Stop the persecution of the women! We demand the restitution of our lands, we demand respect for a healthy environment and we want our rivers to flow along their path once again.”

Yuam Pravia is an indigenous Miskitu leader from MASTA (Unity of the Moskitia), the representative organization of the Miskitu people of Honduras. Although they received legal title to their lands in September 2013 Miskitu territory continues facing invasions by often violent colonists who are causing significant deforestation.

What is your message to global citizens about indigenous women and protecting the environment?

Yuam: Women are a fundamental pillar in society. From the day she becomes a mother she is one of society’s teachers, one who passes on information from generation to generation. For that reason itself nature is termed ‘Pacha Mama’, ‘Mother Earth’, always related to the woman, the teacher.

The social, economic, cultural, political and environmental achievements of indigenous women have not been easy, but it has been possible to raise our voices to the world and to make it felt that we can achieve a great many dreams through hard work, unity and decisiveness. The fight continues! Yes we can!

Happy International Women’s Day! MAIRIN NANI TASBA AISKA YUA RA  AUDI PALI!


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