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PERU: Councilwomen Fight Climate Change in Land of Melting Glaciers

LIMA, Sep 28 2011 (IPS) - Some symbolic acts are powerful reflections of a broader struggle. In March some 300 women planted trees in the Santa River basin in northwest Peru to demonstrate their determination to preserve the environment and help adapt to climate change.

Councilwomen of Ancash are joining forces against climate change.  Credit: Courtesy of the Mountain Institute

Councilwomen of Ancash are joining forces against climate change. Credit: Courtesy of the Mountain Institute

Now a network of councilwomen have organised to that end.

The organiser of the tree-planting activity was Eugenia Maguiña, the only female town councillor in Recuay, a municipality in the northwestern region of Ancash. She urged local women recipients of the Vaso de Leche national food supplement programme for poor families to take part in the symbolic act on International Women’s Day, Mar. 8.

Her aim was to give a practical demonstration that “it is possible to contribute to solutions, with participation by the people,” she told IPS.

At the time, the Red de Mujeres Regidoras de Ancash (Network of Councilwomen of Ancash) was just emerging, representing some 40 women town councillors from the middle and upper stretches of the Santa River basin.

The Santa River is a key source of water in the region of Ancash, where people in both the highlands and the area along the Pacific coast depend on it for water supplies.

Maguiña says that while it is true that climate change affects all people everywhere, some countries and rural areas are hit harder than others – such as Peru and its mountain ecosystems.

A group of councilwomen in workshop on climate change. Courtesy of the Mountain Institute.
A group of councilwomen in workshop on climate change.

Courtesy of the Mountain Institute.

“Yes, there is climate injustice, but we can’t just sit back and do nothing. We have to help come up with solutions,” she said, stressing that women must take part in the process because “they are especially affected by climate change.”

Ancash, a region of just over a million people who mainly depend on agriculture and livestock for a living, as well as tourism and mining, is one illustration of the unequal ecological relations highlighted by the process of global warming.

Although the industrialised North is principally responsible for the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, it is the developing countries of the South, and the most vulnerable segments of their populations, such as poor women, who end up having to make the biggest efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects.

Ancash’s many glaciers are an important source of water, but they are melting fast due to the rise in temperatures. In the last 30 years, Peru’s glaciers have lost 25 percent of their volume, and some have disappeared completely.

In response to this situation, the Mountain Institute has supported the work of the councilwomen as part of the “Peaks to Coast” project it is carrying out with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The project’s mission is to develop models of conservation and sustainable use of mountain ecosystems that regulate the water cycle. It involves restoring grasslands and forests, training local authorities, and raising awareness among the local population with respect to environmental management and climate change adaptation projects.

The project is focusing on two of the 20 provinces in Ancash: Recuay (the Santa River basin) and Bolognesi (the Santa, Fortaleza and Pativilca basins), in areas between 3,000 and 5,000 metres above sea level.

“As the glaciers retreat, access to water will become more and more difficult,” Peaks to Coast project manager Christine Giraud told IPS. “That’s why it’s important for the grasslands in the puna (the high Andean plateau) to store up water during the rainy season and to serve as a source of water during the dry season.”

“Planting forests is important, and everyone benefits: the highlands and the cities,” she said.

“Women are generally more aware of water scarcity because it is them who are worrying about raising the kids. It is essential to include them in this kind of climate change adaptation and mitigation initiative,” she added.

Giraud said women are especially affected by the impact of global warming because they are the ones who are in charge of meeting day-to-day needs at home, like water and food.

In the rural areas of Ancash involved in the project, most people depend on family agriculture, and climate change has led to frequent harvest losses, due to unpredictable rainy seasons or droughts, and pests.

The project has “a gender focus that seeks to highlight the important roles that women play in raising livestock and managing the ecosystems of the puna, and within the family,” Giraud said.

As a first step, the participants in the network of councilwomen have worked to strengthen their leadership capacity and acquire new knowledge about climate change and other environmental issues, in order to design better projects in their municipalities and get local authorities involved.

“The performance of women is as, or more, professional as that of men,” Recuay mayor Milton León told IPS. “They are very responsible in the tasks they take on.”

He said that he and two other mayors will present the Ancash regional government with a project to plant forests on 11,000 hectares, which will help preserve sources of water.

León said it is also important for women to gain greater economic independence, in order to overcome the “machismo” or sexism that prevails in many families. “Many of them need solutions; there are a number of mothers on their own, which is why between 35 and 40 percent of the workers in the municipality’s public works are women,” the mayor said.

Eugenia Maguiña said machismo is found both within and outside the home. Several members of the network have even had to stand up to their husbands’ opposition to their decision to become a town councillor or to take on new challenges on behalf of their communities.

Another of the councilwomen in the network, Myriam Maguiña of the municipality of Independencia, said the struggle has to be waged on two levels: within the town council and in the field.

As an example, she cited the case of a municipal ordinance that she sponsored to ban the sale of liquor late at night near schools and the central square in Independencia due to rising levels of violence. The rest of the authorities in the municipality did not back her initiative, but local residents did, and the ordinance eventually passed.

“If we can’t get the people interested in the issues of climate change, our projects aren’t going to gain support and won’t be carried out,” she stressed.

The councilwoman said local residents must urgently abandon certain practices, like the periodic burning of the puna grasslands to renew forage for livestock, or the dumping of garbage in rivers.

Independencia has launched a garbage clean-up drive to protect the local water sources, and Recuay will soon do the same.

The Mountain Institute’s project is set to run through 2012, but the idea is for the network of councilwomen to stay in place even after the international aid funds dry up, supported and nourished by the local authorities and residents.

The network also wants to cross other bridges: to forge ties with their counterparts in Piura, a region in the extreme northwest, who have also been working together for several years. “We aren’t islands, we should work together to confront this serious problem,” said Myriam Maguiña.

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