Doña Rosa reaches for several old plastic Coca-Cola bottles filled with dehydrated onion, spinach, carrot, and a variety of other vegetables. She empties a little of each into a bowl and, after a few minutes, adds several handfuls of these vegetables to the pot of boiling water on her stove. This preserved food not only saves the time of buying, preparing, and chopping vegetables; it also provides meals for her family when there are blockades of the city or when vegetable prices rise - both of which are common occurrences in the life of Doña Rosa Angulo, a woman living in the southern zone of the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. This southern zone is what is known as a 'peri-urban' area, and within it is situated the community of Maria Auxiliadora, where Rosa lives.
This community was established for women. Only women own the land and only women can hold the positions of president and vice president. A process involving the entire community has been established to deal with any domestic violence. It is a place where many women have found safety and support.
My colleague Leny and I spent three months visiting members of the Maria Auxiliadora community and learning about these women’s resilience to challenges in their daily lives. The project 'Climate Change is About.. Women' seeks to show the relations between this resilience and the global challenge of climate change, including the disproportionate impact it has on women.
Climate Change and Disproportionate Impacts
In 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) designated climate change as a threat to human security for the first time. However, we are not all impacted equally. The IPCC report states that 'people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change.'1 Those who have done the least to cause climate change suffer disproportionately from its effects.
How we have contributed to and are affected by the planetary crisis differs depending on where we live. Those living in the global North are not impacted to the same degree as those living more vulnerably in the global South, nor have those from the ‘developing’ world contributed to the crisis anything like as much as governments, industries and populations in rich countries. Mitigation, adaptation, and resilience have different meanings in the global North than in the global South. While we all have responsibilities when it comes to the current crisis, our responsibilities do differ depending on where we are based.
In the global North we must think about adaptation, but not at the expense of mitigation efforts or consideration of the historical injustices that have defined the dynamics between the rich and poor areas of the globe. Inhabitants and governments of wealthy countries need to focus on mitigation first and foremost, and on addressing unsustainable, highly energy-intensive lifestyles. The approach to "development" of poorer nations likewise needs to have sustainability and justice at its core. Just one example would be addressing the deforestation of large swaths of the Amazon for agroindustry. The South has a lot to offer in terms of learning about alternative development, ways of living, adaptation and resilience. The North also has a lot it needs to offer in terms of technology and knowledge transfer around both sustainable infrastructure and adaptation assistance. But once again, acknowledging and meeting these responsibilities must not distract from a focus on mitigation and overall emissions reduction. Rich countries must not be allowed to use Southern 'resilience' or small handouts of adaptation aid money as an excuse for carrying on with business-as-usual.
Research by Oxfam states that because of the combination of its geographical location, diverse ecosystems, extreme poverty and inequality, Bolivia is one of the most vulnerable countries impacted by climate change.2 ‘In Bolivia... five main impacts are predicted to result from climate change: less food security; glacial retreat affecting water availability; more frequent and more intense ‘natural’ disasters; an increase in mosquito-borne diseases; and more forest fires.’3 This means a unique vulnerability to climate change as well as limited (and, in some cases, dwindling) resources, such as water, with which to confront its present and future effects – to adapt and be resilient.
One feature of Bolivia’s future climate scenario is massive rural to urban migration accompanied by poverty, unemployment, and the unraveling of traditional social fabric.4 The 2013 IPCC report also identified increased migration as a future expectation of climate change impacts on human security.5 However, this is not a future climate scenario. Bolivia is already witnessing mass migration to urban areas, such as El Alto, the southern zone of Cochabamba, and Plan 3000 in Santa Cruz. In El Alto in-migration has been so high that the population of one million has surpassed that of the adjacent city of La Paz, the political capital of Bolivia.
This blurring of the rural and urban dichotomy is seen primarily in the global South and the resulting conurbations, often informal, have been increasingly referred to as “peri-urban areas”. Such areas are politically marginalized and tend to lack necessary services such as water delivery. A large section of the rapidly growing world population is migrating to these areas, being left extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts and living with uncertain food, water and other resources.
Within these peri-urban areas it is also the case that not all are affected by climate change equally. Women will be disproportionately impacted. The 2009 Oxfam report highlights that climate change impacts in Bolivia will not be felt uniformly and that women, smallholder farmers and poor communities will bear the brunt of this problem, to which they did not contribute.6
These women cook, clean the house, wash clothes, make sure there is food and water, watch the kids, maintain agricultural land and many also work outside of the home - selling what they can, sewing, cooking, nursing…Few have the time or money to study, much less earn a degree and begin a profession. Many of these same women experienced sexual violence as young girls and/or teenagers and go on to live with sexual and/or domestic violence as adults. Women have an unequal burden of responsibilities, less time available, and experience a greater amount of daily violence. It has also been emphasized that women lack access to participation in policy and decision making and that they have fewer information resources and less decision making authority to cope with climate shocks and stresses.7 Women live the impacts of climate change distinctly - as another form of violence in their lives, interwoven with the rest; and they bear a larger burden of the violence than their male counterparts.
Yet most women forge on day after day, thinking of their children: making sure their bellies are full, that they are healthy, that they are going to school. Women around the world are resilient. Many are the rocks of their families despite the great amount of violence and oppression that they live with everyday. Some women - those that have the support, resources, strength and opportunity that they need - have more chances to get out of violent situations. It becomes possible for them to take back control of their lives, for themselves and for their children.
Much of the climate change discourse frames “…women as ‘vulnerable, passive victims,…[which] reinforces [the] exclusion of women as ‘active agents’ in responding to climate change and ignores their capabilities, knowledge and relevant skills, which should be built upon in climate responses.”8 The strength and resilience of women, in diverse areas of their lives, makes a woman’s vision distinct when it comes to confronting the increasing difficulties of climate change impacts on, for example, their household budgets and food security.
Women are not passive victims of violence or political marginalization and nor are they passive victims of the effects of climate change on their lives. Women’s capabilities, skills, and knowledge are the direct results of everything they have experienced as children, as wives and as primary caretakers of their children; as survivors of sexual and domestic violence; and as those responsible for providing food and water. Their overall resilience means that they are uniquely able to confront the effects of climate change in their homes and communities.
However, it would be a further injustice to rely solely on women to take this on. Doing so would add to the already inequitable burden of responsibility - and poverty of time - that women bear. Responses to these impacts should be collective in nature, with individuals and communities learning from women’s distinct abilities and knowledge in order to reproduce the resilience they demonstrate at the personal level in the broader societal effort to confront climate change.
And of course, resilience does have a limit, especially in extreme conditions. While the capacities of women like those living in Maria Auxiliadora to bounce back from shocks and suffering is admirable, in the end of course women should not have to be so resilient: the underlying causes of those shocks and suffering are systems of patriarchal oppression which give social sanction to violence against women as well as poverty and economic inequality. These systems need to be challenged and taken apart. Women are not unbreakable, even if they are resilient. Without systemic threats to their wellbeing, all women could enjoy opportunities to flourish and develop themselves in other ways. What applies at the personal level is also relevant when we talk about climate resilience. The strategies that many women employ in dealing with climate change in their daily lives at present may not serve them as their situations shift and the consequences become more extreme. But we also have to work to mitigate against those more extreme impacts – which again means confronting climate change and its inherent injustices at the systemic level. Addressing climate change impacts and violence against women go hand in hand.
“Due to the fragile physiographic conditions of the country, the state of the land and water resources, and the precarious agricultural systems, food security in [Bolivia] is highly vulnerable to climate change effects.”9 This 2008 statement reinforces the 2013 IPCC report’s finding that one of the key threats that climate change represents is to our food. Crop yields need to increase to support the growth of the global population, but yields such as wheat and corn have slowed over the last 40 years. The report shares the expectation of us seeing increasing food shortages and rising food prices over the next half-century.10
“The main way that most people will experience climate change is through the impact on food: the food they eat, the price they pay for it, and the availability and choice that they have,” says Tim Gore, head of food policy and climate change for Oxfam.11 This will be experienced more acutely by those living in peri-urban areas and by women, who are generally responsible for providing food and water for the family. Rosa Angulo and her family live in the southern zone of Cochabamba and she remembers how 2 bolivianos (approx US¢30) used to buy 25 bananas and 7 bolivianos used to buy 3 kilos of onion; now the price of 25 bananas fluctuates between 5 and 10 bolivianos and you need 14 bolivianos to buy that amount of onion. A 2010 study by the Women’s Environmental Network says that women in poor communities, as a result of climate change impacts, are more likely to “experience increased burdens of water and fuel collection, feel the effects of rising food prices most acutely, and be the first to suffer during food shortages…[as well as] be expected to, and need to, adapt to the effects of climate change, increasing their workload.”12
Women in Bolivia like Rosa Angulo are already experiencing both food shortages and food price increases as a result of climate change impacts. With agricultural producers losing an increasing number of crops due to effects such as changed planting schedules and heavy and destructive floods in the Beni region, less vegetables and fruits are arriving in Cochabamba. More widely felt is the impact on increasing food prices. 2013 world food prices were the third highest they’ve ever been13 and a UK report by the Institute of Development Studies predicts a 20-60% rise in food prices by 2050. Meanwhile 2012 was the second to worst, and 2011 the worst year so far, for inflated food costs.4 This demonstrates a trend of increasing crisis which is only set to worsen in the face of an ever more unpredictable climate. Those most vulnerable, especially women, will be facing the brunt of this. Additionally, intensive industrial farming and extractive industries will be pushed more heavily onto developing economies - when sustainable food sovereignty should be a main focus and pursuit.
Doña Irene Cardozo has put her family’s quality of life at the center of her daily decision-making. Living in the community of Maria Auxiliadora she is the owner of her own home - which she built herself - providing a secure, stable, and safe place to live for herself and her two daughters. Belonging to the community and owning her own home supported Irene in getting away from domestic violence, and they provide the place where she can plant trees and vegetables so that she and her daughters have a secure fresh food source free from pesticides, preservatives and chemicals. This is a huge help to them, particularly as vegetable prices continue to rise in the market, which is close to an hour’s bus ride away.
Back at Doña Rosa’s kitchen table, we sat down to eat a soup she had prepared with her dehydrated vegetables and which she shared with us for lunch. Around the world women are striving to provide healthy food and a secure environment for their children, to enable them to thrive.
The changes in climate affect the ability to accomplish this. It is becoming harder to be resilient because we are faced with more challenges – some, of course, much, much more so than others. Yet for the women we spent several months visiting in Maria Auxiliadora, the impacts they are feeling from climate change are just another challenge in a vast sea of violence they have been encountering their whole lives. The ways in which they are each resilient are inspiring.