This past Monday (22 April), we celebrated Earth Day. While it may have slipped by unnoticed for some, it offered a moment of reflection for many.
While I certainly didn’t dedicate the entire day to thinking about the ways in which I’ve harmed – or, in fact, tried my best to help repair – our planet, I did spend a few minutes taking stock of my behaviour. As proud as I am of the reusable straws I whip out of my handbag every time I sip a smoothie in a coffee shop or the artillery of shopping bags I’ve built up in my war on plastic waste, I still have a long, long, long way to go.
Fortunately, there certainly is no lack of inspiration out there: men and women who have dedicated their lives to protecting our natural resources and encouraging others to do the same.
In this past week, I happened to come across interviews with two women who have not only had a major impact on environmental policy around the globe but also inspired those around them to rethink their way in the world.
I wanted to share snippets of their stories with you… and then thought, what the heck, in for a penny, in for a pound: I might as well throw in two more inspiring environmental women warrior stories! So, here you go:
Photo: Stephen Kelly/Flickr
I ‘met’ Wangari Maathai while listening to a rerun of Krista Tippett’s 2006 interview with her on the On Being podcast.
The late Maathai (she died in 2011) was a Kenyan environmental activist, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
What I love most about her story, is the fact that her work was inspired by the plight of ‘ordinary’ people and their battles for survival.
In the podcast, she tells Krista:
In 1975, the first United Nations Women’s Conference was in Mexico, and I found myself in a forum where Kenyan women were discussing the agenda that we should take to Mexico. And I came in. I had my own agenda about the discrimination of women at the University of Nairobi.
But when I got there, then I listened to what the rural women were talking about. And it was the rural women’s story that actually struck me, and I completely forgot my story because, for me, by comparison, I was complaining about minutia — by comparison to what these women were really asking for. They were asking for water. They were asking for food, nutritious food. They were asking for energy, which was mainly firewood. And they were saying they have no income.
And so I told the women, “Now, you know what I think? We should plant trees.”
Because, by planting trees, they would be solving a multitude of problems, such as soil erosion, lack of firewood and – if they planted fruit trees – food security.
They started by planting seven trees in downtown Nairobi, of which only two survived. Forty-two years later, however, the Green Belt Movement (GBM) has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya and continues to promote environmental conservation; to build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls; to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods.
While I had heard about Sylvia Earle before, I was reminded of her important ocean advocacy work while researching an article about whether we should stop eating fish (note: she thinks we should).
Over the course of her career as an oceanographer and marine biologist, Earle has led more than 50 expeditions and logged in excess of 7000 hours underwater. Her love for the ocean started at the tender age of three when she was knocked over by a wave and this vast unknown world caught her attention.
Although her work may originally have been inspired by a sense of wonder, in more recent years it has been driven by a deep-seated concern about the well-being of the waters that make up 71% of our planet.
This led to her founding Mission Blue, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness about the dire state of our oceans and how Hope Spots – a worldwide network of Marine Protected Areas that are vital to the health of our oceans – can help counter some of the damage that has been done.
There are 76 Hope Spots worldwide (as of September 9, 2016). An additional 22 nominations for Hope Spots are currently under consideration and three nominations have been deferred.
Here is South Africa, we have 24 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and in 2014 six Hope Spots were declared.
They are: Algoa Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Aliwal Shoal, the Cape Whale Coast, False Bay and Knysna.
Watch Sylvia Earle’s legendary TED Talk ‘My wish: protect our oceans’ to learn more about her life’s work.
When Isatou Ceesay noticed that her hometown of N’jau in The Gambia was being smothered in a deluge of plastic bags, she decided that if no one else was going to do something, she had better step in and take charge.
So, back in 1997 – along with four other women – she started the N’jau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG). The purpose of the initiative was to inspire women to clean up the environment and make an extra income while doing so.
In 2009, it was registered as an official non-profit organisation and renamed the Women’s Initiative of Gambia.
A BBC article explains the group’s work as follows:
The women collect the materials themselves by hand and take it to their recycling centre, then sort the waste into categories: paper, plastic, metals and glass. They then go on to create some value out of these materials. The metals, for example, are easy to sell as scrap or transformed into accessories. The women, for instance, recycle plastics into woven bags and purses. The rubber is used in making necklaces. These seemingly ordinary accessories can now go on to cater to Gambia’s wide tourism sector – the second highest revenue spinner for the tiny West African country, which sees an influx of over 100,000 people annually.
Watch this video to hear Isatou tell her incredible story.
The Black Mambas
The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit is the first majority female anti-poaching unit in Africa. It was founded in 2013 by Transfrontier Africa NPC to protect the Olifants West Region of Balule Nature Reserve. Within the first year of operation the Black Mambas were invited to expand into other regions and now protect all boundaries of Balule Nature Reserve.
While this band of badass women certainly aren’t afraid to take up arms and enter into combat with poachers head-on, they are also passionate about educating their communities about the value of conservation.
As their Facebook page reads:
They want their communities to understand that the benefits are greater through rhino and wildlife conservation rather than poaching, addressing the social and moral decay that is a product of the rhino poaching within their communities. They are concerned for their children as the false economy has brought loose morals and narcotics into their communities.
It is our belief that the ‘war’ on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through social upliftment and the education of local communities surrounding the reserves.
Goosebumps all over!
Who – men, women, other – inspires you to help heal the planet?