Ripple effects and revolutions: women leaders in climate and biodiversity full transcript
Host [00:01] You are listening to Make Change Happen, the podcast from IIED. To coincide with this year’s International Women’s Day on March the 8th, this episode looks at women’s leadership in climate and biodiversity. A panel of senior women leaders discuss what difference it makes to have women in leadership, what it looks like, and what it means. The podcast is hosted by James Persad, IIED’s director of communications.
James Persad [00:28] Good morning, good afternoon and good evening, wherever you are in the world, and welcome to the latest episode of the IIED podcast Make Change Happen, episode 21. The topic is women leadership in climate and biodiversity, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day on the 8th of March.
And what I’d like to do is invite a conversation on women’s leadership in climate and biodiversity – what does it mean? What does it look like? What does it mean specifically for climate and biodiversity sectors? And what difference does it have to make women in leadership at all levels?
It’s a real privilege to welcome to the panel today three senior women demonstrating leadership in climate and biodiversity sectors.
We have Ritu Bharadwaj, principal researcher from IIED’s own Climate Change research group; Omaira Bolaños, director of Latin America and gender justice programmes in the Rights and Resources Initiative; and we have Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of CITES. Welcome to you all. I'm really looking forward to the conversation.
What I might do is just ask you to introduce yourselves a bit more, if I may.
Ivonne Higuero [01:31] Hi James, it’s great, thanks so much for the invitation to be on this panel with these other great women leaders. I'm very happy to be here. Let me just first spell out CITES, because it’s such a long name that some not always know what it stands for. But it’s a convention, it’s a legally binding agreement that deals with the international trade of endangered species of wild fauna and flora. So we have listings of animals and plants, we call them CITES listed species, where they have to be regulated for international trade.
And I'm the secretary-general of the secretary that manages the convention and services the parties to the convention. And, yeah, first woman to be selected as head of the secretary, so an honour, but also a responsibility. And also the first woman – not only the first woman but the first from a developing country.
So, yes, I feel that I fit into this discussion today. It’s going to be very interesting, I'm sure.
James Persad [02:30] Thank you, Ivonne, delighted to have you with us today.
Omaira, please can I ask you to introduce yourself and your organisation, please?
Omaira Bolaños [02:36] Thank you. My name is Omaira Bolaños, I'm originally from Colombia, several years ago I moved to the United States as a result of the internal conflict in Colombia. Luckily I ended up working with Rights and Resources Initiative. We are a global coalition of more than 150 organisations across the world that work together to advocate for the community collective tenure rights for Indigenous, Afro-descendant and local communities across the world.
And I have been with the organisation for 12 years and I have been in the leadership position, and moving forward not only in Latin America but making and creating a programme on gender justice around collective tenure rights.
James Persad [03:21] Thank you, Omaira, and welcome to the panel.
Last, by no means least, Ritu, would you mind introducing yourself please and your work
Ritu Bharadwaj [03:29] Thanks so much, James. So I'm Ritu Bharadwaj and I work with the climate change crew at IIED.
So I have close to 20 years of experience, and these 20 years I have made the journey from one of the most undeveloped parts of India, Bihar, not many people know about it. So that journey has been from there, trying to create a space for myself and the people I work for – especially women, marginalised Indigenous people – in all these 20 years. And in whatever space that I have worked in, whether it was the developing agencies, government agencies, whether UK or India government, I’ve tried to do justice to this role. And I do hope [I] continue to do this through the loss and damage programme, the social protection programme, and most recently an area which is very close to my heart, which is around looking at the impact that climate change creates on migrants and their families, and the trafficking and human rights issues that it creates for them.
So, yes, delighted to be in this panel, especially in the midst of two really great women.
James Persad [04:31] Thank you, Ritu, delighted you can join us today and thank you for explaining the vital work that you are all doing. Looking forward to finding out more about that as the conversation progresses.
James Persad [04:43] First question is, what does women’s leadership look like to you, and why do we need women leaders across biodiversity and climate change spaces?
Ivonne Higuero [04:51] Well, I think that... thanks James for that question, because I think it’s especially interesting when we’re talking about biodiversity and climate change where maybe it has been overlooked in terms of the responsibilities of women dealing with natural resources, dealing with nature, dealing with wildlife. And we need to engage them more on these issues, especially when we see that we’re in this triple planetary crisis, including pollution, climate change and biodiversity.
And I think for us it means that we have to pay more attention to women’s issues and women and girls who are living close to nature, who are next to habitats that contain this wildlife, and what their roles are.
And it’s amazing that in all this time, only until this last meeting of the conference of the parties, which is when our highest-level governing body took a decision with 184 parties to agree that we should have a resolution on gender and international trade in wild fauna and flora, as well as develop a plan of action for women.
So, as we see more women becoming leaders in their communities, especially in Indigenous communities and local communities, we have to make sure that they are engaged because they are playing a critical role in making sure that wildlife is there for future generations, which is really the aim of CITES.
And I'm hoping that in my... since I'm the first woman leader of the secretariat of this UN convention, I can play a big role in ensuring the recognition of the work that these women are doing, and engaging them better in — as a stakeholder to the convention.
James Persad [06:27] Yeah, that point around recognition, we’ll come back to when we’re wrapping up, but thank you for acknowledging that.
How do you see the change in the importance of women’s leadership playing out now, Omaira?
Omaira Bolaños [06:39] I think there has been a lot of changes. I wanted to give you some data from the standpoint of our work in securing collective tenure rights for communities.Indigenous, Afro-descendant and community women across the world comprise more than half of the 2.5 billion people who relies on the community lands to support the livelihoods for security, energy, traditional medicine and cultural and religious traditions.
However, women from these groups legally own less than 20% of the world’s agricultural lands. In that context, Indigenous, Afro-descendent local communities across the world have been making efforts within their own communities to start breaking barriers that allow them to have a voice, to have a perspective on how to manage and how to benefit not only personally on the families, but communities.
So several processes that are coming from the ground is what is allowing us to see women in leadership positions at all levels. And one of those issues that are coming on the ground has to do with women taking lead and ownership of processes of intergenerational leadership formations that allow continuation for making visible the roles – important roles – that women are playing at all levels in leadership in climate change, leadership in conservation that are in development, has to take into account the different type of voices that women have at all levels. And people like me, and Ivonne, and others that are in these leadership positions, is not handle all of our jobs and responsibilities, but are making sure that we open the spaces for other women to bring their perspectives and put on the table the rights-based agenda for women.
James Persad [08:42] Yeah, talking of locally-led leadership, Ritu, I wonder if you have any examples or give us the backstory to some of the projects that you’re working on where that’s been demonstrated, please?
Ritu Bharadwaj [08:54] We’ve been talking about the top-down leadership and we should be talking about the bottom-up leadership. And when I… In fact I was in the field yesterday and when I look around I see women and girls being an active change agent in so many ways in almost every project that I'm working on.
But I would particularly like to highlight the story of women leaders in Dumardih village in Jharkhand, where they’re ensuring that the poor and vulnerable families are identified, they’re registered, and they get access to social safety net during crisis. And these crises have spanned from climate crisis like drought and floods, but also COVID crisis. And you can see, when you go to these villages, you can see the women... the village elders, the poor seek their help in getting old-age pension, livelihood access, food subsidy, access to health benefits and so on.
And I would say that they’re virtually acting as a help desk for these families in the village, and this approach is also helping government functionaries get up-to-date data on poor and marginalised households.
And, you know, when we went and met these government functionaries at the local level, they were publicly recognising the value of these grassroot women leaders in enhancing outreach and effective delivery of their programme. The empowerment of these grassroot women leaders have delivered change in so many ways.
Firstly, I would say they lead differently. Now, these women leaders are more forthcoming than their male leaders in sharing information, allowing everyone in the village to understand and benefit from these social protection schemes.
Secondly, they are being very transformative. These women are gradually creating confidence and inspiring young girls to stand up for their rights and take charge of the issues that matter to them.
And finally, and something which I really got inspired by was the shifting, the gradual shifting of power balance in the village. The attitudes of elders and men in those villages who traditionally wanted women confined in their homes are changing. They recognise the value of bringing these women into the mainstream.
So, as Ivonne and Omaira have highlighted before me, we have to recognise, create space for them, because when women lead they don’t just change themselves and their household, but the community at large. And we need to give them more prominence and make space, or make effort to mainstream their leadership. Of course, Omaira and Ivonne are playing that at the top level, but we need to create that space for them bottom-up, at every level.
James Persad [11:30] It’s super interesting listening to you talk about the sort of ripple effects of impact it has beyond the household, beyond the village and into the wider community.
Ivonne, I wonder if you have an example of women in the lead and taking leadership from your experience?
Ivonne Higuero [11:47] Yes, and just coming back to what I mentioned originally about how long it took CITES to have this resolution on gender and international trade in wildlife, it’s the 50th year anniversary for CITES this year, so that’s quite significant. And I liked what Omaira said about making visible the roles of women, and I think this is what is the intention of having this resolution, and this is the new initiative that the 184 parties have agreed to through the resolution and developing an action plan.
And this is significant, to be able to, again, recognise their roles, give them the visibility they need, open those spaces also, as we said, so that they can participate more fully in what is the wildlife trade – which, at this point, a lot of the decisions that have been made over these years have been basically gender blind. And now comes a realisation that this is not the way to move forward, we have to think about gender when we’re thinking about how to regulate the wildlife trade.
And not only in the legal aspects, but also when we talk about illegal wildlife trade. If you think about these criminal organisations that are involved in illegal wildlife trade, and often women and girls are the ones who suffer with these criminal organisations when they’re doing their different types of crimes, including wildlife crime.
So I think all... what we’re trying to develop here is to think more carefully about what are the roles of women, how are they ensuring the sustainability of this legal trade, when Omaira talks about food safety etc, this is something that women are very much in charge of in many local communities and iIndigenous communities as well, is to ensure food safety. And so how is the wildlife trade – when we talk about wildlife we talk about plants and animals – how are they involved in this? And really going beyond only that, you know, they’re there as caretakers, but also involved in the decision-making.
And so this gender action plan that’s going to be developed over the next few years will have to take a look at all these aspects when it comes to the legal trade, the illegal trade, and their roles in general – their roles in terms of sustainability and ensuring that these wildlife resources are there for the future.
So we’re very excited to be able to finally do something like this and ensure these women voices are heard and are participating in the decision-making.
James Persad [14:12] Great to hear that there is a formal plan around gender equity and women’s empowerment across CITES and beyond.
James Persad [14:22] Omaira, coming to you, do you have an example that you would like to share with our listeners today?
Omaira Bolaños [14:28] Yes, over the past two years we have been engaged in cross-regional peer learning and exchanged also experience between Indigenous, Afro-descendant local communities from Africa, Asia and Latin America. As a result of that we created a tool that we called the 'call to action', and it’s a call to the donor community, to the international allies, to make effort to support directly women’s organisations, women groups, associations, from the global South.
So, based on that they organised and created an alliance of women from the global south that is called Women in the Global South for Tenure and Climate. And this alliance was launched at the COP27, as everybody has known in the COP27 many of the donors committed to US$1.7 billion to support communities on the ground for climate change, mitigations and adaptation.
And then the women from the Global South Alliance is recognising that this is a very good step, but more effort needs to be done to ensure that women on the ground that are facing the majority of the effects of climate change and are bringing at the front in defence of lands and creating alternatives for climate change adaptation are also the target of this funding.
So women in the Global South Alliance have demonstrated that finance at the global level for Indigenous, Afro-descendent women is very little and in some cases has not even been recorded. So they are defining a strategy for engaging directly with donor and international communities to bring, and claiming that they have a voice and agenda for being a counterpart in decision-making, a counterpart in deciding where funding, international funding, for conservation or climate change should be placed and what are the strategies that they are bringing.
In late March we will be having a meeting of the womens in Global South Alliance, we will be meeting in Panama, we will define a new strategy that will be shared with everybody. And I am happy to respond to any questions if anybody is interested in knowing or support this strategy.
James Persad [17:02] That sounds great, and three great examples there of women moving into and taking leadership roles in different ways – both at local level and international level.
Just picking up a thread of the comment that you made, Omaira, about finance being a barrier to women’s leadership, I wanted to sort of explore those barriers a bit more, and what can be done to overcome them.
Ivonne, can I invite you to sort of describe some of the barriers that you’re perceiving to women and girls moving into leadership roles?
Ivonne Higuero [17:33] Absolutely, and excellent point about the financial support that’s needed. In fact, the resolution that was just adopted includes a call on donors in the international community to provide financial support on this resolution, which includes financing women’s participation.
Some of the things that we’ve been trying to change over time is about participation of women in training, in CITES meetings, this is how they can be more involved in decision-making, including women in the delegations of the parties. When we invite the parties to participate in a training, for example, we ensure now that we put something in there saying that we encourage that there is diversity in the representation of the party to these meetings and to these trainings.
Because, at the end of the day, knowledge is power. And if you’re not able to participate, if you're not able to be taken into account, included in learning, and training, and knowing better how to manage wildlife, how to manage nature, then you miss out and you're not going to be able to be part of the decision-making at the national level either.
I believe very strongly that women are much better... are very good at sharing information and taking back that knowledge and information to their communities.
But, again, it’s not as simple as that, is it? I think we have to do better, and I'm sure that we will be looking at ways to do better through this gender action plan to ensure that it’s not just a box-ticking, is it? That we just simply say, ‘Well, we have had so many... it was half and half, there was equity in the representation and the meeting’, but that we really are including them in advance, we integrate gender when we’re thinking about project proposals. I see barriers there that often we don’t include them in project proposals to be able to understand how it is that women interact with nature.
I think we’re taking steps in the right direction but I think we do have to think more seriously about gender inclusion. And I'm really happy to meet these women leaders in this panel because I know now that I can engage with them, they have a lot of experience of taking women into account, gender into account, when they’re developing their programmes.
I just want to give one... when we talk about including women and we have to really give it a lot of thought, it reminds me of an experience I had when I was dealing with gender more fully in my previous post. And just not having a thought about women traders and thinking about when they had to come to the government offices to get their permits for trading, the government offices were not open at the right time for women to be able to go get their permits.
Women often have to take children to school, women have to deal with the feeding of the children and the family, in some cases they... if you were talking about women traders in small communities they were dealing during the day in getting water and preparing, again, food, taking care of the children when they got out of school. And so just including those, that type of analytical thinking about what can make it easier for women to be in a certain space, is something that we all need to work on.
Ritu Bharadwaj [20:46] I completely agree. Ivonne has really brought in very practical insights on what really happens when we talk about implementing some of these gender strategies. We quite often see projects and programmes, take that very narrow approach of tracking numbers of woman participation, but that does not often give you the true picture always.
And I was recently carrying out an impact assessment of an adaptation project in Bangladesh where we saw high girl participation in community activities like green club, oxygen bank, etc, and the implementation agency was very quick to highlight this as a success. But when we dug deeper and we found that there was an emerging gender stereotyping of these activities, which boys in those village considered as soft activities and did not participate.
So in fact with activities like these, we are doing a disservice. And because by doing this we are brewing that gender imbalance in the minds of children at a very early age. And quite often many of these monitoring assessments are like check-boxes, as Ivonne highlighted, and it does not really change the conditions on the ground – the things that we really want to change as a result of these efforts.
And I’ll just highlight another example from Jharkhand in India, where we saw that the state government reserved 50% seats for women to be worksite supervisors for a social protection programme called MGNREGS. Well, women were indeed hired in this programme, but they were not provided any training to perform that role. So no enabling conditions, no mentoring, no hand-holding support. So in effect they were being set up to fail.
So, you know, in many sense, beyond these gender strategies and monitoring of these numbers, we really need that behavioural and society change – what Ivonne was highlighting – and genuinely create that enabling environment and condition that allow for and encourage these women to participate more proactively.
And we also need to understand that when women try to come up and change, there are people around them who collude and try to keep that status quo. And we need to make effort to change that status quo in order to bring about that real transformation in society that we are all been talking about on this panel.
James Persad [23:12] Omaira, can I come to you, please, on the work that the Rights and Resources Initiative has been doing pushing for women’s inclusion and participation in your work?
Omaira Bolaños [23:21] Yes, one of the big issues for us is the approach to be able to build ideas, to build strategies, and connect to the international agendas on climate change, on conservation, on development, in food security, in agricultural development, to be able to respond really to what is on the ground. So that, for us, is very important.
And the other part is that I wanted to highlight one example that we are working with community women, and there is a case in Colombia with 230 women from the Afro-descendent communities in 10 municipalities in the south of Colombia. And they are leading a process in one of the most conflicted areas in the region, and they are defining a strategy that is a self-definition systems of protected areas within Afro-descendent communities that had already tied all their territories.
But they are doing the self-definition of protected areas from the community perspective and from the community self-governance systems as a way to contain not only conflict that affect highly women, but also ensure that the full application of their rights within their governance rights in their territory is in place and they had managed to create 15 community protected areas, integrating ecological socio-economic eco-systems and biodiversity systems that integrates a very good strategy on the ground. When we pay attention on what communities and what women on the ground are doing, we can help not only to make visible but to help those communities to make systemic changes on the ground.
James Persad [25:19] OK, thank you, Omaira.
Moving on to a style of leadership point that has been raised in this conversation around information sharing and the success of women at sharing information. Ritu, could I ask you to share your experience of how that’s been used in a technological way on some of the projects you're working on, please?
Ritu Bharadwaj [25:40] As you highlighted, technology... it can play a very critical role in enabling women to get access to information. But, quite often in the case of climate change space the climate information and focus can become very complex and difficult to understand – even for people like me who spend years in this space.
So we developed a tool called CRISP-M app, which is simple to use and makes climate information easy to understand and apply. And we delivered this to a people-driven approach, where we created a [26:12] women climate 'Sathis', as we call them, but in literal translation that would be ‘climate friends’, from among the community. And we trained them on the use of this app and we supported them with mentors.
And you can see... we could actually see how, what difference this technology, but also the information that this technology [26:31] to empowering women in those villages. So, armed with that information from the app, women climate Sathis, when we went and interviewed them, they said that, ‘Now when we go into the village meetings, people look at us with respect and awe, because we have information that others don’t have. But we don’t use that information to help ourselves, but we share it so that others can benefit from it’. Just purely simple access to that technology and the use of that app had much bigger shifts in that area.
So along with this use of CRISP-M app, the women, they started using and exploring other apps on the smartphone and they’re now making videos and uploading it on TikTok, they watch videos on YouTube, and learned to make recipes to make new food that they like for themselves and not just for their husbands.
So, as you rightly highlighted, James, that we can see the ripple effect of how small changes can drive bigger societal changes.
And I’ll also quote Ivonne who said ‘knowledge is power’. So accessing the internet has opened up the world to them, that world of knowledge to them. And more information is giving them more knowledge and more power, by which they’re actually not just changing their own situation, but changing the situation in the village in general.
James Persad [27:56] We’re coming to the end of the discussion.
Ivonne, coming to you first, if there was just one thing that you could do to increase the empowerment of women in leadership positions in climate change and biodiversity, what would that be, please?
Ivonne Higuero [28:11] [Laughs] thanks, James. I think it’s a collective push. I think as Omaira, Ritu and myself, we can do a lot, but if it’s not collective, if it’s not bringing on men on board as well, it’s difficult to make change. And I'm not talking only about at the international level, but at the national level, at a community level as well. We’ve heard some very good examples of how those changes need to happen at those other levels within the country to make a difference, to make a change.
And in my case, if it wouldn’t have been because the United Nations secretary-general decided that he wanted gender equality in high-level posts I wouldn’t be sitting here speaking to you. So definitely we need our male counterparts to be part of this push to include women and to ensure that we hear their voices.
James Persad [28:58] That’s terrific, thanks Ivonne.
Same question, if I may, to you Omaira. What’s the one thing you would focus on?
Omaira Bolaños [29:06] I think one of the major steps that we can take is to provide dedicated and sustained funding to allow women from the grassroots organisations on the local level to participate in different scenarios. And to make the changes and arrangements to allow for that participation to be effective, inclusive and a safe place for women from the local communities to be able to participate.
And that means to allow for women to talk in the way as an Indigenous, Afro-descendent local community, to provide interpretation in different languages, and for the organisers of events to understand what are the women that they are bringing to participate and give the same respect and status that will give to any other women from the global north.
James Persad [30:00] Thank you, Omaira.
Ritu, one thing, if you could change, what would it be?
Ritu Bharadwaj [30:06] I would say that the journey of all these woman leaders I talked about, it hasn’t been smooth. And for women to get where they want to be they have to walk five steps more, a mile extra, than their male counterpart. And in that sense, when I look around me, every woman is a leader. Because they still face barriers due to repressive, societal and institutional norms, but their efforts are transforming the system and making a difference.
And I would say that women… like, you asked me one, but I would say that women would need capacity, they would need support, and they would need encouragement. Right now these women that I talked about are making difference in small ways in their own society around them, but if we really want that transformation and impact to happen at that broader canvas, at that bigger level, we need to provide them support and encouragement and capacity and technology.
James Persad [31:01] Thank you, Ritu, and thanks to all three of you for demonstrating inspiring leadership and inspiring female leadership to the sectors that we work in.
Wrapping up now, yes, I’d like to thank Ritu Bharadwaj from the IIED, Omaira Bolaños from the Rights and Resources Initiative, and Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of CITES, for your inputs today on this really important conversation. Thank you so much.
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