7 Historic Women in the Environmental Movement

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Nobel Peace Prize Winner  Wangari Maathai talks about her views on GMOs and women's rights in an interview. Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by  e pants on Flickr.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai talks about her views on GMOs and women’s rights in an interview.
Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by e pants on Flickr.

This month marked the 100th year celebration of International Women’s Day. In recognition of women’s role in protecting the environment, here are several historic female leaders and voices who have made a point and made their mark in the environmental movement.

Rachel Carson is one of the most prominent names in the Western environmental movement as a brave voice who proclaimed a loud message through her book Silent Spring. Carson, a marine biologist, wrote the book criticizing the use of chemical pesticides like DDT. The book gave solid evidence regarding the hazards of chemical pesticides and their hazardous effect on animals’ natural populations. Silent Spring was also one of the first to observe a correlation between chemical pesticides, cancer, and pest resistance. The Chemical Heritage Foundation credits Carson’s work as critical to the eventual banning of DDT in 1972. Rachel Carson is considered to be instrumental in the birth of modern environmentalism in United States.

Wangari Maathai holds the distinction of being the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and an environmentalist to boot. Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement in her country Kenya, where she fought against industrial projects that will destroy natural resources if allowed to continue unchecked. The Green Belt Movement is a non government organization that empowers local women to replant trees and reduce deforestation, creating jobs in the process. Millions of trees have thus since been planted and survived thanks to Maathai’s and GBM’s efforts.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was featured in Times’ Heroes of the Environment issue in October 2008. An Inuit native, Watt-Cloutier bravely spoke out for her people’s culture and lifestyle being impacted by climate change driven ice melt in the Arctic. In United Nations negotiations to ban poisonous chemicals that build up in the waters of the Acrtic, Watt-Cloutier was one of the leading voices. Watt-Cloutier stresses that people will connect to the human aspect of climate change more than to its scientific, economic, or technical aspects. Watt-Cloutier believes the issue of climate change should be moved from the head to the heart.

Marina Silva and Cristina Narbona Ruiz both took a stand as Environment Ministers in their respective countries, even at the risk of making political enemies. Silva has the distinction of being the first rubber tapper in the Senate of Brazil in 1994, fighting deforestation of the Amazon at grassroots level. She became Brazil’s Environment Minister in 2003. Silva fought hard for years against leaders in Brazil’s industry and politics who prioritized development in the Amazon at the expense of the environment. However, it was an increasingly losing battle and Silva resigned in protest in May 2008. Environmentalists were grieved but Silva went on to continue serving in the Senate, continuing the fight for her country’s natural heritage.
Cristina Narbona Ruiz took the position of Spain’s Minister of the Environment in 2004. She is credited with implementing policies that helped Spain gain important ground in renewable energy. Narbona Ruiz also made crucial progress in protecting Spain’s beaches by limiting construction projects on Spanish coastlines. Along with praises from the environment movement came enemies from the business sector. In 2008, Narbona Ruiz lost her post. But like counterpart in Brazil, this courageous woman continues the fight as Spain’s ambassador in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Both Marina Silva and Cristina Narbona Ruiz have shown that women can make a difference for their natural environment not only in the home but also in the political arena, for the good of their nation and their fellow people.

Marina Rikhvanova is a scientist by profession but she made her mark with her efforts to protect the world’s largest body of fresh water, Siberia’s Lake Baikal. The freshwater lake is home to more than 1,500 animal and plant species along with the world’s 20% unfrozen freshwater reserves. However, a huge industrial mill threatened Lake Baikal’s thriving ecosystem by supposedly releasing harmful chemicals into its waters. Rikhvanova, who as a child explored the lake, co-founded the non government organization Baikal Environmental Wave (BEW) to harness grassroots level support against the industrial mill. The organization is considered one of the first major environmental movements in the Soviet Union. BEW gathered signatures and held protests against the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper mill. The organizations’ efforts influenced the decision of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to publicly order the rerouting of an oil pipeline that would skirt Lake Baikal in 2006. The fight against the industrial mill has cost the organization and Rikhvanova alleged harassment and equipment seizure from Russian state authorities. Rikhvanova also says the arrest of her son is an attempt to discredit her campaign. But for this woman with a mission, the fight for her country’s natural treasures continues.

Jurgenne Primavera doesn’t want you to stop eating shrimp tempura or give up shrimp cocktails, but she wants you to enjoy them through sustainable fish farming that spare mangrove forests. While aquaculture revolutionized the way the world consumes seafood, it also has exacted a heavy toll on mangrove forests when they are cleared to make way for aqua farming. In 1970s Primavera’s study on shrimp life cycle led to improvements on aquaculture. She also studied the effects of poorly managed aqua farms on mangrove forests in her native Philippines, and the resulting loss of their crucial ecological role as buffer zones between the sea and land. Mangroves act as nursery for wild fish, barriers against typhoons and tsunamis, and help against land erosion among other key ecological roles. Primavera recommends a four to one ratio of mangroves to aqua farms in order to ensure the survival of the mangroves and their many ecological benefits.

From writing books to locking horns in the political arena, from caring about local mangroves to winning the Nobel Peace Prize, women are invaluable voices of the environmental movement. Their commitment to fight for and protect their country’s natural heritage stems primarily not from technical principles or economic equations, but from a compassionate heart. And more than a compassionate heart, it takes courage to step up and speak out about the true long term cost of destroying the environment for short term gains. This historic  month of the 100th International Women’s Day, we honor all the women environmentalists of compassion and courage all over the world.


Who are your inspirational women environmentalists? Share your thoughts with us at The Environmental Blog Forum.

Estel M.
About Estel M. (339 Posts)

Estel Grace Masangkay is a creative writer who enjoys outdoor trips and nature activities. She is passionate about sustainability and environment conservation. Follow Me @Em23me.

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