Why climate change is about women: Bolivia in a global context
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.' 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. ‘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.’ 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. The 2013 IPCC report also identified increased migration as a future expectation of climate change impacts on human security. 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.
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. 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.