RECLAIMING THE SANITY AGENDA: Women Speak Out to Save The Earth 

RECLAIMING THE SANITY AGENDA: Women Speak Out to Save The Earth 

By Elayne Clift

Women from around the world meet in Florida to challenge the powers that be.

QUOTABLE QUOTES “If women are to ‘clean up the mess,’ they have a right to challenge the people and institutions which create the problems.” —Peggy Antrobus, WAND and DAWN, Barbados

“We are here to say that no country, whether it is a great economic power, a developing nation, or a nation in chaotic transition, has the right to call itself a democracy when it denies equal participation in policy-making to women.” —Bella Abzug, Co-chair, WEDO, New York

QUOTABLE QUOTES “We must live simply so that others may simply live.” —Margaret Peace, journalist, New Zealand

“There are so many people talking about the planet and how to save it. And so few taking action to make sure that happens. Talking or acting? That is the challenge.” —Mangan Maathai, The Greenbelt Movement, Kenya

“Women must stand united and resolve to carry the day in Rio and beyond.” —Dr. Mostafa K. Tolba, Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme

“Women are constantly being told that their analysis is political hysteria.” —Vandana Shwa, Physicist and Author, India

QUOTABLE QUOTES “Only those who have fought for the right to protect their own bodies from abuse can truly understand the rape and plunder of our forests, rivers and soils.” —Margarita Arias, Candidate for President, Costa Rica

“When environmental protection work becomes an income-generating activity, men take over from women.” —Marilyn Carr, UNIFEM, United Kingdom

“The current state of the world is the result of a system that attributes little or no value to peace. It pays no heed to the preservation of national resources, or to the labour of the majority of its inhabitants, or to their unpaid work, not to mention their maintainance and care. This system cannot respond to values it refuses to recognize.” —Marilyn Waring, Former MP, New Zealand

QUOTABLE QUOTES “In 1991, the Gulf War created a new wave of refugees and indescribable human pain, cruelty and suffering. In the history of the second millenium, it will be remembered as the gravest ecological disaster ever engendered by men.” —Magda Renner, Vice President, Women’s Federation of Rio Grande do Sol, Brazil

They came because of the “jellyfish babies” — amorphous blobs being born to women of the Solomon Islands as a result of nuclear testing. They came because of the street children in Brazil, who it is said will likely be murdered in an effort to clean up the streets for next year’s Earth Summit meeting. They came because of Chernobyl and Bhopal and the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf War. They came because of famine and pollution and deforestation and global warming, and because “there are no Third World people,” and because “women will not continue to save the planet free of charge.” And while they spoke in different languages, and not always with one voice, their message was clear: “We are here to say that this mad race toward self-destruction must stop…and that the overwhelming exclusion of women from national and international decision-making, their exclusion from economic and political power, must end.”

Those words, delivered passionately by Bella Abzug, co-founder of the Women’s Foreign Policy Council, opened the spirited World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet, convened in Miami November 8 -12,1991, by an International Policy Action Committee (IPAC) and Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) to ensure that women’s voices are heard next June. That is when the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), or Earth Summit, takes place in Brazil. The conference is expected to draw heads of states from approximately 160 nations, making it the largest summit meeting ever held. Women are conspicuously absent from the agenda.

If the 1500 women who attended the Congress have their way, that will change, as will policies that affect development and the environment. In a 12-page summary document presented to Mr. Maurice Strong, Secretary General of UNCED, at the closing plenary, women’s priorities were clear. The Women’s Action Agenda 21 calls for specific acts to address diversity and solidarity, debt and trade, ethics, land rights and food security, biotechnology and biodiversity, information and education, women, militarism and the environment, science and technology, consumer ethics and action, new institutions, population, women’s rights and health. “In a world in which nature and women are systematically exploited by a so-called ‘free market’ ideology,” the document states: “There can be no environmental security….We equate lack of political and individual will among world leaders, the great majority of whom are men, with a lack of basic morality and spiritual values and an absence of responsibility towards future generations.”

That values-based analysis was reinforced in the keynote address of Margarita Arias, Presidential candidate from Costa Rica. “Something is seriously wrong with our civilization’s values when the funds required to purchase five modern bombers would be sufficient to prevent 10 million infant deaths….The cost of a Worldwide Vaccination Program is equivalent to one week of the interest payments on the Third World’s foreign debt. But the industrialized world expects its payment on time, while demanding better environmental policies from governments of developing countries.”

Structural adjustment policies and issues related to trade and debt loomed large in both the formal “tribunal” presided over by distinguished women jurists from Guyana, Kenya, Australia, Sweden, and India, and in the less formal workshops where participants brought their own experience to bear. “A free market economy is the myth of freedom,” Indian physicist and writer Vandana Shiva declared. “It is riddled with contradiction. It is the ultimate ideology of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) who are promoting structural adjustment policies (SAP) so as to create a superstate on behalf of transnational corporations (TNCs), at the very same time that states are being dismantled!”

The World Bank, the IMP, and GATT are the world’s dominant economic institutions, and they are controlled by the U.S. and the North. Many people, especially those from developing nations, believe that if these institutions are put in charge of implementing UNCED decisions, it will be impossible to resolve environmental and development issues. At the so-called Uruguay Round of the GATT (which broke down), for example, there was an attempt to allow TNCs to enter every country in the Third World and to act independently. The concensus view among women at the Congress, loud and clear, was that international economic institutions must be democratized and changed, and that they must be made publicly accountable. Without that, UNCED will fail to bring about sustainable development and will have no legitimacy. This view was articulated last August as well at a Third-World-Network forum convened to ponder these issues.

The opinions of two participants at that forum, Chakravarthi Raghavan and Martin Khor, are worth noting. Raghavan pointed out, for example, that “what is holding up change is the concentrations of power. What we see is the North calling for democracy in Third World countries but refusing to democratize the international order.” Khor concurred. “Environmental problems are not something that can be overcome by small adjustments to the industrial system.” (Third World Resurgence, No. 14/15)

How does this translate into the everyday lives of women? Meenakshi Raman of Malaysia, a member of the Third World Network, gave this testimony at the Women’s Congress: “In a little village in my country, a long battle continues where women lead a fight against a Japanese joint-venture company producing and dumping radioactive wastes. Mothers have suffered miscarriages, children are born with birth defects, others suffer from leukemia. In the interior of the Sarawak rainforests, native women and men try to defend their land and forests from the rapacious logging industry. In parts of our country, women tenant farmers fight to defend their farms and homes against the onslaught of developers. And in rubber and oil plantations, a legacy of our colonial past, many of our women are exposed daily to poor working conditions, including pesticide poisonings. There is a lot of talk about saving the tropical rain forest,” Raman told a press conference, “but if the Northern governments are not prepared to compensate Third World nations to offset the incomes they derive from the sale of logs, who is going to share the economic burden of adjusting our commodity-oriented programs?” (Malaysia has threatened to boycott the June meeting in Brazil.)

New Zealand’s Marilyn Waring, a farmer, author, and former Member of Parliament whose book If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics has challenged national systems of accounting, emphasized that development cannot be equated with economic growth. It is wrong too, she pointed out, to transform the environment into a commodity to be bought, sold and regulated at the whim of the free-market system. “There is no market value that can be attributed to the ecosystem,” she declared. “It is an utterly corrupt, death-valuing system,” she argued to resounding applause.

Peggy Antrobus, a founder of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) and Director of Women and Development at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, urged the conference participants to make the necessary links for challenging the status quo. “It seems to me that one of the causes for stalemate in the debate on environment so far has been the failure of the chief negotiators of both North and South to make the connections, to recognize the contradictions between the promotion of the free market and free trade, and environmental protection. I think it must be one of the primary tasks of women to make these connections and to draw attention to these contradictions.” We can begin, she said, by asking critical questions. For example, what were the processes that drove so many of the world’s women to struggle for existence on marginal, ecologically vulnerable land in the first place? What are the processes which lead to the poisoning of the earth, water, air, with toxic wastes, pesticides, and other harmful industrial products? What are the processes which lead to the exploitation of humankind and nature in the interest of profits? “Without answers to these questions,” she said, “our ‘solutions’ to environmental problems will be to no avail. We must link the experience of women — their daily struggles to survive — with the macro-economic policies which impact on every aspect of our lives.”

In a compelling case against the military-industrial complex, Rosalie Bertell of the Torontobased International Institute of Concern for Public Health reminded the audience that most of the chemicals introduced during the Vietnam War are now being deployed in the civilian sector. “Let’s be very clear,” she admonished. “The problem is not underarm deodorants!” Bertell, a medical researcher specializing in environmentallyrelated cancers and birth defects, charged that the military is largely responsible for the greenhouse effect and global warming. In her formal presentation, she said that the ravages of preparation for war were largely hidden by governments “in the name of national security.” Nuclear pollution is both global and massive, she declared, proposing that nations be rated with respect to five areas: Their natural environment, their value systems, political systems, resource distribution, and human-development systems.

Food security and global homelessness were also on the agenda of the Congress. In moving testimony, Magda Renner, a Brazilian activist, spoke of the “gravest ecological disaster ever engendered by men” — the Gulf War — and of the 15 million refugees in the world today, 75 percent of whom are women and children. “Today there is a new category of homeless people, mainly in Third World countries, and even where no wars in the traditional sense were fought. These are the victims of the materialistic, mechanistic, economistic development model born in Europe with the Industrial Revolution.” Of food security, Ruth Bamela Engo-Tjega, a founding member of UN African Mothers Association said, “While food aid is often a necessity, it is not the answer for food security, which is food locallyproduced, processed and stored, so that it is available year after year, despite natural or human-caused famine. Food strategies are needed worldwide, not only for survival, but for environmental reasons, and so that we eat, but not at the expense of the next generation.”

Population and reduced consumption by the North were frequent topics during the numerous workshops and caucuses that took place after each morning Tribunal. And in what was perhaps one of the most chilling analyses connected to production and reproduction, Vandana Shiva, whose special interest is biotechnology, talked about the manipulation of women’s bodies and of “the seed from the grain” and of how they speak to future threats. “Patriarchal world views in all their variation, from the ancient to the modern, from East to West, share one common assumption: They are based on the removal of life from the earth, on the separation of the earth from the seed, and on the association of an inert and empty earth with the passivity of the female.” This perspective becomes less esoteric when applied to farming practices in which seed has been separated from its grain and becomes mere raw material for the production of corporate seed as commodity. The natural regeneration of biodiversity is thus interrupted. “For the first time, the human race has produced seed that cannot cope on its own, but needs to be placed within an artificial environment for growth and output. The whole is rendered partial, the partial is rendered whole. Commoditized seed is ecologically incomplete and ruptured at two levels: It does not reproduce itself, and it does not produce by itself. It is this shift from the ecological processes of reproduction to the technological processes of production that underlies both the problem of dispossession of farmers and of genetic erosion.” Shiva is deeply worried about patent protection for modified life forms and its implications for valuing life and work. “The colonization of life will be complete when we allow the technological mind-set to colonize our minds and allow technological means to be viewed as ends of human choice. In biotechnology, the science of means is being pushed into the womb and the seed pool to transform the conception of life itself.”

Such thinking clearly presents a formidable challenge to policymakers around the globe. For women, the remaining challenge is to see that our voices are heard when those policymakers convene in Brazil, and beyond.

Elayne Cllft is a journalist specializing in women, health, environment and international development issues.


More than 500 women from 70 countries attended the Global Assembly of Women and the Environment, convened by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and WorldWIDE Network, Inc., a Washington, D.C.based, non-profit organization of women environmental activists, just prior to the World Women’s Congress. The invitational Assembly, designed to showcase women’s successes as environmental managers worldwide, focused on water, waste, energy, and environmentally-friendly systems. More than 200 success stories were shared and a series of workshops allowed for interaction between presenters, “mentors” (academicians, donor representatives, foundations, UN agencies), and “new generation leaders” (feminist students committed to the environment and women’s agenda). Assembly resolutions and reports will be shared with UNEP and UNCED. Particular emphasis will be given to the fact that “PrepCom 3” — the third preparatory meeting prior to Brazil’s Earth Summit — called for the participation of women in decision-making and management at local and international levels.


“Water-born pathogens account for 80 percent of all disease in developing countries and for 90 percent of the 13 million child deaths per year….Water-related disease is acute in urban communities. In 1985 at least 25 percent of urban communities and 58 percent of rural communities were without clean water for sanitation needs. Women and children, as water carriers in many societies, are in constant touch with polluted water and thus are among the most vulnerable to these diseases….In addition to these more ‘traditional’ health problems, development projects have dramatically altered the balances between populations and other biotic factors to exacerbate the problem.” —Soon-Young Yoon, iCWomen and Children First,” UNCED


“We must develop an ecocentric perspective as we proceed on the road to sustainable development. We urgently need to advance the industrial revolution by moving towards ‘clean technologies.’ The inability of the manufacturing processes to detoxify their products has created the waste crisis. The other action that is urgently required is for the environmentalists to work in close collaboration with the industrial/manufacturing sector to determine the long-term ecological impact of a particular product or process prior to their mass production.” —Beverly A. Miller, UNEP/Caribbean Environment Programme


“Because women’s time and energy are finite quantities, planners of energy projects should have a good understanding of how these quantities are used before embarking on detailed project design. If we accept that ‘the real energy crisis is women’s time’ (Tinker, 1987), one of the main criteria to judge the merits of an energy project should be whether it will enable women to use their time in the best manner. More than one project has produced disappointing results because it failed to recognize women’s priorities.” —Maurizia Tovo, Sociologist, The World Bank


“We need to change our consumption and production patterns themselves. Preventing pollution, so that it doesn’t become transferred from water to air to land and back again, is more environmentally and cost effective than end-of-pipe treatments. What we really need is processes and products which are designed to save on energy and raw material resources while at the same time prevent waste and pollution, from the moment they are conceived and designed, through production, up until their components are returned to the environment.” —Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel, UNEPIIndustry& Environment


SOME FRIGHTENING FACTS The UN estimates that there are now over 15 million refugees in the world, nearly the total population of Australia: 6.8 million are in Asia; 4.6 million in Africa; more than 1 million in North America; and more than 1 million in Latin America. Approximately 1 million are in Europe and Oceania. At least 75 percent are women and children.

Since July, 1945, about 1900 nuclear bombs have been exploded in the atmosphere and underground. The explosive force of” these tests totals about 40,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, which was itself 1,000 times the force of a World War II blockbuster.

Since 1988, of Africa’s millions of inhabitants, 100 million lack food security, and 30 million people in six countries face direct starvation. An estimated 9,000 deaths occur daily in Africa due to malnourishment.

If present world trends continue, by the year 2,000 one-third of the world’s productive land will have eroded; a million species will be annihilated; a billion more people will compete for resources; and the world’s climate will change, with enormous and unknown consequences for all.

Every year 15 million acres of farmland are lost while another 50 million acres lose their productive capacity. Tropical forests are disappearing at the rate of nearly an acre a second. Ten trees are being cut for every one planted.

Nearly two billion people have inadequate drinking water, and three billion lack proper sanitation. Pollutants in U.S. drinking water (e.g.; arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium) are responsible for health problems from cancer to birth defects.


At first glance, petite Tuenjai Oeetes seems unlikely to have started a selfhelp farming movement in Thailand. But when she speaks, her energy and quiet determination reveal what motivated the founder of the Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF). For decades, she explains, hill tribes from Burma have been fleeing ethnic hardship, settling along the borders of Thailand. Overcrowding in the areas they inhabit, slash and burn agriculture, and cash cropping had resulted in poor food crops, forcing people to abandon the barren land and migrate to more fertile soil. Through HADF, “alley cropping” and “sloping land agriculture technology” have been adopted and now the horizontal contours of the land are rich with crops, bushes and trees. Says a smiling Tuenjai Deetes, “It was the women who made a difference.”

Industry accountability drove Tania Tavares of Brazil to organize students and scientists to research problems, develop data and guide local authorities toward necessary action. As a result of the work done by the University of Bahia group, a lead metallurgy plant, which had been operating without proper emission controls, has had to adopt more environmentally responsible emissions guidelines. It has also had to be responsible for the medical needs of the affected population, ultimately lowering the lead and cadmium levels disbursed into the community.

Brenda Killian of California believes in “people power.” An effective consumer advocate, she is Associate Director of the Dolphin Project of the Earth Island Institute, founded in 1982. The Project called for consumer boycotts of tuna and ran newspaper ads urging H.J. Heinz, the largest producer of canned tuna, to end the “dolphin massacre.” Last April, Heinz, Bumble Bee and Van Camp announced the suspension of purchase of dolphinunsafe tuna.

When Grace Faeye of Nigeria was a child, her job was to fetch the firewood. “I told my mother that when I grew up, I would find a way not to have to fetch the wood.” Faoye designed a gas stove using local technology and available materials. She took her design to a local metal worker and the rest, as they say, is history. More than 1,000 stoves have been sold since 1988 and women using the stoves have substantially reduced the amount of firewood used for cooking.

Eva Lian Takle is the youngest mayor in Norway. She is also one of the most active. Realizing that local planning and administration was developed and implemented in Ramnes without the participation of women or consideration of environmental concerns, she organized a government pilot program in which women’s committees were formed to take an active role in municipal planning from a women’s perspective. “We simply said to the women, what do you want your municipality to be like in the year 2000? With the women’s input, we came up with a win-win situation.”


1. Lobby your legislators and the United Nations. Remind them that “PrepCom 3” (preparatory meeting for UNCED) mandated that women be included in Agenda 21.

2. Learn what international standards have been developed to preserve and protect the environment. The most basic standard is the World Conservation Strategy — Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development 1990, available from the UN Environment Programme.

3. Monitor your community. Are environmental laws in place and enforced? Write letters of support if so, condemnation if not. If you’re a stockholder in a company that violates standards of environmental responsibility, write to directors and officers to make your views known.

4. Do an inventory of your own buying and using habits. Reuse, recycle, renew! Practice an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, including buying products that do not harm the environment.

5. Celebrate and draw attention to such events as Earth Day (April 21), World Environment Day (June 5), and Arbor Day (last Friday in April). Use such milestones as political rallying points within your community and beyond.

ORGANIZATIONS The Green Library Box 5120 S-220 05 LUND Sweden Contact: Ninna Widstrand

Greenpeace Action 1436 U St. NW, No. 201A Washington, DC 20009 202-462-8817

GROOTS International (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood) c/o Caroline Pezzullo One Sherman Sq. #27L New York, NY 10023 Fax 212-799-5161

World Watch Institute 1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW Washington, DC 10036 202-452-1999

Friends of the Earth International 26-28 Underwood St. London Nl 7JQ, UK Fax 44 071 490-0881

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