Natural Disasters, Climate Change Uproot Women of Color

Natural Disasters, Climate Change Uproot Women of Color

by Jacqui Patterson

Curly Topsy, Topsy Curly; ©Emma Amos

The effects of climate change threaten everyone, but they do not threaten all people equally. Women are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, which are on the increase, as they experience higher rates of mortality, morbidity and post-disaster diminishment in their livelihoods.

This pattern of disproportionate impact is echoed the world over, and it is where race, gender, class and climate change intersect.

In the U.S., the women affected come in a wide swath — every color, every ethnicity, every part of the country. In Michigan, a Latina is suffering from a rare form of cancer because of exposure to toxins from a coal burning plant. In Louisiana, an African American woman is being uprooted from the only home she knows because of the shrinking shoreline, while an Inuit woman in Alaska is being forced to move herself and her family to the mainland from her home of 20 years, also due to disappearing lands. In California, an Asian nail salon worker faces exposure to toxins from her livelihood, and in Arizona, a Native American woman struggles with her sacred land being defiled by those extracting water because of diminishing supply. And the faces of the women displaced during Hurricane Katrina are etched into memory, matched by those who are still recovering from violence in the Superdome and loss of homes, families, property and pets. The stories of women of color affected in the U.S. are being posted online by Women of Color United. (See Sidebar.)

On The Road for Environmental Justice

Because experiences of women of color related
to climate change are often hidden and invisible,
 Women of Color United set out on the “Women
of Color for Climate Justice Road Tour” in the
U.S. in September 2009 to uplift women’s stories.
Traveling to 20 states, the road tour is profiling
women of color who are experiencing differential
impact, are involved in local self reliance
campaigns and are undertaking efforts to resist
negative environmental developments. The
stories bridge the struggles of women in the U.S.
with those of women worldwide. The “Women of
Color for Climate Justice Road Tour” is being
undertaken in partnership with Women’s
Environment and Development Organization 
the Environmental Justice and Climate Change
Initiative, and the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Here are some of the women we’ve met along
the way, including links to video interviews:

Elouise Brown lives in Newcomb, NM, a primarily
Navajo community with a population of 387
inhabitants. Elouise has fought a long battle
against the proposed building of the third coal-fired
power plant, Desert Rock Plant, within a 50 mile
radius of her community. Already community
members are suffering from rare illnesses from
the existing plants. Amid protests from the
companies seeking to build, harassment
and vandalization of their property, and
opposition from the president of the Navajo Nation,
the “Dooda Desert Rock Initiative (No Desert Rock) 
successfully gained an Environmental Protection
Agency intervention. The EPA is requiring the plant
to prove that it will meet stringent air quality standards
before building. Elouise is confident this proof will not
be possible, so she and community members are
celebrating their victory in prevailing, and they exude
a vibrant model of resistance.

Evonne Singletary lives in Pittsburgh, PA in a
cooperative city block that operates the 
Landslide Community Farm. Evonne is a young
African American woman who grows 70 percent
of what she eats and also coordinates community
projects to benefit those who are less privileged. 
She attests to the power and importance of living
cooperatively. She is living testament to the option of
“living off the land,” even in a dense urban area that
overlooks the highway! The Landslide community
is a model of local self reliance.

Tam Nguyen lives in Oakland, CA and
works with Asian Communities for Reproductive
Justice. Based on the work of Tam and her colleagues,
ACRJ has recently published a report, entitled “Looking
Both Ways,” and which analyzes the intersection of
climate change and reproductive justice. Tam
coordinates the POLISH project, in which she facilitates
organizing by nail salon workers. She says that the
workers stand at the nexus of climate change and
human impact, both in terms of the impact of climate
change on people and how people impact the climate.
Tam is Vietnamese, as are most of the women with
whom she organizes. The products that the nail salon
workers use are toxic to their bodies, as well as to the
environment. With Tam’s help, the workers are
coming together to change their working conditions
and expose these toxins.

Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan lives in Berkeley,
CA with her young daughter and husband.
Michelle’s family has grown a garden with
a bountiful variety and volume of fruit,
vegetables and herbs, as well as a chicken run
that yields a dozen eggs per week. They use
manure from the chickens to fertilize the garden
and have just installed a “gray water system”
by which waste water is used to water the crops.
They have taken down the fence between themselves
and their neighbor and they share space and crops.
In their neighborhood they use a tool library where
people go to borrow power tools for projects
and return them for use of all. Michelle, a woman
of Indian descent, dreams of a time when all fences
come down and people learn to live cooperatively
and conserve and re-use resources. Michelle
works on ecology justice with Movement
Generation for Change.

Observations from the Women of Color for Climate
Justice tour will be on our blog, and video profiles
are being posted to Our YouTube channel.

Around the world, women are also disproportionately affected by rapidly changing climate conditions. Climate change has been linked to an increase in “natural disasters.” Climatic changes result in a variety of direct problems, including increased frequency of extreme weather events, flooding, storms, drought, the transformation of habitable land to desert or “desertification,” increases in sea temperatures, heat and cold waves, the melting of glaciers and permafrost. Since 1990, more than 90 percent of “natural disasters” have occurred in poor countries.

Globally, 70 percent of people living below the poverty line are women, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Women are likely to be disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change in impoverished countries and communities that are highly dependent on local natural resources.

Recent disasters have shown us that the rates of mortality during disasters are considerably higher for women. During the Asian tsunami of 2004, Oxfam determined that three times as many women died as men. In the cyclone and flood of 1991 in Bangladesh, the death rate for women was almost five times higher than men, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Gender-specific health impacts of extreme weather events include mental stress arising from providing emotional care during and after the crises, according to a report, “Gender and Natural Disasters,” released by the International Labour Organization, as well as increased exposure to domestic violence.

Many other issues affecting women of color flow from the effects of climate change.

In Africa alone, a 30 percent reduction in rain fed forests is expected by the year 2020, according to the Africa Partnership Forum 2008. Women are more likely to starve during food shortages because they are the last to eat and get the least nutritious portion in times of feast or famine. Additionally, in conflicts – and conflicts over climate change and the competition for resources are predicted to increase — women are adversely affected by the exposure to violence, murder and rape, as well as the loss of property and livelihood.

As described by Betsy Hartmann in The ‘New’ Population Control Craze in this edition of On The Issues Magazine, climate change is a growing theme in discussions on population and development.

The threat of a reversal of progress in the roles of women and girls has direct and rippling effects. Girls’ access to education and women’s pursuit of livelihoods are hindered, perpetuating subservient roles for women as they become further consumed with reproductive tasks.

While communities of color globally will be disproportionately disadvantaged by the impacts of climate change, women of color and their communities are the least responsible for the rampant consumption and emissions that are driving climate change. The leadership of women of color, along with the stories of their experiences, is largely missing from the climate debate. But their existence, perspectives and expertise are at the very core of a justice agenda that needs to be advanced.

Jacqui Patterson is an activist, organizer, researcher and policy analyst for social justice and specializes in issues of women’s rights, economic justice, racial justice, public health, violence against women, HIV/AIDS, and environmental/climate justice. Jacqui is the Co-Founder and Coordinator of Women of Color United, as well as the Director of the NAACP Climate Gap Initiative.

Also see “Stimulating Social Change, Then and Now” by Suzanne Pharr in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See ”The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go” by Betsy Hartmann in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.