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You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
One day you will be sick.
~Lima Niazi, Afghan Girl
I teach college writing at UC Berkeley, where part of my curriculum includes educating girls, especially in developing countries. My chief reason for doing so is that educating girls is a critical means of heading off climate change.
The book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, lists the top 100 methods we employ or should be employing to not only stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, but to begin drawing it down. On that list, at number 6 and 7, are educating girls and family planning, respectively. It’s Drawdown’s contention, however, that the two combined move up to number 1 because educated girls “are less likely to marry as children or against their will. They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria—the “social vaccine” effect. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished. They are more empowered at home, at work, and in society. An intrinsic right, education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It is the most powerful lever available for breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, while mitigating emissions by curbing population growth.”
The editor of Drawdown, Paul Hawken, is a tireless advocate for the health of the planet. His follow up book, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, takes it a step further: “There is a direct correlation between the number of women in elected offices and fairness, justice, and economic well-being.”
To introduce the importance of educating girls to my students, I write a single word on the board: Ecofeminism, which is exactly what it implies – a combination of feminist and ecological theories – and our study of ecofeminism begins with Wangari Maathai.
Maathai is best known for a series of firsts; first East African to earn a PhD (1971); the first female to become a professor in her native Kenya (1976), and the first African woman to earn a Nobel Prize (2004). These statistics, however, always piss me off, and I invariably ask my students Why? In five-odd years of teaching, only one, Ximena Flores, a Political Science major, has guessed correctly.
“Because…” I reply, “…why was she the first? Why not the fiftieth? Or the hundredth?”
I’d then go on to explain how Maathai, an advocate for democracy, women’s rights, and environmental conservation – a literal OG of tree huggers – put her Ph into her capital D by founding and overseeing The Green Belt Movement, in its turn responsible for the planting of 51 million trees in Kenya, particularly on lands that had been clear cut. Initially plagued with underfunding, male resistance, and time constraints, Maathai persisted, and was eventually awarded a measure of sustainable conservation for women in her country along with a little item called the Nobel Peace Prize.
“And all this from educating a single female Kenyan in the 1970s,” I continue. “What if they’d educated 100 Mathais, or 1000 or 10,000? How about 50,000 Somalian women with PhDs? 100,000 Congolese? A million Nigerians?
Today, there are over 129 million girls not in school worldwide. Some say we can’t afford to educate them all. My argument is that we can’t afford not to, and not just for obvious reasons – one of those girls might become the scientist who figures out how to practically produce controlled fusion, or suck gigatons of carbon from our atmosphere.
In similar thinking, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops,” and this is especially true of girls.
Colombia is also a passion of mine. Although I’ve been all over the country, Cali is the city I’m wont to haunt. Located in the Department of Valle del Cauca, it nestles nicely between two ranges of the Andes, the Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Central. Bordered by Río Cauca to the east, Cali is a beautiful city that moves with the fast-paced thrum of hummingbird wings.
My penchant for tree huggers brought me in contact with Sara Inés Lara. Originally from Cauca, she grew up in Cali and, like Maathai, is a born ecofeminist, as her website attests:
“In 2003, following her passion for nature and wildlife conservation, she became Executive Director of Fundación ProAves, a leading conservation organization in Colombia. Under her leadership, the organization established and managed 17 nature reserves to save endangered species. In 2004, Sara combined her love of nature with her drive to empower women and started the initiative Women for Conservation.” [W4C]
Colombia’s biodiversity is found mostly in cloud forests, so called because the Colombian Andes are usually swathed in puffs of cloud, as if trying to shield their treasures from the outside world, and with good reason. Under siege for decades by illegal mining, logging, and agricultural interests as well as coca and opium producers and their overzealous eradicators, its cloud forests are being chemically fumigated, clear-cut, and burned into extinction for mere pesos on a lousy dollar.
Lara’s daughter, Isabella Cortes Lara, is likewise a passionate ecologist. Working diligently to provide the women of Colombia with “…conservation education, environmentally sustainable economic opportunities, and access to health clinics and family planning,” there is also a hummingbird named for her. Eriocnemis isabellae, better known as the Gorgeted Puffleg, is endemic to Colombia.
Discovered by Isabella’s father, this critically endangered hummingbird is a Flagship Species, which is defined by the World Wildlife Fund as “…a species selected to act as an ambassador, icon or symbol for a defined habitat, issue, campaign or environmental cause,” the Puffleg’s fate is tied in with cloud forests as well as, in more than a metaphorical sense, the fate of the planet. Ten percent of the world’s biodiversity is located in Colombia. Ten fucking percent.
Likewise, Colombian girls are also a flagship species. Ambassadors for their people and habitat, saving these girls through education can help save the existing cloud forests while rehabilitating those destroyed or being destroyed.
I asked Lara over the phone last fall how W4C was doing, especially concerning Colombia’s ever-present violence. “There is a huge demand from women for education and family planning,” Lara said. “Women across Colombia have no access to birth control because of a lack of funding…. And when it comes to violence, women are more scared of having more babies than they are of terrorists.”
Like Lara, the Gorgeted Puffleg is also from Cauca, where violence against women, indigenous peoples, and the environment is rampant. An engineer by trade, Lara intuitively knows that an integral part of that environment is women. Case in point is Ninfa Carianil, a ranger of Águila Harpía ProAves, one of the last untouched rainforests in the Colombian Amazon. According to IUCN.org, “Ninfa… patrolled and protected the rainforest… [and] built strong links and relationships with the local community, earning their trust and encouraging their interest in its wildlife and conservation.”
In an email dated August 2021, Lara elaborated: “Our dream is to see more women like Ninfa empowered and allowed to flourish…. Isabella and I saw in Ninfa a great potential to be a protector of nature.” It goes without saying that Ninfa’s work would be impossible if she were saddled with too many children.
Cortes confirms this. On the Post-Growth Australia Podcast recorded last January, Cortes told the host: “The entire trajectory of a girl – of a woman’s life – is changed with having a child.” She then went on to agree with my above assertion that uneducated girls rob us of future ecofeminists in the form of naturalists, leaders, doctors, scientists, engineers, et al, not to mention the innovations they might produce.
Cortes describes herself as “a muralist, artist, dancer, singer, and activist,” and seems to be the abstract half of her more practical mother. Lara founded and now directs both Fundación ProAves and W4C, while Cortes is co-founder and president of the latter.
An outspoken proponent of the planet, Cortes is full of passion, as noted in an email from March 11, “I would like to share this news with you about our recent event in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta…. Kelly Julio Donado received a prize commemorating her dedication to the women of the Sierra Nevada by the Mayor of Santa Marta.”
The event was an Entrepreneurship Fair, “La Sierra es Mujer.” Held appropriately on March 5, International Women’s Rights Day, the fair promoted sustainable livelihoods for women, the protection of biodiversity through environmental instruction, and the obligatory sexual education and family planning.
Both women know that educating locals on the importance of conservation is crucial. Clearcutting or slashing-and-burning cloud forests seems profitable at first, but the long-term damage is incalculable, and not just in the loss of biodiversity. Deforestation – a main contributor to climate change – is also responsible for rampant flooding, landslides and, as in Central America, drought, this last largely to blame for our border dilemma.
Moreover, there’s money to be made in ecotourism. Lara confirmed to me that Colombia is a birding paradise. “Many of the young researchers that worked with ProAves (15 years ago) are now owners of their own birding companies.” In short, both educating women and wildlife preservation can be profitable, in more ways than one. Education that leads to modest means of support wins us allies in hard-to-reach areas.
But like the Greenbelt Movement and indeed most nonprofits geared toward environmental solutions, W4C is chronically underfunded and moreover subject to the whims of fluid political dynamics. Despite this, we can, for nominal amounts of money, easily establish armies of educated ecofeminists as protectors of the most vital resources on the planet.
Educated girls can also, of course, take other avenues. Consider Diana Trujillo, a flight director on NASA’s Mars Lander Perseverance. At just 17, she arrived in the United States from Cali, Colombia, with just $300. According to Christopher Brito of CBS News, “Part of the reason she wanted to get into the space field was to prove some family members wrong.”
“I wanted my – especially the males of my own family – to recognize that women add value… it came from wanting to prove to them that we matter.”
The article also acknowledges that only 8% of STEM personnel are Hispanic, and only 2% women. “The more hers there are, the more engineers and scientists that are Latin are out there, the more chances we have for those kids to have la chispa, where they say, ‘I want to be that,’” Trujillo adds, in typical Women-for-Conservation fashion.
Imagine, then, millions upon millions of Diana Trujillos, planted like trees in the fertile soils of their own countries, growing sturdily into scientists, mathematicians, biologists, conservationists, artists, poets, marketers, and businesswomen, with feminists and ecologists in the vanguard. That is the vision of ecofeminists like Wangari Maathai, Sara Lara, Isabella Cortes, and many others.
And the alternative? Every single girl denied an education is a felled tree in fields upon fields of felled trees. And who is it standing over them with hammers and hatchets? With axes and chainsaws? Who is piloting those monstrous yellow earthmovers and banking billions from the grotesquely simulcast rape of Mother Earth, and what can possibly be done about it? Perhaps Wangari Maathai said it best in her Peace Prize acceptance speech: “Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system…. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.”
Peace, however, takes many forms. We must stretch the concept of passivity beyond mere nations to a planet-wide truce with nature. Guaranteeing our children’s inheritance, after all, is the ultimate in peace prizes.
Copyright 2023 Matthew J. Parker
Matthew J. Parker teaches writing at UC Berkeley.
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I’ve sent this to my ecofeminist niece, who works for 350.org and is thinking a lot about the rest of the world. Thank you for a tremendously thoughtful piece. Am I correct in inferring that you are teaching writing through thematic studies? I did that with twelve-year-olds, and would love to know more about how you are doing that with college students–if you are.
The theme of my class is natural rights, so, yes. The description is below:
This class will look at inalienable/natural rights, their evolution through the centuries and the ways in which churches, states, and private entities have tried and are still trying to usurp them. Progress, even in our liberal democracy, is slow and often accompanied by nationalist blowback. The end of slavery, for instance, led to the black codes, the convict leasing system, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow, and the militarization of police to enforce alcohol, drug, and sex worker prohibitions.
The second half of the semester will examine how denial of natural rights exacerbates the biggest threat to our existence, climate change, and how the extension of even a modicum of these liberties, like educating girls worldwide, can help to reverse it.
Thanks, Matthew. It sounds like a fascinating class. I envy your students.
Yes to another brilliant essay. This, however, says it all. It’s brilliant:
You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
One day you will be sick.
~Lima Niazi, Afghan Girl
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Yes, Matthew brings a lot of experience and passion to his essays.
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