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Q&A On Key Issues

An Interview with Yifat Susskind, Communications Director of MADRE – Q&A with Anna Lappé
January 2008

I first heard about Yifat Susskind’s organization, MADRE, when I was working in New York City just after college at Nontraditional Employment for Women. (The fun part of the job was getting to answer the phone by saying, “Nontraditional!”). I was impressed then with the organization’s ability to connect the dots between women’s rights, democracy, poverty, and social change. I first met Yifat when we were both on a panel convened by Laura Flanders to help viewers of her program dissect the root causes of the food price crisis earlier this year. I was impressed then with Yifat’s analysis, and her reminder to all of us about how women the world over are disproportionately impacted by crises – whether they be food crises or the climate crisis.

She was kind enough to respond to my questions about the new work MADRE is doing to put women front and center in the conversations about the climate crisis.

Climate change is no longer theoretical. We see its affects on the ground. Can you talk about what you’ve observed in your work around the globe? How are poor people being more affected by the climate crisis?
The scale and scope of the climate crisis requires a response from government; but one aspect of being poor is that you don’t have responsive government. So it’s poor people who are being hit first and worst by climate change. Some policy makers have acknowledged this, but what most governments aren’t talking about is that 70 percent of poor people are women. That connection has got to be made if we are going to succeed in creating policies that can protect the rights of those most threatened by the crisis.

Why are women disproportionately impacted by climate change?
Women’s livelihoods and social roles – in particular those of rural and Indigenous women – depend directly on the ecosystems that are being destroyed by climate change. It’s mostly women who are responsible for subsistence agriculture and for collecting water and biomass fuels for household use. So, for example, when water sources are depleted by drought, it’s still the job of women to provide water for their families. Only the job becomes much harder. We know women who used to walk 7 kilometers a day to haul water, and now they walk 15 because the river closest to them has run dry.
Women also have fewer resources to adapt to the climate crisis because of gender discrimination. Adaptation depends on being able to make better choices about how you use resources. But when you have no land of your own, no education, and no access to credit, you don’t have a lot of options about how you produce food, get fuel, or make a living.

Can you share an example having seen women in a community with which you work being disproportionately impacted?
In the Kenyan rural, Indigenous communities where we work, we’ve seen a protracted drought kill off the cattle on which people depend for their survival. One result has been a sharp rise in forced child marriages. As men struggle to replace income from lost livestock, increasing numbers of fathers resort to trading their daughters—some as young as eight or nine—for bridal dowries. We know women who are working to resist the practice, but the odds are stacked against them because they have no way to feed their other children. People tend to think of climate change as a technical or scientific problem. But it has far-reaching implications for women’s human rights and must be addressed within a human rights framework.

You have mentioned that some of the proposed solutions to climate change are creating new threats—like large-scale industrial agrofuels—that are especially threatening women. Can you give an example?
This year we saw the effects of governments’ decision to convert farmland to agrofuel production. The decision to grow fuel instead of food helped drive up the cost of staple grains worldwide, making the food price crisis even worse. In most families the world over, it’s women and girls who eat last and least when food is made scarce. That discrimination is reflected in rates of female malnutrition. So our assessment of, say, ethanol subsidies in the US, has to go beyond a narrow environmental assessment or a technical discussion about energy policy. Human rights, in particular women’s human rights, have to be central to the debate.

Why is it so important that we talk about women and their unique plight in the crisis?
Because climate change is not gender-neutral. Women are affected differently and often disproportionately. If we don’t recognize how the problem impacts people, we won’t create the solutions that can address people’s needs and rights. Yet, the word “gender” is not even mentioned in the Kyoto Protocol or the 1992 UNFCCC, which is the framework for all climate change policies.
Women are not only disproportionately victimized by the confluence of climate change and gender discrimination. Women also have specialized knowledge that’s critical to their communities’ capacity to survive and adapt. That’s because women traditionally navigate the relationship between their communities and the ecosystems of which they are a part.

I had a long conversation with a woman who is a rural community organizer in Bangladesh just after the devastating cyclone of 2007. It is women there who are responsible for building wind-resistant housing, breeding seeds that withstand floods, and protecting drinking water supplies after a cyclone.
These are the very skills that need to be developed and institutionalized now that storms and floods are increasing with climate change. Policymakers should be asking for help from these women. Instead, rural and Indigenous women are seen by policy makers primarily as poor and illiterate and victims of climate change, not as resources with expertise that needs to be developed and adapted.

When you were at the climate change meetings in Bali, you said that you are concerned that some perceive “climate change as a business opportunity.” What did you mean?
The dominant solution being proposed for climate change is carbon trading, which does more to increase the profits of polluting companies than to reduce carbon emissions.
One main instrument of carbon trading is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows companies with high carbon emissions to fund projects that supposedly absorb carbon in exchange for their continued pollution. The CDM does not address the root cause of climate change, which is unsustainable use of resources. It simply enables the continued emission of carbon. In a perverse way, the CDM creates an incentive for carbon pollution by turning emissions into a tradable commodity.

In fact, the emerging trade in carbon is so profitable that in 2007 Bloomberg Markets announced that “the great carbon rush is on.” Bloomberg described “a new breed of climate change capitalists” trading in a “burgeoning global market.” The London-based company Climate Change Capital is one of the new breed. It’s run by financier James Cameron who helped draft the Kyoto Protocal and then cashed in on the accord by investing billions in carbon credits. (Read the Bloomberg report here.)

That kind of opportunism was on full display in Bali, where wealthy governments sent their trade ministers to negotiate and where the same carbon-polluting industries positioned themselves to make money from proposed solutions. So, for instance, the World Coal Institute had a big presence even though “clean coal” is a myth. So did the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (I didn’t even know they had one of those!). Representatives of the industries that caused global warming weren’t just tabling in the lobby. They were effectively representing governments, too. The head of the US government delegation in Bali was James Connaughton, a long-time lobbyist for utilities, mining, chemical, and other industrial polluters.
Can you share one of the most inspiring solutions, particularly in the agricultural sector, that you’ve seen on the ground in the communities where you work?

Along the Coco River, on the North Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, MADRE partners with Indigenous Miskito women to provide agricultural trainings and resources for small-scale organic farms. We worked with our longtime local sister organization, to make sure the program, Harvesting Hope, would be responsive to women in the community. There are almost 100 women involved. In total, they are respsonible for feeding about 600 people in a dozen or so small communities. Harvesting Hope emphasizes sustainable land use methodologies, safeguards traditional Indigenous knowledge of natural resource management, and strengthens women’s economic self-sufficiency.

Harvesting Hope organizes local farmers’ markets where the women sell surplus produce. The markets have become a focal point for community development. The women host innovative culinary contests, games, and musical entertainment. And they use the gatherings as an opportunity to distribute popular education materials about women’s rights, collective Indigenous rights, and women’s health issues.

Working with MADRE, the women also organized a seed bank, so they could save and share local, organic seeds from one growing season to the next. In 2007, after Hurricane Felix destroyed 90 percent of the community’s bean harvest, the women were able to turn to their collective seed bank for a new supply of seeds. Encouraged by this store of resources, they felt able to face the challenge of replanting their crops and rebuilding their homes and community. Now we’ve expanded the project and are working to reclaim the trees that were felled in the storm and use the lumber to build new homes that can better withstand the hurricanes that Nicaragua is more prone to than ever because of climate change.

The women are energized politically and because of their small farms, the community is eating more local, organic produce, grains, and animal foods that are part of the traditional diet, and relying less on costly, imported, processed foods.

“We are Indigenous People and the forest was always our source of food,” says Rose Cunningham, the Nicaraguan director of Harvesting Hope. “When the government and the corporations barred our entry to the forest, people became more and more hungry. We did a survey with doctors and found that we had a 75 percent malnutrition rate in my community. We had to find a solution and with MADRE we did. Now we have food, we have farms, we have hope.”

January 2008