Feb 10, 2023 • Annie Cao
With each passing year, the effects of climate change grow more apparent — from rising temperatures and sea levels to natural disasters around the world, the earth needs a global economic overhaul within the next decade to reverse the damage that’s already been done. Thankfully, environmental activists have been tirelessly fighting for action and change in order to save our planet.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’d like to highlight six amazing women who have made an impact on the environmental movement.
Wangari Maathai was an activist who committed her life to the environment and womens’ rights. While serving as a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement. The movement taught women how to plant trees in deforested areas and gain income from the land. Since then, the organization has planted over 50 million trees and helped more than 900,000 women. In 2010, Maathai founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies to connect academic research with the Green Belt Movement.
Throughout her life, Maathai was involved in many organizations, and in 2004, she became the first African woman and environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also named one of the 100 most powerful women and influential people in the 2005 issue of Forbes and Time magazine.
Berta Cáceres was a Honduran activist who fought for the rights of Lenca communities by tackling environmental issues. In 1993, Cáceres cofounded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to challenge the environmental damage caused by mining, illegal logging, and dams.
In 2006, the proposal of the Agua Zarca Dam project raised worries that access to water and other materials would be threatened. Cáceres famously launched a campaign by filing complaints and organizing peaceful protests. After several tense years, construction came to a halt after investors withdrew their funding, causing the project to fall through. Because of these heroic efforts, Cáceres received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
Winona LaDuke is an Anishinaabekwe (or Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg and is an activist, economist, and author who has been advocating for sustainability in Indigenous communities.
After spending four years fighting a lawsuit to reclaim lands promised to the Anishinaabeg people, LaDuke founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP). WELRP is one of the country’s largest nonprofits dedicated to buying back reservation land for sustainable development and economic opportunities. Their initiatives include renewable energy efforts, indigenous farming, and local food systems.
LaDuke also co-founded the Honor the Earth Fund, a national advocacy group that works to create public support and secure funding for Native environmental organizations. In 1994, Time Magazine named LaDuke as one of the 50 most promising leaders under the age of 40.
When Isatou Ceesay walked around her village in Gambia, she noticed how plastic bags were harming livestock and crops, creating air pollution, and producing malaria outbreaks.
After volunteering with the Peace Corps and learning about recycling, Ceesay used her newfound knowledge and crocheting skills to collect plastic bags and weave them into purses. When she successfully sold her purses at the market, more women joined in to make their own bags. Ceesay then founded the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group, now known as Women’s Initiative Gambia (WIG).
The initiative has since grown to include other areas of recycling, such as making briquettes from groundnut and coconut shells and creating bags from rice sacks. WIG is also committed to teaching entrepreneurial skills to women, youth, and disabled groups.
Nguy Thi Khanh grew up in a rural village near a coal plant, where she witnessed many people in her community developing cancer. After graduating from college, she became involved in a small Vietnamese nonprofit organization that helped her learn about water conservation and the negative effects of coal on the environment.
In 2011, Nguy Thi founded the Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID) and the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance in response to the government’s Power Development Plan for 2011-2020 calling for increased use of coal for electricity. She collaborated with energy experts to create a study detailing the dangers of coal and sustainable alternatives. In addition, she and GreenID raised awareness through energy-saving programs, neighborhood clean-ups, and media coverage. In 2016, the Vietnamese government released their new Power Development Plan to reduce coal plants and increase renewable energy efforts to 21% by 2030. In 2018, Nguy Thi received the first Goldman Environmental Prize for Vietnam.
Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist, and author with a passion for sustainable agriculture and farmers’ rights. She criticized Asia’s Green Revolution in the 1960s by arguing that it had caused pollution, the loss of native seed diversity, and dependence on using chemicals for crop production. This also put a financial strain on farmers because genetically-engineered seed strains sold by large corporations restricted farmers from saving their seeds and required costly fertilizers and pesticides each year.
In 1982, Shiva founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), an organization dedicated to creating sustainable agricultural methods. Within RFSTE, Shiva launched Navdanya to create more than 40 seed banks in India and encourage farmers to learn sustainable farming. In 1993, Shiva received the Right Livelihood Award for her work.