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June 20, 2024

Empowering women, protecting forests: A success story from Oaxaca

As an Indigenous woman, I have spent over ten years dedicated to building capacity for natural resource conservation in Oaxaca's Chinantla region in southern Mexico. But my work extends beyond ecosystem restoration; I actively advocate for Indigenous women's roles both within and beyond their communities to ensure their participation in decision-making processes.

Through partnerships with Indigenous communities, FARCO and EcoLogic Development Fund, we champion sustainable development in the Chinantla. This includes enhancing community skills, fostering collaboration between organisations, involving diverse stakeholders in conservation efforts, and recognising Indigenous women's critical role in protecting natural resources.

Oaxaca stands out as the most biodiverse state in the country. It encompasses a variety of ecosystems, ranging from tropical forests to coniferous forests, creating a unique ecological diversity.

According to CONABIO, Oaxaca is home to at least 10 per cent of the world's biodiversity and more than 50 per cent of Mexico's national biodiversity.

Chinantla is one of the most important ecoregions globally. It consists of 14 municipalities and covers 460,000 hectares. However, its rich biodiversity is threatened by habitat loss, which puts many endemic species at risk.

From 2002 to 2023, Oaxaca lost 97.4 thousand hectares of primary humid forest, representing 23 per cent of its total tree cover loss in the same period. The total area of primary humid forest in Oaxaca decreased by 6.7 per cent during this period. Uncontrolled logging, urban expansion, population growth and intensive agriculture are the leading causes of forest cover loss, which translates to the loss of 432* thousand hectares of tree cover, equivalent to an 8.6 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000 and 210 Mt of CO₂ emissions.

This natural heritage is under the protection of the Chinantec Indigenous people through the system of Areas Designated Voluntarily for Conservation (ADVCs), whose cultural identity is deeply intertwined with the local biodiversity.

Protecting this ecosystem can preserve both the environment and the Chinantec's cultural heritage, including the traditional knowledge passed down through generations.

The Vital Role of Indigenous Women in the Chinantla

The Chinantec people are among the most significant Indigenous groups in Oaxaca, ranking fourth in population size. They comprise 12 per cent of Indigenous language speakers in the 14 municipalities that constitute the heart region, totaling 131,716 inhabitants.

Historically, Chinantec communities have advocated for better living conditions through their dedicated conservation efforts.

Chinantec Indigenous women are essential stewards of their ancestral heritage, fighting for equality despite enduring marginalisation and discrimination. Empowering them in conservation efforts has multifaceted benefits that extend beyond the environment.

This includes cultural revival, improved access to education and greater agency. Economically, these efforts focus on improving livelihoods and dismantling stereotypes. Ultimately, strengthening their vital roles in society fosters greater autonomy within their families and communities. 

A clear example involves women who participated in community monitoring brigades and now hold positions as local authorities in their communities. Their acquired knowledge of the territory and their ability to overcome established gender roles, which previously excluded them from organised groups and leadership positions, have enabled this progress.

Historically, gender roles have constrained women's involvement primarily to domestic chores such as cooking and washing, limiting their participation in other activities. These deeply ingrained beliefs have silenced women's voices and excluded them from decision-making processes. But Indigenous women's participation can foster a stronger social fabric, active engagement in conservation and gender equity by enabling leadership roles and promoting greater economic and social independence.

When women are involved in environmental protection and ecosystem conservation, they can:

  • Champion social justice by ensuring a more equitable approach to resource management.
  • Fortify community resilience by drawing on their traditional knowledge and fostering a sense of shared responsibility.
  • Drive a more comprehensive and sustainable conservation strategy by incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences.
  • Safeguard ancestral knowledge by passing down ecological wisdom to future generations. 

Preserving Women's Ancestral Knowledge Through Technology

Indigenous women posses a deep understanding of natural resources due to their close involvement in agriculture, water management, food gathering and their roles as caregivers and educators. 

However, maintaining ancestral knowledge faces challenges such as language endangerment in an increasingly globalised world. This underscores the need to integrate modern technologies while respecting and valuing the irreplaceable role of oral transmission and cultural education led by these women. Preserving and disseminating this legacy, primarily through Indigenous women's leadership, is essential for building a sustainable and enriching future for generations to come.

Information technology (IT) and digital literacy are transforming the lives of Indigenous women who can now have immediate access to information, empowering them to participate in informed and consensus-based decision-making. This newfound knowledge is proving invaluable in forest and biological monitoring processes.

Through IT, women can access details and data on eco-technologies, public policies, and national and international agreements concerning indigenous peoples and their territories. Armed with this knowledge, they can effectively contribute to shaping the future of their communities and the sustainable management of their natural resources.

For example, a recent project by EcoLogic and FARCO, supported by Global Forest Watch, has sparked significant change in the Chinantla. Indigenous women are now using technology like GPS, mobile apps and drones to monitor deforestation in real-time. They are taking the lead in these monitoring activities alongside men, a role that was previously inaccessible to them. This active participation allows them to protect their ancestral lands. They empower others through solidarity networks, advocate for women's rights and promote the use of technology for sustainable environmental development.

I have worked hand-in-hand with these women, providing technical support and training to help them lead initiatives such as organic food production, traditional medicine use and bio-input production in family plots. These practices bolster family economies and significantly contribute to environmental and biodiversity preservation.

Beyond these initiatives, women play a pivotal role in rescuing native seeds like chilacayote squash, corn varieties, summer squash, and coriander. This proactive measure aids in the conservation of the genetic diversity of food crops and native plant species.

Additionally, they have been instrumental in restoring degraded areas and revitalising traditional knowledge for soil, water and forest conservation. 

Doña Susana Santiago from San José Chiltepec exemplifies this leadership. As a tireless volunteer for our project, she supports the production of fruit trees and native species for agroforestry and reforestation, initiatives carried out in the nursery established by FARCO and EcoLogic. Her main motivation is to inspire children and young people to become involved in conserving the region's forests.

Doña Susana Santiago

While the number of women currently consolidating these processes is small, approximately 45, it is deeply satisfying to see them not only learning and exploring with enthusiasm but also encouraging others to join them on this challenging path.

These activities underscore the need for everyone's participation to improve our communities and environment and create a more sustainable, just and equitable world.