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Empowering Women, Protecting Forests: A Success Story in Oaxaca, Mexico

Discover how Indigenous women's leadership in Oaxaca is transforming forest conservation in the Chinantla region of Mexico in a story of empowerment and environmental protection.

Originally published on Fair Planet.

As an Indigenous woman, I've dedicated myself to building capacity for natural resource conservation in Oaxaca's Chinantla region, in southern Mexico, for over ten years. My work goes beyond ecosystem restoration. I advocate for Indigenous women's role within and beyond their communities, pushing for 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 strengthening community skills, fostering collaboration between organizations, involving diverse stakeholders in conservation efforts, and recognizing 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% of the world's biodiversity and more than 50% 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, this 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% of its total tree cover loss in the same period. The total area of primary humid forest in Oaxaca decreased by 6.7% during this period. Uncontrolled logging, urban expansion, population growth, and intensive agriculture are the leading causes of forest cover loss. This translates to the loss of 432 thousand hectares of tree cover, equivalent to an 8.6% decrease 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 cultural heritage, including the traditional knowledge passed down through generations.

The Vital Role of Indigenous Women in the Chinantla

The Chinantec people are one of the most significant Indigenous groups in Oaxaca, ranking fourth in population size. They comprise 12% 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, driven by their conservation efforts. The communities consistently express a deep connection to their land and traditions, which form the bedrock of their collective identity. They preserve their heritage not only for themselves but for their children and future generations. However, it is clear that generational changes introduce new challenges, particularly as cultural assimilation in rural areas is accelerated by migration and emerging technologies.

Chinantec Indigenous women are essential stewards of ancestral heritage, fighting for equality despite facing marginalization 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 participation in decision-making processes. 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 some women who participated in community monitoring brigades and now hold positions as local authorities in their communities, thanks to their acquired knowledge of the territory and to overcoming established gender roles that previously prevented them from being part of organized groups or holding such positions.

Historically, gender roles have constrained women's involvement primarily in domestic chores such as cooking and washing, restricting their participation in other activities. These deeply ingrained beliefs have silenced women's voices and excluded them from decision-making processes. However, Indigenous women's participation can foster a stronger social fabric, active engagement in conservation, and gender equity by enabling leadership roles and 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 possess 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 like language endangerment in an increasingly globalized 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. These women have become guardians of their environment and champions of knowledge sharing. They empower others through solidarity networks, advocate for women's rights, and promote the use of technology for sustainable environmental development

Furthermore, I have worked hand-in-hand with these women providing technical support and training to help them lead initiatives like organic food production, traditional medicine use, and bio-input production in family plots. These practices bolster family economies and contribute significantly to environmental and biodiversity preservation. But women's contributions go beyond these initiatives. They also play a pivotal role in rescuing native seeds such as chilacayote squash, corn varieties, summer squash, and coriander, a proactive measure for the conservation of the genetic diversity of food crops and native plant species. Additionally, they have been instrumental in restoring degraded areas and revitalizing traditional knowledge for soil, water, and forest conservation. 

Doña Susana Santiago from San José Chiltepec is an incredible example of this leadership. Doña Susana is a tireless volunteer of our project who passionately supports the production of fruit trees and native species for agroforestry and reforestation 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. Ultimately, these activities underscore the need for everyone's participation to improve our communities and environment and create a more sustainable, just, and equitable world.

Empowering the Future: Young Women Take Center Stage in Conservation

Protecting our natural resources is a shared responsibility. Empowering Indigenous women is vital for a just, equitable, and inclusive society, fostering a better relationship between humanity and nature. These new paradigms ensure new generations of women have a voice in shaping their world – their ideas, decisions, and proposals will be heard. Many young women are eager to learn and inspire others to work toward changing power structures and decision-making.

It's heartening to hear girls say they want to study fields like biology, agronomy, or computer science to improve their lives. This is part of the inspiring journey of mobilizing youth and creating structural change. Many proudly tell me, "I want to be like you when I grow up."

The Indigenous women of Chinantla are breaking down barriers of discrimination and actively building a more inclusive and sustainable future for all. Their struggle and resistance exemplify the human spirit's strength and determination in the pursuit of justice and equality.


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