A Woman’s Place in the Displacement: Ecofeminism, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and Statelessness

A Woman’s Place in the Displacement: Ecofeminism, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and Statelessness
[Mother Nature]’s a female, and Indigenous people are the keepers of Mother Earth.
— Phyllis Young, former councilwoman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Central Oceti Sakowin camp organizer

If climate change continues to be cast as a human crisis in which gender has no significance, we risk ignoring the unique contributions that women, as agents, and feminism, as a paradigm, can make to environmental justice.

The environmental threat of human displacement creates an axis of oppression that disproportionately impacts women. Feminism, which takes intersecting oppressions and strives for systemic liberation from them, must continue to inform our international actions to mitigate and remedy environmental injustice and climate change.

In the 1950s, Simone de Beauvoir propositioned that the affinity between women and the ‘natural world’ was born of their common exploitation by men. This idea was then used by Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974 to coin the term ecofeminism. In cultural and activist realms, many Indigenous women continue to practice and honour this affinity. On the front lines of environmental assaults - both man-made and natural - against their native land, Indigenous women experience vulnerability to displacement and, in the most severe cases, statelessness, which must not be ignored.

Seeing the recuperation of indigenous knowledge systems as crucial to processes of resistance, resilience, and revolution, Yvette Abrahams shares the history of her ancestors - the Khoesan women - as a case for “Doing Black feminism in the time of climate change.” Through genocide, colonialism, and slavery, access to native land allowed the Khoesan women to continue their traditional practice of soap-making, one which Abrahams herself has recovered. It follows that the soap-making symbolises a core tenet of ecofeminism in that the shared oppression of women and nature has produced unique knowledge systems. Maintaining the practice of self-care through nature, soap-making represents what Abrahams saw as a symbiotic transition between the women and the environment: victim to survivor, and survivor to revolutionary.

The violent impacts of industrial expansion, responsible for and simultaneous to climate change, are borne disproportionately by the body of the indigenous women.

In another act of recovery, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network interviewed Indigenous women of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The women, who have been resisting the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, are fighting to protect the tribe’s water supply. Their political imperative is derived from their role as “water protectors." One of the interviewees, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, said "we are women who stand because the water is female, and so we must stand with the water.” It follows that the violent impacts of industrial expansion, responsible for and simultaneous to climate change, are borne disproportionately by the body of the indigenous women.

This is not unique to the Americas. Across the Pacific Ocean, at only 1.5 metres above sea level, habitability on the Carteret Islands has become untenable. Urusla Rakova has taken the lead in protecting her Island’s reefs and documenting traditional knowledge, both of which are threatened by rising sea levels. Directing the work of Tulele Peisa, a grassroots organisation whose name translates to “sailing the waves on our own” in the local Halia language, Rakova was chosen by the island’s Council of Elders (CoE). As a daughter of a matrilineal community, Rakova’s experience directing NGO’s, orchestrating legal cases for indigenous rights and pioneering environmental activism on nearby Papua New Guinea gave her unique qualifications for leading the CoE’s 2006 decision to self-determine relocation. Carrying the burden of her people, she represents the convergence of indigenous women’s knowledge, competence, and compassion in responding to climate disaster.

Acknowledging that climate change alters the global atmosphere and manifests itself in rising temperatures and rising sea levels, low-lying coastal areas will and have become uninhabitable. In fact, the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report outlined that sea levels are predicted to rise by between 9 and 88 cm. Whilst some island nations may disappear entirely, others will suffer the indirect damage of contaminated water and vegetation. Many individuals will be forced to migrate to escape these conditions. Already some land has been abandoned, with two Kiribati islands uninhabited since 1999, and further movement set to occur.

As climate change progresses, displacement could result in 25 million to 1 billion individuals without secure land or nationhood. The scale and complexity of this environmental issue has been articulated by Professor Walter Kalin, representative of the Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), as the ‘displacement nexus.’ A nexus the since 2012, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have considered from a gendered perspective - with “gender and climate change” classified as a stand alone agenda item.

The question of whether a nation can exist without a physical state is one that must eventually be answered by the international community, especially as Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts an individual’s right to a nationality. Accordingly, the end of a nation’s geographical existence provides a set of challenges to this right. Such an issue was initially addressed by the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines statelessness as when a person is not considered a national by any State. As the primary international instrument of its kind, it has received only 80 accessions since its initiation, highlighting a broader apprehension to expand refugee intake – a phenomenon Jose Reira, senior UNHCR policy advisor, has termed the “zero appetite”.

The UNHCR has been praised for the “great strides” made in developing the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement protecting Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from environmental disaster. As Roger Zetter has written, ‘the 1998 Guiding Principles … are not just a fundamental starting point… but also a model for the process of aggregating and adapting the norms and principles… of international instruments to protect the rights of the “environmentally displaced”’.

However, adapting or expanding such norms and principles, like the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, may prove more challenging. Established in the context of World War II, refugee status was defined by “a well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Whilst the subsequent 1967 Protocol is an example of the Convention’s adaptability, serving to revise the geographical and temporal limits of its predecessor, the inclusion of “climate-induced displacement” as a form of persecution is much more complex.

The “central paradox” of developed, industrialised nations providing refugee protection from climate-induced displacement is that it is these very protector nations that characterise the alleged persecutor.

In 2012, Ioane Teitiota and his family, nationals of the Republic of Kiribati, became international symbols of the emerging quasi-definitional rhetoric of “climate change refugees”. Their request for an extension on their overstayed work visas in New Zealand at the Immigration and Protection Tribunal transformed into a claim before the High Court for refugee status as unprotected from the “persecution” of climate change. Rejected in New Zealand's Immigration and Protection Tribunal, the High Court and the Court of Appeal likewise ruled that it wasn’t their place to expand the scope of the 1951 Convention. They argued that expanding the legal definition to include persecution by “climate-related disaster” would subvert the premise of the protective convention by enabling Teitiota to seek refuge in the country that, as a high carbon emissions nation, contributed to his persecution. He was deported in September 2015 after a four year battle.

The “central paradox” of developed, industrialised nations providing refugee protection from climate-induced displacement is that it is these very protector nations that characterise the alleged persecutor. The prospect of including the indiscriminate persecution of climate change as grounds for refugee status subverts the premise of the 1951 Convention: to provide refuge from persecution. It is thus understandable that the UNHCR has “serious reservations” with the terminology of climate-change refugees, opting to uphold the criteria of the 1951 Convention.

Taking a glocal (global-local) perspective to our established, international, protective protocols may imbue distant concepts such as statelessness, refugee status, and climate change with real human potency. It follows that this perspective in practice must consider the knowledge systems of the indigenous women on the frontlines of environmental justice.

In both experiences at Standing Rock and the Carteret Islands, one is drawn to the way nationhood manifests and is signified through nature. In both cases, nature was proactively protected by indigenous female guardians whose knowledge systems were threatened with erasure. As the most vulnerable group to environmental destruction caused by industrial expansion and, accordingly, climate change, Indigenous women also embody the spiritual, cultural and political capacity for leadership in civic action, mitigation and relocation efforts. For whilst the shared oppression of women and nature at the hands of industrialized patriarchy promotes female leadership on climate-related issues, it is also important to acknowledge the varying degrees of affinity to that oppression.


Taylor Fox-Smith is the FFP editorial intern and teaches gender studies at Macquarie University.  Follow her on Twitter: @TaylorFoxSmith3