Thursday, June 27, 2013

Resilience and Change

The question came from a middle-aged woman in the audience. Like many Nicaraguan women of her generation she was slight of build, but strong of voice: "But what if your husband doesn't approve of your work outside the home?" The speaker's reply was a little bit shocking, but at the same time, it brought the house down with laughter.

"We'll he's dead now, so I am free. Thanks be to God."

That morning we had gathered to hear from three women -- Aurora, Maria and Mayra -- who live and work in the area of Santo Tomas and Juigalpa, a rural part of Nicaragua known for its cattle ranching. All three are campesinas (rural women) and activists working to support and educate other women from their area -- especially small farmers, teaching agricultural techniques and organizing cooperatives. Their not inconsiderable task that morning was to explain to us how the world works, and we were lucky to be their students.

Every year CIEETS -- the theology education and sustainable development wing of the university where we teach -- organizes a cátedra (or conference) on women and gender issues in Nicaragua. This past December the focus was on the "Daily Life of Women and Adaptation to Climate Change" and we organized two days of talks and activities, one in Managua and the other in Juigalpa. I confess, I was worried the theme would be a hopeless jumble, but it worked beautifully. (I already blogged a few of the videos and songs from the conference here and here.)

What the speakers showed was that we live in interesting times and that it is the women who must navigate the big changes that have come to rural Nicaragua, just as they have all around the world. A woman's husband may still harbor old patriarchal notions of how families should work, but at the same time the "old ways" are eroding under waves of economic, cultural and environmental change. And women -- who are on the front lines of putting food on the table and keeping the household together even if the men have to travel to find work -- are the ones confronting these changes and finding solutions.

Domestic violence was brought up a lot, and unfortunately, the problem of domestic violence is a critical one in Nicaragua today. It is often said that Nicaragua is the least violent country in Central America, a fact that obscures the violence that happens behind closed doors. Nica feminist groups have done a lot to raise the visibility of the issue with an effective series of ad campaigns, marches and legal advocacy. All three women immediately drew connections between domestic violence and education for women, the importance of building self-esteem among women, of building their economic independence, and of raising the next generation in a new paradigm.

So what does this have to do with climate change, you might well ask. All three women echoed what we've heard from small farmers all around Nicaragua: the rains are different from in the past. They come at the wrong time, or not enough, or they come in one torrential downpour and then nothing, wrecking havoc with the planting and harvest schedule. This may be partially a result of global climate change, but a more immediate culprit is the tremendous local deforestation that Nicaragua has suffered in the past few decades. At any rate, there is a general sense among the farmers that making the land produce is harder now than in generations past. And as with other changes, this is something that affects women first and foremost.

The sprawling nature of the conversation is fairly typical of these events. Once you enter through one door (e.g. domestic violence), you find yourself talking about every possible related topic: education, unemployment, food prices, rainfall patterns, etc. etc. The spanish word that gets used a lot is el desarrollo integral, which means integrated or holistic development. It's the idea that we need to address multiple issues in parallel in order to make progress. It can be daunting or inspiring, depending on your mood.

For my part, I gave a brief talk on the science of climate change, the basics of the greenhouse effect and what rising levels of carbon dioxide might have in store for us in the future. The focus of the talk was on adaptation. Even if the world manages to put in place a binding treaty to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases in the next few years (a depressingly remote possibility at this point), we will still need to adapt to a wave of changes in the next several decades. This is because there is a certain amount of climate change already "baked into the cake" due to the permanence in the atmosphere of CO2 that has already been emitted.

We showed the following video (produced by the UN Environmental Program) about the importance of investing in climate change adaptation measures. Nicaragua has long experience with natural disasters and so the need for such adaptation and preparedness measures is an easy sell. What is harder is securing funding for what needs to be done, and getting reliable regional predictions of climate change impacts (a very hard scientific problem that is woefully underfunded).