Women ally with nature to adapt to climate change

To mark International Women’s Day 2020, IIED is profiling seven women in Chile, China and South Africa working to protect and restore nature, promote a more sustainable use of natural resources and adapt to climate change.

Gabriela Flores's picture
Guest blog by
6 March 2020

Gabriela Flores is a communications specialist and senior associate at IIED

Nature-based solutions to the global environment crisis are increasingly in the spotlight. High-profile individuals such as campaigner Greta Thunberg and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as business and governments, have all emphasised nature’s importance as one of the most effective ways of combating climate change.

Ecosystem-based Adaption (EbA) is a nature-based approach that uses biodiversity and ecosystem services to help people adapt to climate change. 

IIED’s research with partners across 12 countries shows that EbA can tackle the interconnected challenges of climate change impacts, biodiversity loss, and poverty, while remaining cost-effective, particularly in poor countries where people are heavily dependent on natural resources. Despite documented successes, EbA has not yet been widely implemented or financed. 

The women we are profiling below demonstrate how EbA can deliver benefits for both people and nature.


Green entrepreneur: María de la Luz Barros

A woman on a roof with plants

María de la Luz Barros has set up a company that installs green roofs. Her company has been certified as an organisation with high standards in social and environmental performance under the B Corp certification scheme (Photo: copyright VerdeActivo)

Most people live in cities, so we also need to talk about urban gardens and green roofs – María de la Luz Barros

An engineer by training, María de la Luz Barros took a career break when her children were born. She wanted to set up a business with a purpose, with an environmental focus.

“A cousin introduced me to green roofs and I loved the idea,” says María de la Luz. Green roofs are roofs that are fitted with living plants. She set up a company, VerdeActivo, that installs green roofs.

Maria participated in the EbA Evidence and Policy project online course (Spanish language site) hosted by IUCN, and she has written a paper on how green roofs are nature-based solutions (PDF, Spanish language) that can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

About 88% of Chileans live in cities, and Maria argues that adaptation measures for urban areas are greatly needed, particularly due to rising temperatures. She says: “They can also provide spaces for public use and cultural activities and generate new jobs. If you pull all these benefits together, they should be mandatory.”

The demand for green roofs remains limited in Chile, and María de la Luz argues that more support from the government and greater buy-in from housing and building developers is needed.

“It’s difficult, but it’s important to work to make a change and make the world a better place,” she says.


Indigenous farmer: Zhang Xiuyun

A woman surrounded by maize

Zhang Xiuyun breeds seeds in China’s Northwestern Yunnan province. The region is home to the indigenous Naxi people who created a mountain farming system thousands of years ago. (Photo: copyright Qiubi, Farmers' Seed Network, China)

If we lose our seeds, we lose our way of living and producing – Zhang Xiuyun

Zhang Xiuyun is known as the ‘maize mama’ in her village. She is a seed breeder, and has improved more than 30 maize varieties.

She names the new varieties after herself: Xiuyuan 1, Xiuyuan 2... and her other varieties are particularly good at resisting the droughts and delayed rainy seasons caused by climate change.

“I like seeds and care for them as my babies,” Xiuyun told interviewers Yufen Chuang and Zhendong Ding. “As a little girl I saw my mom keeping and caring for seeds.”

Farmers traditionally kept their seeds or exchanged them with neighbours every season. With the introduction of large-scale agriculture, farmers now purchase modern varieties from a narrow range. This has decreased biodiversity and rendered local farmers more vulnerable to the more frequent and severe droughts blighting the province, as the newly introduced varieties are less resistant to extreme weather.

Seven years ago, Xiuyun attended a workshop on community-based adaptation and participatory plant breeding. Inspired by what she had learned she undertook to work to conserve and improve local seeds and agrobiodiversity, working with nature to adapt to climate change. 

Since then she has improved and shared seeds with farmers in her village and with other communities in the province. Xiuyun spoke to Yufen Chuang and Zhendong Ding for this profile and says seeds are a symbol of independence and local knowledge, and sharing them creates a bond among farmers, families and communities through generations past and future. 

“More seeds mean more diversified farming and food – and more hope,” she concludes.


Policy specialist: Sarshen Scorgie

Scorshie speaking at an event

Sarshen Scorgie presenting at the 8th World Conference on Ecological restoration in 2019 (Photo: copyright Conservation South Africa/Sarshen Scorgie)

I want people to understand that they are connected to nature and that this connection can improve both nature and their own lives – Sarshen Scorgie

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Sarshen Scorgie grew up in a family of nature lovers. She trained as a physiotherapist and worked with people with spinal cord injuries. She says: “What I loved about physio was the interconnectedness of the body and the mind. A lot of healing happens when things are in balance and connected.”

Her interest in connections transferred to people and nature, and she did a master's degree in environmental management: “This was a time when the conservation sector was newly connecting to climate change. It was clear that you couldn’t come up with a solution without looking at connections.”

Her skill at creating connections brought her to climate policy. She joined Conservation South Africa, an affiliate of Conservation International, to coordinate a partnership of NGOs working on climate change.

She is currently working with farmers in the Namaqualand district of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province to restore dryland rangelands and water supplies, and conserve biodiversity.

“Our approach is to help them conserve the rangeland so it can cope with extreme temperatures and weather conditions such as droughts,” she explains. “When the lands are in better condition, so are the animals and the farmers' production.”

Putting the focus on improving livelihoods is encouraging poor communities to take up nature-based solutions that also contribute to land conservation and climate adaptation.

“One of the hardest challenges is that people don’t understand the connections, the linkages,” says Sarshen, adding that successful work in policy – identifying good practices on the ground, shaping principles and criteria to make and measure progress – helps leverage more funds to work on the ground.

“It’s not easy to get climate finance to the most vulnerable but the money is beginning to flow. That’s when I get my yay moments,” she concludes.


Livestock farmer: Yan Shenglian

Yan Shenglian speaking into a microphone

Yan Shenglian presenting on the work done to implement organic farming techniques in her village at farm market in Beijing (Photo: copyright Qiubi, Farmers' Seed Network, China)

People can’t survive without nature. We can’t live in this environment without knowing it – Yan Shenglian

Born into a family of Tibetan herders in China’s Qinghai Province, which neighbours Tibet, Yan Shenglian has vivid memories of winter weather.

She recalls: “Our village was frozen everywhere, and the river was also frozen. In recent years, the weather is getting warmer, large frozen areas in the village disappeared, and the river does not freeze.”

The milder weather has made it possible for farmers in Shenglian’s Xia Ruo Yao village, a traditional herders’ village, to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and eggplants.

“Women in the village began to try to plant grapes in the small greenhouses in home gardens and plant apple trees and strawberries in the fields,” she says. “When we were young, it was completely impossible to grow these things”.

While this shift in weather may seem benevolent, it also brings challenges. Farmers in this part of rural China are working hard to adapt their techniques and ways of organising their work. Some of these changes have involved a measure of creativity too.

Shenglian’s main source of income is breeding livestock, mostly pigs, cattle and yaks. She spoke with Haimei Liang about how she is adapting her farming practices.

“Although it takes a lot of labour, we decided not use chemical fertilisers. The pigs, cattle, yaks and food crops I raise have become organic food and green food, as I realised circular agriculture is important for our health and our land.”

For Shenglian, the key to facing a changing climate is adapting, and doing so by working with the land, and with nature.

“If my child lives in an environment five times warmer than the one I live in now and still wears the clothes I wear now, she will be killed by the heat,” she says. “If she fully understands the weather changes, she will live in the world with warm seasons and fragrant fruits.”


Community trainers: Macarena Freire and Soledad Ortega

two women looking after plants

Macarena Freire and Soledad Ortega in Macarena's garden. They work with marginalised communities in Chile’s Valparaiso Province, helping to design interventions that promote conservation and climate resilience, while also boosting local livelihoods (Photo: Xiaoting Hou Jones, IIED)

The real issue is to learn about collaboration and collective solutions – Macarena Freire

Macarena Freire and Soledad Ortega work with marginalised communities in Chile’s Valparaiso Province. They recently collaborated on a GEF project supporting smallholder farmers to develop sustainable land use plans to protect biodiversity and boost climate resilience.

The local landscape had been transformed by coal-fired power-stations, and communities had shifted away from agriculture. Macarena says: “Older people remember how things used to be, with mountains full of farms; now they don’t want to or can’t farm. They want to work on tourism, but considering the environmental problems, this is complicated.”

She says: “We need to move from an individual to a collective mentality,” adding that it is difficult to talk about climate adaptation without first addressing immediate issues of poverty and exclusion, which have created isolation and mistrust.

Macarena trained as an agronomist but realised that her academic degree left out essential knowledge about the environment, ecosystems and the economic needs of rural communities. 

Macarena says: “My personal path led me towards collaborative ways of working,” adding she has found her true vocation in environmental education and in working with her local community to promote sustainability.  

Soledad says working with communities to improve their livelihoods led her into environmental work. She now works in environmental education with people ranging from pre-schoolers to those aged over 80.

Soledad persuaded Macarena to join the online course about nature-based solutions (NbS) offered by IUCN South America, as part of IIED’s EbA Policy and Evidence project.

Soledad says: “I liked learning about participatory methodologies to tackle climate change adaption,” adding that the course also helped her learn how municipalities and businesses are working with nature and ecosystem services to adapt to climate change.

“We have to learn to work with and depend on others,” says Soledad. “This is a different way to live, a paradigm shift that goes beyond having nature-based solutions tools.”

Soledad comes back to the theme of collaboration: “Empowered communities won’t make a difference, if governments and businesses are not on board. And vice versa, if governments want to do it and communities don’t, nothing will prosper.”


Community activist: Miroslava Petrova

a group of people writing on a large piece of paper

Miroslava Petrova (in the striped top) doing community work (Photo: copyright Miroslava Petrova)

Information about ecosystem-based adaption is not only for decision-makers. It’s for the people – Miroslava Petrova

Born in Bulgaria, Miroslava Petrova, a professional interpreter, moved to Santiago after marrying a Chilean she met while interpreting for international students. She belongs to a left-leaning political party, Revolución Democrática, and is on a committee working with local residents to plant gardens that can thrive in the city’s arid climate.

She says: “Droughts are a big issue in Chile. It is clear that we have to know nature and work with it. We need to learn more.”

Miroslava participated in the online course about NbS offered by IUCN South America. “It was the year of the COP [planned] in Chile. I am not an specialist in environment, so I wanted to learn,” she recalls. “I learned about the international commitments that Chile has made. This is useful to know so I can ask the key questions.”

Since the course, Miroslava took part in public meetings in the lead-up to COP25. “I could follow the conversation because people used the same terminology I learned in the course,” she explains. “I could argue that planting thousands of trees is not necessarily a good thing if these are not native species. I learned that in the course.”

Miroslava continues her awareness-raising activities. “When I talk with people in my neighbourhood, I cannot use the technical concepts from the course,” she says. “We need to explain nature-based solutions in the context of the issues that affect people’s lives, for example water.”

She adds that the transformations needed to cope with climate change need to be led by ordinary people as much as by scientists.

“I am not a scientist or a specialist so I see my role as raising awareness,” she says. “We need to make sure that climate change and nature-based solutions are part of the political conversation.”

About the author

Gabriela Flores (gabriela.flores.zavala@gmail.com) is a communications specialist and senior associate at IIED

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