MADRE Articles

Deforestation, Climate Change, and Women's Human Rights

Posted on: Saturday, December 8, 2007

Keywords: Women's Health, Combating Violence Against Women, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Middle East, Climate Change

Forests are finite natural resources that provide climate stability, food, water, fuel, medicine, building material and cultural contexts that sustain life as we know it. By disabling the carbon-cycling capacity of the Earth, deforestation threatens the survival both of people and the varied ecosystems on which we depend. But not all people are threatened in the same way. Most affected are those whose economies and cultures depend directly on forest ecosystems. Within these communities, particularly in the Global South, women are the primary users and managers of natural resources. The social impacts of deforestation mean that issues of global equity and gender justice are central to addressing this crisis.

Deforestation is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, putting this issue at the forefront of our global climate crisis.(1) Yet, ironically, the very policies being crafted to address climate change are accelerating deforestation and violating the rights of forest-dependent peoples. These policies include the production of industrialized agrofuels and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol.

Agrofuel production often involves clear-cutting forests to make way for fuel-crop plantations. The CDM fails to protect existing forests by recognizing only afforestation and reforestation programs, which focus on planting new trees. Moreover, the CDM allows major polluters to count carbon emissions reduction projects in the Global South towards their own greenhouse gas reduction credits. The CDM’s cumbersome and expensive accounting processes favor large-scale corporate undertakings and create new, exclusionary forms of property rights that benefit corporations and wealthy states, the very actors responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the CDM effectively excludes community-based and cooperative projects, undermining control of forests by local people, who have successfully maintained forest ecosystems for centuries.

A Question of Global Equity: The biggest contemporary losses of primary forests have been in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, where 80 percent of the world’s remaining primary forest cover is located.(2) The main causes are agriculture (including agrofuel plantations) and logging, which respectively account for 80 percent and 15 percent of global deforestation.(3) While profits from agribusiness and the timber industry accrue mainly to corporations based in the Global North, the lands and peoples of the Global South are devastated by deforestation.

Primary forests, which have developed naturally over hundreds of years, are storehouses of biodiversity that cannot be replicated by industrialized agriculture, timber plantations, or the genetically modified “carbon sink” plantations being promoted under the CDM. When natural forest ecosystems are destroyed, so are the balances of soil health, rainfall absorption, and carbon intake that the forests previously maintained. Erosion worsens as soil-binding tree roots disappear, and flooding intensifies as tree cover, which absorbs the impact of heavy rainfall, shrinks. Erosion also causes lakes and rivers to fill with silt. In dry periods, water sources once protected by forest canopies evaporate or become stagnant and contaminated.

As deforestation ruins lands and waterways, the livelihoods and cultures of local and Indigenous Peoples are threatened. Competition develops over crucial resources, inducing political conflict and even warfare. Today, local and Indigenous Peoples face destruction because the many species on which they rely for their nutrition, healthcare, cultures, and economies are disappearing. Due in large part to deforestation, the rate of species loss is greater now than at any time in human history, with as many as 140,000 species disappearing each year.(4)

A Question of Gender Justice: As those responsible for providing their families with food, fresh water, fuel wood, medicinal plants, and building materials, rural women in the Global South are particularly impacted when forests are destroyed. Women’s work burden increases dramatically as they are forced to trek longer distances to collect food, water, and firewood. The increased time women spend doing this work detracts from food production and other crucial household labor. First to be sacrificed are those activities that benefit women themselves, such as time devoted to political participation, strengthening social networks, or generating extra income. Often girls are recruited as extra hands when fuel and water resources become scarce, a pattern reflected in the drop in girls’ school enrollment in areas affected by deforestation.(5)

Like the gendered division of labor, gender discrimination also shapes women’s experience of deforestation. For example, women face increased exposure to sexual and armed violence as they trek farther from their communities to collect forest resources, such as fuel wood. Most threatened are women in conflict zones, particularly in places such as Sudan, where the conflict itself is partly over land and water resources made scarce by deforestation and climate change. For instance, women in the Internally Displaced Persons camps of Sudan and Chad are regularly raped by militiamen when they venture outside the camps to collect firewood.(6)

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house:(7) Deforestation is driven by the same irrational ethos that has guided the global economy since the end of World War II: the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. As one influential US economic advisor stated in 1955, “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and selling of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”(8) This advice has made the world’s forests worth more dead than alive and has brought us to the brink of ecological collapse.

Clearly, we cannot continue to reward the irrational use of natural resources if we are to avert the worst consequences of climate change. Yet, the same thinking that brought us the climate change crisis is inherent in carbon trading, the predominant policy response. Carbon trading does nothing to address the root causes of climate change—the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests. Instead, it rewards polluters by turning excess carbon into a valuable commodity. By contrast, the human rights framework offers a more effective set of tools for addressing the climate crisis. Using human rights as a starting point for adaptation and mitigation strategies highlights the following key concepts:

  • Controlling climate change depends on safeguarding the world’s forests, the “lungs of the planet.” The key to effective forest conservation is to advance the rights of forest-dependent peoples, particularly women, who have successfully and sustainably managed and maintained these ecosystems for millennia.


  • Climate change policies are not gender neutral. Forest women’s livelihoods and social roles rely directly on forest resources to meet the nutritional, health, and cultural needs of their families and communities; forest resources are also crucial to women’s income-generating capacities. Thus, women are differently and often disproportionately harmed by deforestation. At the same time, women’s specialized knowledge of forestry, botany, biodiversity, and water management makes them critical resources in combating deforestation. To realize this potential, women’s leadership must be supported by policies that recognize their expertise and support women in combating gender discrimination.


  • Industrialized countries have greatly overused their carbon emissions quota and owe a Carbon Debt to the South, which is much larger than the financial debt of the highly indebted poor countries. Problems of ecological rights and justice that follow from this disparity are a basis for negotiations.


  • The creation of every new policy is an opportunity to advance human rights. The “Bali Commitments” should ensure that climate change policies are compliant with human rights. For example, as emergency mechanisms, climate change policies should be exempt from the World Trade Organization (WTO), which subordinates environmental sustainability to profit and hinders efficient transfer of clean energy technology.(9) The recent exemption of AIDS drugs from global trade rules offers a precedent for excluding climate stabilization measures from the WTO.


  • Based on the precautionary principle enshrined in the UNFCCC, world leaders should support moratoria on fossil fuel exploration and on industrial-scale agrofuels. Local and Indigenous Peoples who are enforcing such bans on their territories should be entitled to support and compensation.

(1) Zilia Castrillon, "Climate Change: Forests Join the Carbon Market," Inter Press Service, October 6, 2007. (Accessed November 19, 2007) .
(2) Sikking, Yolanda. "FAO Committee on Forestry: Daily Forest Loss Still Twice the Size of Paris". Forest Cover June 2007: 6.
(3) "Causes of tropical deforestation 2000-2005," (Accessed November 19, 2007) .
(4) S. L. Pimm, G. J. Russell, J. L. Gittleman and T. M. Brooks, "The Future of Biodiversity," Science 269 (1995): 347-350.
(5) Molnar, Augusta, "Forest Conservation in Nepal: Encouraging Women's Participation Story," Seeds 10 (1987): 2.
(6) "Chad: No protection from rape and violence for displaced women and girls in eastern Chad," Amnesty International (27 July 2007). (Accessed November 19, 2007) .
(7) Lorde, Audre.
(8) Wann, David. "Waste Makes Haste," (June 16, 2003). (Accessed November 21, 2007) .
(9) Victor Menotti, "Climate and the World Bank/WTO" (lecture presented at the International Forum on Globalization's Confronting the Triple Crisis Teach-In, Washington, D.C., September 14-16, 2007).

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