A scarred hillside stood before us, a reminder of a 2014 oil pipeline spill. Oil pumpjacks rose and fell relentlessly around us.
We had just arrived on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, home to the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. MADRE, the organization I lead, in partnership with the Indigenous Environmental Network, was accompanying a delegation of Indigenous women climate defenders from Colombia, Guatemala, Israel, Kenya, Nepal, and Nicaragua to meet with local activists about the devastating impact of mega oil and gas projects on their livelihoods and their lands.
It had taken no time to come face-to-face with the toxic imprint of extractive industries on the reservation. Natural gas flares, so many it was easy to lose count, spewed noxious fumes into the air everywhere we looked. At night, there was no respite: as the flares continued around the clock, we could barely see the stars as the reflection of natural gas flooded the sky.
Soon, we were also told of the less visible, but more terrifying impact: stories of mothers who had witnessed a spike in rates of asthma among their children; a rise in cancer and other illnesses community-wide; accounts of a rise in sex trafficking of young women and girls attributed to an influx of non-locals seeking work. These mothers told us of their powerful inner drive to protect their children, merging with the determination to protect their families’ homelands.
These stories were all too familiar to the Indigenous women leaders who had traveled to bear witness to the struggles and survival of other Indigenous women and mothers, to build solidarity and share solutions to mitigate the impact of climate change and resist the encroachment of extractive industries on their land.
Lucy Mulenkei of the Indigenous Information Network in Kenya, shared how gold mining contaminated clean water supplies. This, coupled with severe drought from climate change, forces women and girls to travel long distances to procure water, placing them at increased risk of gender violence along their routes. Ana Ceto of the Indigenous women’s organization MUIXIL, shared how communities in Guatemala have been displaced by hydroelectric dams, robbing them of their homes and offering no compensation. Meanwhile, across Central America, years of severe drought has forced families to submit to a harrowing migration journey north.
As we listened to these women exchanging their stories, I heard echoes of the resolve that resonates from Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and rural mothers throughout the Global South and in border communities in the United States with whom MADRE partners. They are committed to organize on behalf of their own and others’ children so that today’s and future generations will be healthy and safe, will know self-determination, economic and food security, will live sustainably in connection to their land.
In Sudan, for example, the local organization Zenab for Women in Development founded the first and only women’s farmer’s union in the country. Today, thanks to Zenab, union members—many of them mothers—are learning to tackle the effects of climate change by diversifying crops, increasing reforestation, and composting while simultaneously advocating for policies that will support climate justice on a national and international scale. On the remote northern coast of Nicaragua, too, Indigenous Miskito women and girls are facing the worsening effects of climate change and environmental degradation at the hands of extractive industries. Here, mothers are mobilizing with the organization Wangki Tangni in response to disasters and, through community radio programs and intergenerational forums with adolescent girls, promoting environmental justice and women’s and Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
The risks for doing this visionary work – facing powerful forces responsible for climate crisis and environmental exploitation – are real. A mother and daughter, Tulia Maris Valencia and Sara Quiñonez, have long worked to defend Afro-Colombian communities’ collective rights, to confront extractive mega projects and mining, and to organize for peace. Over a year ago, their government imprisoned them on false charges in retaliation for that activism. This Sunday, Tulia Maris and Sara will spend their second Mother’s Day behind bars. In retribution for her work to build a safer life for her own daughter and for all children, Sara has missed more than a year of her daughter’s childhood.
This Mother’s Day, we have an opportunity to honor mothers like all these, to amplify their calls for change and to put a spotlight on their essential work. Because in all corners of the world, mothers are turning their heartbreak and horror over climate change and environmental devastation into creative solutions. These solutions have immediate local impact, like building clean water systems and seed banking to preserve future harvests. And these solutions and strategies are generated from the perspective of mothers, who are responsible for those most vulnerable to climate change, and whose voices and leadership must be centered in national, regional and international policy debates.
These solutions remind us of what potential lies waiting, if each of us would only channel the power that comes from a mother’s knowing what is and isn’t right – and does something about it. If we could each be inspired by mothers like these, we would be well on our way to promoting more proactive, creative adaptations to climate change and to all crises we face. We would be ready to mobilize with a mother's urgent resolve, as if our land was spouting fire, to stand up to extractive industries that devastate biodiversity and Indigenous lands – from North Dakota to Nicaragua and beyond.