In the battle to save the world’s forests, women are leading the resistance
Elif Shafak/ The Guardian:
This summer, as Rhodes was ravaged by wildfires and the world witnessed the destruction of precious trees and fragile ecosystems, on the opposite shore in Turkey, only miles away, ancient forests were being felled for the sake of more coal, more profit. But what the energy company hadn’t reckoned with was the resistance of local women.
Akbelen, in the province of Muğla, is a woodland of about 730 hectares (1,800 acres) that provides a natural habitat for a diverse range of flora and fauna. It is this beautiful place that YK Energy, a private energy company, has been aiming to occupy in order to expand an open-pit lignite mine to supply a thermal power plant. The combustion of lignite (brown coal) generates more CO2 emissions than hard, black coal, making it the most health-harming variety. For the last four years, villagers and environmental campaigners have been holding vigils to protect the forest. But the company has carried on.
This summer the tension came to a head when chainsaw teams began to cut down trees. Those who resisted were stopped harshly by the gendarmerie. The scenes that followed looked surreal. Armoured vehicles were brought in, and water cannon and teargas were used. At least 40 protesters were arrested. It is difficult to know how many trees have been destroyed so far, as there is no transparency, but the number is estimated to be more than 65,000 – at least 60% of the forest.
The authorities in Muğla claim they will plant 130,000 saplings to compensate for the destruction. But the speedy, slapdash planting of young saplings after destroying entire mature forests is often just a political gesture that yields no positive results. In 2020, the Turkish government rushed to plant 11 million saplings. Of these, more than 90% died.The resistance in Akbelen is supported by large segments of Turkish society, but those leading the movement are local villagers, especially village women. These traditional matriarchs are not at all politically motivated people. They have been catapulted into the public space in their determination to protect the trees and safeguard the future of their children and grandchildren. Videos have circulated across Turkish social media. In one of them, a woman says: “I went and hugged my trees, I kissed them. Every time a tree has been cut, I felt like I lost a limb.”
The dedication of these matriarchs, as well as the solidarity and sisterhood between rural and urban women, has been profoundly inspiring. Deniz Gümüşel, a senior consultant on environmental and climate policy, shared photographs of her bruised arms, her biceps curled in a feminist gesture meaning “We can do it”. What is happening in Akbelen reflects a wider global trend. As the climate crisis accelerates, and biodiversity and natural habitats come under attack by greedy corporations and authoritarian regimes, it is mostly women who are leading the resistance.
Traditional village women coming to the rescue of trees is not a new phenomenon. In India in the 1730s, Amrita Devi, a fearless woman from Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community, led a resistance against the destruction of khejri trees; 363 people died trying to save them. Amrita’s bravery was retold through stories, and has left an impact in India and beyond. In the 1970s, the Chipko movement in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, led by rural villagers, mainly women, also acted on the principle of nonviolence even though they were subjected to violence themselves. And the Chipkos’ actions to protect the forests on which they depended for their livelihoods was rerun in 2021, when hundreds of women in the northern Indian state shielded trees with their bodies to stop them being felled, just as the women of Akbelen are doing today.
Traditional matriarchs all over the world are resisting. In Uganda, local women have been leading inspiring movements to stop rampant deforestation caused by commercial logging and the burning of charcoal. In Ecuador, women are at the centre of collective efforts to stop the loss of mangrove forests.
In Indonesia, in North Sumatra, indigenous and rural women have been the most vocal opponents against the wrecking of habitats by mining companies and plantations for pulp and paper. And the Indonesian campaigner Aleta Baun – Mama Aleta as she is known to many – has stood in the way of big business, organising protests with 150 other women. Baun, who has been awarded a Goldman environmental prize, comes from the indigenous Mollo people, who believe that plants have souls.In Brazil, women from the babassu nut breakers movement are campaigning to diminish the damage of deforestation , and to empower communities. In Kenya, the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement, was widely reported as saying, “The tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya.” She and her colleagues believed that the fight to protect trees goes hand in hand with the fight against poverty and systemic inequality.Matriarch-headed campaigns to protect ancient forests are passionately adapted by new generations today. Youth climate activists such as Leah Namugerwa in Uganda and Fatou Jeng in the Gambia have been carrying the baton, initiating tree-planting campaigns. In Senegal, a project was launched titled “For every newborn, one tree”. This Ndoloum Vert initiative not only encourages reforestation but also identifies each tree with a human being, dismantling the illusion that we are outside and above nature.