The rise of Samoan women in conservation - by culture, merit
About a month ago, we were in a meeting with three village Mayors (male Chiefs) to discuss the implementation of the first carbon offsetting project for Samoa by replanting more than 12,000 native trees in the O le Pupu Pue national Park.
The aim of the project by Samoa Conservation Society and funded through the Small Grants Programme was to train young people on basic forestry skills and equip them with enough knowledge to strategically plant native trees across the national park.
Three villages were asked to submit the names of 10 young people between 18 and 35 who would be trained and implement the project in one year.
Upon receiving the list, I noticed something that I tend to note every time I do anything involving communities. There were no young women on the list. The three village Mayors who were leading engagement had each gone through their respective councils for nominations and endorsement of the 30 young people and had come out with a list they deemed most appropriate for the activity.
“To be honest, I would find it very hard to request a mother to release their daughter to work deep in the forest with a group of young men, it’s just not a feasible option,” one village Mayor said.
His statement drove home the point of the gender challenges in climate change. Women were not being included for fear of their safety and other cultural values and perceptions, but in doing so, marginalised women who were genuinely interested in the work.
After further discussions, a compromise was met, each Mayor would include two women in their nominations and that the women would work in the nursery and assist in the monitoring of the project, instead of being in the forest.
Cultural consideration of gender
Although some cultural inhibitions may inadvertently prevent women from taking part in some small-scale climate projects, at the national level, women have risen to high level positions that determine national direction on climate change policy and practice.
From the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, to the C.E.O. of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to one of Samoa’s negotiators under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Samoa’s representation is strongly women.
During a visit by a high-level United Nations team looking at gender discrimination in Samoa last year, one of them attributed women’s success at the national level to “family support”, in doing so, this person took away the strength and ability of these women to rise by themselves on their own accord.
Two years ago, while I was working for the International Labour Organization, an employment specialist from Geneva, who had worked all over Asia and Africa and had 30 years of field work under his belt, met counterparts from private sector, Government, N.G.O.s and individuals. We talked to 21 representatives that day, all heads of their respective organisations. When we were done with the daily consultations, he was shocked to reflect that out of that 21, only three of the people we met were men.
The observation by the visiting specialist drove home the point that when it comes to merit based professional settings, women have demonstrated a natural ability to climb the ladder and progress through the ranks of Government, N.G.O, Private Sector and regional organisations without bias from their male counterparts.
At the community level, it is well known that when you want to get something done immediately, thoroughly and with all hands on deck, you approach the women’s committee.
“We have found that women tend to take on projects to heart, are committed to the longevity of projects and have a particular passion that we can depend on during implementation,” said Su’a Julia Wallwork, Executive Director of A.D.R.A. Samoa, an agency that has extensive climate projects across Samoa.
When you go into a village, although the men tend to surround the coveted poles in the open traditional fales during the village meetings, women still have an active and influential role that tends to be disregarded if not diminished by concepts of western feminism.
There tends to be misconceptions that their physical absence is translated to ideological absence, when in fact women so much to do in the village that needs not only to be acknowledged but embraced. During our meetings in development of climate change projects or conservation projects, there are always women who lead aspects of the work at the community level, and this is very encouraging.
Perception vs Reality
In my experience and I am sure it is the same for my fellow female colleagues who represent their organizations in the implementation of projects and carrying out of outreach activities with village councils, I have not once felt ill at ease being the only woman in a fale full of matais (chiefs) or of high ranking male officers or Ministers of Government. Never once in my experience, specific to this area, have these men undermined the programmes I deliver because I am a woman, or I am young or I am from an international organization. In my experience and from what I have witnessed, merit based professionally placed women are openly accepted and embraced at the village level by male majority village councils in the implementation of environmental programmes.
Yes, there are challenges at the village level with issues pertaining to women’s access to decision making, and other family based issues, but when it comes to the implementation and the integration of gender into climate change projects and outreach activities, I have found that through a careful negotiation and culturally considerate approaches, we can include more women and ultimately ensure that gender is mainstreamed into environmental projects and programming.
After Cyclone Gita, the Bank South Pacific offered a three to six month suspension on loan repayments to assist families who had to recover their homes and properties after the disaster. The initiative, a first from the Samoan banking sector, was initiated by the only woman head of a commercial bank.
Samoa Country Manager, Taitu’uga Maryann Lameko-Vaai in her announcement said: “This means to assist with rebuilding efforts, our customers who were impacted by the cyclone will not have to make any repayments on their loans for up to three months or six months in most severe cases.”
It is through these lenses of a mother, of a woman having to care for and think of many different aspects in the home and professionally that women have actively made a difference both environmentally and socially in Samoa.
It is clear that there is a dichotomy between cultures placement of women in the village and merit based placement of women at the national level, but if we view the Samoan woman as a single entity based on her ability to affect change in conservation or in any other facet of her life, then we are truly capable, and we have truly made a difference.
Women in Climate Change
Conservation International helped me realise a dream with the launch of the Women in Climate Change initiative in January this year. With the endorsement of Samoa’s first woman Parliamentarian, Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, W.I.C.C. brings perspectives together not just to celebrate women working in the various multifaceted areas of climate change, but also to find ways to further the inclusion of gender perspectives in our work on conservation and climate change.
The invitation to members of the Initiative to the Pacific Climate Change Lunch for the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern was testament yet again to the innovative nature of this initiative.
The World Bank and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, whose climate work are led also by women, have already offered to host subsequent meetings of this initiative.
At the end of the day, it’s not only in the leadership of women that assures change, but rather in the strategic inclusion and culturally considerate approaches that we take, endorse and promote through our work that will ultimately ensure that women, girls and those who identify as women, are encouraged and automatically considered as key to entities in any community or national initiatives on climate change. That is true progress in gender considerate conservation approach.
*Lagipoiva is the Oceans and Climate Change Manager for Conservation International Pacific. She is a founding member of the Samoa Conservation Society and Women in Climate Change.