Throughout many cultures, women have historically held the role of primary food, fuel and water gatherer for their families and communities. Because of this, they have also had a major interest in trying to prevent or undo the effects of deforestation, desertification and water pollution.
In 1974, a group of about thirty women in the Himalayas of Northern India united to save more than 10,000 square miles of forest watershed. Deforestation in the Himalayan forests had caused landslides, flooding and major soil erosion and had forced women villagers to hike further up the mountains to gather fuel. Now known as the Chipko Movement, Hindi for "to cling," the name reflected the protesters' practice of throwing their arms around the trunks of trees marked for chopping and refusing to move. This practice and term later became popular in other areas of the world and was popularly called "tree-hugging."
Only a few years later, an ecofeminist movement in Kenya also embraced the importance of trees. The Green Belt Movement started as a local community tree planting effort. The group of women addressed the lack of local water, the effects of soil erosion and the rising challenges caused by their area's deforestation. As with the women in India, the women of the Green Belt Movement recognized that by protecting and replenishing their natural environment, they were also laying the groundwork toward equitable economic development.
Roughly during the same time that the Green Belt Movement was taking off, the Love Canal disaster in upstate New York was gaining attention. Love Canal, a neighborhood situated in Niagara Falls, was built on land adjacent to a chemical landfill site. In 1978, twenty-some years after the neighborhood had been built, chemical waste started to leak through the soil and pool up in lawns and streets across the neighborhood.
A number of families reported unexplained chronic illnesses that later were linked to the chemical waste. President Jimmy Carter eventually declared a state of emergency and hundreds of Love Canal families were relocated and reimbursed for their homes by the government. In 1979, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported on the alarmingly high rate of birth defects and miscarriages that occurred in families living in Love Canal between 1974 and 1979. As a result, Congress passed the Superfund or Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act that held polluters accountable for environmental damage.
Read on to learn more about the women behind these defining movements in ecofeminist history.