Sad-eyed ladies of the drylands

A hot ticket in Beijing: The International Conference on Women and Desertification.

Published June 5, 2006 6:34PM (EDT)

A reasonably encouraging statistic: At a conference in Beijing last week, a senior forestry official announced that China's deserts were shrinking by 7,585 square kilometers annually.

But it was the venue of the announcement that caught my eye: the Beijing International Conference on Women and Desertification. The juxtaposition of the female gender with ecological devastation jarred me right out of my Monday morning routine. Huh?

2006, it turns out, is the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, as designated by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Some 40 percent of the world falls under the category of "drylands" and about 1 billion people derive their livelihood from them. These include some of the poorest regions on the planet. And as one might expect in a world where women routinely get the short end of the stick, the most impoverished regions of the world are also where women bear the heaviest daily burdens of survival.

The underlying premise of the International Conference on Women and Desertification is that the best solution to desertification is a "bottom-up" sustainable development approach. And since women are, by and large, primarily responsible for food production, fuel gathering and water hauling in the drylands, a solution has to begin with them. Feminism plus sustainable development equals a halt to ecological destruction.

It's a tall order, but not an impossible one, as field studies from around the world indicate. It's also every bit as much a story of globalization as the battles over free trade and climate change. As an overview of the issues involved notes: "globalization and technology also constitute, within limits, opportunities for women's advancement. They provide women in drylands with the possibility to foster their alliances by informing other women about, and being informed of their challenges, achievements and demands... Although religious, economic and cultural differences mean that women's interests are diverse, they can use technology and information to draw attention to their common disadvantaged situation."

A pessimist might argue that the potential for impoverished women to network together is a feeble platform from which to challenge the massive international flows of financial capital and pressures for privatization and deregulation that characterize "Washington Consensus"-style globalization. But seen within the context of larger efforts, such as "the end of poverty" approach of economist Jeffrey Sachs and the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, the linking together of women's rights -- access to education, healthcare, land title, financial credit -- is precisely the kind of attention to root causes that is necessary to keep globalization from destroying the globe.

I was immediately reminded of April's Goldman Environmental Awards, where Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won a Goldman award in 1991 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, made a surprise appearance. Maathai is rightfully famous for many things, but her most widely known achievement is the Greenbelt Movement, which has planted over 30 million trees in Kenya and neighboring countries. Maathai's rhetorical finishing flourish (and I'm quoting here from a dodgy memory), "Until you've gotten down on your hands and knees and dug in the dirt and planted a tree, it's all just talk!" signaled exactly the kind of bottom-up approach to being in the world that seems so far afield from World Bank analyses and International Monetary Fund position papers. No surprise, then, that in the world of "women and desertification" studies Maathai's name is never more than a footnote or sidebar away.

And on that note, here's a passage from the speech presenting her with her Nobel Prize, quoting a poem by the Norwegian poet Halldis Moren Vasaas.

"The Woman Is Planting

"The woman is planting a tree in the world.
On her knees, like someone in prayer,
Among the remains of the many trees
That the storm has broken down.
She must try again, perhaps one at last
Will be left to grow in peace.

"And this is how Moren Vesaas ends the poem:

"She sees the hands outspread on the earth
As if trying to impose her calm
On its threatening tremors. Oh earth, be still,
Be still, so my tree can grow.

It's Monday morning -- deserts may be shrinking in China, and Wangari Maathai rocks hard. Go plant a tree.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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