While trekking through the lush Guatemalan jungle years ago, local environmentalists encountered a problem. Fundaeco, a conservation group they worked for, wanted them to engage the local communities, and enlist their help in protecting the valuable ecosystem. But half of the population were too sick to help.
"Here we were trying to do conservation, trying to get communities involved in conservation, and women were dying giving birth," said Marco Cerezo, Fundaeco's general director.
In rural Guatemala there are stark rates of maternal and neonatal mortality, and limited access to health care of any kind, let alone reproductive care.This realization spurred Fundaeco to shift its focus on not just rainforest conservation but also women's health. And it found something remarkable: in the areas where women were given access to reproductive health care and education, Fundaeco's conservation efforts started to improve. Helping women wasn't only the right thing to do, it was a major contributor to protecting the rainforest.
Without prioritizing the health and role of women in the community, there's only so much progress to be made on an environmental front, according to Felisa Navas Pérez, the president of one of the forestry concessions in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, which shifts forest stewardship back to local indigenous communities.
"One of the challenges is educating people to understand that women have to be active in all fields and decision-making processes," Pérez told me. "Otherwise it creates a conflict between what is good for them as a woman and the actual decisions that are made."
But Cerezo and other like-minded conservationists have struggled to get recognition with the worlds of conservation and women's health. Even as more evidence mounts that the two efforts benefit each other, many in the global development field are reluctant to break down long-established silos.
I met Cerezo in Guatemala City, far from where he and his colleagues do their field work. He told me that he presented this idea the global conference for the International Union for Conservation of Nature last fall. This summit is held just once every four years, and is the world's largest gathering of conservationists, but Cerezo's ideas on combining women's health with environmentalism were not embraced.
"If people understood how powerful this is, they would get on board."
"Unfortunately, only about 35 people attended," Cerezo told me.
But what he's preaching seems to work. Fundeco started to provide reproductive health care, including midwifery and new medical clinics. And the women, in turn, started to become advocates for the rainforest, especially since they're usually the ones directly interacting with natural resources.
"Women in these communities are the ones who go out to fetch wood, or collect water, and if they're not empowered, the community doesn't even know if they had to walk for four hours to get firewood [because of deforestation]," Cerezo said. "If they're not even allowed to complain, then nobody will take care of the problem."
The organization now operates the largest network of rural women's health clinics in Guatemala, with 22 clinics in some of the country's farthest corners.
"The women are healthier, they're using family planning methods, and they're becoming leaders," Cerezo said. "They can participate in taking care of their water, and forests, and all of a sudden women are becoming our main partners in the community because they're health, they feel better, and they're empowered."
So far, all the evidence they have is anecdotal, which Cerezo said it frustrating. There's a "gap" he says, between what researchers sitting in labs say and what he sees every day in the field, and it makes it difficult to convince his peers in conservation that this kind of collaborative approach works.
Robert Engelman, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group in DC, co-authored a report for Worldwatch that combed through scientific research to look for evidence of the impact population health, particularly reproductive health, has on the environment. They found a smattering of data points that showed a positive impact: in general, when women have access to reproductive health care, they're more likely to participate in their communities, and that has a positive impact on conservation efforts.
But nothing was anywhere near conclusive. Part of the problem is that it's tough to get funding for this kind of research, and it's difficult to execute: how, for example, would you do a control group? Offer one group of women in the community access to reproductive health but not others?
Engelman said it's also not been a priority on the ground. This lack of peer-reviewed evidence, combined with a squeamishness about treading too close to population control, has made it even more difficult to convince people that it's the right move.
But major conservation groups have dabbled in the idea of folding in women's empowerment and health care to their environmental goals. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, has a program in partnership with CARE, the international relief nonprofit. Though it used to do some work on health care, the focus now is purely on women's empowerment. The workers in this program have seen results, too, but also struggle with preaching the importance to the wider conservation community.
"Field staff tend to get it more," said Althea Skinner, a senior program officer with Care-WWF. "There's a bit of a disconnect in terms of having a conversation about gender integration in conservation. There's a gap between the field and headquarters. If people understood how powerful this is as a tool, they would get on board."
For now, those involved in this kind of strategy are soldiering on, hoping that enough anecdotal evidence might compel other groups to give this holistic approach a shot. At the end of the day, even if a direct link between women's health and conservation can't be established, is working together towards a common goal really such a bad idea?
Travel expenses while reporting this story were funded through a fellowship provided by the UN Foundation.
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