Maria Alejandra Escalante has been an active member of the climate justice movement for a long period of time, which partly culminated in her co-founding of TierrActiva Colombia. TierrActiva Colombia is a youth led platform that works towards systematic change on both national and regional levels. As the Climate and Environmental Justice Advocacy Officer at FRIDA, Maria is a crucial cog in a team which empowers brave women, girls and trans youth with the resources that they need to amplify their voices, bring deserved attention to the work that they are doing, as well as network and support to keep the vision and influence of these young people alive.
First, we are interested in understanding a little bit of who you are, where you come from, and what’s your story. How did you first become interested in women’s rights and representation and in climate and environmental issues?
I am Maria Alejandra. I grew up in Colombia where I have always felt a strong connection to the diversity of its lands, and to the ways in which the struggles for land rights sit at the center of the current social and political conflicts that we live in. I became interested in the meaning of food production and rural life in Colombia, where family farmers are still the ones that largely feed this country but keep on being dismissed and displaced by neoliberal state and economic policies that puts profit before people and the environment. This led me into embedding myself in the multiple meanings that land and territory have, from its geography to its geology, to the spiritual representation to different communities and the many ways in which land and bodies are interconnected.
I have had the opportunity to join in with and learn from many climate justice activists over the past few years, particularly since my studies on Human Ecology at the College of the Atlantic, in Maine, US. I joined youth climate activist collectives and attended several UN Climate Negotiations, organising in this space alongside feminists and women to show what real climate action means to the most impacted communities by climate change around the world. My most exciting and enriching moments in this journey are definitely tied to the organising and working alongside other youth collectives in Colombia and throughout the region, and since starting a group of us – diverse young people – came together as a collective that works towards ecological and social justice through different pedagogical and activist methodologies. At TierraActiva, we learn from what ecosystems show us and re-imagine what land, social, environmental and climate justice looks like over here and we work towards those imaginaries.
The people’s demands on climate justice have allowed me to understand that the rooted division of nature versus society is based upon a colonial and capitalist assumption that land and its resources are meant to be owned and used by humans to serve the economic interests of modernity and development. Under this same logic, bodies are seen as disposable tools for profit. As extensions of the land, which those in power believe is there to be exploited.
The exploration of my own body, sexuality and inherited notion of gender goes hand in hand with the process of desiring the liberation of lands and territories from exploitation. Racialized and sexualized bodies have also been divided and used to serve the purpose of the few, invisibilizing our diversity. It is in this interconnection that my work and activism claims the ownership of territories from extraction and the rights for our bodies to be free from exploitation, harassment, and objectivization, to take care and wellbeing as a central aspect of resistance to the capitalist patriarchal relations we are inevitably embedded in.
Therefore, my work on rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people and on climate and environmental justice, happens through an intersectional lens with the aim of liberation, autonomy and recreation.
"We need to claim our imagination and capacity to dream, and we need support and solidarity to make those worlds come to life."
You are a co-founder of TierrActiva Colombia, a collective working under the slogan ‘systemic change, not climate change’ and the building of alternatives centering justice, care and the sustainability of life in the face of the climate and environmental crisis. Can you tell us a little bit what climate change looks like for people in Colombia, especially for women and girls?
In Colombia, climate change is a reality that is felt more intensely by those whose livelihoods are more closely intertwined with the land and at the forefront of the impacts like coastal communities, fisherfolk, small agricultural producers, indigenous and rural communities, and women part of these communities.
These are all peoples already facing vulnerabilities due to deep economic inequalities that come from the violent conflict we have had in Colombia for decades, the increasing expansion of drug trafficking, and the ongoing government support towards extractive, mining and fossil-fuel industries.
The direct impacts of climate change – extreme droughts and floods, unpredictable rain patterns, sea level rise, and loss of biodiversity – exacerbate the difficult realities that these communities already face. As is the case for many areas in the region, these situations generally impact women first, given our traditional role as carers of the household. We also know that women are the first to resist neoliberal policies that erode community access to water, land and resources. And that women land defenders face threats, surveillance and are targeted for their roles as carers of these communities. Additionally, in this scenario, indigenous and rural communities have been forcibly displaced from their ancestral territories, becoming even more constrained and dependent on precarious livelihoods in urban settings. For women, this often means a larger exposure to informal, exploitative work and in some cases, human trafficking; aside from the different impacts on their physical and mental health.
Equally critical is the continued and systematic assassinations of social and environmental leaders all over the country who demand an end to exploitation and are raising their claims around environmental and social protection – unsurprisingly, most of them are indigenous, rural and Afro Colombian women and youth. Colombia has one of the highest numbers of environmental defenders silenced, harassed, and murdered in the region.
One of the many interesting things you are trying to encourage today with FRIDA, is to reconsider and reshape power in relationships, to reimagine how resources flow, how we value expertise and how we relate to each other as human beings. Those are extremely important considerations, especially in the context of the climate emergency (it’s part of the “just transition” many people talk about). Can you develop a little bit about what it means for you, and what message do you want to send to climate leaders/entrepreneurs/NGOs about this issue.
The global climate emergency is calling us all to take immediate action as we reimagine society and enhance the power of those alternatives that are already happening everywhere. By this point, it is quite evident that the exploitation of nature is only driving us over the tipping points where human life as we know it can no longer exist. Currently, we live in the most extreme version of capitalism where the wealth of the few is put before the needs of the many. At FRIDA, we are aware that we must center those who have been at the margins of capitalism and the patriarchy for centuries in order to reinvent an economic and social system that responds to the challenges of the climate crisis. Those at the forefront are young women and trans youth from the South, diasporas, and indigenous and native communities in colonized areas ofthe North fighting for their futures.
We can learn from the wisdom of women and trans youth. We can learn from organising society towards climate and environmental justice and through the feminist movements. Looking to these we learn to:
Put care at centre: in a globalized social system full of different forms of structural oppression, this wisdom is essential as it builds coordination, strategy, trust, and care amongst historically marginalized communities.
Defend: in order to face the challenges of the climate crisis, we must change every piece of this system. This is already and will keep shifting from elites, corporations, and fundamentalist governments to civil society movements, communities, and collective structures that defend all of society.
Support movement building: resourcing these movements and accompanying them to bring about their visions to thrive into a world of equity where practices around ecofeminism, self and collective care, sovereignty and decoloniality can guide more coherent ways
of existing on this planet.
One of the messages I would like to put out to other climate leaders, entrepreneurs, NGOs and funds is the following:
Be flexible: allow the organic and non-linear social processes to drive the work, instead of putting organizational goals in front of people’s priorities.
Be inclusive: center the leadership of those whose perspectives have been historically marginalized. Learn to listen and give space to their priorities, needs and timelines.
Enable diverse leadership: check who is taking up space and who is not in the work that is being done. Explore the different ways of leadership that people from these communities bring.
Young people are on the frontlines of climate action. They are leading and shaping change. Women and girls especially, are organising in creative and impactful ways in the climate movement, but they often remain absent from decision making processes and key movement building spaces (especially women from the Global South, Native women, women in rural areas, young girls, girls living with disabilities, trans youth and gender non-conforming youth, etc.). Can you talk about the importance of including all women and girls in climate negotiations. And how can we make this happen?
The UN climate negotiations will never generate the outcomes needed to respond to the climate crisis unless there is a huge change in the leadership and the decision-making processes at all levels; from international to regional, from national to local spaces. Without this change, the leaders of fossil-fuel corporations, and corrupt and neoliberal governments can continue tricking the system as they have done for the past 25 years to avoid real commitments towards climate action, without being accountable to anyone.
Many of these people you have mentioned – women from the Global South, native and indigenous women, women in rural areas, young girls, girls living with disabilities, trans youth and gender non-conforming youth – should and want to be sitting at those decision-making spaces to change the course of these politics. Representation matters in places like the UN and all instances of political power. It should be a priority for funds, NGOs, and the climate justice movement to provide as many resources, capacities and skill building, sharing of knowledge, opening of spaces and protection and care to them as needed. For the global climate justice movement in particular, showing this support is embedded in deep processes of reinvention, recognition of how much space white, northern, and male dominated leadership has taken for many years, and an opportunity to become truly intersectional and decolonial.
Yet, the UN climate negotiations are not the only relevant instance when it comes to creating change, and if anything, I think it’s time to decentralize our global climate justice activism focus from these intergovernmental negotiations to local and regional efforts achieving results with an increasingly visible impact to communities. To be able to attain that socioeconomic transformation that the vision of climate justice offers, people everywhere need to push for change to they need to be the change, particularly in levels that are directly relevant to them. We need to claim our imagination and capacity to dream. For that, we need support and solidarity so that we can make these worlds come to life.
We’ve already talked a lot about the importance of having a gender perspective in the fight against climate change in The Beam, but we rarely talk about concrete examples and what it really means for individuals. Do you have any stories to share with our readers about this? Maybe among the organisations that FRIDA has supported, organisations that are working on dismantling the patriarchy, addressing human rights violations, climate justice, and overturning inequalities?
There is an article – Challenging the oil industry through community action in Western Uganda – which is written by Wangüi wa Kamonji, one of FRIDAs Climate & Environmental Justice Fellows during the last program in partnership with OpenGlobalRights. This piece in particular centers Kaiso Women’s Group, a youth feminist-led collective that FRIDA supports, and the work they do in the province of Kaiso Tonya, an oil-dependent region in Uganda. There, nature and people’s livelihoods – especially those of women and youth – have been put at the service of the oil industry and this has impacted the wellbeing of that social and natural ecosystem in the search of profit and accumulation.
Kaiso Women’s Group has been bravely organising to raise the power, spirits, memory, and imagination of their community through different forms of practical, artistic and spiritual practices. Under these conditions: “what Kaiso Women’s Group demonstrates is that solidarity, community and the determination to sustain in generative ways of life can be equally unstoppable”.
Another story is that of Corporación Sihyta, another young feminist-led group in Bogotá, Colombia, supported by FRIDA. This article is a report on the work that the group has been doing to protect part of a wetland in Bogotá. The wetland is threated by a construction which is set to include a mall and residence buildings. This wetland is not only a piece of heaven in the concrete urban area – providing life, biodiversity, and oxygen particularly to a sector that is already socioeconomically marginalized -, it is also a symbol of sacredness for the indigenous cultures that used to inhabit this territory. As the members of Corporación Sihyta explain, wetlands, and the particular rivers that feed the one they protect, are closely tied to women’s regenerative energy. Thus, protecting this wetland and the life it sustains, honors the ancestrality of women’s indigenous bodies that once were bearers of this territory. Stories like these demonstrate the lived intersectionality of issues that sometimes is only presented in theories and concepts that we share around. The youth leaders mentioned are an example of a joyful, wise, political, and strategic resistance.
You have created a fellowship to support feminists who are working on telling the untold stories of climate and environmental justice. Why is this so important, and what impact do you think these stories can have on climate action?
The Climate & Environmental Justice Media Fellowship at FRIDA in partnership with OpenGlobalRights was created to support four fellows to highlight collective, grassroots, young feminist organising in the face of the climate crisis through the lens of diverse, young feminists climate activists themselves. The Fellowship sought to increase such visibility by providing professional accompaniment and a paid opportunity to four fellows in their writing and journalistic skills, whose solutions-based articles are evidence of the type of resistance and alternatives that grassroots activists and communities are putting forward.
This Fellowship and the stories that it has generated are essential for many reasons. On one hand, they counter the individual saviour narrative that the media likes to create around climate activist figures. The climate crisis has been endured, faced, and resisted by communities. Alternatives and solutions are constantly rising in their collectivity. To re-center community-owned solutions is realistic, empowering, and shows a sense of ownership of actions and solutions. In a media context where the climate crisis is bleak and displays a dystopian future, communities are showing a sense of ownership of actions and solutions which tells that there is a true and real alternative to the current system.
On another hand, these articles written as a personal account by young feminists themselves allow the space to build our own narratives and imagery, which is in itself an act to decolonize the stories that we have heard and received about ourselves from the gaze of those who dominate mainstream media. This is a powerful act of claiming terms, forms, and concepts, and setting an archive and a precedent about the history of ecofeminism around the world.
Narrating these stories is one part of recreating the climate justice movement, nurturing it with diverse perspectives, and by doing so, diversifying and complexifying this social movement so that we can respond to this crisis with autonomy, creativity and equality at the forefront.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, something we haven’t talked about, that you want to share with our readers ?
The current global health crisis lets us see the sickness of our society, which is the same sickness that brought about the climate crisis: inequality, exploitation, consumerism, exacerbated by the neoliberal privatisation of services and resources of the recent decades.
Much has been said contrasting one crisis with the other, trying to talk about one crisis within the other and trying to anticipate the effects that this will have on short and middle term climate action. The Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice – a coalition of diverse NGOs, groups and movements from the south and northern allies that I am part of with TierrActiva Colombia – has put it succinctly in the latest statement related to this moment: “The pandemic has changed the game. We have the resources to build an economic model that doesn’t trash the planet and provides for all. We have the momentum to recover from this crisis in a way that builds our resilience and fortifies our dignity as societies. Now is our time to claim it”.
In one way, this health crisis cracks a small window of opportunity to redefine the meaning of development, and go after global redistribution of resources, the investment in public services (health, transport, education, communications, energy), build ecological and feminist economies, tear down the fossil-fuel industry and national borders. This compound crisis prompts us to mobilize towards these visions in global yet decentralized ways. What is at stake is big here, and I believe it is crucial to nurture and invest in the radical imagination of the possibilities of transformation and build power from there.
I see young women, trans youth, and rural communities in different regions of the Global South and in under resourced areas in the North providing crucial care roles in this pandemic as well. Many of them are shifting from their activism to attend this immediate crisis, often providing crowdfunding relief to communities that are losing their income and that do not receive State services. Young feminists are playing a crucial role during in this pandemic just as they do in the climate and environmental justice activism. At FRIDA and through TierrActiva, we believe in the importance of lifting up this work and to keep on learning from the resilience and bravery of intersectional feminist movements.