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Power on the ground and in academia
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Power on the ground and in academia

Bertha Lutz stands on a ladder next to an airplane with a pilot in the front while people look on.
Bertha Lutz stands on a ladder next to an airplane with a pilot in the front while people look on.

Bertha Lutz, a Herpetologist, campaigned for women’s rights around the world in Brazil in the mid- and early 20th centuries.Credit: Arquivo Nacional

We began teaching a course on women and science to undergraduate and graduate ecology students at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 2020. The course featured lessons from many Brazilian women leaders of social movements. We chose speakers based on our network and knowledge in the field. We also drew from their experiences to create the content.

The idea for this course was inspired from a talk by two women who spoke at ECO 2019, an event that was organized by graduate students to discuss graduate research and life. They used the stories of four women scientists to address the problems faced by graduate students and the lack of women in senior positions at our department.

Hypatia, a philosopher-astronomer and mathematician from the fourth century ad, was an educator at the Museum of Alexandria. Maria Merian, a naturalist in the seventeenth Century who was the first European naturalist to observe insects directly, Enedina Allves, the first Black woman in Brazil to graduate with an engineering degree in 1945; and Bertha Luz, a twentieth-century Brazilian herpetologist at Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum of Brazil, was an advocate for women’s rights.

We were inspired by the talk and decided to create a course to explore these issues further. We came up with a syllabus that featured 16 invited speakers, all women, half of them from academia, and half from organizations and social movements. The academics came from a variety of fields, including philosophy, neurobiology, and urbanism. Some classes were designed so that two speakers could exchange ideas. The coronavirus pandemic in Brazil halted the course’s first face-to–face classes in March 2020. Six months later classes resumed in an online format. It was completed by around 20 women and 2 males.

Social power

Online, we chose speakers from social movements to be prioritized because our main objective was to show students how fighting for ecological rights and sustainable development go hand-in-hand with human rights.

Eight speakers shared their rich lives and struggle for social and environmental justice. Miriam Nobre, a woman who promotes women’s rights in agriculture, spoke about the connection between feminism, environmental action, as well as Brazil’s transition to sustainable agriculture. Cris dos Prazeres spoke about ReciclAo, a recycling project sparked by a 2010 landslide at Morro dos Prazeres, a favela, or informal settlement, in Rio de Janeiro. Cris demonstrated how the discussion is linked to environmental justice and how women became key participants in the project.

Juliana Depr from the Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining spoke about the environmental impacts of mining in Brazil and how the movement fights human rights violations in the industry. She also discussed pollution caused by drainage from mines and incursions into Indigenous peoples’ territories. Mining has been a subject of prejudice and violence against women for a long time. However, the industry is seeing an increase in women and they have played a prominent part in social movements for mining.

These and other talks raised questions about the relationship between gendered and environmental issues. They also explored why women often assume major roles in social or environmental movements, at the least in Latin America.

There is a clear link between ecology and social rights. Data shows that vulnerable groups are most affected by human-driven natural catastrophes like desertification and landslides. According to 2019 UN data, women face more problems than men in many of these situations. Climate change, for instance, can lead to food shortages. Women will often prioritize feeding their children and partners over themselves, and will also consider the impact on their health. Gender insecurity in food security increased in 2020. Women are now 10% less likely than men to be affected, compared to 6% in 2019. And globally, there are 4.42 million more women living on less that US$1.90 per person.

A sustainable future

It is crucial to combine and communicate technical scientific knowledge in order to explain the relationship between global economy, environment and women’s rights. It is necessary to have a dialogue to discuss and offer alternatives to the patriarchal structure, while also highlighting the importance of women’s work and how it relates to the environment.

Our course covered the connection between ecological and environmental problems, vulnerability, and health. These topics are very relevant to women, which the students discovered. The course highlighted the importance of academic and non-academic collaboration in knowledge production. It was also clear that we need to urgently develop a new ethic in care, which is centered on the sustainability of life, and focuses on equality, justice, democracy and harmony with the environment.

The last day of the course was a discussion in class about how it went. We also asked students to fill out an anonymous survey. We were all more aware of how we could work together to create a more sustainable future. This was evident from the evaluation of the results. The WhatsApp group for courses became a place to support women in distress and to share information about women in science and environment. It was also open to environmental professionals across Rio de Janeiro.

Our view was that the course’s transdisciplinary nature, which brought together invited speakers from diverse backgrounds, were the key to its success. The topics covered issues that are relevant to both urban and rural environments. Speakers addressed the political, academic and cultural spheres. We allowed the invited speakers to express their ideas in a variety of ways: some presented a slide-show presentation, others showed the physical space where they worked with colleagues, and some engaged in very personal and emotionally charged dialogues with students.

Online invitations allowed us to invite speakers from other parts of Rio de Janeiro. However, students were limited in their opportunities to volunteer for speakers’ projects and organizations as part a learning experience. It could have given students hands-on experience in project development and helped them develop their leadership skills. We are planning to continue the course and hope to save this element when the university resumes face to face activities.

We can all work together to create links between academia and society in order to democratize science, and continue our pursuit of sustainable development.

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