Skip to Main Navigation
FEATURE STORYAugust 8, 2022

Indigenous Women Leaders Persevere Amid a Changing Climate

Photo collage of Indigenous Women leaders. From left to right: Joan Carling, Agnes Leina and Myrna Cunningham.

From left to right: Joan Carling, Agnes Leina, and Myrna Cunningham 


  • Shifting climatic conditions have disrupted traditional Indigenous food systems and threatened many of the foundational elements that bind Indigenous Peoples together.
  • As traditional food providers, Indigenous women are frequently at the forefront of efforts to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.
  • The World Bank recognizes and supports their efforts through funds that strengthen their stewardship of natural resources, ensuring an inclusive, gender-responsive approaches.

Agnes Leina grew up in Baragoi, a market village in Northern Kenya where, to this day, there is no running water. Like other girls from the pastoral Turkana tribe, Leina was responsible for fetching water from the river. In times of drought, the task could take up to six hours of her day, compared to 20 minutes during the rainy season, causing her to miss school. The river and another one near the town have since completely dried up. One of Leina’s first acts after securing her first job was to buy a water tank to store rainwater for her mother and their community.

Today, Indigenous women like Leina have emerged as climate leaders helping their communities adapt to the changing climate as a means of survival – a role that also requires they navigate an increasingly uncertain landscape marked by climate change, environmental and cultural challenges.

Agnes Leina addresses a gathering outdoors. She wears a blue and white garment and is speaking into a microphone.

Agnes Leina, from the Turkana tribe in Northern Kenya, is the Founder and Executive Director of Il'laramatak Community Concerns.

Photo: Courtesy of Agnes Leina

When Myrna Cunningham and Joan Carling were girls, predictable climate conditions and reliable harvests were key to fulfilling women’s responsibility for the steady production of food. “The concept of owning collective land means that each family has the responsibility to plant the crops that provide food for the family,” says Cunningham, an activist from the Miskito community on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua and the first Miskito woman doctor. However, climate change has brought unpredictability, including with food production, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and floods. In November 2020, Hurricanes Eta and Iota decimated and displaced several Indigenous communities, forcing many in the Central American coasts to migrate to near-by urban areas.

The story is similar for Joan Carling of the Kankanaey Indigenous peoples of the mountainous Cordillera Region in the Philippines. Climate change in the Cordillera has led to more intense and frequent monsoons and landslides, displacing entire communities. Peace accords among Indigenous communities have led them to “take in” other displaced peoples. “When we adapt to climate change, it's using our values of cooperation, not competition,” says Carling.

Three women pull on a rope on a beach. The one on the left wearing a pink dress with a floral pattern is Myrna Cunningham.

Myrna Cunningham (pictured left) is an activist from the Miskito community on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua and the first Miskito woman doctor.

Photo: Courtesy of Myrna Cunningham

Climate Change Threatening Cultural Identity

A changing climate has also led to greater uncertainty for those who depend most on nature, particularly Indigenous Peoples who safeguard an estimated 80% of the world’s biodiversity. An increase in extreme weather events and shifting climatic conditions has disrupted traditional Indigenous systems for food , leaving communities more vulnerable than ever. In fact, weather-related disasters were the key driver of acute food insecurity for 34 million people in 25 countries.

Climate change affects more than just food and water security: it also threatens many of the foundational elements that bind Indigenous Peoples together through their cultural identity and attitudes towards their elders and natural resources, say the women climate leaders. All three mentioned how climate change has undermined the ability of the elders to guide their peoples on where and when to hunt, fish, plant, graze animals, and gather essential seeds and plants. 

“Everything is totally confused,” says Leina. “That system of elders organizing people is no longer there.” Cunningham echoes this sentiment, stating that “some of the younger generations are not being guided by their elders like they were before.”


Rising temperatures have led to greater uncertainty for those who depend most on nature, particularly Indigenous Peoples who safeguard an estimated 80% of the world’s biodiversity.


Many Indigenous women have turned to commercial activities to provide food for their families, exposing them to the fluctuations in external market factors that they do not control to meet basic needs. When COVID-19 hit, many communities that relied on the market for food security faced far greater fragility. In the Cordillera, women are planting and selling potatoes, beans, and tomatoes when their traditional food crop was rice. In the Miskito societies, they are selling fish – a job that was traditionally undertaken by men. Perhaps most detrimentally, women in Baragoi are subdividing and selling plots of their land as a means of securing cash income.

As Indigenous Peoples begin to view their natural resources as a commodity to be bought and sold, they lose their sacred connection to the land and their sense of duty to maintain and preserve it, leading them to settle in urban areas, according to Cunningham and Carling. This migration renders obsolete the spaces that Indigenous Peoples once gathered to exchange knowledge, ideas, and customs and build the system of mutual cooperation behind Indigenous customs and norms. Migration to urban areas and the consequences of a changing climate have undermined those traditions, they say.

Exacerbating these issues, Indigenous women are largely left out of the decision-making process, despite their role as guardians of the environment – and despite their exceptional vulnerability to climate change.

Joan Carling smiling, wearing a blue and white patterned dress. In the background, a lush valley with houses and bushes.

Joan Carling is from the Kankanaey Indigenous peoples of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines.

Photo: Courtesy of Joan Carling

Putting Women-led Organizations at the Center of Climate Action

While the challenges are many, solutions exist. Indigenous women depend most on nature to fulfill their daily responsibilities and therefore women-led organizations need to be at the center of adaptation and mitigation policy dialogue and projects in these communities. Such projects can take the form of grants to facilitate access to water and schools, investment in Indigenous food production systems, training in new technologies to collect water, and investments in renewable energy.

Indigenous women are not waiting to act. Leina, Cunningham, and Carling described numerous examples of women innovating at the community level to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change: planting trees along the river, collecting pine needles and using them to reforest the area, reviving indigenous seeds and setting up seedbanks, preserving food, learning new handcraft techniques, and saving to invest in rain-harvest systems. The generational transfer and preservation of traditional climate knowledge has made women climate experts, innovators, and problem-solvers. As Leina puts it: “Women take care of society -- from their family to the whole society. For them to take care of society, they have to take care of nature.”   

The World Bank has been supporting Indigenous communities through several trust funds and lending projects. Funds that mobilize resources directly to Indigenous peoples include: the Dedicated Grant Mechanism (DGM), which since 2015 has financed $80 million for activities related to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), designed and implemented by Indigenous Peoples 12 countries. Similarly, the Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility has worked to support Indigenous Peoples’ meaningful participation in climate change dialogues in their countries since 2008, while the recently approved Enhancing Access to Benefits while Lowering Emissions (EnABLE) trust fund will support Indigenous Peoples’ engagement in emission reduction programs.

After all, generation after generation of Indigenous women have honed the practices and knowledge that keep crops healthy, water clean, wildlife conserved, forests protected, and families fed in many parts of the world.  Their leadership will key to bring about transformative change towards low-carbon, climate resilient development that fosters gender equality.


    loader image


    loader image