Mother Earth and Resource Extraction: Women Defending Land and Water

Gendered Impacts of Resource Extraction

Leer la versión en español de este contenido: Los impactos diferenciados del extractivismo

What befalls the earth, befalls the women of the earth. When the land and water are ravished and poisoned and destroyed, the women are deeply affected. As Indigenous women, the connection to our homeland is not only physical, it is biological and spiritual. We have always been on the frontline when our traditional territories are put at risk.
Alma Brooks, Maliseet grandmother, St. Mary’s First Nation, New Brunswick

Gender is paramount to resource extraction. Most explicitly, the overrepresentation of males as the predominant labor force at work camps and elsewhere begins to confirm the place of gender vis-à-vis resource extraction. A more complex and deeper understanding of resource extraction, however, acknowledges the multiple and compounding ways gender undergirds it, and vice versa.

As an economic development model, large-scale resource extraction is founded on and maintained by principles that treat Mother Earth, specifically Indigenous and Afro-descendant territories, as terra nullius—barren land to be possessed for profits and power. This is the logic that privileges the accumulation of private property through the dispossession of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities from the spaces where reciprocal relationships to land, water, and other living and non-living beings have been forged. Such entitlement propels and awards non-consensual relations with the land, its people and resources. And the authorization of power through coercion is a distinction of mainstream notions of masculinity.

Therefore, it is not surprising that those who most directly experience the negative impacts of resource extraction are women, children, and non-normatively gendered sexually oriented persons, especially Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. It is even more unsurprising that it is particularly women who are leaders in the defense of land and water from the impacts of large-scale resource extraction.

The gendered impacts of resource extraction can be grouped broadly into five overlapping categories: social, economic, health, environmental, and political and include but are not limited to the following examples.

In terms of social impacts, women and their families undergo displacement from their communities, suffer destruction of Indigenous ancestral knowledge, and sustain various forms of gendered and sexual violence linked to the influx of male workers in their communities. Moreover, the state tends to disinvest from communities where extractive projects operate; as a result, state-funded social services are weak or non-existing.

Economically, discrepancies in job pay between temporary Indigenous women laborers and permanent external male employees at extractive sites create a wage gap that hinders women’s ability to meet their basic needs. Household costs rise while the housing stock decreases leading to precarious living situations. Women who are parents face additional barriers, such as securing affordable childcare. While at the workplace, women face harassment and discrimination.

Health-wise, a range of illnesses and diseases have been linked to living near extractive operations: cancers, gastrointestinal and skin maladies, and miscarriages. The rise in domestic violence, substance abuse, and sex work are additional mental and public health impacts that place undue burden on the lives of women.

The contamination of air and water sources contribute to the health impacts of resource extraction. These, too, are some of the sector’s environmental impacts. Chemical spills and leaks into the land and water sources cause environmental degradation as does deforestation. The redirecting of waterways and appropriation of water by the extractive sector causes water shortages. Entire ecosystems are destroyed as corporations manipulate land and water to make way for the vast infrastructure required to run a successful extractive operation.

Indigenous women also face political and civil consequences when they speak out in defense of land and their communities. Women are often stigmatized, threatened, criminalized, and even assassinated for their political work protecting human rights, their territory, and the environment. Women are ostracized from their communities and often endure smear campaigns for challenging social, specifically gender, norms and expectations. Community leaders and members, state actors, and corporations attack women land and water defenders’ character and question their roles as mothers and wives. For daring to imagine a notion of social relations beyond the nuclear family and private property models, they as well as their relatives, particularly children, deal with a range of consequences; these include: the physical and mental health affects of being the direct or indirect targets of physical harassment and or bearing witness to the repercussions parents, extended family members, or community leaders face in the defense of environmental and human rights.

For an additional list of gendered impacts, see Susan Manning et. al.’s report “Strengthening Impact Assessments for Indigenous Women.”

Indigenous women from across Turtle Island and Abya Yala are clear: the abuses that transpire on the land and water also materialize as violations on women. The Women’s Earth Alliance and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network write how the effects of ecological damage on Indigenous communities and their territories constitute what they term environmental violence, “The disproportionate and often devastating impacts that the conscious and deliberate proliferation of environmental toxins and industrial development (including extraction, production, export and release) have on Indigenous women, children and future generations, without regard from States or corporations for their severe and ongoing harm.”

To consider the gendered impacts of resource extraction is to engage with centuries of dispossession intensified in the last decades by shifts in the global economy that overplay speculation and consumption for profits. What women land and water defenders are doing, then, is protecting the environment and upholding an understanding of life based on reciprocal and consensual relationships with Mother Earth and her bounty.


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