A young eco-feminist is using storytelling to change climate policy

Renata Koch Alvarenga is leveraging her family traditions to affect decision-makers with messages on gender and climate change

Young girls running in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Icaro Cooke Vieira, CIFOR
20 July 2021
20 July 2021

In the coastal city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, a young girl peered out from her house balcony. The year is 2007, and Renata Koch Alvarenga, then 10 years old, observed the bustling city and passersby on the street. Her father Enio Alvarenga stood by her, recounting tales of the Brazilian dictatorship and violence in the 1960s.

Her mother, Nara Koch, chimed in. Activism ran deep on Koch’s side, with family members publicly resisting the dictatorship, even risking detainment and public censure despite heavy government repression.

This is not a moment of aberration. To the Koch Alvarenga family, the balcony represented far more than a space of respite. Throughout Renata’s life, it has served as an open-air library and learning space, where family elders routinely reflect and pass down stories of Brazilian resilience, culture and political history. 

It is here that Renata first gained exposure to conversations around governance and diplomacy. Over the years, she has accumulated knowledge through storytelling, from the history of Brazilian independence to the abolishment of slavery in the late 19th century, to the stifling of free speech in the 1964 Brazilian coup. These stories convinced a 10-year-old Renata, that, one day, she would work her way into the high ranks of diplomacy to help reform and democratize Brazil. 

Renata, now 24, works as a political analyst in Rio de Janeiro and is the founder of EmpoderaClima, a multilingual platform that – drawing inspiration from those days and nights on the balcony – uses storytelling and advocacy to spread global awareness of the linkages between gender policy and climate justice to Latin American and Caribbean youth. In its two years of existence, EmpoderaClima has gathered a global network of youth volunteers, created content on gender and climate in four languages, and developed partnerships with organizations including the UN Girls’ Education Initiative and Latinas for Climate.

“I have been focusing my work on this intersection,” Renata says, “as I believe there is no climate justice without gender justice.”

Renata Koch Alvarenga speaks at COP 25 in Madrid. Courtesy of Renata Koch Alvarenga
Renata Koch Alvarenga speaks at COP 25 in Madrid. Courtesy of Renata Koch Alvarenga

EmpoderaClima can also be seen as a continuation of Renata’s matrimonial lineage, which is rooted in Indigenous culture founded heavily in oral history and the importance of intergenerational knowledge. From an early age, Renata says her mother’s stories showed her how to learn from past political events – and, in turn, how to use storytelling as a tool to avoid historical amnesia.

Through EmpoderaClima, Renata unearths stories of how marginalized women are directly impacted by climate change to inform policy and action. At high-level events such as the UN climate conferences (COPs), she then relays these stories to policymakers and sits in on negotiations to track the most important gender policy issues that will affect communities back home.

There are still many barriers to putting policy to practice, she says, and many relevant policy mechanisms never reach the people they’re meant to help, such as regional grassroots organizations and Indigenous leaders’ movements in the Amazon. 

“In Brazil, the majority of people I have talked to – including within the environmental movement – do not know much about the Gender Action Plan of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).” To bridge this gap between the decision-makers and local people, she tries to “tropicalize” key gender and climate documents by translating them into Brazilian Portuguese, making the technical language more accessible and then feeding them to local civil society leaders, who might otherwise be unaware of – and unheard in – decision-making processes.

Communication and lack of transparency further reinforce this problem. “We have great tools for gender mainstreaming in climate funds, but many women environmental leaders in the Global South do not know how they can access them due to countless barriers, such as cultural and linguistic ones,” says Renata. “Much more needs to be done until we can truly translate policy into local action, especially in rural areas and Indigenous communities.”

With COP26 around the corner, Renata has been focusing on securing more gender justice in her country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). More specifically, she’s using stories of young women in the Global South to help advance intergenerational gender equality – an ambitious challenge on many accounts.

“At the global level, the majority of people debating these issues are still from the Global North, and there is not much intersectionality in these conversations,” she says. “There is still a long way to go until we can have gender equity inside the climate negotiations themselves.”

Yet her ethos and pathway remain informed by her family and cultural legacies, which gives her continual hope that change can and will happen. “I am an optimist when it comes to international policy,” she says, “so I really do believe in mechanisms to mainstream gender in climate policy.”

This article was produced in collaboration with the Youth in Landscapes Initiative.

In Brazil, Renata Koch Alvarenga is harnessing cultural tradition to build momentum around the intersection of gender and climate

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