‘Young women are indispensable in the struggle for a healthy living environment’ – interview with our founder Marie Kranendonk

For fifty years, Marie Kranendonk, founder of WECF, has been fighting for a healthy living environment for women and children. Even after her retirement, the 81-year-old environment activist does not surrender: there is still plenty to do for women.

Text: Jenda Terpstra

 “Look, over there is the chemical company Sachem.” Marie Kranendonk is standing on the Stadsdijk along the river the Waal and points her finger. In the distance, the traffic on the A2 roars along on an imposing cable bridge over the rippling water. On the industrial park behind it lies the chemical company. The expansion of the company at the foot of the Hanseatic city of Zaltbommel is causing a lot of distress with her and many other residents.

“Sachem is a high-risk company that works with hazardous materials. Yet it is located close to three schools. And now they want to expand.” On the railway and the highway right next to the factory, transports of poisonous material take place regularly. “But as residents we have no knowledge of any contingency plans. What do we do if something goes wrong?” Kranendonk walks worriedly on top of the dike. Her dog runs enthusiastically ahead. “Max, come back! Max!”

Kranendonk is 81 years old now and visually impaired. Despite that, her mansion in the historic center of Zaltbommel still functions as guesthouse for WECF partners who come to visit the Netherlands. Even though she has been retired for several years, important matters – such as the chemical factory in her own hometown – unleash the activist inside her.

“Citizens may participate in discussions about their living environment as equals, but often without any say in the matter. In Zaltbommel we need an expert who can help us to get our facts straight about this expansion. But the province just doesn’t want to cross that bridge.”

Emerging environmental movement

The battle against the chemical factory Sachem is the latest in a long series of environmental actions in which Kranendonk was involved. She was appointed coordinator of the National Environment Council in 1979, an umbrella organization in which nature- and environmental organizations, founded in the ‘60s and ‘70s, were united. Big names such Natuurmonumenten (Nature Monuments), Waddenvereniging (Mudflats association), Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth the Netherlands), World Wildlife Fund Netherlands, Institute for Nature and Environment, and the Small Earth were part of it.

As a ‘fledgling mother’ she had already met the upcoming environmental movement in the years before. In 1972 she faced the municipality of Muiden in court. She had, along with other residents, discovered that chemical factory Naarden was dumping toxic waste in a lake in her neighbourhood.

It was the year that the Club of Rome published its controversial environmental report ‘the limits to growth’. The United Nations held its first conference on Human Living Environment. “Attention for the environment was emerging everywhere. And we too wanted a healthy environment for our children.” Kranendonk won in that courtroom, much to her own surprise. A seed was sown for her life as an environmentalist.

In the years that followed, Kranendonk studied Spatial Planning and Environment, then still a brand new subject at the University of Utrecht, and became a volunteer at the environmental group in Muiderberg and Milieudefensie. In order to achieve something, you have to have knowledge, as she had learned in court.

Women, unite

It is 1992, when Marie Kranendonk attends the now famous UN summit in Rio de Janeiro for the National Environment Council. World leaders have come to the ‘Top of the Earth’ to make agreements about sustainable development and the environment, but Kranendonk also notices something else. “The voice of women had become incredibly important. Women’s networks that played an important role in the environment and sustainable development emerged everywhere: in the United States, Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Europe did not have such a network yet. So we had to establish one!”

Back home she drums up women’s organizations in her European network. It results in a major conference in Sweden, where WECF is founded: Women in Europe for a Common Future. At the UN women’s summit two years later, in 1995 in Beijing, WECF takes the lead in the theme of environment and health. There, WECF becomes acquainted with women from ecological disaster areas.

“There were women from the Ural area in Russia, where a nuclear disaster threatened public health.” In 1957 a storage tank with radioactive material exploded in Mayak in a large nuclear factory complex. Because the Soviet authorities did not handle the disaster properly, Mayak became one of the most polluted places on earth.

“Environmental pollution has a negative impact on the health of all residents. But especially for pregnant women and children, a small dose of toxic substances is sufficient to be very harmful.” Kranendonk therefore decided to get involved with her organization and help these women in their struggle for a clean environment.

Environmental disaster in Uzbekistan

At the UN summit, Kranendonk also meets women from the region around the Uzbek Aural Sea, where one of the largest environmental disasters of all times took place. When the Soviets introduced large-scale irrigated cotton cultivation in the ‘30s, the Aral Sea gradually dried up. “It was an ecological disaster. Animals and plants died, fishermen lost their livelihood. You could see their boats just lying on the white salt crusts.”

Agricultural poison from cotton cultivation slowly contaminated the remaining water and soil. “To make matters worse, Uzbek people had to work on the cotton fields, where airplanes sprayed the land with chemicals. Even if women and children were present on the field.”

WECF initiated a research with the help of an Uzbek pediatrician, a team of Dutch researchers from the RIVM, and Professor Janna Koppe (neonatologist at the AMC) and Professor Rudi Boersma (Pediatrician at the University of Groningen). This research showed that the chemicals could be found in the umbilical cord blood of babies. “The poison affected the immune system of children, caused pregnancy problems and reduced fertility, we discovered. Yet the Uzbek government did not change the policy. It was harrowing. The cotton cultivation simply continued as usual.”

Women on the world stage

This is one of the moments where Marie Kranendonk realized she’s sometimes fighting a losing battle. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Political interests and barriers are often too strong to challenge.” For example, grants for WECF’s projects in Russia slowly come to a standstill after Putin came to power. Cabinets in the Netherlands fall, which means social organizations time and again have to sit down with new policy makers. That is difficult, Kranendonk says. “But even if we do not win, we do always start a discussion. And that is necessary to ultimately get the politicians to move.”

WECF started in 1994 with ‘half’ an employee, Kranendonk says laughing. “But we were enthusiastic, and started, full of ambition and idealism.” Her daughter Sasha Gabizon, who was then employed at an environmental institute in the German city of Wuppertal, ran the first projects in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Now, 25 years later, WECF is a worldwide network of 150 women’s organizations in fifty countries. Her daughter Gabizon is now WECF’s international director and has a leading role in the UN lobby group Women Major Group.

WECF participating at the UN level is something Kranendonk finds important. “From the beginning, our strength has been that we prepare local partners and take them to the world stage. Women from countries with environmental issues, such as Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Indonesia or Nigeria, can outline their problems ten times better than we can. Bring them to the table with the men in grey suits and let them tell you what the policy means for the health and living environment of women and children locally. This approach is still bearing fruit.”

Private industry scared

There is an important task, especially for young women, Kranendonk says. “Young women with strong arguments who speak on behalf of mothers and children, can greatly scare private industries.” In the past, women didn’t have a voice at all, she says. That’s different at present. Nowadays, there are more women working in private industries. “They often appeal to concerns for the future and to concerns about harmful effects on health and the environment.”

According to Kranendonk, men often bring short-term goals, feasibility and economic interests to the table. Women look for the long-term, for quality of life and health, and a future for the children. “Without women, that’s a lost case,” she says fiercely.

And there is still plenty to do for women. Take the pre-packaged food wrapped in plastic. “For years it is known that packaging contains hormone disrupting substances which are very harmful to pregnant women and babies.” Like Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in many plastic products. The smallest dose of hormone disrupting substances, or EDC’s, can disrupt the development of the fetus, Kranendonk says. “That’s well known, but the government and industries are pushing it aside.”

The consequences are severe. According to Kranendonk, the number of diabetic patients, children with behavioural problems and young people with breast and prostate cancer and obesity keeps growing. “These are all effects that are associated with hormone disruption. Yet the food industry continues to use it. Unfortunately, European regulations do not yet prohibit this.”

“The lobby of the industry is strong, and the government backs them up. You will see it time and again: economic interests are decisive. But who will take care of the society, of the health of women and children?”

Staying afloat

Environmental organizations have been under pressure for dozens of years as a result of grants being terminated, says Kranendonk. Moreover, in The Netherlands there is no longer a ministry with the word ‘environment’ in the name. She sees it happening with sorrow. “I am old now, it’s now up to young women and young mothers to stand up and say: ‘we don’t want this anymore’.” Private industries will have to give in at some point, she says. Angry women who are fighting for a clean future for their children can have a huge societal impact.”

The continued existence of environmental movements like WECF is therefore necessary. Passionately she says: “We are the only organization still at the table in the semi-annual consultation between government and chemical industry.” After the European policy plan for harmful chemicals (REACH) was adopted in 2006, many environmental organizations terminated their work in that area. “The implementation of that new policy had yet to start, so we stayed. Without funding, so therefore voluntarily. Who else would stand up for the interests and health of citizens?”

Whether activism is in her blood, Marie Kranendonk does not really know. She laughs shyly. “I did get a strong sense of justice from my upbringing.” Her father died at a young age, and Marie was raised by her mother and grandmother, two strong women. From them she learned that one should always help people who ask for it. “Now that’s become an automatism. I have also given that same sense to my daughter Sascha, I think.”

These are hard times for the environmental movement, and Kranendonk hopes that the women of WECF will persevere. “You need to have patience. In our line of work it takes ten to twenty years before you can see change. But at some point there’s no alternative anymore. Then a societal issue becomes too big or too visible. Then the government and industries will listen to our criticism and proposals.” She also hopes for structural financial support, so the organization can cover its basic costs. “Being dependent on donations and short-term grants is not ideal. You’re fighting for a pile of money with other organization that you actually should care about. That ought to be different.”

When Marie Kranendonk looks back now, she finds it difficult to say what her merit is. The most precious thing is that WECF has grown into a tight-knit family. “Many partners have found their own way. Yet the bond between us has continued to exist.” According to her, local partners really should get ‘ten awards’ for their work. “We could not have done it without our cooperation.”