New faculty: Sylvia Cifuentes

New Mount Holyoke faculty Sylvia Cifuentes has a special passion for feminist environmental studies and hopes to continue to collaborate with Indigenous women’s groups in their advocacy for climate justice initiatives.

When Sylvia Cifuentes heard about the position for professor of environmental and social equity and justice at Mount Holyoke, she instantly knew it was a perfect fit. Cifuentes grew up in Ecuador, where her mother worked as an anthropologist. From an early age, she would tag along on work trips in the Amazon.

“As I was growing up, I studied different things, but I was always interested in social justice,” she said. That interest led her to a master’s of science in environment and development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. From there Cifuentes entered the world of intergovernmental institutions, hoping to work with environmentally centered development projects. But that wasn’t what happened.

“I found I wasn’t very happy with the kind of work they were doing. I was often critical of the projects,” she said, explaining that many initiatives pushed economic growth at the cost of the environment and barely involved marginalized groups. “That motivated me to get my PhD.”

Cifuentes’ research centers Indigenous climate initiatives for and definitions of climate justice. “Too often, nonmainstream knowledge is not even considered in climate change conversations,” she said. In her fieldwork she has found that Indigenous organizations propose their own climate mitigation and adaptation initiatives that reflect, or are founded on, Indigenous knowledge and worldviews.

One of the many things that attracted Cifuentes to Mount Holyoke was seeing the students’ passion for climate justice during her campus visit. “It was clear that students were very interested in this and in Indigenous issues,” she said. Beyond that, though, Cifuentes is excited to be working in a community that centers highly engaged women and gender-diverse people.

In a new project, she plans to study how gender shapes climate change adaptation in the Amazon, especially in regard to women and agriculture. Cifuentes has a special passion for feminist environmental studies and hopes to continue to collaborate with Indigenous women’s groups in their advocacy for climate justice initiatives. “Amazonian women leaders often highlight Indigenous women’s major role in agriculture — knowing about nutritious plants, for example — and in adapting to climate change,” she said. Analyzing that work is one of her priorities right now.

And she hopes her students will join her. In the years to come, Cifuentes looks forward to bringing Mount Holyoke students on fieldwork trips to Amazonia so they can gain first-hand experience with engaged research and learn more about how to support Indigenous- and women-led efforts in the fight against climate change.

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