• Yndiana Montes

Ecofeminism Achievements and Challenges in South America


Berta Cáceres on the banks of the Gualcarque River in Honduras. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.


April 2020

Ecofeminism Achievements and Challenges

The human race is creating a planet crisis that could potentially end life on Earth, and this is changing the role of women in South American in them to cope with the dangers of a dying environment. Currently, female leaders are fighting against corrupt governments and foreign investment companies, which poison their air and water in rural areas, villages, and cities. Besides, the environmental women activists from the region face several forms of violence, including murder.

Women and mother nature are being assaulted by the establishment, propelling ecofeminists to become the vigilant ones monitoring and mobilizing people against the resource-seeking and extractive industries. Women are neo-extractivism’s first victims and they are taking a huge toll for defending their children in the remote areas where open mining, deforestation, fracking, and other neo-extractivist practices are taking place. Ecofeminists try to get effective solutions to environmental challenges. There is greater participation of women who engage in “mobilisation, political participation and the organisation of popular assemblies and consultations about the introduction of extractivist projects in their territory,” to get effective solutions to the environmental challenges (Muñoz & Villareal 316).

On the other hand, women learned how to use international support and human rights organizations and they also learned how to “... actively participate in strategies for requesting the preparation of national or international reports on the cases that affect them, mobilising environmental and human rights defenders or international bodies” (Muñoz & Villareal 316). Vital issues and struggling for their communities to have clean water and good food on the table is what originated social activism and led many women to ecology. In the last few years, the interaction between ecology and feminism has taken place in a very natural way, “Ecofeminism is not the product of academic discourse. It was not born in the university but linked with popular feminists and the protests and demands of the lower classes," said Maristella Swampa (YouTube).

I believe that empowering women will increase the equality and equity between them and the patriarchal system, and in that way, environmental damage can be handled in a more sustainable manner. It is my belief that to generate a drastic change that will contribute in a determinant manner to save this civilization, the only alternative is to combat gender oppression and hierarchical thinking.

Poverty, discrimination, deforestation and ecological pollution are threatening life on this planet. Gender equality in the family, the market, the community, and the state are the only hope for defeating the economic dominance of the extractive forces which have prevailed throughout the history in South America, with dictatorships, leftist regimes, and democratic governments.

Neo-extractivism´s first victims are native and indigenous women and the region is “considered to be the most dangerous for leaders and defenders of the environment” (Muñoz & Villareal 312). A report for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) in 2017, affirms that “women defending their lands, communities, and the environment face critical risks and gender-specific challenges,” and that “extractive industries are not only challenging corporate power but also a deeply rooted patriarchy” (Barcia, 2017).

Homicides and impunity go hand in hand in the South American continent, in which to defend the traditional forms of life or fight against this model of development coincides with the increase of murders of activists, “Of the 197 environmentalists murdered in the world in 2017, 116 died in the region and 60% of the murders are related to extractivist activities in agribusiness or mining” (Muñoz & Villareal 312). There is a clear difference between the risks of ecofeminists defying gender norms in the global north than their counterparts in the sub-region. The first ones are not putting their lives at risk like their counterparts in South America, and to fight back for clean water does not generally represent a danger for their lives.

“The persecution and, above all, the number of murders of these activists is increasing in countries (in 2017) such as Brazil (46), Colombia (32), Mexico (15) and Peru (6), coinciding with the deepening in the last decades of the extractivist model” (Muñoz & Villareal 312).

For example, Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist from Honduras who was the cofounder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and was the recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Foundation award, fought for the rights of her people for more than two decades before she was murdered. First, she was forced to hide for opposing the Agua Zarca Dam project on the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco area of Honduras, which was conceded to Desa (Desarrollos Energéticos SA) by the Honduran government. The company launched a criminal case against her when she and other leaders mobilized the community and fought against the concession of the dam. Accused of possession of an unlicensed gun and later for incitement, Cáceres declared, “They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me; they threaten my family. That is what we face '' (Blitzer, 2016). For more than ten years she campaigned to stop the construction of this dam but in the end she was killed inside of her home, “where gunmen stormed in and shot her dead.” Cáceres was forty-four years old (Blitzer, 2016).

Another of the many examples of how the life of an indigenous woman is not worth anything in a country like Peru can be summed up in four words, “mata a esa chola,” (kill that chola, my translation) which is the striking title of Section 4.2.2 of Rocío Silva Santisteban’s book Mujeres y Conflictos Ecoterritoriales, Impactos, Estrategias, Resistencias (2018). A cholo or a chola is a person of indigenous heritage and most of the time the term has a pejorative connotation. If the “chola” rebels against extractivism practices like mining, which was the case of native Petronila Coa Huanca, to shoot her did not seem to be a crime. Petronila was mobilized on the day of Winter Solstice in 2011 with hundreds of other peasants who were protesting for the pollution in the water that the Santa Ana Mine was producing in the Ramis River. A policeman gave the order: “Mata a esa chola!”. This order “is a [direct] representation of machismo, racism, and disrespect for the human life of a woman” (Silva Santisteban, 157).

Challenges

The ecofeminist leaders in Latin America have faced many challenges, which are mainly linked with several expressions of violence, from the State, the corporations, the community and family, and gender violence.

In Central and South America, dictatorships, leftist regimes, and democratic governments not only do not protect and empower women but “corporations and state actors can become the driving force in excluding women from negotiation processes and reinforcing existing gender hierarchies” (Barcia, 2017). The example of how a mining company in La Guajira, Colombia, managed to ignore an indigenous woman who won the election as a community representative and initiated talks with the men of the community promoting a male leadership “who was recognized by the local government as the community representative” (Barcia 2017). Women are the force for mobilisation against neo-extractivism but at the same time, they need to climb the barriers to participate in decision-making processes. Besides being criminalized, stigmatized, harassed, raped, and even killed by militarized groups and armed forces, they are marginalized within their own movements and communities when fighting against the governance, commodity exports, and deforestation.

While neo-extractivism practices are depleting and poisoning South America’s lands and populations will be without their natural resources and left only with wasted lands if grassroots women do not continue taking the task, Silva Santisteban affirms that indigenous and rural women are doubly marginalized, especially if they are not literate and only speak a native language. This marginalization is exercised not only by extractive companies and the State but also by their own partners...” (11) Quoting Gebara, she brings the term “entrega a la lucha,” while a literal translation means “surrender to the fight” colloquially, however, “entrega a la lucha” means that when a woman is immersed in a social fight and is a priority for her. Males feel threatened when women dedicate time to a cause which gives them importance in society because they think it “interferes with the daily performance of domestic tasks, or prevents [the males] from accessing - in a violent or subtle way - to positions of power in the structures of their organizations.” (Silva Santisteban 11, my translation).

This reality makes us perceive “the links between all forms of oppression and violence, and reflect about the political-ideological connection between the domination of women and the domination of nature, which will take us to the philosophical roots of ecofeminism (Silva Santisteban 89, my translation).

On the other hand, the ecofeminists are committed to accomplishing the “cuarta jornada” or fourth journey, which means that after all the duties they have to take care of the children, the household, and the community, women should not refuse to have sexual intercourse with their husbands. In a conference of AWID in Mexico in 2015, a Guatemalan participant complained of the double moral of their partners, “not only the State and the extractive companies see us as inferior but our husbands and colleagues. When a woman is a leader there is more hostility and lack of acknowledgment, and even if we try hard many of our demands do not count in the final agenda of the indigenous movements.” (Silva Santisteban 122, my translation)

In its monthly publication, the Catholic Committee Oscar Romero, which is a printed booklet with more than 100 editions, titled, its November 2019 edition, El Pacífico Colombiano: Lucha y Resiste por la Vida, which translates such as “The Colombian Pacific, Fight and Resistance for the Life”, reads about the consequences that the substitution of crops and illegal mining are having among the girls of the Chocó region, in Colombia, who are raped and taken away from their communities by paramilitary and guerrilla fighters, “this type of exploitation of the land is going on for several years, terrorizing the population.”

Women are victims of sexual violence and are “obliged to become informants of their organizations. The National Army in Colombia is using girls as young as eleven years old. Their fate is to become the property of guerilla fighters, paramilitary or soldiers.¨[1] The paramilitary’s method of operation does not vary substantially of this example given by the leader of the emberá–katio tribe who agreed to talk to the prestigious media house Semana, “Around 70 armed men entered by sea and through the mountains to Buena Vista, Juradó, identifying themselves as ‘autodefensas gaitanistas’ group. They spent the night in our village, terrorizing the community, screaming that they were looking for the guerilla collaborators,” he said. The following day they left for La Victoria and Dichardi Caimito until they got to El Cedral, where they camped, and the tension in the whole area was going up as everybody knew that the ELM guerilla was around. “The autodefensas demanded us to give them our chicken, hens, and pigs, and to cook for them, but we refused because we are determined not to feed or deal with any armed group”. Then, the autodefensas decided to kill their leader but the community hid him. Then the peasants reunited with other villagers who came to discuss what to do but when they were reunited the autodefensas started shooting and they responded. The whole night and the following day were under fire, “The ones that came from other villages couldn’t go back and the children from other communities whose mothers left in their homes with neighbors to attend the meeting went hungry as they could not be breastfed”. Three days after the autodefensas sent a message, “they said we had to leave or they will kill us”. More than two thousand people had to leave for the village of Dos Bocas, which is a more accessible area for the authorities.

The afro and indigenous communities in Colombia are afraid of the escalation among outlaw groups and need to be protected but the government is nor providing protection to them. The village of Juradó is about to get emptied because they are not only afraid of being killed but also because they are afraid of their daughters to be recruited by the ELN, as happened last year when the ELN recruited 9 girls younger than 12 years in this village. They rape them and celebrate saying that fresh meat’ has arrived” (Revista Semana TV, 2020).

In the Colombian Cauca region monocultures are greatly affecting biodiversity and coca plantations are the reason for the victimization of the social leaders. Every two or three days one gets killed, “the problem is the war between fractions. The national army does not protect the population. They are murdering the indigenous movement and more than 50% of several of the Cauca counties are planted with coca”.

After the Peace process was signed in 2016, the guerilla FARC left but as in two years the State did not show up, criminals started coming. Semana’s TV journalist Ariel Ávila reports: “There is a non-stop war in the area, and in the Pacific region we have the highest concentration of confined population, but I admire the social leaders because the movement is still alive and kicking” (Revista Semana TV, 2020). But this is not all for what the Caucanos have to suffer. Because of the commercial war between the United States and China, the gold went up in price, and “illegal mining was revamped in the Colombian Pacific. The rivers are so contaminated that women have to walk 6 or 7 hours to get fresh water because their rivers are full of mercury”, Ávila claims in the new format of Semana TV.

Colombian artists and personalities of the culture scene supporting the ecologies. Internationally known Gloria "Goyo" Martinez, the feminine voice and cofounder of Chob Quib Town, an afro band who is now based in Los Angeles, California, tweeted recently about the increasing violence in the Chocó region. Several years ago, her band named an album Oro, which means gold in English, “because we come from a town called Condoto, where there are big amounts of gold… we criticize a foreigner who comes, takes our gold, and leaves nothing in exchange. People from the entire world come and take our gold." Her brother, Tostao, also a bandleader said, "It's terrible the looting and unfortunately it happens in all the mines of our continent. Besides, they pollute our rivers and our environment.”

In the chapter about sexual violence, Silva Santisteban reports that there is even a verb for raping, “pichanear,” and these rapes are done in groups in order to make each and every one of the members responsible for this criminal activity and in this way everyone is part of the process. She makes a differentiation between the criminal sexual rape and the sexual rape in armed conflicts, in which many times the victims are killed and secretly hidden after committing the crime. She cites four researchers, Boesten (2016) Franco (2013), Segato (2014) and Henríquez (2006), who concluded that these rapes are “not isolated, but a strategy assembled with other domination strategies to control biopolitics in armed conflicts'' (Silva Santisteban 171, my translation). She clarifies that other thinkers insist that these domination chains happen in peace and in war. However, she emphasizes that “any rape is a message of power and appropriation” with the venue of the society, “the machismo and the patriarchy as an ideology and as a system sustains these practices of sexual violence, which get stronger during the social conflicts” (171).

The control over populations is in the hands of these male-dominated groups; policeman, watchmen, or vigilantes. The world of mining is traditionally a world of men, and this fact brings deep implications to the discrimination against women, “in Peru and other Andean countries the traditional tunneling mining has a macho conception based on the imaginary that the land was feminine, and the tunnel; the vaginal entrance space to the Earth” (119). The miner penetrates and women are forbidden to enter these tunnels. Here it is important to understand what is “the dependent patriarchy,” which is “an unequal pact between the colonizing male elites and the men of the towns that were sought to colonize” (Pensar Justo Blog de Danilo Assis Clímaco 2017).

The rural men are usually victims of “a biopolitical project that controls all the lives of humans, animals, land, vegetation, bodies of water and waterways,” and they are more eager to give up their territory for daily pay. This strategy “pursues the dispossession of the lands from who has owned it for generations,” and “this control is based on the dissemination of an organized extractivist common sense about the neoliberal discourse of the 1990s that has deeply penetrated the Global South, argues Silva Santisteban. It is through the unequal alliance between farmers and businessmen, white and local miners, urban and professional connect, ’de hombre a hombre,’ from man to man” (Silva Santisteban 17).

Many conversations are established in men`s terms, and women do not participate in the official discussions, even though they are the ones that organize la resistencia. “Our men discriminate against us” (Silva Santisteban 194). The machismo becomes a bridge which links manhood in the mining activity. On the other hand, mining activity is also perceived as a project of brave and lonely men, "an unusual troop of unrepentant optimists and adrenaline," describes Marcos Zilleri, the director of one of the most popular Peruvian publication, Caretas. Adventures, adrenaline, testosterone: even today mining activity is described from this perspective.

Currently, the large-scale extractivist mining operates open-pit mines with a great technical specialization, which should imply ease of access to women to all types of positions in the industry, including management areas. However, women who participate in the extractive industry are scarce. The magazine Rumbo Minero argues that women only occupy 5% of positions on the board of directors of the 500 largest mining companies in the world (Silva Santisteban 412).

CONCLUSIONS

The long history of this criminal practice is not stopping women from protesting. Despite an increase in the number of cases of rape, murder and legalized injustices by corporate and governmental bodies against activists, it is also evolving the awareness, research and outreach efforts to detect strong and evident connections among governance, gender politics and environmental issues, as it was illustrated in this paper.


· Empowering ecofeminists in the region to gain international recognition and mobilize human rights organizations and public opinion

Many painful stories of ecofeminists are becoming more and more worldly known due to the job, struggle, and solidarity of their counterparts´ defenders in other countries. These stories labeled activist environmental women as eco-terrorists or discriminated against them in their hometowns. Others leaders women in rural areas are raped and suffer “the stigmatization coming from physical and sexual violence, in wounds and death, in persecution, and harassment when ideas take action," says Santisteban, who emphasizes that this model crosses the left-right political polarizations in the beginning of the 21st century (243).

Although the systematic violence against ecofeminists is far from being resolved, an increasing number of eco-activist are more visible on the Internet and have become not only community leaders but politicians representing the minorities as members of congress while others continue in the heat of social mobilizations, both with thousands of followers through social media. The Internet and social media have played a crucial role to report violence against ecofeminists; to educate and awareness on ecofeminism struggles issues around the world; to capitalize global mobilizations, and particularly to empower women and women organizations specialized in environmental activism.

For instance, non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), like EarthRights, have been fundamental in cases like the 2016 Goldman Prize recipient, the activist Maxima Acuña from Chaupe, Peru. EarthRights were effective in promoting online awareness when it was fighting against the transnational company Newmont and Minera Yanacocha and received very strong support in social media (234).


· Maintaining awareness and outreach campaigns using traditional and online media, as well as social media

Using the Internet, ecofeminist and their challenges gain constantly international visibility, awareness, and help. While “progressive” and the leftist governments have continued to depend on extractivism — which is now in its most hi-tech phase — the environmental impacts on the health and lives of Latin American women and their families are exposed to the world. This is not enough to stop the international and national institutions which promote the new extractivism model and that is “focused on the delivery of the territory to mega-mining or large companies of hydrocarbons, hydroelectric or monoculture, without any respect to the native peoples or the local population,” but it is a reality that ecofeminists are spreading their struggles to request international support (89, my translation).

Social media has been very instrumental in empowering the ecofeminist and facilitating the recognition of the activists, who actively participate in different activities to inform directly about what they are doing against neo-extractivism, war, and machismo. For example, the leaders of the Colombian organizations Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres from Cauca, Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres from Chocó, and the Organización Indígena from Antioquia just to name a few, are constantly traveling to attend conferences and meetings all over the world and update their Facebook pages whenever the action takes place.

However, these efforts are not enough to fight against neo-extractivism. Santisteban affirms that the "capitalism by dispossession," has been increasing in Latin American countries (240). But the eyes of the world are on these criminal alliances between states and neo-extractivist corporations, as well as non-military armed groups. “According to UN Women (2017), Latin American and Caribbean women suffer various types of discrimination in relation to, for example, the use, ownership, and work of the land. They account for less than 12% of the population benefitted by agrarian reform, administer percentages below 40% of the region’s land” (Barcia,2016). Women have been historically excluded from land ownership and they are considered just mothers, daughters, and wives in the household, and also helpers in the agricultural tasks, but not partners.

Governments of any political and ideological spectrum are constantly working on incentives and policies to support the investment of large capitals of extractive companies and they try to make the regulations of environmental, cultural, and health standards more flexible. But the indigenous, rural and poor women, and their families across the subcontinent are fighting back and also receiving the solidarity of conservationists’ non-profit organizations and diverse institutions linked with the environment around the world.

Actively showing in social media and in public performances, rural women learned quickly that to be present on the Internet will help them protect themselves. In an interview on the Peruvian TV, Silva Santisteban referred to the performance which went viral “The rapist was you.” The lyrics are striking and cries about the abusiveness toward women in the big cities and remote villages: “They’re the cops, the judges, The State, The President, the oppressive state is a male rapist...” Blindfolded, women of the subregion are singing this anti-patriarchal hymn hundreds of times, in squares, highways, and everywhere. This manifesto was created in Chile at the heat of the recent social mobilizations and quickly found a huge echo all over the world and definitively in the subregion because it is against violence.

While it is the truth that the ecofeminism seems to be more increasing structured and empowered in the region thanks to the international visibility and mobilization of eco-activists and their organizations through the Internet and the social media, it is important to highlight other challenges to improve legislation, norms, policies, campaigns and strategies to mitigate the violence against ecofeminists.


· Providing to ecofeminist activists and organizations instruments and strategies for monitoring and research extractivist industries transparency and effects in their communities and for reporting to public and private about sectors

I am totally agreed with Silva Santisteban when she says: “there is a need to institutionalize a monitor system which will prevent the attacks to the defensors” (Silva Santisteban 256). States and governments from the region need to work closely with civil society organizations, universities, and the private sector to design or improve alert systems to activate their resources and avoid violent aggressions against ecofeminists. At the same time, a monitor system will allow: to collect current and relevant data for status reports; and to assess the available policies and programs related women and rural women rights such as gender violation, access to education, access to jobs, political and civil rights, association and representation rights, land possession, among others.

For instance, academics, journalists, and environmentalists are working their way to represent these brave women. With her party, Frente Amplio, Silva Santisteban is now in the Peruvian congress fighting for women’s rights. The law should recognize the right of the woman to their territories and water, the same way as males. To update this information through data, “showing that are the women the ones that manage and get the water. It was stated in the Declaration of Dublin in 1992, that ‘women have a priority role in the agency, management, and protection of the water’” (255). Lastly, the Sustainable Development Goals of the U.N. addresses the global challenges women are facing “Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80 percent of households without access to water on-premises” (Muñoz & Villareal 2019:315). It is a must to contribute with funds and support for “the preparation of national or international reports on the cases that affect them, mobilising environmental and human rights defenders or international bodies such as the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) (Muñoz & Villareal 2019:316).


· Assessing environmental and international investment regulations to promote legislation reforms

On the other side, it is become urgent to review current legislation on protected territories and promote laws reforms with an emphasis on women rights, territories protection from extractivism, and environmental issues. In this sense, the ecofeminist organizations and activists must play a substantial role in national-based coalitions. For example, an emblematic case in this respect was the struggle of Mesa Nacional contra la Minería Metálica, with a strong female role, which succeeded in stopping the Pacific Rim and Mina El Dorado in El Salvador and prompted this Central American country to approve a law in 2017 and be the first legislation in the world to ban metal mining, open or underground, due to the environmental and human impacts it causes (Muñoz & Villareal 2019:316).

To claim for laws of protection of their territories and the end of the mining projects is also a priority, as is proven that the ultimate goal of these mining companies is the physical disappearance of anybody that contradicts them and fight against pollution of their water and waterways. The law reforms on this issues will also contribute to avoiding violence against activist women: “the anti-mining actors are the winnipegs of social conflicts... ‘they are not only stigmatized, but also denounced, criminalized, prosecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and, if they are women they are also sexually abused and in both cases, killed’” (Silva Santisteban 277).

Current researches and reports that in vulnerable territories with the presence of extractive industries the violence against women comes from several fronts: government, companies, hometown, families, and security forces. Several cases and complaints in Piquiá de Baixo, Brazil; Conga, Peru; Intag, Ecuador; and Siria in Honduras; show that “women are also protagonists in experiments of militant research, providing data and autonomous reports that serve to inform the communities in contrast to the official information of companies and governments,'' being these researches and reports “important instruments of denunciation and visualization of the harmful impacts generated in several spheres by the extractive projects” (Muñoz & Villareal 2019:316).

A well-designed, institutionalized and effective implemented monitor system of any type of crime against women in extractive areas, and a robust set of legislations to penalize violence against women and the environment constitute imperative actions and goals for the ecofeminism in the region, as well as, for the development of more democratic, fair, inclusive and equitable.


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[1] According to Documentos del Ocote Encendido, these irregular groups are: Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).