Women defenders of the land and the environment: silenced voices

Janeth Pareja Ortiz with Angélica Ortiz, of the Ipuana clan, in the middle of the Aguas Blancas stream, Colombia. They are defenders of human, territorial and environmental rights. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Janeth Pareja Ortiz with Angélica Ortiz, of the Ipuana clan, in the middle of the Aguas Blancas stream, Colombia. They are defenders of human, territorial and environmental rights. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

The expansion of large scale mining activities and agribusiness in Latin America has greatly increased territorial disputes and resulted in an alarming rise in violence suffered by individuals who defend water, land, forests and the rights of women, afro-descendants, indigenous and farming communities. 

Threats, bullying, judicial harassment, illegal surveillance, forced disappearances, blackmail, sexual assault and murder are common practice.

  • Across the world, more than 200 defenders were murdered in 2017. Almost 60% of them were in Latin America.

People defending the land and the environment fight peacefully in the frontline against climate change, the preservation of the world’s ecosystems and the protection of human rights, but at the same time, they are facing terror campaigns on a daily basis that aim to silence their voices. Meanwhile, different governments and companies are not assuming their duty to guarantee their safety and tackle the root causes of such assaults.

Women defenders, in the eye of the storm

In this context, women defenders are perceived as a threat because they question and jeopardize the power structures that are based on class privileges and gender discrimination. Moreover, they routinely and clearly denounce just how harmful it is for humanity to continue supporting a system that permanently exploits life on the planet. These women are the victims that most suffer the consequences of the loss of access to land and natural resources.

In addition to the risk that women defending the rights of the land, the territories and the environment have to face, they also have to withstand the difficulties derived from living in rural areas, from belonging to farming communities, from being afro-descendants or indigenous, from being women or from their sexual orientation or diverse gender identity.

Miriam Miranda, Garifuna defender, Honduras

“In Honduras, like in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, women are in the frontline when it comes to fighting for our rights, against racial discrimination and to defend our environment and our survival. We don’t just fight with our own bodies; we also provide our strength, our ideas and our proposals. We don’t just give birth to children, but also ideas and actions”, said Miriam Miranda, a Garifuna community leader defending the land belonging to Afro-Hondurans struggling against exploitation and plunder.

Silenced voices in Colombia

Since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016 and the subsequent withdrawal by the FARC from the area, in Colombia there has been a sharp increase in legal and illegal agribusiness and mining business models that pose a direct threat to the interest of the indigenous and afro Colombian communities living there because such large scale economic activity carries a severe social and environmental impact in the native population.

Women defenders of the land, territories and the environment are a nuisance to those that have an economic interest in areas with rich natural resources. As a result, they are being threatened and murdered for raising their voices, demanding respect and dignity.

  • Assaults against these women in Colombia have doubled in the first quarter of 2019.

The current government led by President Iván Duque has not carried out effective measures to prevent and protect women defenders of the land, territories and the environment. Indeed, their demands are not even registered. Moreover, the absence of women with political power – in particular belonging to afro Colombian, indigenous and farming communities - has resulted in the country no taking into account their differential reality or gender perspective when tackling the issue. 

Help them defend their voice

In Oxfam, we’re fighting so that the valuable contribution by these women defenders is acknowledged as well as to protect their lives, their right to be leaders and to live with dignity in their communities. As a result, we work together with organizations that are experts in the field so that they can be trained to prevent violence, self-defense and to protect their communities. Moreover, we support their demands and emphasize their situation, both nationally and internationally. But this is not enough.

We ask the Colombian government to listen to these women defenders and to apply specific urgent protective and preventive measures in order to reduce the alarming numbers of murders and threats. We want the criteria of these women to be applied since they know better than anyone else the problems they’re facing, their land and the needs of their communities.

Make the Colombian government listen to their demands loud and clear by joining our campaign.

Photos: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam