In early July 2015, a team of lawyers and anthropologists from ERI’s Peru office participated in a meeting of the Network of Women Social and Environmental Rights Defenders in Quito.
The event was an excellent opportunity to hear the courageous stories and frustrating testimonies of indigenous women defenders of human rights and the environment from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay.
This international network was created to expose the impacts of mining on women, supporting their struggles, questioning the system that continues to colonize indigenous peoples, their territories and environment, and the greedy plunder of natural resources for the benefit of mining corporations.
The details of each story varied as to what types of repression they experienced, the kinds of extractive activities that occurred, and what kind damages to the environmental and human health they suffered. But they all had one thing in common: their opponents always describe these women as “mad women and witches who advocate on behalf a few ragamuffins.”
It is not news that large-scale extractive activities, such as oil and mining, cause irreparable environmental damage. And that frequently, these industries are accompanied by social conflicts, acts of resistance, and lobbying campaigns by the affected communities.
But these communities also mobilize to make these social injustices visible internationally. With ERI they requested a thematic hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the situation of repression women earth rights defenders in Ecuador.
Many explained that they had to play a more active and public role facing growing frustration over corruption among male leaders who “are able to sell their conscience and our lands”.
Women go out with their wawas (babies) on the back, leaving other small children at home and their farms neglected to defend the territories.
If the path to defend human rights and the environment is fraught with challenges for male leaders, lawyers and activists, it is just as challenging and much, much more, for these women.
The visit to Ecuador reminded me that as women, we should not expect prince charming save Mother Earth. Perhaps our critics have not counted on our cleverness. But we have. We count on our own knowledge of mad women and witches, mothers and grandmothers, fat and thin, healthy and sick, and the thousand ways in which we women choose to be defenders.