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The situation of Women Defenders of Land, Human and Economic rights in

Latin America

Written by Daniel Rowe and Melissa Wong
February 2014

Women and the Extractive Industry

Throughout Latin America, women are a leading force in the protection of land and
the environment threatened by the extractive industry. This is a result of having deep-
rooted concerns and being disproportionately affected by mining projects.

Mining companies discriminate against rural and indigenous women by indirectly
taking away their independence and status, whilst directly excluding them from taking
part in the decision making process. Rural and indigenous women predominately rely
on agriculture to support their families and to earn an income. This is disrupted when
land is sold -at times forcedly and without their consent- to the mining company or
becomes non-productive due to contamination. Additionally, women have fewer
employment opportunities within the wage sector compared to men. This leads them
to become economically dependant on men, losing their independence, status and

Indigenous and rural women have also shown deep-rooted concerns regarding mining
. Primarily, these concerns arise from the destruction of land, contamination
of the environment, the division of their communities and the manner in which their
rights, beliefs and wishes are disregarded by companies and the state. Furthermore,
they have a strong responsibility to their future generations. This responsibility is not
seen as a burden but as a must. They are grateful to their ancestors for leaving them
healthy land that has enabled their survival. The thought of not being able to leave the
same for their future generations is absurd to them.

Current situation of Women Human Rights Defenders

Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) have shown that they are not afraid to
raise their concerns publicly, organising and taking part in stunts and visual activities.
In Ecuador, members of an environmental organisation ‘Acción Ecológica’,
descended upon the ‘6
Exposition of Mining’ in Quito on the 3
April 2013. They
disrupted the gathering by entering the hall wearing shirts with the slogan
‘Responsible mining, A Chinese Myth’
singing an altered version of Latino
Americana by Calle 13 to include “you cannot buy Ecuador… we say no to mining”
The peaceful and highly effective protest was performed predominately by women. In

The women mentioned were interviewed by ULAM in Ecuador and Peru in 2010.
Their shirts read- ‘Minería Responsable, Cuento Chino’
Serenata Antiminera: "Minería Responsable, Cuento Chino" Accion Ecologica, April 2013
Cajamarca, Peru, women organized a ‘pregnant women’s march’ to show that they
rejected the Conga mining project in the name of their unborn children.

Being at the frontline of social-environmental conflicts, WHRD are exposed to high
risks including torture, kidnapping, beating, threats, defamation, arrest, criminal
charges, sexual abuse and murder. Data recording human rights violations of WHRD
is scarce, however some organizations have begun to document this. In 2012 in
a total of 40 aggressions were recorded against WHRD defending land
and natural resources.
In 2012 and 2013 ULAM’s pilot study recorded 100
aggressions towards WHRD of land and natural resources throughout Latin America.
Over a third of these cases found National Police responsible for the aggressions
(39% thirty-nine of the incidents recorded)
. Furthermore there were six
assassinations; with five of the murdered women receiving death threats weeks or
months prior to the attack. This failing to protect WHRDs who are at high risk is a
result of women’s grassroots organisations lacking resources and capacity to access
national and international mechanisms that can protect WHRD’s under threat.

Gendered Repression

WHRD face targeted and gendered repression in addition to attacks that all Human
Right Defenders face
. The added risks include sexual violence, smear campaigns
based on gender stereotypes and violence from within their community.
usually include the police, military and mining companies’ private security.

Stereotypical roles of women in society have been found to primarily motivate
gendered repression. Attacks are often justified with the view that women ‘deserve it’
for abandoning their role and entering domains (public) that don’t concern them. As a
result, gender based repression is particularly present during protests or strikes.
Members of ULAM in Ecuador reported that police threw gas canisters directly at
them, some aiming to get them up their Polleras (traditional skirts).
One woman
recalled that during a protest she was beaten by a policeman who stated “now you will
learn not to get involved in issues that don’t involve you”.
Other women also
reported that police officers would aim to hit them in their genitals and breasts rather
than the face, as they did for men. Similar incidents have been reported from WHRD
in Peru. On the 30
August 2013 during a road blockade, a police officer hit a woman
leader with his baton so hard in her genital region that she suffered a haemorrhage of
the vagina

In recent years, many activists and communities have turned to indefinite strikes to
draw attention to their concerns. Governments have responded with heavy
crackdowns, including the militarization of communities and in an increasing number

Mesoamerica- Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua
-37.9 percent of these attacks were a result of defence of land and natural resources. Violencia Contra Defensoras
de Derechos Humanos en Mesomamerica, 2012
From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras & Guatemala, 2012
Seventy-six percent of WHRD admitted to receiving gender specific violence. Violence against women human
right defenders in Mesoamerica- An assessment in progress, AWID, 2012
Violence against women human right defenders in Mesoamerica- An assessment in progress, AWID, 2012
From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras & Guatemala, 2012
Polleras are the traditional skirts worn by women from Southern Ecuador.
Taken from an interview carried out by ULAM in Ecuador in 2010
This incident was taken from ULAM’s database- further information- Dinoes Desaloja y Recupera el Control de
Via a Hualgayoc, La Republica Peru, 2013
of cases declaring whole communities in ‘State of Emergency/Siege’, allowing them
to set curfews and restrict human rights in order to control the population. Regrettably
states of ‘Emergency/Siege’ jeopardise women’s safety and expose them to even
higher levels of danger

In the community of San Rafael las Flores, Guatemala, a ‘State of Siege’ was
declared following protests against the mining project El Escobal (owned by Tahoe
resources). The peaceful demonstrations ended on 2
May 2013, when San Rafael
was flooded with National Civil Police and the army. Reports documented that during
the ‘State of Siege’ there was disproportionate use of force, theft, destruction,
vilification and intimidation of women at the hands of the army. A Xinka woman
recalled that soldiers entered her home and began emptying drawers, which included
her underwear, humiliating and denigrating her in front of her family. Another woman
was too frightened to leave her home to seek medical help when entering labor and as
a result lost her baby

High presence of military personnel - who are mostly males - increases women’s
vulnerability to sexual violence. In 2012, during the ‘State of Emergency’ in
Cajamarca (Peru), girls as young as 13 years were reportedly sexually abused by
military personnel, some under the pretence of a ‘relationship’. There are claims that
military officers used their status of maximum authority to manipulate the girls into a
sexual relationship. Once they were redeployed, the girls were left pregnant, some
chose to have their babies and moved to different communities fearing bringing
shame to their family whilst other exposed themselves to the risks of abortions.

Sexual violence against WHRD can occur by members of the same community, often
employees of the mine. This situation is extremely dangerous for the women as they
are vulnerable to further attacks against them and their families. This can lead to
women not denouncing the abuses. In 2007, during a forced eviction of an indigenous
Q’eqchi community for the Fenix Mining Project (owned by Canadian Hudbay
Minerals) eleven women reported being gang raped by mining security forces. In
2013 the women took the company to trial in Canada. Living in the same community
as some of the perpetrators they experienced extreme fear and were subjected to
enormous pressure and extortion to withdraw their lawsuit.

Criminalisation of Women Human Right Defenders

Criminalisation is a weapon that governments and companies regularly use to attack
and repress human right defenders. This delegitimizes their motives and attempts to
render their fight unworthy by portraying them as criminals.

In recent years there has been a surge in criminalization of human rights defenders in
Latin America, with charges made against them trumped up and harsher sentences
sought. Currently many women human rights defenders are facing charges that

From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras & Guatemala, 2012
Informe Preliminar sobre “Violaciones a Derechos Humanos en Estado de Sitio en Jalapa y Santa Rosa”,
Nisgua, 2013
Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the
right to development. Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human
rights defenders, 2013
include terrorism, kidnapping and aggravated theft of land, all crimes that carry both
heavy sentences and large fines.

Legal proceedings against activists can loom over them for years, disrupting their
peace and ability to live normal lives. Máxima Acuña Chaupe a rural farmer is
currently facing a legal battle against one of the largest mining companies in the
world (US based Newmont Mining Corp) who claim that she is illegally occupying
their land. Despite land deeds that prove her ownership, Máxima has had to endure a
lengthy court case that has abruptly dismantled her life and caused both financial
hardship and psychological strain. In 2012, she was found guilty of usurpation, fined
and given a three year suspended prison sentence. She appealed against the ruling and
in August 2013 the original verdict was overturned on basis that the previous
judgement not only contained errors of law and fact but it had ignored the
consideration of fundamental evidence in the process that was favourable to the
A new trial began in the Court in Celendin (2 days travelling for Máxima)
on the 9
of November 2013 and is still on-going, with hearings scheduled almost
every week. If Maxima and her family are found guilty it would result in the loss of
their family home and each family member would have to pay 4,000 soles (US$
1480) in fines, a price that is simple unachievable for the family
. At the same time,
mining personnel and Peru’s Special Division Police (DINOES) who had beaten
Maxima to unconsciousness during an attempted forced eviction have no legal case
against them.

In Honduras, WHRD Berta Cáceres, one of the founding directors of the National
Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), entered
into hiding in September 2013 after the Honduran Court charged her with inciting
communities to cause material damage to the national company DESA-Sinohydro.
The damages alleged were based on delays in the development of the project as a
result of protests, which prevented work to commence. The judge in the trial ordered
her to be imprisoned immediately
. This was not the first time Berta had faced
criminalisation. In May of the same year, both Berta and her colleague were charged
with ‘illegally carrying weapons’, a charge, which is refuted and claimed by Berta as
another action to discredit her leadership in the defence of the environment and
weaken the community’s struggle.
Berta is scared that if she goes to prison it could
be years before her trial is even brought before a Judge.

Criminalization of human rights defenders can also be abrupt, with defenders arrested
during protests or forced evictions and detained for long periods of time until their
trial begins. In Peru in October 2013 nine rural activists, including five women
leaders, were detained during a peaceful strike and continue to be detained whilst
their case is investigated. One of the women, Yanet Rodriguez who was pregnant
when arrested, lost her baby whilst in detention

Several current cases of WHRD facing criminalisation: Berta Cáceres, Magdalena Morales, Esly Banegas,
Nubia Casco, Yolanda Oqueli, Maxima Chaupe,
This included taking into consideration of the land deeds: First victory for the Chaupe Family! , Congaconflict
Wordpress, 2013
Maxima Acuña necisita tu apoyo, Redulam, 2013
Act now to free Berta Caceres, Stop corporate impunity, 2013
Libertad de Berta Caceres, COPINH, 2013
Libertad a los 9 comuneros de Mala – Reportaje, Youtube, 2013
An additional effect of criminalisation -that is rarely mentioned- is the enormous
psychological strain that WHRD have to endure. Criminalisation can lead to extreme
fear, paranoia, loss of trust in friends and colleagues. Additionally, this strain prevents
women from participating in protests as they have lost social support networks and
want to protect themselves and their families
. In Ecuador, one elderly WHRD,
, was charged with terrorism after attending a protest. Fearing arrest she went
into hiding leaving behind her family, crops and animals. Liliana stated that she
stopped trusting people and became very conscious and suspicious of those around
her. She would often feel worried and couldn’t sleep. After several months, Liliana
returned home from hiding to find that her crops were ruined and her animals had ran
away. She stopped partaking in protests, as she feared arrest, and remained mostly in
her home as whenever she saw a police officer she became nervous and anxious.

The Outlook

Latin American governments have changed legislation and opened their countries to
mining investment, putting the needs, safety and health of many at risk.

In 2013 the region had attracted over 30% of the worlds mining investment, almost
tripling from the 1990’s (12%).
This has resulted in large areas of land being given
for concessions. In Colombia over 59% of its territory is under concession or has
mining applications pending
. Similarly, 21% of Peru was under mining concessions
in 2013 compared to 16% in 2010. This sharp increase has been accompanied by an
additional 15 social environmental conflicts from November 2012 to November 2013
(128 to 143).

The continued failings of governments to implement robust safeguards for the
protection of human rights, ecologically diverse areas, water sources and the spread of
knowledge of mining impacts is likely to result in a rise of socio-environmental
Regrettably, if current trends of high repression and criminalization of
human rights defenders remain, these conflicts will become more severe and human
rights violations will increase. The situation of WHRD will worsen if their concerns
are not heard, putting an ever-increasing number of women at risk.

Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders, AWID, 2011
Liliana is not her real name, ULAM interviewed her in 2010 in Cuenca, Ecuador.
In Peru 21% of the whole country fell into mining concessions, compared to 16% in 2010, Copperaccion, 2014
Mining in Latin America, Whoswholegal, 2008
Giving it away- Colombia mining report, Christian Aid, 2008
Such was the case in Ecuador between 2008-2010. Amnesty International, 2012