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Female Eco-Activists Live in ‘Constant State of Fear’ in Latin America

As they work to protect their communities from resource-hungry corporations, female environmental activists are often subject to threats, assault and even murder. And little is being done to help, they say.

Written by Chris Goldenbaum, Farahnaz Mohammed Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Indigenous women and members of ethnic and social organizations march to demand justice for environmentalist Berta Caceres in La Esperanza, Honduras, in March 2017, a year after she was murdered. Activists and rights groups say not enough is being done to protect eco-defenders in Latin America. AFP/Orlando Sierra

Evani Lisboa has a dangerous job. As coordinator of the Biological Reserve of Gurupi, in the Brazilian state of Maranhao, she is responsible for protecting the area from illegal logging or wildlife poaching.

Lisboa, 41, says she and her colleagues are constantly being threatened by criminal organizations that are attempting to exploit the resources at the reserve. “There are people being targeted, phone threats, written threats. Everything,” she says.

“I don’t have a normal life. I go from my house to work, from work to my house. I’m always looking at what happens around me. If I want to go out with my kids, I have to go to another city.”

The issue of violence against female eco-activists came to the world’s attention in March 2016, when high-profile Honduran activist Berta Caceres was assassinated as she campaigned against plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River.

Eight men were arrested for ties to her murder. The Honduran government itself was implicated when it was revealed that one of the suspects was appointed chief of intelligence for elite special forces, and a former Honduran soldier claimed he saw Caceres’ name on a “hit list” that was given to two elite units.

While Caceres’ murder made international headlines, activists say there is still little being done to address the serious risks many women face as they devote their lives to protecting the environment.

Oxfam says that of 185 human rights defenders murdered in 2015, 122 were in Latin America. In the first four months of 2016, there were 24 murders of eco-defenders in Brazil alone. From 2012 to 2014, 1,688 women human rights defenders suffered attacks in just four Latin American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

The Mesoamerican Initiative for Women Human Rights Defenders reports that the most common forms of violence against female activists are intimidation; threats or ultimatums; smear campaigns; and forced and illegal detention. Extreme cases end with physical violence or murder.

In 2015, after receiving anonymous death threats and requesting police protection, community leader Maria das Dores Priante was kidnapped, tortured and executed with multiple shots to the face after being involved in land disputes in Brazil. Earlier this year, two men were charged with her murder. In 2016, Peruvian farmer Maxima Acuna and her husband were badly beaten by trespassers after refusing to sell their land. Their attackers were allegedly hired by the mining company that wanted the land.

For female environmental activists, threats, incarceration and physical assault are all too common, says Valeria Brabata, former program director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Global Fund for Women and now the organization’s program director for Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights.

“It’s so inspiring to see [these women] do their work and to see them continue to stand up, but it’s definitely taking a toll. We hear about women defenders being sick and decimated, even before an attack is successful,” says Brabata.

“It’s terrible, psychologically, at the individual level and even at the collective level … they feel they’re at risk, and their land is at risk every single day, so they’re living in a constant state of fear.”

The simple solution for women environmentalists who are under threat would be to stop their activism, but for many that’s not an option. In some parts of Latin America, the male population has been decimated as a result of migration, conflict or the actions of drug cartels, leaving women to take on the responsibility of defending their communities from resource-hungry corporations, Brabata says.

On a personal level, many activists don’t see their work as a choice at all. “You see something wrong and it touches you,” says Lisboa. “There’s this gut feeling inside you, and you wind up getting involved.”

Protecting the defenders

Itandehuy Castaneda, 30, is usually soft-spoken, but grows animated as she talks about her work and the documentary she made with Carolina Corral, “La Batalla de las Cacerolas” (“The Battle of the Pans”), about the roles of women in the Mexican town of Tepoztlan, where Castaneda and Corral grew up.

Tepoztlan, 50 miles (80km) south of Mexico City, is known for its stunning scenery and cultural significance. It’s said to be next to the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Those attributes have repeatedly put the town of 14,000 at risk of industrial development.

“Almost every generation has to fight a mega-project. It’s almost cultural,” Castaneda says.

Castaneda grew up hearing stories of local women taking a stand. In communities where women were often relegated to the home and were sometimes illiterate, they nonetheless found themselves fighting against giant corporations.

“Really, it was an act of love for the place we live in,” says Castaneda. The women she and Corral interviewed for their film “were like our grandmothers. They’d taught us how to continue in activism, because as women we’d had moments where we thought we had to give up.” Castaneda herself is involved in a group currently combating the development of Tepoztlan.

Brabata says she sees the problem of violence against female eco-activists getting worse. In her work with the Global Fund for Women, she tries to help through financing, advocacy and networking for grassroots organizations that support activists and their work.

“It’s important that we protect these defenders, but it’s also important that the work they’re doing continues,” she says. “These defenders are, most of them, defending the last we have of forests, of jungles, of water.”

Yet young activists like Castaneda are hopeful.

“Now [women are] armed with more knowledge, and also the fights are changing,” she says, noting that technology and social media allow female environmentalists to grow communities, tell their stories and build up support for their causes.

“But the reasons we’re fighting are the same, they’ve stayed the same. The environment, our way of living, our culture,” she says. “Essentially, it’s the same fight for every generation – just evolving with each age.”

With reporting by Chris Goldenbaum.

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