Alquimia: an Innovative Approach to Indigenous Women’s Leadership & Collective Power


In the past few months alone, we have witnessed the growth of a new strategy to challenge indigenous women leading struggles in defense of their land and territories—legal charges for their activism followed by new kinds of aggression, even after charges against them are dropped. This growing trend of criminalizing activists has become the number one approach for silencing activists who speak out against the devastating impacts of extractive projects on their communities and livelihoods. In this risky context, strengthening indigenous women’s leadership, exchanging strategies for resistance and promoting safety and wellbeing is vital for their activism, movements and survival. JASS Mesoamerica’s leadership training school, Alquimia, aims to do that and more—re-tool and re-energize activists with more confidence, effective skills, new allies and strategies for a fast-changing and risky context. 

What are indigenous women up against?

Indigenous peoples are only about 6 percent of the world’s population but their territories hold around 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. It is no surprise then that indigenous territories are the frontlines of the scramble for resource extraction. Despite the promise of jobs and money, mega-projects, mining, oil exploration, and other resource-extraction strategies often have devastating impacts on indigenous and rural communities, destroying basic livelihoods and the cultural foundation of their communities. Land is seized for intensive monoculture, driven by global demand for palm oil, biofuels and other agricultural commodities. Forests are razed and beaches roped off for wealthy resorts. Water is damned and siphoned off to factories and hydroelectric plants. While multiple factors are driving this trend, private investors—foreign governments, multinational corporations, wealthy individuals—are working hand-in-hand with political decision makers and security forces to displace local communities and exploit the land, often with devastating ecological consequences, and lasting impacts on the health of their families and communities.

Against this backdrop, rural and indigenous women are battling these powerful forces to protect their land and ways of life. During the past decade, more and more women, particularly indigenous women, are taking on key leadership roles, courageously standing up and mobilizing communities against these threats and at the same time, creating alternatives that improve lives and promote community, resilience, and wellbeing for people and the planet. They are utilizing their experience from generations of knowing what it takes to care for their families and communities’ natural resources, particularly water.

But this activism has come at a high price for many. They are persecuted, experience sexual violence and criminalized. In an effort to discredit them, they are labeled “bad mothers” or “whores”, and accused of being “terrorists”. Their lives are a constant battle for inclusion and voice against intersecting layers of discrimination stemming from their personal and public lives. Because of the few spaces available for women’s equal participation, they have to demand and claim spaces within mainstream culture and institutions as well as their own family, community, and movements, As a result, their struggle is on two fronts—within their private and public lives—making them more vulnerable to backlash from both. This is a struggle shared not only by indigenous and rural activists, but other women in defense of women’s rights. How to bring women from different movements to build and strengthen their leadership to address and resist the impact of these inside and outside forces is what gave birth to Alquimia.

Why Alquimia?

Over its years of movement building in the region, JASS Mesoamerica has built relationships with many indigenous women and organizations. In 2010 it’s Alquimia Feminist School launched a two-year information and communications technology training specifically for indigenous and rural women in its networks. Throughout this process, the women identified that a deeper need existed for political analysis, risk assessment and strategic tools. This awareness gave rise to the three-year course in Strategic Leadership for Indigenous and Rural Women that brings together around 25 women leaders from seven countries in Mesoamerica to learn, get support, develop skills and strategic capacity, and strengthen their struggle for human rights. “At the school we create safe and respectful space where diverse women can exchange strategies in a sisterhood of shared challenges and build confidence for their transformative struggles. We weave multiple learning experiences on key issues of women’s lives that lead to strengthened leadership skills required for challenging and changing the specific inequality that we experience as women,” says Helen Barrientos, Coordinator of Alquimia. Through virtual dialogues, collaboration on conceptual papers on key themes and issues as well as training sessions in different countries, Alquimia also fosters mutual learning and the development of joint strategies.

The group, which meets twice a year and then per country throughout the year, , stay connected with one another and to regional strategies through on-going virtual follow-up so they are safer and less isolated.

“I felt like I was asleep, blindfolded, because I didn’t have information; now that I have information I understand, I’ve taken off the blindfold.” Apolonia Placido, Mexican women human rights defender.

The Course: a creative training model

This school for feminist training has become a space for analysis and collective recovery of wisdom, based on women’s experiences, whose goal is to strengthen individual and collective practices of movement building with a feminist focus. The training process seeks to create conditions for a new political culture and ethic of collaboration across differences in identity and context and the emergence of a shared strategic vision based in the right to a dignified and healthy life. “It means generating constructive dialogue in this space, engaging in inquiry and reflection together in order to deepen our mutual understanding and our confidence and freedom…what we are creating here is not a copy of something that’s been imposed but rather created by all of us women.Lolita Chávez, Maya-Quiché women defender and member of the course facilitation team.

Every day women activists face multiple forms of aggression and exhaustion, which often take a toll on their bodies and minds as well as on their resistance movements. Alquimia uses a feminist popular education methodology that begins with recognizing the histories, needs, and knowledge that all participants and facilitators have, and building from that to a shared feminist analysis of their current reality. The training also incorporates JASS’ power framework to help women understand how power operates in their lives. Developing strategic feminist leadership, understood as the ability to analyze and act from a feminist ethic, recognizes the multiple power relationships that oppress women (by gender, ethnicity, class, age, etc.) and how these power relationships manifest in all aspects of our lives—from the intimate/personal, to the private/family, and to public/community and national/global . “Much more than the domination of men over women, patriarchy is this violent logic of exercising power over those we believe to be inferior,” says Heydi Murillo, Costa Rican women defender. 

Based on this understanding, this Alquimia course addresses the following crosscutting topics: History of struggles and the contributions women have made throughout history; understanding Power, the Human Rights Framework and Women’s Rights; Leadership with Strategic Vision; organizing and planning skills; and Self-Care, both individual and collective. Alquimia as a program strives to create a safe space where women can laugh, cry, ask, and dance in order to build strong leaders—and stronger more confident women. JASS invests in the power of being together, of creating and recreating ourselves, because women can’t do this work alone and isolated. The course also strengthens the link between their current work and past struggles and causes, affirming a link to ancestors and history. 

It’s a training space designed to encourage an alliance among women. We are helping them build power through accumulated knowledge of the women and the relationships across their movements, groups, and organizations. Given that the power dynamics experienced are very similar in almost all countries, the women’s actions can be more strategic and coherent at both country and the regional levels if done so collectively. These links are what build movements.

Changes in the women in the course come at a personal level first and are reflected at a collective level and within their organizations over time. Participants come to see their problems and their contexts from a more regional viewpoint, and with a more networked form of thinking. They share their new knowledge and tools, including their understanding of a gender perspective, from the course with their organizations and communities. As JASS, we are heartened that the women, on their own initiative, have agreed to establish an alliance among themselves—that will live far beyond this course—for greater regional impact in their struggles. This is just one example of women’s collective movement-building processes that arise from Alquimia. This training has been very important to me because it nurtures my struggle and I leave with greater knowledge as I fight to defend our territory and our rights as women,” said Consuelo Castillo, women defender from Honduras.

 Article written by Helen Barrientos