Collective Protection for Land and Territory Defenders


On May 10th, JASS and the Fund for Global Human Rights (FGHR) organized a dialogue as part of the launch of a new article, “Collective Protection to Defend Territory, Defense of Territory to Protect Life”. We brought together the authors from Mesoamerica (one of whom is a land defender from Guatemala), women land defenders from the Philippines and South Africa, and conveners from JASS and FGHR to discuss evolving movement strategies for collective protection, rooted in the experience and worldview of indigenous communities.

Shereen Essof, JASS Executive Director, initiated the conversation stating, “We are facing worsening conditions that are exacerbated by the pandemic, so we continue to question our assumptions, and rethink the adequacy of our approaches to protection.” She posed three questions to frame the discussion: What are the shifting dynamics of power and violence? Why are defenders now at greater risk despite more resources devoted to protection? How can we challenge and change narratives on protection?

This dialogue builds on years of collaborative work between JASS and FGHR in an initiative called, “Defending Rights in Hostile Contexts”. The initiative brought together frontline activists, donors, and NGOs from the human rights community in several regions in a deep conversation on the meaning and implications of “closing civic space” and rising authoritarianism for activist safety. These gatherings focused on understanding the intersections of power, gender, narratives, and risk, and the relevance of holistic movement strategies for the protection of human rights defenders.

Shifting to a Collective Protection Framework

Authors Lolita Chavez and Marusia Lopez Cruz presented the core concepts of the article: how threats and attacks are intensifying in the context of land and resource grabs by private companies with the support of governments, and how community organizing both builds collective power and strengthens protection. Lolita Chavez brought in her personal experience as a Maya K’iche’ communitarian feminist, member of the Council of K'iche' Peoples in Guatemala and internationally known activist in the defense of life, nature and territory. Since working with indigenous communities to assert their right to make their own decisions on the incursion of destructive extractivist projects in their territory, Lolita has faced down nine assassination attempts, raids, defamation and criminalization. She currently lives in exile. The communities have stopped 32 mining concessions on their lands.

Collective protection for land and territory is protection of life. It is a tool that arises out of the cosmovision of original peoples, from the peoples, using elements we have in our own territories where we live,” she told the online audience of human rights activists, practitioners and funders. The territories, she explained, have been invaded by extractive industries including mining, hydroelectric and oil and gas extraction and by strengthening community cohesion, education, organization and resistance, rights defenders become less vulnerable, more supported and more effective.

Collective protection begins with building collective power and that collective power means making our own decisions based on self-determination, from our autonomy.” Lolita provided the example of the “good-faith community consultations” carried out by Guatemalan indigenous organizations, which have led to declaring territories in many parts of the country free of extractives.

Another essential tenet of collective protection holds that defense of land requires defense of bodies. This is especially true for women, who often suffer general violence and sexualized violence as a repressive tactic from companies and governments seeking to break down their power as leaders or from men in their own organizations, communities and families as part of patriarchal systems of control and domination.

It’s important to see defense of territory not as an isolated concept, but as connected to our body-territory. Our body-territory is the first line of defense, given that it also holds a history of violence, of multiple oppressions generated by patriarchy, colonialism, racism and the extractivist companies that bring death and destruction. We recognize the power in holding consultations to demand territories free of mining and extractivism, along with demanding bodies free of expressions of macho violence. That’s collective power, that’s collective protection.”

Marusia Lopez Cruz has worked alongside women land defenders for years as they have defined and implemented collective protection measures in their communities throughout the region, first with JASS and now as a co-director of the Mesoamerican Initiative on Women Human Rights Defenders. She emphasized what their experience teaches us about the importance of moving beyond an individual perspective.

Collective protection makes us aware that no bullet-proof vests, no shelters, no urgent actions can be effective as long as the system of territorial plunder and depredation exists and continues to expand. Collective protection is anchored in the reality of the territories, neighborhoods and communities, based on the people, resources and strengths they have and on their existing social fabric. We know that a well-organized, cohesive community that has developed practices of mutual aid to meet pressing basic needs, a community that involves everyone in defense of rights, is without a doubt a community with greater capacity to face attacks and threats from those who want to take their lands”. Marusia cited criticism from Honduran Garifuna leader, Miriam Miranda, of mechanisms that remove defenders from their territory for safety, weakening in situ resistance instead of creating broader and deeper strategies to remove risks factors from the territory.

A cross-regional perspective

To find out how the Mesoamerican experience resonated with other regions, Mafel Macalanda of the Philippines and Nonhle Mbuthuma of South Africa commented on the presentations from the standpoint of their own experience as organizers and defenders. Mafel Macalanda has been organizing in the Tuwali (Ifugao) Indigenous community for more than two decades now. She is currently the Regional Coordinator of Punganay (birth) – Cagayan Valley Indigenous Peoples Alliance, a partner of the BAI National Indigenous Women Network, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Asia Young Indigenous Peoples Network. She saw remarkable similarities in both the threats faced and the responses developed from the grassroots. 

We are trying to protect our lands and natural resources by using our indigenous knowledge and values that our ancestors taught us. However, these are being threatened by development projects in our communities. Even if the communities are opposing these destructive projects like mining and large dams, the government still allows these projects to operate. That is why it is only right and just for our communities to defend our territories and oppose these destructive projects.”

She said that indigenous women in the Philippines are at the forefront of these struggles, movements leaders are tagged as “terrorists”, and arrested on trumped-up charges or even killed. She reported that 117 indigenous leaders have been victims of extrajudicial executions and the violence is escalating under this regime and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mafel explained that in this extremely hostile context, building collective power and protection is central to the everyday work of survival and resistance, based on their indigenous practices.

When we say ‘collective protection’ in our communities, based on our indigenous values and practices, this means helping one another. This also includes farming and other kinds of livelihoods that benefit the whole community, not only the individuals. So it is only logical that when our lands are threatened, the community comes together to protect them. Because land is life,” Mafel affirmed. She added that specific actions they rely on include popular education, teaching basic organizing tools, showing successful examples and cross-sector organizing with sympathetic local governments, churches, academics and global allies.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, organizer and spokesperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee in the community of Xolobeni in South Africa, which has been fighting mining for years, said, “The South African experience is effectively the same. As we are fighting for the future of our children, we see that it is more women who are leading and on the forefront of this structure.” Considered more vulnerable, women-- including Nonhle-- have received threats and attacks from the company and government agents.

The confrontation with mining companies has led the communities to question the meaning of development. “All development starts with the land, and if the land is not protected by the people that are living on it, it will be very easy for communities to be displaced in the name of development. All development must work for the communities and be in line with their way of life, otherwise it is not actual development for the people. This is why we are insisting on this fight for the right to say no about decisions which affect us. That is why law-makers protect capitalism through laws which deny us our right to make informed decisions about our land. When we defend land and life, we are resisting capitalism,” she said. Amadiba uses workshops and dialogues to explore the deeper issues of what constitutes development, poverty, protection and other terms often taken for granted.

Nonhle noted that her group uses different criteria for development. “Is the development for the greater good of all? Through workshops and dialogues, we engage on such matters. In ‘poor’ communities it is especially important to ask this: ‘What does being poor mean?’ When our communities are referred to as “the poorest among the poor”, are we really poor? We do not think so, and that is why we come together to defend each other. This notion that we are poor is a way of colonizing our minds and making us undermine who we are so that we are manipulated into taking whatever is presented on the table. With the resources we have in the land, are we poor or are we impoverished? Are we poor because of money? Collective action through engagement helps us build our resistance. For us, poor means no shelter, no land, no food. But if we do have all these three things, we cannot speak of being poor, and the more we insist on this narrative the more we are empowered in understanding who we are and what we have, as well as how we can use what we have to support ourselves, our needs, and development.”

These experiences on the ground led into a reflection on how to define and implement collective protection, and how the broader protection community can support the grassroots and community-based models. James Savage, head of the Fund for Global Human Rights’ program on the Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders, said,

States and corporations have understood the power of collective resistance and use strategies to distract, divide, and weaken grassroots struggles, including by targeting individual WHRDs. This requires funder and allied support that aims to strengthen collective power.” He noted that this implies a number of changes in the approach of funders and allies: to anchor support in WHRD’s analysis of the historical and structural violence inherent in their struggles; understand the collective impact of violence and collective security as personal security; organize more dialogues to reach common understandings and strategies; and connect and integrate protection strategies with the long-term work of building collective power for changing the dominant economic and social model.

James presented a series of provocative questions specifically aimed at funders and allies below:

  • How different could our protection programs and funding be if we flipped the script of defenders at risk -and the protection they need- that currently elevates the individual victim/heroine paradigm and centered instead a narrative of collective activist struggle?
  • Are our strategies designed to respond to local analysis, enable collective processes, and strengthen the social fabric of community and networks?
  • Do those programs and funding invest in the leadership and decision-making capacity of women HRDs, uplift their narratives, and celebrate their contributions?
  • Are they set up in a way that takes account of the continued, unequal burden of domestic work and care that many women activists continue to assume alone?
  • What is our notion of the ‘impact’ of our protection programs and funding, and what value do we ascribe to this?
  • How different is our understanding of the results of strengthening protection through ongoing collective processes in territories and communities that are led by WHRDs, from a more didactic model of trainings (with or without some follow-up)?
  • What knowledge, skills and practices are we associating with and valuing in protection work, seen through the lens of fostering a stronger social fabric, or the technical capacity for digital and physical security measures?
  • Is our solidarity and networking sufficient and working for WHRDs and communities at risk?

The questions above point to the need to deepen and adjust our thinking on protection. JASS/FGHR collaboration and the Collective Protection dialogue are intended to foster a cross-regional, multi-sector dialogue on collective protection. We invite all interested persons and organizations to join the conversation. Please send your comments questions, resources and experiences to info@justassociates.org.

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