Women Lead Efforts to Defend Land Rights in Mesoamerica


"We want respect for our natural resources, for us and for our bodies. This is our struggle as indigenous women and as rural women," stated Ada Osorio, a Honduran Miskito and human rights activist during JASS Mesoamerica’s regional training school. Across Mexico and Central America, indigenous women are leading their communities in efforts to defend their territories and natural resources against unregulated extraction projects and land grabs in the name of “development.” From the Kunas of Panama to the Mixtecas on the Mexico-United States border, women are exposing the injustices of mining and logging companies and the lax policies and corruption of their governments, who lend the military to repress their resistance struggles.

In Panama, women in a Kuna town are leading struggles to protest the Teribe hydroelectric plant that was built on rivers that have sustained the farming and other needs of the Kuna community for years. Although the plant can’t be removed, the community recently renegotiated an agreement with the Colombian-based Medellín Public Company that will benefit the region’s twelve villages. The people of the Kuna town have succeeded in getting legal prohibition to the presence of any other hydroelectric company in their territory and have asked the Panamanian government to officially recognize the Naso-Teribe territory as Kuna land to avoid future harm to their rivers and livelihoods.

In Guatemala, the community of La Puya are pushing back against the Progreso VII mining project—a venture they were never consulted on—by holding community-led patrols twenty-four hours a day to prevent the company’s machinery from entering their land. “For two years, the protest at La Puya has been symbolic of the power of non-violent resistance,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA, commenting on the high level of organization and unity within the community in La Puya. Although the patrol rounds are undertaken mainly by men, women are playing leading roles in organizing discussions, educating communities, and supporting self-defense for this non-violent struggle."We are in strategic territories. We're living in territories that not only generate life, but are also being coveted. They are fighting for our territories. But we are fighting too," said Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic, a Maya K'iche' leader, human rights defender and co-facilitator of JASS Mesoamerica’s regional training school.

After maintaining a peaceful blockade for two years, on May 23, 2014, community activists were violently evicted by the US-based mining company, Kappes, Cassiday, & Associates, backed by Guatemalan police. These events in Guatemala mirror similar struggles in Honduras, both of which have generated public outcry in support of the communities, including international solidarity efforts co-organized by JASS and others. The confrontation continues in Guatemala but women continue to be at the center of the resistance, while facing sexual harassment.

In El Salvador, indigenous women successfully blocked the building of the Record Battery factory in the capital San Salvador, which studies determined, would have resulted in harmful health and environmental impacts. “It was going to contaminate our water with lead,” said Alejandra of the Asociación de la Mujer Salvadoreña. “We marched, we disseminated statements, and we increased awareness. We achieved all this with the agreement and involvement of the people who live there.”  Even though their mobilization efforts were able to stop the factory from being built, activists know that this battle is far from over, and to end it requires even bigger strategies across communities and countries facing similar challenges.

Collective Protection and Resistance

The importance of these women-led indigenous peoples’ struggles led JASS Mesoamerica in 2013 to focus its Leadership and Movement-building school, Alquimia, on a two-year sustained regional course with indigenous and rural women activists and leaders. Through regional seminars followed by workshops at national levels for women to share new information and strategies with their communities, the course provides a combination of innovative tools for better understanding and responding to power dynamics and risks, basics about human rights advocacy, and essentials for building strong communities and inclusive leadership. The course seeks to strengthen women’s activism and build networks for advocacy, solidarity and safety in defense of rights and territories while simultaneously re-energizing their spirit and hopes of a better future. The program is co-facilitated by JASS’ team of experienced popular educators and human rights experts, along with renowned indigenous leader Lolita Chávez who has joined the team as a co-facilitator helping to train sisters in similar circumstances.

While indigenous women’s visible leadership in their organizations is growing, their families and communities are not always supportive of outspoken women. The regional course provides an integral approach enabling and equipping them to deal with the personal as well as political challenges they face. Malena de Montis, Alquimia Co-Coordinator, explains that “By sharing their political and personal stories, indigenous and rural women who did not know each other are coming together around a deeper understanding of the power dynamics at play with the influx of multinationals facilitated by their government eager to exploit their resources without adhering to minimal environmental or other standards in the name of job creation and ‘development’.” She adds, “…for them, the experience constitutes a “re-colonization” of their countries.”

Photo Credit: Guatemala Human Rights Commission