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Dialogue 6: Women defending the earth: plunder, power and resistance

“Organizing is a way of caring for ourselves. The displacement of indigenous communities by companies and corrupt officials today is just a continuation of the colonization and genocide from decades earlier. But we are winning in small ways slowly every day.” – Guatemalan activist

Mega-projects, mining, oil exploration, and other large-scale resource-extraction have devastating impacts on communities and the environment. Women defenders and activists are out front, leading resistance efforts against these threats, while also creating alternatives that strengthen communities and preserve biodiversity. Don’t miss dialogue #6 as we hear from women at the frontlines about their strategies to organize for a survivable and just future on this planet. (November 10, 2020)


When JASS brought together women land defenders from different parts of the world to talk about their work, their challenges and their forms of resistance, we expected that they’d have a lot in common. However, the deep similarities of their struggles, which came out in a wide-ranging conversation, simultaneously translated into English, Spanish and Bahasa-Indonesian impressed the hundreds of listeners online and even the women themselves. To use an analogy from one of the industries that many of them are fighting against, we felt as though we had struck a rich vein of experience running between us–across borders, languages, geographical barriers and political contexts.

The five women presenters for “Women Defending the Earth: Plunder, Power and Resistance”, #6 in JASS’s series, Women Radically Transforming a World in Crisis, brought decades of experience defending their lands and territories from the ravages of extractive projects (see their biographies below).

Shereen Essof, executive director of JASS, began the Dialogue by remembering the many defenders who have lost their lives protecting their lands, and that on this day 25 years ago, nine members of the Ogoni people were hanged in Nigeria for their protest of oil extraction on their lands. She shared the Rise to Stop Repression Campaign that honors and remembers them, while calling attention to the continued repression against land defenders.

Repression is an experience the defenders found they had in common. Across contexts, extractive industries, backed up by repressive states and powerful economic interests, target defenders who get in their way. Amanda* stated that under the infamous President Duterte’s Counterinsurgency Program, “One of the armed forces’ strategies in eliminating so-called threats is sustained military operations in what they deem as priority areas, including our territories. This program gives way to the systematic repression of those who resist, specifically us indigenous peoples, against these policies… Power colludes against our people.”

Nonhle related that the Amadiba Crisis Committee has had members killed and faces constant repression. “For us as women, it’s our daily lives to be threatened– by sms (messages), verbally, harassed by police–that is the kind of life that we are living at the moment. But it doesn’t change our mind and it doesn’t scare us because we know that we are fighting for the good and we are fighting for the next generation.”

Laura Zuñiga said the similarities also stem from the fact that the companies are basically the same and have the same places of origin. “They are the same countries that colonized us, that have tried to destroy our diversity, our way of life, our cosmovision.”

“They have tried to delegitimize us from the supremacist view that we are not part of development, the development they want to make us all believe in, based on the destruction of some peoples for the survival of others. They attack us through the structures, for example, by repressive states like Honduras, through militarization, persecution and imprisonment.”

Laura also made a link with  often less visible forms of attack on women defenders—patriarchal norms and behavior. “In COPINH, based on Berta Cáceres’ work, we also challenge beliefs within the communities such as patriarchy since it’s us women who suffer that oppression—for women’s lives, but also because it holds the organization back.”

Battles against the plunder of land and resources have gone on for a very long time – really since the arrival of colonialism. But it is difficult to imagine the current scope of the expansion unless you are living it up close. Janna said that in Kalimantan, 89% of the land has been granted in mining concessions. Amanda* stated 70% of the total land area of the Cordillera region has been given to mining claims, with 121 energy projects threatening the control and access of indigenous women and their communities to their own ancestral land and resources. Bettina listed the industrial parks, mining projects, gas pipelines, energy projects and others being implemented in the Isthmus and concluded: “They’re many megaprojects, exercising violence, taking away our territory, our traditions our identities, and who we are, and most importantly, taking our lives.”

Not only do women defenders face repression for standing up to this expansion, but also women’s workload has doubled, and in the case of activists tripled, as livelihoods and access to basic needs are destroyed. “We can’t live off our land anymore. There was fishing, but now the fish can no longer be consumed because the palm oil wastes are dumped into the river and the fish eat that and then we can’t eat our fish. Women as day laborers have a double burden and they don’t get paid fairly,” Jannah said. She added that women who fight back face “prosecution, rape and sexual violence in general.”

The Covid pandemic has increased the expansion of extractive investment in the name of economic stability. “The economic recovery is being built on the lives of the people,” warned Nonhle. “We understand that the economy must recover, but it must not override the human rights issues because that is what’s happening now.”

Resistance Strategies

Faced with such odds against them, where do women defenders find strength and power?

The presenters described a range of practices and strategies – including drawing on culture, history, and creative forms of collective action – to strengthen their resistance in the face of these kinds of attacks. Primarily from culture, history and collective action. “We the Igorot still practice our vibrant culture, traditional practices and values, where all affairs from birth to death are communal concerns,” said Amanda*. “As with other indigenous peoples, our ancestral land is where our identity is rooted and so care of the ancestral land environment and resources is embedded in our way of life. This drives us to be defenders of land, life and resources.”

In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Zapotec language and customs of Bettina’s people help unite actions and identities. “To confront neoliberalism, we have to build on what is ours—our rivers, in strengthening women our cooking is important and for culture, traditional medicine, traditional forms of labor,” she pointed out. Other strategies include popular education campaigns, women’s capacity-building and barricades to block entrance of industry personnel and equipment as well as global solidarity and support.

The indigenous people in these regions of South Africa, Philippines, Honduras, Mexico and Indonesia all have a long and inspiring histories of collective resistance. Amanda* described acts of resistance stretching back to the Spanish conquistadors and up to the present:

“The Cellophill corporation was shut down, the Chico Dam Project was shelved and the Mindanao homeland was saved from being mined out. The triumph over these projects proved that though collectivism, unity and mass struggle indigenous women and their communities are capable of defending their ancestral lands, their lives and their rights and from these communal struggles, the indigenous women’s movement in the Cordillera was born.”

International solidarity can literally be a life-saver for women defenders and can help move campaigns. Laura said, “We learned to go to the places where the companies have headquarters, where the financing comes from, and pressure there too. Because sometimes it doesn’t matter what we do as Hondurans, but they care about the opinion of those who fund their military arms and equipment of repression, which comes from the US and the European Union. We make alliances with solidarity groups and migrants to build strength there.” Nonhle said they also use international pressure: “On our African continent, we have some very good laws, but those laws are not working accordingly. If there are more letters of solidarity and support to protect the lives and livelihoods of the communities it really helps.”

At the same time, defenders are also creators, and are working on the solutions they want to see. Jannah said, “We try to create a new economy. We’re optimistic that with the resources we have we can maximize it without exploiting nature. There is so much waste, we can protect Mother Nature and our livelihoods. In one village we assist, we’re trying mangrove plantations to build sustainability and involve the local community and we can do this in a number of villages.”

Amanda* summed up the determination to continue to organize and defend the land, despite the difficulties:

“With the track record of the government on human rights, which is dismal, it is hard for us to continue. These are challenging times. Most of the women’s organizations in our region, and all the Philippines, are being tagged as supporters or members of terrorist groups and if we are tagged as such we become targets of repression and extrajudicial killings. This is one of the reasons why I cannot show myself on the video. There is no choice for us but to continue to organize ourselves, strengthening our organization, because it is through collective strength, through unity, that we can move forward as a people.”

Watch the full recording:


JASS’ security and protection resources:
Southern Africa Defending Rights in Hostile Contexts report (Nonhle participated)
Community protection:
“Divided we dance”:
*Amanda – name changed for safety reasons.


Activist (Philippines) (her biography removed for safety reasons). For the purposes of the summary, we have identified her as Amanda*

Jannah (Indonesia)

Norjannah or Jane is a woman activist working at Tanjung Selor, the capital city of North Kalimantan Province. She has been working as a journalist at the local media, Koran Kaltara (Kaltara newspaper) since 2013. As an activist for women and environmental issues, she is currently also part of the Sustainable Forest Circle Association, which is a non-governmental organization, engaged in environmental conservation and empowerment of communities. Its goal is to build an independent society for sustainable and just livelihoods. This association is active in defending community rights, especially rural communities and women, and to encourage the establishment of policies that give the rights of the community to manage its natural resources. Currently, the association is providing assistance in several villages that are directly affected by the extractive industries, both palm oil and mining, in Bulungan, North Kalimantan.

Jannah (Indonesia)

Norjannah atau Jane adalah aktivis perempuan yang berbasis di Tanjung Selor, Ibukota Provinsi Kalimantan Utara. Jane bekerja sebagai wartawan di sebuah media lokal, Koran Kaltara, sejak tahun 2013. Sebagai aktivis perempuan dan lingkungan, Jane merupakan anggota dari Sustainable Forest Circle Association atau Asosiasi Lingkar Hutan Berkelanjutan, sebuah organisasi non-pemerintah yang fokus pada isu konservasi lingkungan dan pemberdayaan komunitas. Tujuan organisasi ini adalah menciptakan masyarakat madani untuk keberlanjutan alam dan penghidupan yang adil. Organisasi ini secara aktif melindungi hak-hak komunitas, khususnya hak-hak perempuan dan masyarakat desa, dan mendorong terciptanya kebijakan yang memberi komunitas terkait hak atas pengelolaan sumber daya mereka sendiri. Saat ini, organisasi Jannah sedang melakukan pendampingan di beberapa desa yang terkena dampak langsung industri ekstraktif, baik kelapa sawit maupun pertambangan, di Bulungan, Kalimantan Utara.

Niken Lestari, Indonesia

Niken Lestari developed her capacity in leadership and community organizing for over 14 years. Niken has a strong passion for feminist leadership, open-source software, and community literacy as part of the social justice movement. She comes from a multi-discipline background of library science, women’s studies, and rural advisory service. She is now working at FAMM Indonesia (Young Indonesian Women Activist Forum) as executive coordinator. She is planning to create a library that collects and produces poetry books in Indonesia language and English as part of the bibliotherapy for mental health care. As a 41-year old Aries, she loves the beach and sands.

Nonhle Mbuthuma (South Africa)

Nonhle is spokesperson of Amadiba Crisis Committee. Nonhla started her struggle early 1996, when an Australian mining company discovered titanium along the coast of her region. THeir demand is for land and environmental rights, to make sure that their human rights are not violated in the name of development. Amadiba Crisis Committee won two cases against the mining company, first is the Right to Say No case of 2018 at the High Court, where they were granted the right to decide. The second case was the right to access information. Currently, all the communities have the right to see mining applications before the mining companies start their work. Amadiba Crisis Committee was formed in 2007 and she has been spokesperson since then.

Nonhle Mbuthuma (Afrika Selatan)

Nonhle adalah juru bicara dari Amadiba Crisis Committee atau Komite Krisis Amadiba. Nonhle memulai perjuangannya di awal tahun 1996, ketika perusahaan tambang asal Australia menemukan titanium yang terkubur di sepanjang pantai wilayah tempat Nonhle tinggal. Tuntutan mereka adalah hak atas tanah dan lingkungan, untuk memastikan bahwa hak asasi mereka tidak dilanggar atas nama pembangunan. Komite Krisis Amadiba memenangkan dua kasus terhadap perusahaan tambang tersebut; pertama kasus Hak untuk Mengatakan Tidak tahun 2018 (Right to Say No Case of 2018) di Pengadilan Tinggi, dimana mereka diberikan hak untuk mengambil keputusan. Kasus kedua adalah hak untuk mengakses informasi. Saat ini, seluruh masyarakat memiliki hak untuk melihat aplikasi pertambangan sebelum perusahaan tambang mulai bekerja. Komite Krisis Amadiba dibentuk pada tahun 2007 dan Nonhle telah menjadi juru bicara sejak komite ini didirikan.

Bettina Cruz (Mexico)

Originally from Juchitán, Oaxaca, Bettina is a member of the Binniza People in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of the state of Oaxaca. She has a degree in Agricultural Engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), a Master’s degree in Regional Rural Development from the Chapingo Autonomous University, and a PhD in Territorial Planning and Regional Development from the University of Barcelona. Since 2007, she has organized with other compañeras and compañeros to defend the communal lands in the region, an effort that today is known as the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Defense of Land and Territory. The Assembly is resisting against well-financed projects of dispossession, such as the production of wind energy that has been imposed in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec with strong, harmful impacts on land and territory, and against the billing of high electricity rates in marginalized indigenous areas. Given the construction of logistical routes for the transportation of goods throughout the world, Bettina’s region is threatened by the implementation of the Transoceanic Corridor.

Bettina Cruz (Meksiko)

Berasal dari Juchitán, Oaxaca, Bettina adalah bagian dari ‘Orang Binniza,’ masyarakat adat yang bermukim di Tanah Genting Tehuantepec, di negara bagian Oaxaca, Meksiko. Bettina memiliki gelar di bidang Teknik Pertanian dari Universitas Otonomi Nasional Meksiko (UNAM), gelar Magister Pembangunan Pedesaan Regional dari Universitas Otonomi Chapingo, dan gelar PhD Perencanaan Wilayah dan Pembangunan Regional dari Universitas Barcelona. Sejak 2007, ia bergerak bersama compañeras dan compañeros (partner) lainnya untuk mempertahankan tanah komunal di wilayah tersebut, sebuah upaya yang sekarang dikenal dengan nama ‘Majelis Masyarakat Adat Tanah Genting Tehuantepec untuk Pertahanan Tanah dan Wilayah.’ Majelis ini menolak proyek-proyek perampasan bernilai besar, seperti produksi energi angin yang telah dilakukan di Tanah Genting Tehuantepec, yang ternyata memiliki dampak berbahaya bagi tanah dan wilayah mereka. Majelis juga menentang penagihan tarif listrik yang tinggi di daerah adat yang terpinggirkan. Sehubungan dengan rencana pembangunan jalur logistik dunia, wilayah Bettina (yang dianggap strategis) terancam dirusak oleh inisiatif pembangunan ‘Transoceanic Corridor’.

Laura Zúñiga (Honduras)

Laura Zúñiga Cáceres is the daughter of Berta Cáceres and a COPINH activist. Since her teenage years, she has participated in the organization’s youth, communication, and popular education areas. After the coup d’état in Honduras, she had to migrate to Argentina where she participated in youth and feminist movements. Currently she is in Honduras where she continues the struggle, together with COPINH, for justice for Berta Cáceres and the Lenca people.

Laura Zúñiga (Honduras)

Laura Zúñiga Cáceres adalah putri Berta Cáceres (aktivis lingkungan Honduras yang dibunuh pada tahun 2016) dan aktivis COPINH. Sejak masa remajanya, Laura aktif berpartisipasi dalam bidang organisasi kepemudaan, komunikasi, dan pendidikan populer. Setelah kudeta yang terjadi di Honduras, Laura harus pindah ke Argentina, tetapi ia tetap aktif berpartisipasi dalam gerakan pemuda dan feminis. Saat ini Laura sedang berada di Honduras, dan melanjutkan perjuangannya bersama COPINH dalam menuntut keadilan bagi Berta Cáceres dan orang Lenca.

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