Ecuador: Women Defenders of Mother Earth

March 8, 2009  |  Ecuador, Issues, Women & Mining

El Frente de Mujeres Defensoras de la Pachamama is a grass-roots group led by women for women activists committed to raising awareness of the devastating impact of mining on rural and indigenous women’s capacity to earn a living from traditional farming.

Tired of the way authorities dismissed their complaints about contamination of rivers near to small and large-scale developments, many women started spontaneously to work together. In 2007 the 300-strong group became a registered NGO.

Since then, members of the Women’s Defenders of Mother Earth have fought courageously against the passing of a new mining law allowing large-scale mining in protected and farming areas or inhabited by indigenous communities.

The group – composed mainly of rural and indigenous women - believes that the social and environmental costs of large-scale mining are too high to justify mining’s role as an income-generating activity for Ecuador.

Members of the group want to ensure that their children inherit a clean environment, free of the contamination of mining. “It is the future of our children that we are worried about,” says 65 year old Angelilta Loja president of the group. Like all members of the group, she believes that large-scale mining will limit access to clean water supplies, despite water rights being enshrined in the new constitution. The group has joined with other civic organisations to demand that Ecuador does not allow industrial mining.

The group is member of the NCCDLS (National Coordinating Committee for Defense of Life and Sovereignty), a large community-based association representing a network of rural and indigenous associations around the country who share an anti-mining viewpoint.

The Women Defenders of Mother Earth is an ambitious community project that serves not only to unify its members against the threat of mining but also to consolidate and strengthen women’s participation within important local structures such as the NCCDLS.

The organisation provides women with training, and creates opportunities for engaging in the mining debate at all levels.

Mining in Ecuador and the new Mining Law

Most of Ecuador’s 4,000 mining concessions are located on land occupied by indigenous and rural communities. Mining concessions cover approximately 20 percent of the territory of Ecuador, but a revised mining law could increase this territory quickly by removing limits on expansion. So far 26 percent of mining concessions are in Azuay province, with a further 21 percent in Pichincha. Although no mining projects have yet reached the production stage, several Canadian companies among them IAMGOLD Corp, Kinross and Corriente Resources are eager to develop production of ore bodies described as the most important findings in the last decades.

In April 2008 President Correa revoked three-quarters of Ecuador’s mining concessions and called a halt to operations while the government revised the country’s mining law. At the time a national debate on whether the country should allow large-scale mining was promised. Despite strong opposition, nine months later in January 2009 legislators passed a bill that resumed mining activities previously suspended and promoted large-scale mining. Although the government claims that the new law includes stricter environmental controls and increased royalties, rural and indigenous groups predict that the law, which gives priority to corporations for access to water, land, and infrastructure, will violate indigenous and rural communities’ human and environmental rights.

As well as providing evidence of the many ways in which women’s activism is criminalised, a programme of documentation and monitoring of human rights violations enables activists to address issues of safety and protection.
Taken from LAMMP’s database of Human Rights violations the next pages present the testimony of several women members of the group. Their stories illustrates how members of the Women’s Defender’s of Mother Earth group are being systematically targeted by police repression and miners.

In The Eye Of The Storm

The passing of the new mining law was met with strong public protests demanding a national debate and challenging the government to explain why profitable projects owned by foreign companies were left untouched. The Women Defenders of Mother Earth group held women-only events urging women activists to voice their concerns.

Their participation was met with police repression. Many activists echo the experience of Maria Francisca Zhagui Chuchuca. During a protest in April 2008 she says: “Five policemen attacked us with teargas and firearms. As if we were animals, before arresting us they beat us. I am a farmer and all I am doing is fighting for life and water. I have not committed a crime, I have not killed, and I have not stolen.” After being hit on the leg with a tear-gas canister she finds it difficult to work. During a radio broadcast President Correa has labelled members of the group “infantile ecologists”, warning them that as leader of the anti-mining opposition they have to “face the consequences of their actions”

LINA SOLANO is the co-ordinator of the Women’s Defenders of Mother Earth. She is from Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador and the capital of the Azuay province, a region targeted by mining companies.

““I had not realised how important is the work we are doing. Case documentation not only gives us evidence of the criminalisation of our struggle, it also allows us to understand the challenges we face. As a group we are committed to documenting violations of our fundamental rights.”

Since the President’s first address in April 2008, Lina has received menacing e-mails from a member of a so-called “White Legion death squad battalion” which claims to be monitoring her work.

On 23rd October 2008 the Public Prosecutor’s office of Gualaquiza informed Lina that there are two lawsuits against her. In both cases she is falsely accused of leading armed groups first into a mining camp and months later into the office of a mining company. Lina says

”The charges are fabricated, linked to my work and seek to damage my reputation as leader. In the first case I was far away from the place of the incident. In the second, I have witnesses that I was participating in a pacific protest together with fellow members of the Defenders of Mother Earth”.

Apart from Lina there are ten more members of the group facing serious charges ranging from “terrorism” to “destruction of public property”.

Since its creation the group has been growing in recognition and their public profile has risen considerably. As their message is perceived as capable of mobilising and obtaining public support, members of the group are paying a high personal price at the community level, where mine workers target the activists. This is the case of Gloria Livia Jimenez who on her way back home after celebrating Christmas with her family was attacked by two miners who had previously warned her that unless she left she would be killed. The beating was so severe that she was taken into hospital. “They kicked and punched me, the tendons were torn.” Armed with a medical X rays and a medical report, she filed a complaint at the office of the prosecutor. Last month at an oral hearing the miners admitted that Gloria’s opposition to mining projects had motivated their assault. They offered her US$200 in compensation, providing she dropped charges. Livia refused: “All I want is justice”.

Last year at a regional meeting hosted in Ecuador by LAMMP and ULAM more than 60 women activists from Venezuela, Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru and Ecuador agreed to prioritise the construction of a regional database to record human rights violations against women mining activists. “I had not realised how important is the work we are doing. Case documentation not only gives us evidence of the criminalisation of our struggle, it also allows us to understand the challenges we face. As a group we are committed to documenting violations of our fundamental rights.” says Lina Solano – Coordinator of the Women Defenders of Mother Earth.

The Women Defenders of Mother Earth group is member of the Women’s Defenders Network “Union Latinoamericana de Mujeres” (ULAM), an initiative supported by LAMMP.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.