Cleofe Neyra

March 11, 2009  |  Case Studies, Women & Mining

Isolation and Persecution of Women Activists

These testimonies demonstrate that, women mining activism requires courage and tremendous doses of commitment.

“I am constantly the target of comments and jokes from the workers of the mine and their families. Some of them spit at me when they meet me in the street,” says Margarita.

Lack of support demoralises women and leaves them feeling persecuted, devalued, and marginalised. In response to this complex problem, in conjunction with women activists LAMMP has set up the Women Defenders Network (Unión Latinoamericana de Mujeres). Margarita, Hilda and Cleofe have set up women’s groups and are now part of a regional platform which brings women activists together and provides them with the tools and resources to build their organisational capacity, as well as a sense of support and solidarity. A key component of this work is documenting and monitoring human rights violations against women activists.

Cleofe has been punished both for her activism and for being a woman.

“I am a poor, vulnerable woman. I am not the only woman punished for opposing a project, but I don’t recall a case in which justice has been done.”

She is from the Piura highlands, along Peru’s northern border with Ecuador. She enjoyed a simple life as a farmer in the community of Ñangalí, Huancabamba. In 2003 the arrival of UK-based mining company Monterrico Metals permanently changed Cleofe’s life.

Ñangalí is a comunidad campesina - a peasant community - protected by a law requiring a two-thirds majority of community members to consent to any externally imposed development project. From the start, the Majaz mine was controversial. The communities of Segunda y Cajas and Yanta alleged they were not consulted about the project. Furthermore, as the territory is situated adjacent to Peru’s border with Ecuador, the presidential decree 023-2003 granted permits on the grounds that the mine was of public necessity and special interest to the Peruvian state.

Amidst overwhelming opposition by the local communities Monterrico proceeded to build its campsite, signalling the start of its exploration activities.

In the summer of 2005, after requests for dialogue with Majaz were ignored, hundreds of campesinos organised a peaceful march to the mining site of Henry’s Hill. Their objective was to force the workers out of their territory.

As a member of the traditional “Ronda Campesinas” (a group of leaders responsible for enforcing law and order within communities), Cleofe took part in the five-day march. “It started well, but the police ambushed and attacked us with tear gas. They burnt our clothes and destroyed our food,” says Cleofe, adding, “I was among the 28 who were caught and imprisoned in the campsite”.

During five days of captivity Cleofe and another woman were kept half-naked in a small toilet with a plastic black sack over their heads, their feet and hands tied.

“We didn’t have food or water. Repeatedly they beat us with their fists and boots. All of them took pleasure in squeezing my breasts so hard that often I felt like fainting”. Cleofe acknowledges that she has not been able to recover physically or emotionally from her ordeal. It was not just the fear of the beating or the lack of water. “They constantly threatened us with rape”, whilst indulging in fantasies of what they were going to do to us.

When Cleofe was released she lodged a complaint with the state prosecutor. The company denied any involvement, and so her complaint was not investigated. In retaliation the company sued her, alleging that she broke into the mine site and destroyed private property.

Although still angry and unable to deal with the consequences of her experience, Cleofe admits she does “not know what else I could do. I am a poor, vulnerable woman. I am not the only woman punished for opposing a project, but I don’t recall a case in which justice has been done”. Whilst the legal process against her continues its way, in January 2009 photos were released that clearly illustrate the abuses and injuries inflicted by the police and security workers on the camppesinos detained at the Majaz campsite. In response to the public outcry the government ordered an investigation. In the meantime Cleofe continues receiving threatening death messages advising her “not to talk”.

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