MesoAmerica – Indigenous Women Rights Defenders in Hostile Territories
Date: July 1, 2021
By Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic & Marusia López Cruz
Threats to Life
In Mesoamerica, as in other parts of the world, we are living through a historical period characterized by the imposition and violence of extractivism, supported by repressive states and subjected to powerful private interests. Industries that have invaded indigenous and communal territories include mining, oil, large-scale monoculture, and energy and tourism mega-projects, generally export-oriented. These industries, with transnational capital, are transforming the landscape and land use in our communities and causing numerous social conflicts. In Mexico, to give an idea of the extent of the phenomenon, more than 25,000 mining concessions are currently in force, covering 21 million hectares. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, former Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, stated that “extractive activities within the lands and territories of indigenous peoples, carried out without the proper consultation or consent, are the main source of violations of their human rights, including violence, criminalization and forced displacement ”.
This large-scale invasion has generated resistance, often led by indigenous women. Entire communities are organizing to defend their territories from extractive capitalism and dispossession by national and transnational companies. They face attacks from companies and also from authoritarian governments and their security forces.
In Mesoamerica, still in the shadow of its colonial past, violence against movements in defense of land and territory threatens the lives and physical integrity of people, and weakens the social and organizational fabric of our territories. State forces use violent forms of repression against communities that resist the imposition of the projects harm their lives and livelihoods. Companies and governments use organized crime to create fear, they criminalize leaders of social movements and communities in resistance, they launch defamation campaigns and they work to coopt members of organizations in order to to divide and weaken the movements. In 2019, of the 304 murders of human rights defenders registered by Front Line Defenders, 40% were for the defense of land, territory and human rights. In Mexico, 39 attacks were registered against land and territory defenders in the same year, 15 of them murders.
Entire communities are organizing to defend their territories from extractive capitalism and dispossession by national and transnational companies.
The coauthor of this text, Lolita Chávez, Maya K’iche’ is a local official and defender of land and territory. She also actively defends water, forests, communitarian history, spirituality and indigenous worldview. For this work, she has suffered six armed assassination attempts, sexual harassment, illegal searches, surveillance and tracking of her movements and those of her organization, two hate attacks, and more than 25 legal charges brought against her. Lolita has also been the target of smear campaigns. Although she was granted precautionary measures by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, she was eventually forced into exile with family members to safeguard her life.
Lolita’s story is not unique. It forms part of a strategy to weaken grassroots organizations and their struggles. The attacks against a defender affect the whole community, weakening its leadership, generating internal tensions and conflicts, and draining time and energy from advancing in the work of building collective power. In the case of the Consejo de Pueblos K’iche’ (CPK), criminalization, attacks, death threats, and the lack of response to their demands are some of the many forms of harassment that its members and supporters of the communities have faced. The government and transnational companies provoke confrontation and division among the inhabitants of the communities as part of their strategy to dismantle their struggle. For defenders at risk, the cost of the extreme measure of going into exile to protect themselves is very high—the family is left without a primary source of support and care, and the community and organization suffer the loss of a key leader, increasing their situation of vulnerability.
In 2018, Lolita Chávez spoke before the United Nations and related the costs of defending rights to land and territory in hostile contexts:
“Peasant and rural indigenous women are exercising the right to defend rights in hostile territories, in insecure spaces, besieged by militarization, drug activity and corporate powers. In the defense of our territories, many women defenders have fallen off along the path, because they were repressed, imprisoned, tortured, sexually raped or even murdered. In the case of many indigenous women defenders, their stories and actions are unknown—governments have intentionally generated hatred against us, and they have fomented powerful expressions of extermination and genocide in our territories, as a result of patriarchal colonializing, wars and invasions of world powers.”
We experience many forms of violence, violence that comes from machismo in the intimate, institutional and public spheres. and we face racism for being indigenous women. Women who defend rights in indigenous communities and territories have been mocked; they see us as people of lower rank who need tutelage. They blame us for not speaking Spanish—a language that was imposed on us. They blame us for not understanding Western legislation, to the point of calling us ‘rebellious Indian women’ whose husbands and fathers can’t control.” 
Two Opposing Views of the World
Communities and organizations are waging a struggle between two opposing worldviews: One based on depredation and dispossession, that threatens the survival of the human species, other living beings and the planet. The other is based on respect for the web of life, mutual care, equality  and social justice.
Miriam Miranda, land defender with the National Network of Human Rights Defenders of Honduras and leader of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), speaks of the need to “counteract this vision of false development that is racist, sexist, discriminatory and colonialist. We have to fight to recompose, from our guts, what we are. To return to a culture where solidarity, complementarity and mutual aid prevail, and not the extremely brutal individualism that this predatory system instills in us.”
Communities and organizations are waging a struggle between two opposing worldviews: One based on depredation and dispossession; the other based on respect for the web of life, mutual care, equality and social justice.
With this vision, various communities and indigenous peoples have organized for the collective defense and protection of the community, by the community, using our own knowledge, forms of community organization and support networks that we have built up both nationally and internationally. In this historic process, women have played a fundamental role, in the defense of territory and in the implementation of collective protection strategies. As part of this work, they are also questioning the structures of discrimination and demanding the eradication of unequal power relations.