Indigenous Women: Defending the Environment in Latin America

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Guest blog by Meredith Brown and Carley Reynolds, NRDC Latin America Project Interns


On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we celebrate the successes of indigenous peoples in Latin America in protecting their lands and communities. In particular, we recognize the strong leadership of indigenous women who have stood at the front lines of many of these achievements and celebrate the indigenous communities that have defended their lands from mega-projects. 

For this year’s observance, the United Nations celebrates the 10th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes the rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples. Over these last ten years, several key international treaties and goals, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Agreement, have recognized and incorporated the rights of indigenous peoples. Yet despite this progress, indigenous people must still fight to protect their rights, their lands, and their cultures. They must work to safeguard their natural resources and serve as stewards of the environment—often putting their lives on the line.

The threats these communities face are complex and manifold—from climate change to corporate interests. In the face of these threats indigenous women have risen up to push for sustainable solutions both locally and for the global community, and to defend their lands from destructive projects. In this first part of our blog celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day we look at the leadership of these indigenous women, the importance of their presence in international and local dialogs and celebrate their powerful voices and all they can achieve. The second part of our blog will look at how indigenous communities are fighting for their rights against corporate interests.

Women lead sustainability efforts in their indigenous communities

With indigenous communities already facing the effects of climate change, indigenous women are taking action. In one example, after a devastating hurricane hit the coast of Honduras, 35 local women led a restoration project to protect their community from future climate events. Following failed attempts by outside organizations to restore the beach with nonnative vegetation, the Garifuna federation OFRANEH helped the women established a nursery that produced 3,600 seedlings of native shrubs and trees. The vegetation thrived and now serves as natural protectors from increasingly severe climate events and erosion. 

Indigenous women are also crossing borders to catalyze change within their communities. Four indigenous women from the rural town of Punta Burica in Costa Rica traveled to India on scholarship for Barefoot College’s Solar Lighting Program. The six-month course teaches women about solar technology and how to build electricity producing solar devices. Returning to Punta Burica, the women have built solar powered panels for roofs. 

Indigenous women make their voices heard on global environmental issues

Indigenous women are also raising their voices to urge the international community to take action on climate change. The Chaski Warmi of the Abyayala (“women messengers” in Kichwa)—a network of indigenous women across tribes and nations—traveled to Marrakech for the 2016 United Nations climate change negotiations. There, they called for a development model that put indigenous rights and environmental justice over what they call “extractivism”, or unsustainable resource exploitation. "Of course we want development," said Blanca Chancosa, vice-president of Ecuarunari, a leading Indigenous movement in Ecuador. "But not the type of development that abuses the forests, air, water, and land."

More recently, in honor of the tenth anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN Commission on the Status of Women invited indigenous women from across the world to an interactive dialog. Among discussion of gender violence, education and economic opportunity for women, many speakers also called for increased consultation with indigenous women on environmental issues, particularly climate change. The dialog particularly noted how indigenous women’s capacities can contribute solutions to climate change.

In the face of death threats and attacks, indigenous women stand up to transnational corporations

Climate change is not the only threat indigenous communities face. In 2016, a devastating 200 environmental activists were killed, up from 185 in 2015. Of these murders, almost 40% were indigenous people and 60% were in Latin America. The second part of our blog will feature the accomplishments of the brave indigenous people who have fought for their rights against powerful corporate interests, despite this violence. Yet the steadfast leadership of women in these movements deserves special mention here.

One example of this leadership was activist Berta Cáceres from Honduras, who was shot dead in 2016 after years of death threats linked to her protest of a dam that threatened land sacred to the Indigenous Lenca people. Following her death, two European banks pulled funding for the project. Since Cáceres’ death, her daughter, Bertha Zuñiga, has continued her mother’s legacy of bravery and environmental justice activism in the face of ongoing threats. Just last month, Zuñiga and other members of her mother’s organization were attacked by men with machetes and almost run off the road over a cliff.

Another example is Máxima Acuña from Peru who successfully helped halt the development of the controversial Conga mining project. After refusing to sell her land to Newmont in 2011, Acuña and her family faced lawsuits, death threats and assault. Her and her daughter have been beaten unconscious twice and their home demolished. Just this May, Peru’s Supreme Court acquitted her of aggravated encroachment changes brought by Newmont. “I never had the chance to go the school, I never had to chance to learn even a letter but I know how to resist, to fight and that’s why I will never be defeated by the mining companies,” Acuña said.

For more stories about how indigenous communities are defending their lands from destructive mega-projects, read part two of this blog.

Meredith Brown is studying as a 2018 candidate for a Masters in Environmental Management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She spent her undergraduate years studying at Santa Clara University in California earning a bachelor’s degree double majoring in Political Science and Environmental Studies. After graduating, Meredith lived in Santiago, Chile for five years working in the non-profit sector. While in Chile, she worked at the Santiago offices of Oceana and The Nature Conservancy where her time was spent focusing on a wide-range of both philanthropy and conservation projects throughout South America. Her current studies utilize an environmental justice lens to focus on both fresh water resources and marine conservation.

Carley Reynolds is a student at the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment working towards her Master of Environmental Management, with a concentration in Environmental Economics and Policy. She works as a research assistant, investigating environmental infrastructure destruction in the Middle East. She completed her BS in Environmental Science at the University of Florida, with a minor in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance. She has interned with the Natural Resources Defense Council, working with their International Climate Policy team and Latin America team. Her previous work on carbon sequestration by urban forests was published in Sustainability.