Celebrating women defenders of nature in Ecuador
From October 14 to 23, Rachel Warden, Latin America Partnerships and Gender Justice coordinator, traveled to Ecuador to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Accion Ecologica, KAIROS’ long time partner, and to participate in the Latin America Network of Women Defenders’ fourth assembly. The following blog is a reflection of this experience.
Accion Ecologica celebrates 30 years of Defending Nature
It felt like Oscar night. But rather than Los Angeles, I was in Quito, Ecuador. Rather than actors and directors, defenders of water, forests, and communities impacted by the extractive sector were being recognized for their accomplishments. I was at the 30th anniversary of Acción Ecológica, a KAIROS partner and exemplary environmental organization that’s a beacon for the rights of nature.
The hall was packed with Indigenous peoples and campesinos (peasant farmers) from communities throughout Ecuador, students, politicians, international guests, researchers and academics. Acción Ecológica gave out the 2016 Defensoras de la Naturaleza (Defenders of Nature) awards, and just like the Oscars, before each award they screened a short video profiling the award and the work of the recipient. Awards were given to artists defending nature, student movements like the Yasunidos, academics and international partners. By the end of the night almost everyone in the audience had received an award, and the Yasunidos had everyone dancing. They are a creative, dynamic and highly effective youth movement that gathered more than 800,000 signatures to protect Yasuni National Park from oil drilling. The evening was an inspirational demonstration of Acción Ecológica’s impact and a testament to its renowned work in environmental justice and on the rights of nature at local, national and international levels.
I felt privileged and proud to be there. KAIROS has been working with Accion Ecologica for more than 15 years. It was Acción Ecológica that introduced the concept of Ecological Debt. KAIROS supports their work with women environmental defenders, mostly in the area of resource extraction and climate change. This partnership has deepened our understanding of the impacts of extraction and climate change on women as well as the role of women defenders as protagonists in the struggle for collective rights and the environment. Gloria Chicaiza, who coordinates the mining program at Acción Ecológica, participated in KAIROS’ gender impact symposium in Vancouver in 2015 and in our Indigenous women and resource extraction Convergence Assembly on gendered impacts at the World Social Forum in Montreal in August.
IV Assembly of the Latin American Network of Women Defenders of the Environment
Prior to the anniversary celebration, I participated in the Assembly of the Latin American Network of Women Defenders of Environmental Rights (la Red de Mujeres).
Acción Ecológica played a key role in the formation of this network which brings together women defenders from ten countries in Latin America. This fourth Assembly underlined the importance of face-to-face meetings that deepen relations between existing members, include new organizations and defenders, and provide a space to exchange testimonies and strategies, identify collective campaigns, build capacity and – very importantly – strengthen friendships and solidarity.
The use of symbols was very powerful. One woman who led the opening ceremony offered flowers for the organizations to flourish. Everyone was asked to bring a symbol of our work to the circle. I offered the work that KAIROS is doing on the gendered impacts of resource extraction and our commitment to link Indigenous women and organizations in Latin America, Asia and Canada in the defense of nature. As a symbol of this work I brought the photo of Connie Sorio from KAIROS, Gloria Chicaiza from Acción Ecológica, and Meekay Otway from Pauktuutit at the 2015 International Peoples’ Conference on mining in the Philippines.
But the meeting wasn’t all about symbols and relationship building. The information about cases and campaigns was impressive and helpful. Antonia and Vidalina Morales from the Association for Economic and Social Development, for example, spoke in detail about the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) tribunal decision to dismiss Pacific Rim’s $250 million lawsuit against El Salvador.
The network is a space for capacity building and personal growth. I participated in a workshop on popular feminist education led by Claudia Korol, a highly respected feminist and popular educator from Argentina who began her work with Madres del Plazo de Mayo. Some of her popular education techniques and tools could enhance our work in Canada.
Claudia’s workshop began with an homage to Berta Caceres who had worked closely with a number of women in the network. Claudia was Berta’s friend and she described her as a symbol of resistance, defiance and life in the face of a “machinery of death.”
“We are meeting in her memory and to re-vindicate and remember her,” she said. Claudia noted that there were many Bertas in the network and added the refrain which has been repeated since her murder, “Berta did not die; she multiplied.” Participants were asked to name other women defenders of nature and life who have faced death, threats, discrimination and criminalization because of their work.
Claudia noted that we so often lose sight of the individual in the struggle of the collective. I thought of the over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and of the importance of naming and recognizing them as individuals.
There was also an interesting discussion about fear. Many of the women in the network face fear daily. Rather than denying fear, they talked about the importance of recognizing and naming fear and facing it collectively. Collectively overcoming fear is very powerful. Many present knew and repeated the slogan: “They fear us because we don’t fear them.” (Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo).
The Assembly took place in the context of Habitat III, the UN Summit of Housing which happens every ten years. I knew very little about this summit before going to Ecuador but learned that it is a BIG deal. Government delegations from all over the world descended on Quito, which was lit up, literally. The focus of this year’s Summit was sustainable cities, in the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs). Acción Ecológica, the Latin American women’s network, and OilWatch organized their meetings to coincide with the Summit in an effort to bring issues of territory, displacement and eviction to the agenda. For example, the LA Women’s network organized a workshop on women and resource extraction that involved representatives from six countries. They then brought the issues to the street by way of a demonstration in defense of territory and against displacement and eviction. The police were there in large numbers, including several in riot gear, and thankfully they were restrained. However, the fact women defenders of the environment met with rows of riot police during a peaceful demonstration is a sad commentary in a country where the rights of nature are enshrined in the constitution.
Acción Ecológica toxi tour
During my final days in Ecuador I participated in an Acción Ecológica toxi tour. I joined members of the Women’s network and OilWatch in a tour to the Amazon region of Ecuador to see first-hand the devastation left behind by decades–old petroleum exploitation. Our hosts were Alexandra Almeida from Acción Ecológica and Wilson Suarez, who is from one of the impacted communities and has been leading toxi tours for more than 15 years. Wilson was returning to his community after attending the Acción Ecológica celebrations and receiving a 2016 Defender of Nature award.
On the tour we saw the environmental devastation caused by decades of operations by Petro Amazonia (formerly PetroEcuador). We learned this environmental impact is much the same as that left by Texaco and Chevron, and that the companies went to great lengths to cover up the damage. Wilson described how, after a massive oil spill, he was hired to be part of a clean-up crew. The workers waded into the water in pairs to capture the petroleum waste and then were instructed to dig holes nearby and bury it. Much of the contaminated water, laden with heavy metals and phenol, was dumped into the surrounding environment. Later, in order to hide this activity, they did it at night.
We heard heart-breaking testimonies from those affected by these operations. In some places there is no access to clean water and even the rain is contaminated. Everyone we spoke with had a family member who died of cancer, many of them young women. Farming in most places is impossible because the land is so toxic and depleted that nothing grows. This makes it almost impossible to sell and prevents people from moving, although most have nowhere to go.
While all this is going on Acción Ecológica continues to accompany affected communities, demand reparations, organize and help build alternatives. We stayed at the Clinica Ambiental which hosts the toxi tours and offers training and legal accompaniment to people in the area. We met Delia Davos, whose land was affected by a massive oil spill in 2006. She trained at the Clinica Ambiental and now has a small farm and hostel for delegations and alternative tourism. Her house is decorated with a beautiful mural painted by children in the area depicting the natural paradise and harmony with nature that existed prior to the arrival of petroleum companies and which they are trying to restore.
Delia showed us her farm and proudly introduced us to her plants as if they were family members. Finally, she took us to her kitchen and revealed her 2016 Defender of Nature award which she had received earlier that week. She was given the award as a Sanadora del Medio Ambiente, a healer of the environment. She had hidden it in a cabinet, but when she took it out she beamed with pride. It was a powerful feeling to be in that kitchen where 30 years of defending nature had transpired and was recognized.
By Rachel Warden, KAIROS’ Women of Courage & Latin America Partnerships Coordinator