The defense of the Body-Territory

“Defending our land without defending our bodies is a tremendous contradiction, because just as extractivism kills, so does machismo.”

Betty Vázquez is a land defender from the department of Santa Bárbara in northwestern Honduras, a region with a notable concentration of extractivist megaprojects in a country that declared itself “open for business” after the 2009 coup d’état. The above phrase speaks to a concept developed by indigenous women, which integrates the struggle for land and territorial rights and women’s rights. In an investigation I had the opportunity to work on with Mayan community feminist Lolita Chavez and pioneer in feminist protection models, Marusia Lopez Cruz, we summarized it in the following way: “Territory is understood as a web of life that connects with our bodies and histories, which creates a link between the struggles for the defense of women’s bodies and the territories that sustain us.”

This Earth Day, four women defenders from four countries came together to reflect on their struggles defending the body-territory. They emphasized that the relationship of women’s bodies with the earth, its natural resources, and the mutual care that this implies, is reflected in the types of threats and forms of violence against women’s bodies and against the earth that emanate from the same capitalist-patriarchal system that seeks total domination of both territories.

In response to this violence, a protest walk of over 2000 kilometers is currently being organized in Mapuche territory, against “feminicide, genocide, ecocide and all the forms that kill us,” according to Moira Millán, a Mapuche weychafe from the Argentine Patagonia.

“When we state that every time the body of indigenous women is violated and killed… it is the way in which the land is violated and killed. That is, there is a projection of this patriarchy, of this dominant civilizational matrix that finds its similarity between the relationship with women and the relationship it establishes with the land. So to speak of emancipatory processes of indigenous peoples without thinking about the processes of what we call self-determination of our bodies, is an incomplete project”.

For Rocío Moreno, a Mezcala community member, combining the defense of territory with the defense of women’s bodies and their rights is a very important collective learning experience for the indigenous peoples that form the National Indigenous Congress (CNI). “We say here: ‘we have to put together a struggle against patriarchal capitalism,’ and taking it to the assemblies and the communities has nourished and strengthened us enormously. For example, the great triumphs that we see in a few years of a serious and profound discussion about patriarchy in our assemblies and in our communities, because from now on we are seeing new ways of doing politics and it is just because of the presence of the women comrades.”

Miriam Pixtún, Maya Kaqchikel of the Peaceful Resistance La Puya (Guatemala) describes a process of “trying to transcend these mechanisms of oppression internalized in men and women,” in which they have made progress in recognizing the contribution of everyone from diversity and valuing the leadership of women in the struggle to defend their communities against the imposition of large mining projects. “Collective rights are the sum of all individual rights. Women, children, the elderly have rights. It is to respect the diversity that exists.”

Within the concept of struggle in defense of the body-territory and reflecting on Earth Day, there was also no lack of warnings about the profound damage they experience in the flesh, the criminalization and persecution and discrimination they face, including from colleagues in their organizations. In Honduras, Betty talked about the devastation of hurricanes, the ritual of reconciliation with the river after blaming it for overflowing, and the environmental devastation that displaces migrant people. In Jalisco, Rocio faces the great sadness of “a toxic river” due to the waste from the industrial corridor, a river that once gave life. In Mapuche territory and in Guatemala, the ravages of mining and deforestation mean destruction of land and life.

But the vision in the end is not pessimistic. From their different cultures, histories and geographies, indigenous women advocates identified a shared vision. While at the official summits for Earth Day,  self-appointed masters of the universe debated how to “mitigate” the damage they themselves cause, the communities spoke of a force, a hope for life, that does not reside primarily in regulation or politics, that does not depend on what they decide at the summits. This force emanates from the earth itself and from an ancestral knowledge that contemporary society has forgotten or does not want to remember or tries to repress.  For Moira it is “the telluric force”. “We will have to question absolutely everything, to see how we can recover this sacred link with life and the earth. Our main ally against terricide is the earth itself.”

Rocio warns, “For us, death is upon us with these projects.”  She says, “Rebuilding the link with the territory is our only alternative to be able to remain in our territories and alive today.” Betty speaks of the “healing of mother earth,” joining forces between her beings and her own healing capacity. She emphasizes “the collective defense of our body-territory free of violence, but also of our territories free of extractivism and violence – is the perfect connection within our indigenous cosmovision since life does not have a disconnected or anthropocentric relationship between human life and the rest of natural life… In that sense, the contradiction of comrades fighting against megaprojects and at the same time practicing violence against wives or companions of the organization is not allowed. They are called to attention and invited to accompany the women, but respecting their self-determination. To fight for land is to fight for the dignity and human rights of women and children, especially those of indigenous peoples.

Rocío adds: In the CNI we have to put together a struggle against patriarchal capitalism and take it to the assemblies and the communities. That has forged us enormously. After serious discussions we have had great achievements, new ways of doing politics. With the presence of the compañeras, we have to build spaces for women and for Mexico from the grassroots. We are land. Our life and culture depend on it, so defending and conserving it has to be a natural part of us.”

“We are sowing hope,” Betty points out, “even in times of pandemic, of hurricanes. The ancestral practices of the Lenca people and women in the face of climate change, seed exchanges, monitoring of violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, exchanges between peoples, territorial pacts, etc., bring us closer to a feminist economy for good living (buen vivir) that generates local development. Migrating is a right but staying is a right and defending the territory is a right.”

Miriam concludes: “We have to feel that we are not alone in this struggle to guarantee the web of life, to feel accompanied by the energy of the universe of the moon, the sun, the stars, the air, the water, the mountains and the rivers, which also have life, which also contribute to this struggle.”

Earth Day, in that sense, is also women’s day.



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