Women are leading the struggle in Latin America against environmental destruction as well as Indigenous rights, but they often face assassination, jail, threats and violence.
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They not only fight against gender inequality, but also demand wider societal transformation of a patriarchal system that doesn’t work for them as women — even though it is working exactly how it’s supposed to.
That is, the inequality and commodification that drives the capitalist system exploit women, keeping women in a second-class caste system. At the same time, women’s participation in social struggle is their way of asserting and vocalizing their own worth in a system that doesn’t value them.
This devaluation results in violence against women that is not a matter of isolated incidents or individual “bad apples.” Instead, violence against women, especially Indigenous women and women of color, is a structural component of the capitalist, colonial state.
Capitalism and colonialism — both patriarchal systems — don’t see inherent worth in women’s bodies and the work they do, and instead commodify them. This positions violence against women as a justified and structural part of the state that upholds these systems.
1. Maxima Acuña — Peru
Photo: Goldman Prize
Acuña is an Indigenous farmer in Peru who led her community to fight off U.S. mining giant Newmont, which reportedly attacked Acuña and her family. But she has refused to abandon her land and her resistance has successfully halted Newmont’s plans to open the US$4.8-billion Conga open-pit gold and copper mining project for the “foreseeable future.”
The proposed Conga mine project would threaten the local ecosystem with contamination of the cyanide-leaching, open-pit mining process and transform at least one local lake into a waste pit.
Acuña’s fight has been an inspiring story as a victory for small Indigenous farmers against transnational corporate power.
She was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016.
2. Machi Francisca Linconao — Chile
Photo: Bio Bio
Machi Francisca Linconao is an important spiritual leader of the Mapuche people imprisoned since 2013 and still awaiting trial. Indigenous movements say her imprisonment is part of a strategy to criminalize the Mapuche fight for their ancestral lands. Her health is in now danger, and activists are calling for her release.
Linconao was accused of arson along with 10 others, which led to the deaths of two powerful landlords, Werner Luchsinger and Vivianne Mackay. However, the evidence that was used to detain her, using an anti-terror law, remains suspect with the main witness retracting her statement.
3. Milagro Sala — Argentina
Sala is a lawmaker and leader of the Tupac Amaru movement who was arrested in Jujuy on Jan. 16, 2016, after staging a month-long sit-in against Jujuy province’s Governor Gerardo Morales, an ally of President Mauricio Macri.
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Leader of the 70,000-strong Tupac Amaru organization and a representative in Parlasur, the parliamentary bloc of South America’s Mercosur, Sala led protests against the Macri government’s neoliberal policies alongside other activists.
She previously faced charges of incitement, which were later dropped, but before she could be released a fresh warrant was handed down, alleging illicit association, fraud and extortion.
Since Argentine President Mauricio Macri supports her arrest, Sala is now dubbed the first political prisoner of Macri’s administration. She has said that justice bends to the “whim” of the president and his governors. Prominent human rights defenders and organizations have also labeled her arrest "illegal.”
The U.N. and the OAS have demanded her release.
4. Berta Caceres — Honduras
Photo: Goldman Prize
Berta Caceres, assassinated in March despite police protection, was a key leader in the Lenca struggle against the Agua Zarca Dam, a controversial development project in the community of Rio Blanco that was put in motion without consent from local communities. She, along with other residents, led a successful campaign to halt the construction of the dam, but the community has continued to face systematic harassment. Her family is still awaiting justice.
She won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. Her assassination rapidly sent shock waves across the country and sparked outrage over her death.