Life Stories of Women Leaders in Defense and Care of the Environment in Southwestern Colombia, 1990-2022

A group of four women sitting with their faces away from the camera on a bench in front of a building. Forested area is visible in the background.

“Estamos cansados de la política de la muerte […] esperamos que se acabe con la estigmatización de los líderes sociales en este país, porque la estigmatización mata. Mata la vida […] los líderes desaparecen, desplaza las comunidades de sus territorios.”
Francia Márquez Mina (2019)[1]

“We are tired of the politics of death […] we hope to end the stigmatization of social leaders in this country because stigmatization kills. It kills life […] leaders disappear; it displaces communities from their territories.” (Translation by author)

This is an invitation to get to know, learn, and remember the life stories of women who care for and defend nature and their territories. Stories allow us to sensitize to others’ pain but also to imagine horizons of hope. Stories are windows to empathize with everyday portrayals, uncertainties, bitter memories, and joy.

In this piece, I will explore some insights from my own ongoing research project about women environmental leaders in southwestern Colombia. I will relate some quotations from some conversations with people who care and defend their territories in two senses: their daily life and their political exercise of leadership. As a context of this proposal, countries in Latin America, especially Colombia, are some of the world’s deadliest places for environmental defenders. There is a convergence of what scholars Sepúlveda et al. describe as “colonial and neocolonial processes,” which “usually involves a component of territorial dispossession, violation of territorial and human rights, and violence against local people who oppose such projects.”[2]

Particularly in Colombia, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ, for its acronym in Spanish), 1,457 leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in Colombia between September 26, 2016 and April 12, 2023. But what do those leaders’ assassinations have to do with caring for and defending the environment? In 2019, INDEPAZ registered that about 81 percent of these homicides connected to agrarian conflicts over land, territory, and natural resources.[3] In fact, this is closely related to the dynamics of extractivism, which is based on the export of raw materials without processing or with minimal processing for international export market. What differentiates extractivism in Colombia from other countries in Latin America is the particular way violence, armed conflict, and extractivism interact. This violence facilitates territorial control, appropriation of land and its resources, and the expansion of extractivism and environmental racism.[4]

Now where are the people in this context? What can their memories and life stories tell us about these more global themes? And, precisely how can storytelling life stories contribute to recognizing environmental defenders in Colombia, who are increasingly threatened, silenced, and murdered? In my opinion, storytelling contributes to the collective memory and opposes hegemonic narratives: death and war. Talking and recalling past scenarios can signify our memories. As M., an Indigenous leader from Caloto, Cauca told me: “I never talked about my things, but through the training, I learned and women taught me that I have to talk about my life to get out what I have here, stored. I have a lot of very beautiful experiences, but also I have very bitter experiences.”[5]

Life stories as methods are part of the oral history research strategy that considers daily tasks, traditions, and social practices from orality. These are stories that are not often found in written sources or archives, that have not been told. As M. shared, “I was very afraid of the public […] I was very insecure […] because of the education […] at home. Women could not speak. [They] were there to cook, to work, to sow […] but they had no voice or vote.”

Historian Alessandro Portelli suggests that, with oral history strategies, actors become the tellers. Even further, for the Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera-Cusicanqui, oral history is a fundamental methodological resource because more than “objective history”—and the sequence of events—”the important thing is not so much “what happened” as “why it happened.” That is, the meaning. As the Colombian historian Germán Colmenares points out about the potential of oral history, it talks more about subjective experiences than “great facts.”[6] I suggest that one potentiality of storytelling, specifically in the case of these women leaders, is to narrate more about their paths and trajectories as leaders with their doubts, joys, fears, and dreams than about their great deeds.

Life stories can unveil the controversial dichotomy between men and women based on gender stereotypes. Particularly for women, some scholars have pointed out the close relationship between domination over nature and women. Certain groups of women have predominantly occupied domestic spaces, granting them qualities related to caregiving, and having specific roles in agriculture and conservation.[7]

Gender schemes thus have delimited women’s participation in authority positions. Some women have broken these stereotypes by entering into spaces of community leadership. However, this challenges social norms and represents, on some occasions, a devaluation of their political work. For example, R., a life and territory defender in Inzá, Cauca, told me about discrediting her legitimacy: “they told me that I would not be worthy of being in the coordination among women because I did not have a husband. But […] single men are not claimed to be.” Experiences like these reinforce phenomena that researchers Esguerra-Muelle et al. have described as “their right to participate in the decisions affecting their territories is systematically denied and are closely related to gender stereotypes.”[8]

Life stories are not only a research effort to describe the activism or leadership processes in a risk context but are also tools to reflect on the unequal gender-based violence against environmental defenders, in particular women. Such violence, as Esguerra-Muelle et al. argue, “embraces death threats and assassinations, as well as gender-based forms of violence that include sexual violence.”[9]

People who care about nature have ideas and put them into practice, which is why activism practices are crucial. Daily practices are also part of small actions from their perception to caring for life. Caring takes place in the midst of a violent environment, megaprojects, or large-scale extractive projects, but elsewhere too.[10] As A. describes her responsibilities, “I have to make some visits […] I work with a project of farms with women in the elaboration of organic fertilizers, exchange of seeds, and so on.” A. cares for her territory and lands using organic fertilizer and exchanging native seeds. She points out the relation between human health and environment: “a chemical, a fertilizer, an insecticide [are] systemic products, it is as if I put that product in my veins and it stays there, it remains over time […] it sterilizes the soil […] in that sense, we are not autonomous in producing our own food.” Her care for the future through the care of traditional knowledge and practices reflects her identities, values, and culture. In this sense, resistance and care for their land and territories are made in everyday life, in local needs—not only through activities of mobilization and protest, but also through perception of their past, present, and daily struggles.

As research methods and activist practices, life stories and oral history strategies involve their own potentialities and challenges including very personal exaggerations, myths, omissions, and fragmented memories. And more notably, these methods necessitate discussion of racial hierarchies, class, and gender. Intersectionality is, therefore, fundamental because of the unequal distribution of power to access resources. The control of such resources depends on how gender interacts with class, ethnicity, identity, political vision, or age.[11] Consequently, a juxtaposition of struggles exist that share common roots. As the Brazilian sociologist Sabrina Fernandes suggests, “we can no longer separate labor organizing from feminist, anti-racist, LGBTQI+, animal liberation, prison abolition, anti-imperialist, and self-determination struggles. The metabolic ecological view shows that they don’t simply share similar interests, but root causes.”[12] Knowing and narrating the lives of environmental leaders is thus an invitation to dignify their lives, their efforts in various daily struggles, and their political commitments. To recognize, value, and above all, protect the fragility of their lives.

[1] Francia Elena Márquez Mina, the current vice-president of Colombia, is a human rights defender and an Afro-descendant environmental activist. In 2018, she won the environmental Goldman Prize. Márquez Mina has faced numerous threats and survived an attempt on her life in 2019. One of the most memorable campaign slogans during the 2022 presidential elections was «Vivir Sabroso» which embodied life enjoyment beyond economic well-being. See: Turkewitz, J. “Teen Mother. Housekeeper. Activist. Vice President?” New York Times (May 12, 2022); Marquéz, F. (May 2019) “Francia Márquez: ‘estamos cansados de la política de la muerte,'” El Espectador, YouTube video [1:39- 1:49].

[2] Sepúlveda, J.M. et al. (2021) “Historia y violencia: Asesinatos de líderes indígenas guardianes del medio ambiente en América Latina, 2016-2019” HALAC – Historia Ambiental, Latinoamericana y Caribeña 11, no. 2: 48. Sepúlveda et al. documented assassinations of indigenous leaders in South America. For instance, Cristina Bautista in Colombia, Paulo Paulino Guajajara in Brazil, Domingo Choc Che in Guatemala, Macarena Valdés in Chile, Olivia Arévalo Lomas in Perú and Mark Rivas Lacayo in Nicaragua. Each of these lives represented resistance and ways of caring for life and territories, see also: “Defending Tomorrow: The climate Crisis and Threats Against Land and Environmental Defenders,” Global Witness (2020); “Last Line of Defence: The Industries Causing the Climate Crisis and Attacks Against Land and Environmental Defenders,” Global Witness (2021); “Enemigos del Estado? De cómo los gobiernos y las empresas silencian a las personas defensoras de la tierra y del medio ambiente,” Global Witness (2019)

[3] Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (INDEPAZ), “Consolidado agresiones desde la firma de los acuerdos de paz hasta el 2023. Observatorio de derechos humanos y conflictividades” (2023).

[4] On extractivism, see e.g. Göbel, B. and Ulloa, A. (eds) (2014) Extractivismo minero en Colombia y América Latina. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia- Facultad de Ciencias Humanas. Grupo Cultura y Ambiente. Berlín: Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut; Biblioteca Abierta: Perspectivas Ambientales; Acosta, A. and Cajas-Guijarro, J. (2016) “Patologías de la abundancia. Una lectura desde el extractivismo.” In: Burchardt, H.-J., Domínguez, R., Larrea, C. and Peters, S. (eds) Nada dura para siempre: Neoextractivismo tras el boom de las materias primas. Editores literarios, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito: (pp. 391-425); Pérez-Rincón, M. et al. (2022) “Conflicto armado interno y ambiente en Colombia: análisis desde los conflictos ecológicos, 1960-2016,” Journal of Political Ecology 29, n.o 1.

[5] Throughout this piece, interviewee names are anonymized and used only for the purpose of this essay. These quotes are excerpts from fieldwork; they are not approved for additional use or citation.

[6] Portelli, A. (2018) “Living Voices: The Oral History Interview as Dialogue and Experience,” Oral History Review 45, no 2 (2018): 239-48; Portelli, A. (1997) The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press; Rivera-Cusicanqui, S. (1986) “Taller de historia oral andina: proyecto de investigación sobre el espacio ideológico de las rebeliones andinas a través de la historia oral.” In: Deler, J-P.; Saint-geours, Y. (eds). Estados y naciones en los Andes: Hacia una historia comparativa: Bolivia – Colombia – Ecuador – Perú. (Lima: Instituto de estudios peruanos e Institut français d’études andines), pp. 83-100; Rivera-Cusicanqui, S. (1987) “El potencial epistemológico y teórico de la historia oral: de la lógica instrumental a la descolonización de la historia” en revista,” Temas sociales 11: 1-12; Colmenares in Rivera-Cusicanqui (1986): 87.

[7] Agarwal, B. (1992) “The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India,” Feminist Studies 18, no. 1: 119; Bourdieu, P. (2000) La dominación masculina (España: Editorial Anagrama); Merchant, C. (1980) “The Death of Nature: Women and Ecology in the Scientific Revolution.” In: Earthcare: Women and the Environment (San Francisco: Harper & Row), pp. 127-148; Ojeda, D. (2022) “Feminist Thought and Environmental Defense in Latin America.” In: Bustos B., García G., Engel Di Mauro S., Milanez F. and Ojeda D. (eds) Routledge Handbook of Latin America and the Environment (Routledge: Oxon); Peluso, N.L. and Watts, M. (eds) (2001) Violent Environments (Ithaca: Cornell University Press); Rocheleau, D.E. (1995) “Gender and Biodiversity: A Feminist Political Ecology Perspective,” IDS Bulletin 26, no. 1: 9-16; Rubin, G. (1975) “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” In: Reiter, R.R. (ed) Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York and London: Monthly Review), pp. 157-210; Scott, J. (1985) “El género una categoría útil para el análisis histórico.” In: Género e historia (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica), pp. 35-74; Shiva, V. and Mies, M. (1993) Ecofeminism (London and New York: Zed Books).

[8] Esguerra-Muelle, C. et al. (2019) “Violencias contra líderes y lideresas defensores del territorio y el ambiente en América Latina,” LASA FORUM 50, no. 4: 4-5.

[9] Esguerra-Muelle et al. (2019).

[10] Le Billon, P. and Duffy, R. (2018) “Conflict Ecologies: Connecting Political Ecology and Peace and Conflict Studies,” Journal of Political Ecology 25, n.o 1 (2018): 239-60; Peluso and Watts (2001); Tapias-Torrado, N.R. (2022) “Overcoming Silencing Practices: Indigenous Women Defending Human Rights from Abuses Committed in Connection to Mega-Projects: A Case in Colombia,” Business and Human Rights Journal 7, no. 1: 29-44; Wynter, S. (2015) On Being Human as Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press).

[11] Crenshaw, K. (1991) “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, n.o 6: 1241; Lorde, A. (2007) “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Refinding Difference,” In: Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press), pp. 114-23; Rivera-Cusicanqui, S. (1987) “El potencial epistemológico y teórico de la historia oral: de la lógica instrumental a la descolonización de la historia” en revista,” Temas sociales 11: 1-12; Portelli (2018); Portelli (1997); Rocheleau (1995).

[12] Fernandes, S. (2020) “Ecosocialism from the Margins,” NACLA Report on the Americas 52, no. 2: 142.

*Cover image credit: A scene from the author’s fieldwork in Resguardo la Gaitana, Inzá, Cauca, southern Colombia (June 2022). Photo by author.

[Cover image description: A group of four women sitting with their faces away from the camera on a bench in front of a building. Forested area is visible in the background.]

Edited by Anna Guasco, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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