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Indigenous Women Keep Fighting For Their Land Rights — Against All Odds

Throughout history, Indigenous women have played a central role in protecting the land. While revolutionaries like Bartolina Sisa and the Cacica Gaitana revolted against Spanish invaders centuries ago, Indigenous women today continue their lead, defending their ancestral homes from extractivism, illegal land seizures, and other legacies of colonialism while advocating for more autonomy and control of their territories. 
For many Indigenous women, it goes without saying that the land is everything to them. When ancestral lands are threatened, so are Indigenous peoples’ homes. Sometimes referred to as the Casa Grande, or the “Big House” in English, ancestral land is more than idyllic scenery. It’s a home passed down through generations, where the spirits of their ancestors dwell. It’s the source of all life, where mountains and jungles are sacred and alive. It’s also inextricably linked to their identity and way of life.

When ancestral lands are threatened, so are Indigenous peoples’ homes.

Christina Noriega

Refinery29 Somos spoke with four Indigenous environmental leaders about what home means under the lens of an Indigenous worldview. Hailing from various parts throughout Latin America, these women come from different tribes and regions, yet they agree that the land is what makes them Indigenous. With so much at stake, they’ve dedicated their lives to defending the lands, their home, and their identity.

Sara Omi, Embera, Panama, 36

Sara Omi is the first Embera woman to graduate as a lawyer in Panama. Her grandparents were displaced from their ancestral lands by the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the 1970s. Omi has used her profession as a lawyer to amplify the voices of Embera women and to advocate for the use of Indigenous knowledge in the fight against deforestation and climate change.
Home: “In our worldview, the ‘Big House’ represents peace, living as a collective, and having a harmonious relationship with our territory that grants us wisdom and protection from our Mother Earth, who provides us with plants who have souls and who cure us in our most delicate moments.”
Rebuilding Home: “My grandparents were forced to leave their territory because of the construction of a hydroelectric dam on their ancestral land. My heritage, my ancestral home, was submerged underwater for the development of Panama. My mother and my grandparents, along with other leaders, have built a new home. There are many issues that are at stake in this process [of displacement]. If there is no connection with Mother Earth, with the spirits, the forest, the plants, and the medicine, then it’s difficult to rebuild.”

Alexandra Narvaez, A’i Kofan, Ecuador, 32

Alexandra Narvaez is the first woman to join the A’i Kofan Indigenous Guard, an unarmed patrol group that monitors the territory for dangers to their home. While on patrol, the Guard documented the encroachment of a gold mining multinational in 2017 and successfully sued the Ecuadorian government for violating their right to prior consultation. The victory won Narvaez the Goldman Prize, considered the environmental Nobel, this year.
Home: “I grew up here in the territory, bathing in the river, playing in the jungle, and picking fruits. I listened to the stories of my grandmother, my grandfather, and my parents, and they empowered me to tend to the land. My father is non-Indigenous, and my mother is Kofan. I’ve lived in both worlds, but I don’t like the outside world. I feel trapped. Here, I’ve grown up with so much affection, so much love for our territory.”
The Role of Women: In our community, there is a lot of machismo. Women have to stay home, cook, look after the children, and fetch water and medicine. They don’t give us the opportunity to express ourselves. We too have a voice, and we too feel. We have much more of a connection with the territory because we give life. This motivated me to become the first female Indigenous Guard and to break the chain of fear. I have two daughters, and I want them to live free in their territory.”

Ediana Montiel, Wayuu, Colombia, 26

Ediana Montiel is the activist behind Wayuuando Films, an arts initiative that produces short films for Wayuu youth. Through her activism the last five years, Ediana has taught youth about their traditions, opened debate on taboos such as abortion, and campaigned against extractivist projects in the territory, home to the largest coal mine in Latin America and to what are slated to be the largest wind farms in Colombia.
Home: “The territory is our second home because it gives us our nourishment. It’s where we live. It’s so extreme that among our people, if you don’t have land, you’re not Wayuu. A Wayuu’s place of origin is where their grandmother and great-grandmother were born. In that place is that story of your blood, your flesh, and your tongue.”
Threats to the Territory: “We’ve been faced with a colonial extractavist system over the past centuries that today are trying to pass themselves off as sustainable even when our rivers have been diverted and when we have been condemned to die of thirst. Climate change has exacerbated the malnutrition crisis in rural areas because they can’t farm and they don’t have access to potable water. We’re practically facing a plan of systematic extermination to exploit our natural resources because when Indigenous people aren’t here, it’s easier for them to take what they want.”

Miryam Vargas, Nahua, Mexico, 34

Miryam Vargas is a community radio journalist and part of a movement demanding a stop to the Morelos Integral Project, an energy megaproject that runs through central Mexico and threatens the right to water and food sovereignty of various Nahua communities. 
Home: “Home means physical tranquility and security, that feeling of connection with a place that contains everything you need — not only sustenance or natural resources like water, but that relationship between humans and the territory, that spiritual relationship that is very important and that gives meaning to our very existence.”
Morelos Integral Project: “The Nahua people settled on the slope of the volcano because they found something sacred; they found water. With the imposition of the Morales Project, the water basin at the foot of the volcano is at risk. It’s one of the biggest water reserves in the region because it’s fed by the snow from the volcano. We demand that the project be canceled and that there be justice in the series of human rights violations that have been committed against members of the movement and the community.”

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