Hoping to shed light on how Ecuadorian Indigenous and mestiza women are subject to systemic criminalization and repression for their work protecting the Amazon rainforest from fossil fuel exploitation and pollution, a panel comprised entirely of such women will on Monday bring their grievances to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in Washington D.C.
Many of the women have experienced attacks, threats, surveillance from the government, public vilification, unjust accusations of terrorism without fair process, and pretrial detention after peacefully participating in demonstrations, according to legal nonprofit EarthRights International, which is supporting the activists in their quest for justice.
And these incidents “are not without a gendered component,” EarthRights points out.
“Often discourse on the situation of environmental defenders in Ecuador primarily focuses on the criminalization and repression of men, even in the context of Indigenous rights,” said EarthRights attorney Maryum Jordan. “It is time for domestic and international stakeholders to adequately pay attention to the experiences of these Indigenous women defenders and promote positive change that rectifies the types of abuses they disproportionately experience.”
Ecuador is witnessing a large-scale Indigenous revolt against the government of President Rafael Correa. In August, Indigenous groups from across the country rose up in a general strike to challenge proposed Constitutional amendments curtailing Indigenous rights and allowing Correa to stay in power indefinitely; a national water privatization law; expansion of mining and fossil fuel concessions; and the government’s opposition to bilingual education, among many other concerns.
A statement from “Women of the Strike” issued in August read in part: “We strongly condemn the macho and criminal brutality with which the State has attacked and criminalized women having participated in the demonstrations… We demand that international human rights institutions call on the Ecuadorian Government to cease these aggressions against people participating in the strike and in particular against women human rights and nature’s rights defenders.”
Another statement, from a coalition of Indigenous groups, specifically denounced reports of women being “beaten and violently dragged out of their traditional clothing.”
“We as defenders in Ecuador face the government’s sexism,” said Melva Patricia Gualinga Montalvo, a panel participant and protester who identifies as Sarayaku. “Only the women and not the men were ridiculed. The treatment is different.”
Added Margoth Escobar, a 63-year-old small business owner and mestiza woman who lives in the city of Puyo in the Ecuadorian Amazon: “I’ve seen ugly aggressions committed…I saw [the police] beat three women and throw them to the ground, I saw them beat a boy who was playing the drums, until his head bled.”
What’s more, added Escobar, the government has been known to release ‘sabatinas’—or national news bulletins through which the president informs people of weekly events and activities—which describe activists as “infantile environmentalists,” “stone throwers,” “lazy,” and “the usual suspects.” Correa has publicly referred to Escobar herself as a “crazy old lady.”
Late last month, Indigenous women leaders including Montalvo gathered in New York to sign a historic Defenders of Mother Earth treaty (pdf).
Citing rampant capitalism and commodification, the treaty states: “We understand that we do not have the time to change this system in the manner in which these systems are normally changed. We understand we have run out of time.”
To that end, the signatories added, “We invite all women of the world to join us, your Indigenous Sisters of the Americas, to put a stop to the destruction. We are drawing the line and saying that the harms stop here and now.”
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