Challenges faced

Women defending land and environmental rights are often confronting powerful interests, and as a result face persecution which can take a variety of forms. Here we outline them, and look at some specific cases.

Land and environmental rights defenders work on a broad range of peaceful activities –they may be opposing major projects such as dams, mining, logging or tourist schemes imposed without consultation, defending their right to live in a healthy environment, protecting natural resources and the livelihood of their communities. They may be seeking to defend their rights to land where their communities have lived and worked for decades, if not centuries. Many campesino and indigenous women have played a key role in leading community consultation processes and protests.

While there have always been brave people prepared to defend the land and environmental rights in Latin America, the risks for doing so have increased dramatically in recent years, with the growing pressure on land and natural resources. In particular, there has been a major expansion in mining in many countries, as well as in the cultivation of oil palms for biofuels. In addition, economic growth has triggered an increase in the demand for energy and, as a result, in the number of hydro-electric schemes planned or under way. 

According to a recent Global Witness report[1], there was a threefold increase recorded murders ofland and environmental defenders worldwide between 2002 and 2012, and almost 80% of these murders occurred in Latin America.  However, these murders are only the most extreme acts of persecution in a range which includes surveillance, death threats, criminalisation, stigmatisation and physical violence. The perpetrators of these abuses can be the state, as well as non-state actors with an economic interest in the land or project in question, such as corporations, major landowners and members of paramilitary groups. 

In the case of campesino and indigenous women defending land rights, there can be an additional dimension to these attacks, with many gender-related, including the use and threat of sexual violence during evictions and crackdowns on protests, gender-based defamation campaigns, and threats and attacks directed towards their children and families. For having stepped out of their traditional role, they may become isolated within their community, or suffer physical or psychological abuse from their partner. According to a study by the Mesoamerican Initiative for Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras)[2], in 2012, 40% of the recorded attacks on WHRDs had a gender component. 

Here are just some examples of the ways in which WHRDs can be attacked for defending rights to land and the environment:

  • Stigmatisation - According to former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, human rights defenders working on behalf of communities affected by large-scale development projects are increasingly being branded ‘anti-government’, ‘against development’ or even ‘enemies of the State’.[3] Such statements can have a number of negative impacts on defenders ranging from reducing their ability to conduct advocacy to encouraging violence against them.
  • Criminalisation – this stigmatisation is often a prelude to criminal prosecution on baseless charges.  In having to defend herself from the charges, the WHRD often has to use precious time, energy and money that she would otherwise dedicate to defending land and environmental rights.  As with more general stigmatisation, it can also have a range of other impacts – for example, donors may decide to freeze funding until the case has been resolved. 

The Civic Council of the Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) is at the forefront of a campaign against a hydroelectric project in Rio Blanco, north-west Honduras where the Lenca indigenous community live. In September 2013, its coordinator Berta Cáceres, along with her colleagues Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina, was charged with “usurpation, coercion and continued damages.” Berta already faced charges of carrying an unlicensed gun which she claimed had been planted by the military officers at a checkpoint in June 2013. As a result of having two sets of charges against her, she was sentenced to pre-trial detention. After an international outcry, all charges were eventually dropped.

  • Death threats and murderIn September 2013, Colombian WHRD and campesino leader Adelinda Gómez Gaviria was killed by two unidentified men in Almaguer, Cauca region. She worked with CIMA (Macizo Women’s Process for the Committee for Macizo-Colombian Integration) and played an active role in the Mining and Environmental Forum in Almaguer, which has 1,500 indigenous and farming members. A month before her killing, she had received a threatening telephone call from strangers who warned her to: “Stop messing around with this miners’ thing. It’s risky and it’ll get you killed”.


Despite such challenges, WHRDs continue with their valuable work.  Here are just a few examples:

  • COPINH, Honduras - Berta Cáceres continues to support the Rio Blanco community and others in their opposition to hydroelectric schemes.  In September 2014, on behalf of COPINH, Berta lodged 50 formal complaints with Public Prosecution Service concerning concessions which the organisation considers violate the right to life and other individual and collective rights of the Lenca people, including the right to consultation under ILO Convention 169.
  • Organisation of Women Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlán (OMESP), Mexico Under the leadership of Celsa Valdovinos, its founder, OMESP has carried out a successful reforestation campaign in the face of logging by local landowners, as well as developing a system of sustainable organic kitchen gardens for the families in the region and education campaigns to prevent water and air pollution.  In recognition of this work, carried out despite death threats, Celsa was joint winner of the prestigious Chico Mendes Award, granted by the US-based Sierra Club, in 2005.
  • Association of Indigenous Women of Santa María Xalapán (AMISMAXAJ), Guatemala  AMISMAXAJ is made up of 75 women leaders representing 15 Xinka communities from the Santa María Xalapán Mountain (Jalapa). They work at the local, departmental and national levels in opposition to all forms of patriarchal, neo-liberal, racist, homophobic and lesbophobic oppression, and have established strategic territorial and national alliances to promote their political actions. The association works actively in the region of Jalapa, promoting women’s rights, the revitalisation of the Xinka ethnicity and the defence of land and territory. In particular, it is actively working to defend natural goods and to monitor and raise awareness about plans for mining and oil extraction in the region. Various members of the organisation were subjected to serious death threats in 2009 and 2010 due to their work.


[1] 'Deadly Environment' available at

[2] IM-Defensoras, “Violencia contra Defensoras de Derechos Humanos en Mesoamérica. Diagnóstico 2012”, August 2013.

[3] UN Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya, press release, 29 October 2013.