Women and Indigenous peoples in several regions of Bolivia are resisting land seizures, deforestation, and the extraction of natural resources that affect their livelihoods, while the authorities are conspicuous by their absence to support the defense of their rights.

By Franz Chávez

There is a natural relationship between women and their attachment to the land, the natural environment, clean water, and uncontaminated food, agreed the women interviewed by IPS who are leading the defense of their indigenous communities’ ancestral territories.

A review of last year’s data, compiled by IPS based on various journalistic sources, shows that in at least eight of Bolivia’s nine departments, there is a presence of companies and mining cooperatives in conflict with indigenous communities and peoples, who denounce the contamination of water sources and rivers, and the damage to farmland and pastureland.

Bolivia is a country with a geographical area of one million 99,000 square kilometers, located in the center of South America.

The geography of this highland and Amazonian country includes the Andean region, which covers 28% of the country, the intermediate zone of valleys and yungas, which covers 13%, and the plains that make up the Bolivian Amazon, which cover 59% of the country.

Among the natural resources, which are abundant in a large part of the country, soya monoculture stands out, along with gold, silver, tin, lithium, and natural gas, which is in a phase of decline.

A virtue: defending life

Women perceive “the risks, the changes in the community, they are concerned about the safety of the family, the children, and resources such as water,” Ruth Alipaz, leader of the Uchupiamona people, who live in the municipality of San Buenaventura, in the western department of La Paz, told IPS.

She recalled that it is they who look after their homes, cook, and look after their children. “For women, water is essential, and when it is affected,” they “defend their lives, the lives of their children, and they defend it not only for their community,” Alipaz said.

She recalls the struggle of indigenous women Paula Gareca and Jenny Meza, both from the Tariquia Protected Area, located in the provinces of Arce, Cercado, O’Connor and Gran Chaco, in the southern department of Tarija, where they led marches against the entry of oil companies interested in exploring natural gas reserves.

The Tariquia National Flora and Fauna Reserve, created in 1989, covers 246,870 hectares, of which 128,083 hectares, or 52%, have been reserved for hydrocarbon exploration.

Contracts signed between the state-owned Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) and the Brazilian company Petrobras cover operations in areas known as San Telmo Norte, San Telmo Sur, Churumas and Astillero, all within the reserve.

One of its defenders, Lourdes Zutara, lives with her husband and children in the heart of the reserve, where she spoke to IPS.

“We women are motivated to protect, preserve and save life, and that’s why we took the initiative” to defend the ecoregion. “It doesn’t mean that men are not involved, they are there to do their part,” said the 45-year-old leader.

Residents of the Tariquía Flora and Fauna Nature Reserve, in the department of Tarija, in the extreme south of Bolivia, hold one of their regular vigils to ratify their defence of their ecoregion against the government’s project to begin gas exploration. Image: Tariquía Hoy

Land as a foundation for family security

Zutara believes that women are the “leaders of the defense of the territory” because “they need uncontaminated water to prepare food, and they are concerned with the well-being of the whole family”.

This leader began her struggle seven years ago and admits that they have not yet succeeded in suspending the projects and canceling the decrees and contracts that authorize the exploration of hydrocarbons in the area.

The Indigenous community of Totoral Chico, located in the municipality of Pazña, in the province of Poopó, in the western department of Oruro, was invaded in April by men and women from the Bolivian mining company Salvada Sociedad C

The community’s secretary general, Sorayda Ventura, denounced that their agricultural and grazing land had been taken over. “We don’t want mining,” she told IPS from her community.

“They are driving us off our land, they have made the water wells disappear, the springs have dried up, we have no irrigation,” said Guadalupe Fernández, head of the Cañadón Antequera Justice Council, referring to the actions of miners in the same highland region of Oruro.

Some nine Indigenous peoples, including the Aymara, Mosetenes, Uchupiamonas, Esse Ejjas, Tacana, Lecos, and Tsimanes, distributed in regions of the altiplano, valleys, and semi-tropical and tropical zones, are suffering aggression from mining companies, gold cooperatives, and illegal enterprises, according to reports compiled by IPS over the past year.

Bolivia has an estimated population of 12 million, and the 2012 census found that 41 percent of the population claimed to belong to indigenous or peasant nations and peoples, as well as Afro-Bolivians.

Of these, the majority are Quechua, with 1.8 million, followed by Aymara, with 1.5 million.

Greed for minerals

According to data widely circulated in the complaints of the affected communities, the minerals that encourage uncontrolled extraction include gold, silver, scheelite (tungsten and cadmium), lead, zinc, and copper.

According to preliminary figures from the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade (IBCE), the exploitation and marketing of minerals will generate export revenues of US$565 million in 2023.

They lead Bolivia’s foreign sales, relegating hydrocarbons to second place with US$2,124 million.

In this vortex of natural resources, where clandestine or informal miners play a prominent role in unregulated and uncontrolled gold mining, sociologist Lina Gutiérrez sees a clear explanation for the leading role played by women in defending territories.

“From pregnancy onwards, women acquire a maternal and protective instinct. She no longer thinks only of herself, she fights for her family, to provide bread and shelter for her children. They give her strength, vitality, and the power to fight,” she told IPS in La Paz, the country’s political capital.

She agrees with Alipaz and Zutara who point out that mothers are responsible for raising their children, taking care of the house, feeding them, and other tasks, and that “from this comes the strength that motivates them to confront any situation that threatens the peace of their home, their family and their community”.

“We have analyzed how we in the indigenous peoples sell our future for today’s bread, but we no longer think about the future. This means that … we have lost our cultural principles and values, thanks to this modern look of the mining company, that they will build you a house, that you will be able to buy a car, that they have seduced you”.

With these words, an indigenous woman described the critical situation to the researchers of the study “Defensoras, experiencias ambientales y del territorio en Bolivia” (Women Defenders, Environmental and Territorial Experiences in Bolivia), published at the end of April.

The study, produced by the Bolivian Centre for Documentation and Information (Cedib), points out that the government maintains an ostensibly protective and respectful discourse on territories and peoples’ sovereignty, promoting concepts such as respect for Mother Earth, sovereignty, and peoples’ self-determination.

But with this narrative in the media, in official spheres, in social sectors, and in NGOs that support the government, “the loss of sovereignty over the territories is avoided, and those who think and denounce the opposite are stigmatized and defamed,” the report concludes.