Small acts of big resistance: Identity and the defence of territory

“We don´t always name clean water and nourishment for our communities and families as acts of resistance, because they seem so everyday… but these are an indispensable part of defending our territories, and part of defending life.”  

These were the words of Miriam Teresa Vidal Camayo in the Escuelas de la Memoria para la no Repeticion in Cauca, a popular education initiative organized by the Colectivo de Abogados Jose Alvear Restrepo in several regions all over Colombia to inform and discuss the peace accords with FARC, historical memory of the armed conflict, and to support the work of local movements in defence of land and the environment. The schools reflect not only a political history of the conflict, but also engage communities in analysing the effects of the violence on their territories, and on the health and psychosocial wellbeing of their communities. After a morning of group study and individual reflection, we gathered for lunch, and Miriam, an Afro-Colombian woman who specializes in traditional cuisine and is a local environmental rights defender, invited us to consider and cherish this most integral link to the land: The food that we eat.

Harvesting and preparing traditional foods, like so many seemingly every day work and actions that sustain communities and families, are also actions that sustain Colombia´s diverse and historically excluded cultures, and are powerfully symbolic of their close ties to the land. Ancestral territories have cultural significance for Afro-colombian, indigenous, and campesino communities and these same communities have played a key historical role in defending land and environmental rights in Colombia.  Many spiritual and healing practices are connected to the land, such as music and dances, traditional medicine, traditional foods, and seed exchanging and saving. For communities faced with possible eviction, displacement, or co-optation of lands, these practices recuperate the cultural connection to the land and help to reconstruct the social fabric. In short, they become acts of resistance.

The presence and control of armed actors over traditional territories puts communities at great risk not just in terms of loss of economic livelihood, displacement, and violence, but also emotional and cultural risks—the loss of traditional rituals connected to the land, the loss of community cohesion, and the division of resistance movements have both immediate and intergenerational health, psychological, and social consequences. Not having the right to protect the land can result in contamination of rivers and food sources, and the upheaval of culture and traditional economies.

As caregivers, healers, midwives, and rights defenders, women are often at the forefront of efforts to protect the land. They are often first to come in contact with the physical and mental health impacts of pollution, violence, and displacement in their families, and in charge of recuperating and supporting the consequences of violence and trauma in their families. Armed control of their territories often worsens already existing gender, social, and cultural inequalities as well as gender-based violence. Women defending the land often face a double risk, in part for resisting armed actors and interests, and in part because they are women: They may face stigma or pressure based on gender stereotypes that label them as “promiscuous,” “unfeminine,” or as abandoning their families. They may also work from within social structures where women face exclusion in political participation, and be additionally marginalized if they are part of campesino, afro-colombian or indigenous cultures.  Women who are defending the land in these communities are not only resisting these threats, but often by resisting mega-projects and industry, are advocating a new, more sustainable way of understanding development, one that respects the environment, traditional ways of knowing, and the health of communities.

As caregivers, healers, midwives, and rights defenders, women are often at the forefront of efforts to protect the land.

The threats against the land and the communities who live from it are at the root of the political violence that continues in spite of the peace process, and disproportionately affect women as well as Colombia´s historically most marginalized peoples.  Participation and land rights for these communities are indispensable in the peace process, including respect for traditional territories and cultures.  In the words of Miriam, “Sometimes we overlook everyday cultural tasks like preparing food, and caring for others. We do it in a hurry, we dismiss it. Historically, it was ´woman´s work´. But we must defend traditional nourishment and caregiving are part of what connects us to our territory, to our communities. They are necessary for a life with dignity, and key for a lasting, sustainable peace.”[1]

Heidi Mitton


[1] Asociación para los derechos de las mujeres y el desarrollo: Defensoras de derechos humanos confrontando a las industrias extractivas: Un panorama de los riesgos críticos y las obligaciones en materia de derechos humanos, 2017; Corporación AVRE: Suroccidente colombiano: Identidad cultural y género en el acompañamiento psicosocial y en salud mental, 2009

*Cover photo: Bianca Bauer

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