Margoth Escobar was at a friend’s birthday party in the town of Puyo in the Ecuadorian Amazon last September when a neighbour called to say her house was on fire.
The blaze destroyed her home and more than $50,000 worth of artisanry that she and other women planned to sell over Christmas. The local fire department said it was an act of arson against Escobar, who belongs to Mujeres Amazonicas, a collective of mostly indigenous women who have banded together to defend their land and the environment against oil extraction and mining.
The current government is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because its pro-extraction policies advance without mercy, without compassion and, above all, without respect for the self-determination of indigenous peoples.Margoth Escobar
It was one of several alarming attacks against members of the collective in Ecuador last year, amid a broader trend of threats, smear campaigns and physical violence against women human rights defenders across South America.
Putting aside her distrust of Ecuador’s police and justice system, Escobar filed a criminal complaint at the regional Attorney General’s Office in October. She has not been granted protective measures, despite the risk her activism brings and the attack already suffered.
“The current government is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because its pro-extraction policies advance without mercy, without compassion and, above all, without respect for the self-determination of indigenous peoples,” the grey-haired activist said of Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno administration in a recent interview with Amnesty International.
Similarly, in Bolivia, officials at the highest levels of government have tried to destroy the reputation of the human rights defender Amparo Carvajal, after she denounced state security forces for arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force against agricultural workers.
The situation came to a head last August when two farmers and one policeman were shot dead in a raid on a coca plantation in the rural Andean community of La Asunta, an area where indigenous peoples have grown the crop for millennia.
In an interview with a state news channel, Government Minister Carlos Romero blamed Carvajal, the 80-year-old president of Bolivia’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, for the killings, calling her “an irresponsible person” and a “sponsor of criminal organisations”.
Days later, Bolivian President Evo Morales tweeted that the Permanent Assembly was a “right-wing pro-imperialist” organization responsible for a “campaign of lies and false denouncements” against his government.
These unsubstantiated accusations represent a crude and transparent attempt to undermine Carvajal’s widely respected work (Página Siete, one of Bolivia’s leading newspapers, named her 2018 Person of the Year) and evade scrutiny of the state’s responsibility for human rights violations.
“The government must give Mother Earth her rights back, and give indigenous peoples the recognition they deserve,” Carvajal told Amnesty International in January. “Nature is screaming at us that we must love and care for this planet, for we all depend on it.”
In another typical case, armed men threatened Amada Martínez, an indigenous Avá Guaraní activist from the Tekoha Sauce community in south-east Paraguay last August.
Martínez was leaving the community in a taxi with her seven-year-old son, her sister and two young nephews when they were intercepted by a truck bearing the logo of the nearby Itaipú Binacional hydroelectric plant.
The government must give Mother Earth her rights back, and give indigenous peoples the recognition they deserve. Nature is screaming at us that we must love and care for this planet, for we all depend on it.Amparo Carvajal
Martínez told Amnesty International that three men wearing balaclavas and Itaipú Binacional uniforms got out, armed with shotguns and a revolver. One pointed a shotgun at her face while another threatened her, saying she was a “loudmouth woman” and that they would find her alone on the road one day.
Martínez believes she was threatened because of her work defending indigenous rights. Days before, she had met with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to denounce the grave impact of the hydroelectric plant displacing the Tekoha Sauce community.
Indigenous women like Martínez and Escobar are particularly at risk when they stand up for the environment and human rights, as they face additional discrimination due to their gender and identity.
Instead of permitting or even contributing to the violence against women human rights defenders, South America’s leaders must recognise the importance of their work and take immediate and effective gender-sensitive and culturally appropriate measures to protect them.
For these brave women will not be deterred, despite the grave dangers they face.
“I act according to my own conviction. Whatever happens to me or my material things is of secondary importance,” Escobar said. “They’re not going to stop us.”