Environmental Conflicts in Latin America & the Caribbean

By Claudia Lagos Lira

Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Under fire: women, indigenous, and peasants
  3. Natural resources exploitation and colonialism
  4. Mining and more
  5. Further reading and resources
  6. Contact a Librarian

Introduction

Berta Cáceres (44) was a member of the Lenca indigenous group in Honduras. She was a mother, a daughter, a friend, and an environmental rights campaigner internationally awarded for her activism. As a co-founder and leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras, Copinh), she led the protest against the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River, an hydroelectric project developed by the local company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA). Cáceres was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, in March 2016, while supposedly under state protection after receiving several death threats over her opposition to the project.

Intelligence squads in agreement with corporate power are suspected to be responsible for the crime: Several men have been arrested in connection with the murder, “including one serving and two retired military officers,” as court documents revealed, according to an investigation by The Guardian. Among the civilians charged with murder or attempted murder are Roberto David Castillo and Sergio Rodríguez, the executive president of DESA and the manager of environmental and social issues at DESA at the time Cáceres was killed.

Unfortunately, hers is not an isolated case: Nelson García, also a member of Copinh, was murdered two weeks after Cáceres was killed; a few years before, Tomás García, another Lenca indigenous leader and member of Copinh, was shot dead by the Honduran Army as he participated in a peaceful protest. The killings triggered international investors to drop or stop their funding to the Agua Zarca project, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has been investigating human rights violations in the country, denouncing impunity, and recommending the government to take action.

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Latin America: The most dangerous place to be a woman

Nabila Riffo is a Chilean woman who barely survived after her former partner took her eyes off, battered her, and left her moribund on the pavement. Lucia was 16 years old when she died after being drugged, raped, and impaled in Mar del Plata city, Argentina. Between 2013 and 2016, in El Salvador, 90 percent of cases of rape to girls 15 years-old or under have resulted unpunished; Indeed, judges have considered the victim “seemed a grown-up woman”, have “recognized” the rapist embraced good intentions, and they have even encouraged marriage between offender and victim. Florencia was 9 years old when her step-father locked her in the woodshed, burned her up, and buried her. Yuliana was 8 years old when a wealthy architect abducted her, drove her to his apartment, and killed her by suffocating. Since the early 1990s, around the Mexico-U.S. border close to Ciudad Juarez, hundreds and hundreds of teenagers and young women have been kidnapped and killed. Just a few of their corpses have been found in the desert surrounding the city. Many of them have died as a result of grotesque and sexualized torture and most of the cases are still unsolved due to a pervasive impunity. There are countless likely cases of Latin American women brutally raped, battered, and killed by their partners or by other relatives.

All these women dead by gender-based murders suffered a post-mortem humiliation; Authorities, criminal systems’ officials, judges, and media have portrayed them as irresponsible, sexually provocative, or risk-taking individuals by circulating through dangerous public spaces or at night or by exposing themselves instead of focusing on the actual offenders. These past femicides – the killing of women based on their gender – have motivated public outrage, massive marches across Latin America, and several public campaigns oriented to trigger social awareness, expose pervasive machismo, violence, and discrimination against women, and advocating for legal protection.

The United Nations Development Programme released the report “From Commitment to Action: Policies to End Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean” in November 2017.

In that vein, thousands and thousands of women marched and publicly manifested last November 25th in several Latin American cities on occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Indeed, sexual harassment, rape, forced marriage, honor killings, girls and women sexual slavery and trafficking are global

problems and an increasing number of women speaking out about their personal experiences of sexual harassment have been flooding into the U.S. media. Nonetheless, Latin America is the most dangerous continent to be a woman, as official U.N. statistics recently released demonstrate. Indeed, among the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, 14 are from Latin America and the Caribbean.

 

Latin American origins of the international day

In 1999, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Resolution 54/134 designating November 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in order to raise awareness that violence against women constitutes an obstacle to reach equality, development, and peace and that its persistence dramatically damages the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women. Nonetheless, the day’s history goes back in time: Assistants to the first Feminist Encounter of Latin America and the Caribbean celebrated in Bogota, Colombia, in July 1981, chose the date to commemorate the lives of the Mirabal sisters – Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa -, assassinated in 1960 by the Dominican secret police under Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship. Only one of the sisters has survived – Dedé.

This novel is available for checkout through the University Library.

The full recognition of the Mirabal sisters as political and feminist activists gained momentum as the dictator was killed and the political circumstances were little by little improving in República Dominicana to build a memory of the political resistance, as this article published by The New York Times in 1997 highlights. The Mirabal sisters’ story has been portrayed by Julia Alvarez in her novel The time of the butterflies, which reached global spread when it became a movie in the early 2000s starring Salma Hayek as Minerva Mirabal, Edward James Olmos as Trujillo, and the singer, Marc Anthony, as Minerva’s first boyfriend.

Awareness and outrage in Latin America

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women started in November 25th and lasted until December 10th. In these past days, thousands of women have marched in Buenos Aires and several other cities, in Argentina, a country where there have been 2,384 femicides in the last nine years, according to the NGO, Casa del Encuentro, a feminist organization specialized in registering these crimes. In Bolivia, official data show that during 2016, occurred 66 femicides and the police registered more than 30,000 reports of violence against women. Several feminists and LGBT organizations organized a march on November 24th in La Paz, demanding more safety, non-discriminatory policies, and and end to the violence against women and other people suffering different sexual violence, too. Meanwhile, several public buildings and iconic, tourist, attractions, such as the Cristo Redentor, in Brazil, were especially highlighted in orange as a way of warning about the fact that the country is among the top-five countries in the world with higher rates of violence against women and 1 woman is killed every two hours. In Chile, the Red Chilena contra la Violencia Hacia las Mujeres maintains a detailed register of femicides: Indeed, just in 2017 there have been 62 of those crimes, ten more than the femicides occurred in 2016 and the year is not even over. Several organizations and thousands of women have joined protests across the country claiming for stopping the violence against women and improving the general conditions

This book is available for checkout through the University Library.

of them, too. According to official data from the health and justice systems, in Colombia the number of cases of violence against women has increased between 2016 and 2017 and gender-based violence within the long-standing conflict in the country just makes things worse.

Most of the public manifestations and marches peacefully developed across the continent, except in Nicaragua, where the government restricted marches even by force, deploying the police. Indeed, the public manifestations protesting for gender-based violence in which millions of Latin American girls and women live have mushroomed in the last days. Sadly, these are not the first time: Triggered by several cases of femicides in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, or Peru, Latin American women have flooded their cities in the past years protesting for the increasing lack of security to enjoy freedom and basic human rights. They will probably do it again once the pervasive machismo and discrimination against women will trigger a man kills the next Nabila, Lucia, or Yuliana.

Further reading and resources

The Latin American & Caribbean studies library collection at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides a wide range of material to better understand phenomena such as gender-based violence and violence in general in Latin America, the extent and specific features of feminist activism in the continent, and the complex interplays between feminist agendas and democracy in Latin American countries.

For instance, “Silence and complicity” is a documentary providing startling testimonies of women who were mistreated and sexually abused while seeking care in Peruvian public health facilities. The film was produced by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and the Flora Tristan Centre for Peruvian Women and released in 2000.

The documentary Hummingbird (2004) describes the efforts of two women to try to break the cycle of domestic violence in the city of Recife, in Brazil. The film follows the story of Adriana, a girl who left home at the age of six and had a daughter at age 11. After seeing the cycle that leads kids to the street, these women began addressing family issues at the root of the problem and working with both the mind and body to overcome their trauma.

In Haiti, the documentary Poto mitan gives the global economy a human face. Each woman’s personal story explains neoliberal globalization, how it is gendered, and how it impacts Haiti by telling the compelling lives of five Haitian women workers. The documentary offers in-depth understanding of Haiti, its women’s subjugation, worker exploitation, poverty, and resistance as part of global struggles.

For more information about gender in Latin America and the Caribbean at the Library, please contact Prof. Antonio Sotomayor, Librarian for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, asotomay@illinois.edu, or visit the website at https://www.library.illinois.edu/lat/.

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Mestizaje and religious celebrations in Latin America and the Caribbean

 

This week, from April 10th  to April 17th, is the celebration of the Holy Week in the Christian world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, this religious festivity, as with most of the Catholic rituals celebrated in the region, must be read under the light of the historical process of colonization.

Latin America and the Caribbean is defined, in a great part, by Mestizaje. Mestizaje is a social process of encounters, beyond people’s skin color, which includes encounters and struggles involving and identity, beliefs, practices, power structures, and knowledges (See resources on mestizaje here). As a mestiza myself, I have been fascinated with noticing how religious practices and rituals contain and express very vividly the mixed nature of the region.

In fact, colonizing the spiritual beliefs of native communities was one of the most important strategies throughout the colonization of Latin America. Catholicism was carried by the colonizers as the religion of “civilization”, and only through evangelization would indigenous people overcome “savagery”. With this mindset, indigenous communities across a great portion of the continent were evangelized though a process called “reduction”. This  referred to progressively converting native peoples to Catholicism in places called “missions“, which gathered the native communities for evangelization, agricultural production, crafts and construction. Evangelization took place through preaching the bible, instruction, and also through coercion.  Natives would be forbidden to speak in their languages and their temples would be destroyed, among other practices of colonization. These missions were conducted mainly by Franciscan and Jesuit religious communities, and were particularly strong in the Andes (Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, northern Chile and Argentina), Paraguay and northern Brazil. Similar missions were also established in Central and North America, up to today’s Arizona, New Mexico and Texas (More information here).  These missions grew almost like towns, and developed as agricultural and economic centers.

Left, Jesuit Missions in colonial Argentina (Image:Argentina Historica). Right, ruins of Jesuit Guaraní missions in Paraguay (Image: World Monuments Fund).

These practices extended from the early colonial times in the 1500s until the mid 1700s. The Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire around 1768. However, in some regions, similar practices of evangelization survived until the early 1800s (Read about the Jesuits in Latin America here. Additional resources at the library here).

As is the case with other cultures that have gone through colonization, mixed beliefs and practices that blend elements from native and colonial traditions emerged in Latin America. At a religious level, rituals vividly reveal this process of mestizaje. Academic interpretations on how and why this mixture of beliefs took place, and of how this process dialogues with particular characteristics of each community, are too varied and extended to discuss here (See some resources here). The fact is that religious traditions become adapted to the cultures where they were installed. As an act of survival and, perhaps, resistance, native communities in Latin America appropriated these rituals and maintained elements from their own tradition despite colonization.  Examples of this are the celebration of the Virgin of Candelaria. This Virgin is considered the patron saint of several towns across Latin America. In Paucartambo (in Cuzco, Peru), the Virgin of Candelaria is also known as “Mamacha Candelaria“, a term and a celebration which draws from native Andean religiosity.

Celebration of Mamacha Candelaria in Paucartambo, Peru. Image: Still from documentary “Festividad Virgen del Carmen de Paucartambo” by Folclore Peruano

Through a history of colonization, appropriation and syncretism, religiosity in Latin America has historically been experienced with passion and intensity. Therefore, the celebration of the Holy Week is a major celebration across the region.

Unlike the egg hunting celebration of the United States, the holy week of the Catholic tradition is heavily charged with a spirit of penitence and renewal. This is tied to both the Roman prosecution of Jesus, and the betrayal which lead to Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. The basic structure of holy week celebration in catholic countries which were Spanish colonies usually involves processions showing Jesus and Mary’s suffering:  Starting on Palm Sunday with his entry to the city of Jerusalem where he was received as the son of God; through to Holy Friday, the passion, where he is crucified; and finally ending on Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Holy Friday, or Good Friday, is when the largest amount of processions take place, representing several stations from Jesus’ apprehension to his crucifixion. These biblical episodes are recreated as processions, each with vivid displays of statues and enacted representations, such as Christ’s imprisonment and execution, and the celebration of his resurrection. This is called Viacrucis.

Left, Viacrucis in Popayan, Colombia (image: Blog Semana Santa de Popayán). Right, Viacrucis at the lake Cocibolca, Nicaragua. Image: Fotoblog, “Hoy” Newspaper

Huge statues of saints are carried in procession, usually by men paying promises to them, and taken from churches into the streets, followed by believers.  While maintaining these basic patterns , there are a great spectrum of variations of the kinds of displays and additional rites that have evolved in different communities.

The ritual celebrations of the Viacrucis in Popayan, Colombia, for example, are a very classic representation of the processions that take place in Spain, the country where the tradition first originated.  The Judios de Masatete in Nicaragua and the Borrados in Nayarit, Mexico, on the other hand, demonstrate how the incorporation of native traditions and local culture can result in a very different representation of the same celebration.  Another example is the lake Cocibolca in Nicaragua, where the procession is adapted to water with canoes.

These are just a few examples of the wide diversity of religious syncretism and celebrations that take place in Latin America which are strongly expressed during the period known as Holy Week. Countries like Mexico and Guatemala also present a rich variety of cultural expressions through Catholic rituals; while in Brazil and the Caribbean the Spanish and indigenous traditions blend together amidst a strong African influence.

If you are interested about these processes of mestizaje in Latin America and its manifestation on spiritual practices, we invite you to consult books as “South and Meso-American native spirituality: from the cult of the feathered serpent to the theology of liberation“. If you are fluent in Spanish you can also take a look at “Religiones y culturas : perspectivas latinoamericanas“. The library holds a large collection on Latin American cultures and religious traditions, as well as on Catholicism in that region. In addition, we invite you to visit out International and Area Studies Library, and bring your questions to our Librarian on Latin America and the Caribbean, Dr. Antonio Sotomayor.

 

 

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About Colombians’ war and peace, and other peace processes in the XX – XXI centuries.

For Colombia’s political history, the last couple of weeks were simultaneously the most promising, frustrating, intense, unpredictable, and confusing. Between September 26th and October 7th, 2016, a peace agreement was signed, voted and rejected; there was a risk of ending the ceasefire; the peace process was supported by massive rallies; there was no plan B ready, not even by leaders opposing the agreement; and, if all this does not sound confusing enough, the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.

This is not the entire story, however. As with any other peace process, this is a matter of a long and complex political history.

School affected by war in rural Colombia. Photo by Jesus Abad Colorado. Source: BBC Mundo

School affected by war in rural Colombia. Photo by Jesus Abad Colorado. Source: BBC Mundo

Unlike Colombia’s conflict being framed in terms of mere terrorism, which assumes there are “bad guys” who should be defeated by the “good guys”, the country’s political violence has developed between conservatives and liberal guerrillas since very early on in its republican history.

More recently, after the 1948 event known as El Bogotazo, confrontations between liberals and conservatives scaled in cruelty and intensity to the point that the 1950s are known, even today, as the time of La Violencia. As a result of the huge social inequities, marginalized territories, and the inherited issues of the 50s combining with the socialist revolutionary environment in Latin America, several political rebel groups emerged in the 1960s and 70s. From those came the three largest guerrilla groups:  M-19, which disarmed in 1990 after a process that resulted in the 1991 constitutional reform; the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), which has approached peace negotiations still in progress; and FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo), the largest rebel group in the country, and the protagonist of events these past two weeks. A fourth large paramilitary group, the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), emerged in the 1980s not as a political movement, but to defend private properties where the national army could not guarantee safety. The AUC went through a disarming process in 2006, which has been highly questioned due to both its lack of transparency and because of evidence of State’s support in some paramilitary attacks (more references about this topic here).

One more thing—drugs. Drug-dealing and other illegal economies permeated almost every one of these nonofficial armed groups, which added the “easy money” factor to an already complicated picture. Read more about Colombia’s political history in the work of David Bushnell, Jorge Orlando Melo, Marco Palacios, Alfredo Molando and Paul Oquist, among others. There are more than 400 entries at the library catalog about political violence in Colombia . Also, you can find additional resources about connections between drug-dealing and war in Colombia here.

This most recent and internationally visible peace process with FARC was a 4-year negotiation of a 52-year long conflict, with previous attempts to reach a peace agreement occurring in 1982, 1991, 1992 and 1999-2002. Other conflicts in the last 32 years which were resolved through peace processes have lasted between 4 and 21 years long.

. List of conflicts solved by peace process between 1984 and 2005. Source: School of Peace, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona

List of conflicts solved by peace process between 1984 and 2005. Source: School of Peace, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona

On August 24th the negotiation team from the Colombian government, rebel leaders and international observers announced in La Havana-Cuba that an agreement had been reached. The same day, the Colombian President announced a bilateral ceasefire. The agreement would be signed and brought to citizen vote, so an intense campaign period for and against the agreement began. With significant presence and support from international observers, the peace agreement was officially signed on September 26th by Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño –“Timochenko” after four years of negotiations. One week later, on October 2nd, the vote took place. In spite of all poll predictions and the overall national and international optimism, the “No” campaign at 50.21% won out over the “Yes” campaign by the very small margin of 0.43%. Such a close race combined with almost 60% of potential voters not voting revealed a deep polarization, not between people wanting peace and people wanting war, but over what is the best way to achieve a collectively desired peace.

Results from the vote on October 2 to support or reject the peace agreement. Source: Colombia's National Registrar

Results from the vote on October 2 to support or reject the peace agreement. Source: Colombia’s National Registrar

Uncertainty and frustration came next. Leaders of the “No” campaign did not have a plan B for the process and showed to be a very heterogeneous group. The deadline was announced as October 31st. Faced with going back to open confrontation, citizens across the country brandishing mottos like “Don’t leave the table” and “Vigil for Peace” turned out for massive rallies to keep negotiations alive. These rallies included voters both for and against the agreement, as well as those who did not vote, and such strong public support pushed all parties to remain in dialogues. The Nobel Prize awarded (for some, too early) to President Juan Manuel Santos, adds an extra push to guarantee that a more robust and politically legitimate agreement is achieved.

Citizen support to the Peace Process, October 4th 2016, Bogota, Colombia. Source: El Tiempo

Citizen support to the Peace Process, October 5th 2016, Bogota, Colombia.
Source: El Tiempo

Huge challenges remain ahead. The most urgent one is that all parties—the government, FARC leaders and the heterogeneous (somewhat erratic) opposition—manage to re-negotiate some points of the agreement, which are seen as “immovable” for both sides of the table. As observed in other international processes and complex political peace negotiations, the political will to compromise and commit to an agreement is critical. Compromise and agreement are required not only from combatants and politicians, but from every single citizen. Scholars point to such cases as South Africa and Rwanda as examples of compromise by parties through a special transitional justice system. Regarding this need for compromise, the School of Peace from Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (AUB) show how in all of the 11 processes listed above, groups that fought during the armed conflict occupied influential political positions as a result of the peace process. In fact, one of the issues that generated fierce rejection from the opposition to the agreement is that it guaranteed political participation to FARC leaders.

Even if agreement is reached, an even larger challenge remains:  Everyone—government, rebels, and civilians—fulfilling their promises. This, analysts say, is a key factor in preventing new armed confrontations from emerging, and scholars argue that in Sri Lanka, Liberia and Nepal the failure to fulfill agreements generated new waves of violence.

In any case, other international peace processes reveal that civil wars are rarely terminated by the victory of one of the parties. In the 2016 yearbook of peace processes developed by UAB’s School of Peace, of the 61 conflicts that ended over the last 35 years, 77% did so through a peace agreement, and 16.4% through military victory of one of the parties. However, there are still 56 active armed conflicts distributed across the world, which, in  the 2016 yearbook, includes Colombia. Other countries with active wars are India, Senegal, Mozambique, Ukraine, Philippines, and Thailand (south).

Conflicts and Peace Building, 2015 map by School of Peace, UAB

Conflicts and Peace Building, 2015 map by School of Peace, UAB

Read more about armed conflicts and peace in Pakistan and African countries through the work of Adam Curle and Birgit Brock-Utne. Other important scholars on peace building and conflict resolution are Gene SharpJohan Galling, Betty Reardon, Roger Fisher and John Paul Lederach.

The yearbook asserts that “The culture of negotiation is now a reality”. As both a Colombian citizen and one of many people across the globe who wish to have a better world someday, I wholeheartedly hope that the culture of negotiation can be a reality in Colombia. Two Colombian films which offer a beautiful and intense experience of the complexity of the county’s political violence—and are available to the U of I community through Kanopy Streaming—are Los Colores de la Montaña by Carlos Cesar Arbelaez (2010) and La Sirga, by William Vega (2012).

Explore more about political violence and peace processes in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. Also, explore the documentaries and films about Latin American history through Kanopy Streaming. This database includes films about political history, covering topics such as the Cuban Revolution and ‘El Che Guevara’, Nicaragua during the ‘Sandinista’ period, the consequences of violence in Guatemala, Peru in the aftermath of political violence, and the disappeared people during the Argentinian military regime, among many other documentaries and films.

If you want to delve more deeply into research about political history around the world, visit our International and Area Studies Library. Our subject specialists in Latin America, Africa, Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Central Europe, Central Asia, and Global Studies/Political Science can always guide you with more specific research advice. See you there!

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