Women from San Pablo Cuatro Venados resist and defend their ancestral lands
By Luna Negra
Women from the communities of Rebolledo, los Arquitos and Río Minas in San Pablo Cuatro Venados, Oaxaca, have organized themselves to defend their land from a Canadian mining project installed by Arco Resources Corporation. The Zapotec women in these communities shared the story of their organization, fight, and work to continue living and planting in their lands, which were once defended by their ancestors and have always been communal. Women decided to stay organized after an armed attack on May 31, 2019, when a paramilitary group with more than 500 people came in with heavy caliber weapons, bulldozers, and Molotov cocktails to throw people out of their communities. They destroyed and burnt their houses and crops, and robbed their belongings, work tools, and livestock.
A collective field facing destruction and aggression
While they have an ongoing conflict over the land with communities in Cuilapam de Guerrero that no authority has attempted to resolve, women say that there is an even greater monster stalking their lands: three mining permits have been issued without their consultation. The municipal, state, and federal governments; agricultural authorities in Cuilapam; and even neighbors in San Pablo Cuatro Venados have generated a violent and conflict-laden environment, though the situation has been cast aside as an internal legal dispute.
Hilaria is a woman from the community of Rebollero in San Pablo Cuatro Venados who is a member of the Neighborhood Watch. She is one of the victims of looting and arson. “When they burnt our houses, all of our seed corn was burnt too. People from down there alleged that these are their lands and that they want them for planting, but a true Campesino never wastes even a single grain of corn. I remember as a child if our grandparents saw a grain of corn, bean, or gourd seed on the ground, they would tell us to pick it up because one day it would save our life. One day we would be hungry, and that seed would feed us. To set fire to our seed corn—those people weren’t true Campesinos. They were people paid by the government,” said Hilaria.
Planting the seeds of life, and waiting for a good rainstorm
Traces of the burnt houses can still be seen in the ground, and in some places, tractor treads are all that remain. One of Hilaria’s jobs was to trace the treads left by the communal tractor as a way to reconstruct the community and speed up the planting of beans, gourds, and corn. “It’s what the poor man eats,” she says.
The Zapotec women are determined to defend the land that belongs to them with their lives, if necessary. And they are not asking the government for anything, because all of the complaints they have filed asking for justice and resolution to their land conflicts have fallen on deaf ears, and authorities have asked for money to resolve the situation. Women and men participate in this fight against mining, promoting collective agriculture, and building common spaces. The forest, water, and pollution are their main concerns. Despite all of their efforts, they also must deal with machismo within their own organizational efforts.
Hilaria says that the collective work the women do gives them strength, and the support they have received from the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) has given them unity. In addition, they have also participated in a Women’s Conference in Veracruz and assemblies in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Morelos. With the CNI, we have learned that both men and women have value and that we can play a role. Our counterparts have slowly learned to listen to women, collaborate, and wash their dishes. Both as men and women, we are awakening. This helps us with our activism because even there we were met with deep-seated machismo rooted in the soul,” Hilaria says.
Among Hilaria’s latent preoccupations is the imminent possible installation of mining machinery. “They are going to take away our water because all of their metal processing uses water and chemicals, and if they spill on the ground they will end up in the aquifers,” she adds. Without elaborating too deeply on the topic, she comments that one of the clauses of the mining project’s documents establishes that the people are responsible for the contamination that the mine causes. “Oh my God, how can they say that?! Of course, the mine is washing its hands of responsibility. The site where they want to mine is a precious forest of pine and other trees,” she says. For this reason, part of the community where Hilaria lives organized and tried to spread information about the consequences of the mines. For example, they visited San José del Progreso, in Ocotlán, and described the area as desertified and contaminated.
Hilaria is one of the many women in the organization that works and defends her land
She says that one of the most visible problems is the denial they have met within the community. They are not allowed to visit their families and are falsely accused of being squatters. In reality, their colleagues have held leadership positions and are known by everyone in the farming community. They have documents that prove that they belong and that the communities are original residents of the area. In extreme cases, the paths to their ranches have been closed off and they have fought to obtain basic necessities.
The harassment, hostility, and intimidation that they have faced in recent years continue. There was another attack in June. “Yesterday we were planting up in the hills, and we were attacked again. They wanted to stop us from working by scaring us with bullets. But we didn’t back down and kept planting because the more they attack us, the stronger we get,” Hilaria said. For two years they have maintained their camps as they reconstruct their houses. Amidst the rubble, new furrows that will soon be cornfields, community, and food, they march onward, resisting and sharing what they bring for lunch.
Silvia: victim of eviction and injustice
Another community activist and resident of Los Arquitos reiterates a clear message for her compatriots. “I send a message to all of our people and neighbors in Cuilapam de Guerrero: we live here, we were born here, we are natives of San Pablo Cuatro Venados. Let it be clear: the dirt here that we call the mesa is our landmark. My compatriots know that we are from here and are only protesting these mines because they will be our end if they pollute the river that runs downstream. This isn’t just for me, but the entire State of Oaxaca. We want to be respected!” Silvia declares.
Finally, the communities of Rebolledo, Los Arquitos, and Río Minas in the town of San Pablo Cuatro Venados wish to declare that as a community they are resisting government attacks and neoliberalism and call on all Native Peoples to speak their native languages. They say to all who fight for their land that together they will all succeed. “There is a huge monster called mining, megaprojects, and capitalism. No matter how humble we may be, we have rights and dignity. What awaits us is death,” underscores one of the Zapotec women.
Cover photo by Luna Negra