Colombian indigenous leader María Nidia Becerra Jacanamejoy, 29, has dedicated her life to environmental activism, focusing on protecting indigenous lands from mining companies. “I managed to protect my land by facing political enemies, institutions, armed groups, invaders and even my own community, but the work is a constant struggle,” Becerra told Women in the World.
A three-time elected governor, she has worked with the Inga community of Yunguillo to achieve a five-fold expansion of their territory — a land claim that was in the works for over 30 years. The habitat, which is threatened by commercial interests and infrastructure projects, is also home to many vulnerable species, including the spectacled bear. But, like other prominent activists in the region, Becerra has continued her work in the face of unrelenting death threats. According to Global Witness, 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014 and nearly three-quarters of those deaths were in Central and South America.
In March 2016, Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, was assassinated in her home. She had been working to oppose the construction of a hydroelectric dam on indigenous lands. In an article for Foreign Policy, Megan Alpert speculated that the current recipient of the world’s most prestigious prize for environmental activists might be next. Peruvian Máxima Acuña, the 2016 Goldman winner, told Alpert she had also received death threats for her work blocking a gold mine in rural Peru.
In addition to the threats to their lives, as indigenous women Cáceres, Acuña, and Becerra, have faced systemic sexism and racism. “It has not been easy to carry out an organizational process in this area, precisely because to enter as a woman and to take leadership in a difficult process, at a time when this is not seen as appropriate, reminds me that women are pushed to the fringes and are prevented from working independently,” Becerra said.
Becerra said that she sometimes had to take a submissive role in order to converse with other leaders, but that in general she feels that being a woman allows her greater access to perspectives that are often ignored — those of women and children.
During her time as an activist, Becerra has survived four direct attacks against her life. Her enemies have left flyers posted in public spaces in her community asking “How much time does the governor have left?” and on February 12, 2015, Becerra received a threat via text message that said, “You have chosen your path, very well then.”
Her work denouncing gold mining projects that threaten key areas of the Caquetá River, where companies have used mercury, cyanide and other chemicals that poison the water, has brought her renewed threats. On April 21, 2015 two armed men on motorcycles stopped her and warned her not to continue her conservation work. Due to these documented threats, the Colombian government has assigned her 24-hour guards, although this brings its own complications, because, as she noted, it is harder for her to visit her constituency without attracting a lot of attention.
In 2014 she was elected the first female governor of Yunguillo. “I have been elected for three consecutive years — not even a man has managed to do that,” Becerra noted to Women in the World. Her success in getting legal protection for indigenous territories has inspired other indigenous groups in Colombia to try to achieve the same for their lands. Becerra is currently working with a diverse group of indigenous leaders to help them navigate this difficult and lengthy process with the goal of creating protected corridors that link different indigenous territories. “The dream of my Inga people, as it turns out, is the dream of many communities,” Becerra noted, “But even my own people sometimes tell me ‘Governor, your dream is an impossible dream. You can’t achieve that.’”
However, Becerra is well versed in navigating the long political process that leads to environmental protections for one of the most biodiverse regions in Colombia, and she is going to take the lessons she has learned and use them to help others. Discussing her work in Colombia, Becerra explained, “The threats come and go, and I’ve become used to them because I understand that — given that I am young and a woman — representing my people is no easy task.”
“There will always be misogynists, but the most important thing is that I feel good working for my community,” Becerra said. “I know that I have a mission, and my mission is to lead this process.”
Watch 3 fearless environmentalists speak about their work at the Women in the World New York Summit: