When you are in a gathering with women leaders from Akawaio, Garifuna, Kalinago, Lokono Arawak, Machushi, Maho, Mopan Maya, Q’eqchi Maya, Wapichan and Warrau First Peoples, it’s best to simply listen.
These women, some of them among the few women chiefs in the region’s Indigenous People’s communities, represent those who have belonged to the land and who the land has belonged to for many thousands of years. Most striking in their stories is their struggle against lack of recognition of such belonging.
Listen to women like Faye Fredericks, who is Wapichan and from what is now known as Guyana, and who has been passionately fighting mining and logging’s shocking destruction of the very forest her ancestors and community have drawn their sustenance and cosmologies from as long as they remember.
Next time you think approvingly of Guyana’s economic model, ask yourself how we can so ignore her evidence and her community’s right to fish from rivers which haven’t been poisoned. Ask yourself if such ‘necropolitics’, or wielding of political and social power to determine life and death, is truly ‘development’.
Listen to women, like Christina Coc, who is a spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance from what is now known as Belize, who has been battling the Belizean state for more than a decade to get back rights to land that was once theirs. The Alliance achieved an historic victory in 2015, affirming the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities of southern Belize to the lands that they have historically used and occupied. The MLA website states, “This historic legal affirmation – which states that traditional land rights constitute property, equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law – is the first indigenous peoples land rights victory in the Caribbean region”.
As I listened, I reflected on how much the Westminster model, and the notions of leadership, property and rights it has protected, has failed our region. I kept wondering why not support these struggles and these women who are on the absolute frontline of defending rivers, forests, alternative forms of farming and exchange, and shared approaches to land.
Might Ziya’s life be better if she could still swim in Santa Cruz’s many rivers as children could at the turn of independence? Might her life be better under Indigenous systems of governance which value nature, and not just as a ‘resource’ but a source of life, and provide greater respect for communal land? Might the trails of the Northern Range be better protected if in the hands of First Peoples, as Tracy Assing dreams, rather than subject to the Ministry of Forestry?
These Indigenous women are engaged in absolutely contemporary political movements, against the states to which we declare loyalty, in battles in which we are entangled while pretending innocence about what outcome would be truly and historically just. They also struggle against corporate unsustainable practices and even banks that profit from their place in the region while providing no room for developmental loans unless communities allow themselves to be divided by the collateral of private property.
We must deepen our practices of recognition and inclusion, and welcome alternatives to our colonial inheritance. Think of Anacaona, a Taino chief or Cacica, who ruled the island of Kiskeya, now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 1503, during a meeting of eighty caciques, including Anacaona, the Spanish Governor ordered the meeting house to be set on fire to burn them alive, similar to what centuries later occurred to Rigoberta Menchu’s father and Indigenous Mayans in Guatemala in 1980. Cacica Anacaona was arrested and accused of conspiracy for resisting occupation, and sexual concubinage as an escape, and was executed. She was only twenty-nine years old.
In March 2016, Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres, a leader with the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, was assassinated for her defiance to mining and logging concessions, and proposed dams. Miriam Miranda Chamorro has taken over her work, moving in and out of hiding for her own safety.
These battles were being waged five hundred years ago as they are being waged today. It’s time we listen and stand with these women on the right side of history.
Stories and interviews with Indigenous Caribbean women, on their struggles and leadership, are on the IGDS Youtube page. Click, watch, and share them with our region’s citizens, students and children.