Isabel Zuleta (left) and Natalia Atz Sunuc (right) at a KAIROS Canada event in November. (Photo courtesy KAIROS Canada)

Topics: Justice | Interview

South American land defenders on what drives their activism

Indigenous activists Natalia Atz Sunuc and Isabel Zuleta are fighting for their communities' rights to land and clean water


Natalia Atz Sunuc and Isabel Zuleta are Indigenous land defenders in their respective home countries of Guatemala and Colombia.

The two environmental activists spoke at an event organized by KAIROS Canada at Ryerson University to mark the launch of a website called MERE (Mother Earth and Resource Extraction) Hub, an online resource for Indigenous land activists in Canada and internationally.

Sunuc is Maya Kaqchikel and lives in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. She survived the country’s civil war, but her mother was killed. She works with the association Kaji’ Ajpop, which advocates for the rights and well-being of the Mayan people. She was also an honorary witness to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event in Vancouver in 2013. 

Zuleta works with Movimiento Rios Vivos Antioquia in Colombia, a group of activists who live in communities affected by the construction of the massive hydroelectric “Hidroituango” dam. Organizers aim to raise awareness of the dam’s effects on human rights and the environment. This kind of organizing can be dangerous at least three other activists involved with the Rios Vivos movement have been killed in recent years.

Broadview spoke with both of them at last month’s event in Toronto. Their answers have been translated from Spanish.


Emma Prestwich: How did you get involved in this kind of activism?

Natalia Atz Sunuc: My parents were active in social justice activism. We were in the social struggle together, my parents and I, up until 1996, when the peace accords [that ended the Guatemalan civil war] were signed, but those peace accords also opened the door for private investment and mining. It was after 1996 that we became aware of all the negative impacts that mining was having. 

The companies never communicate the harmful impacts that they have on the environment and on the community. That task fell on us, so we had to do the investigation ourselves and communicate that to our community members. 

EP: What have the impacts of mining on your community been?

NAS: So there’s social division, but specifically family division, because one person might be working for the mining company, and another person of the same family might have been displaced — they may have had to leave their community because of the mining project. There are things like cyanide spills, acid leaching, and then restricted access to water, but then there’s also effects on the environment, on the forests, on the animals.

EP: Is there spirituality in your fight?

NAS: Yes, plenty. And our struggle against mining has strengthened our connection with the land. We will come together and burn things like incense and give thanks to the land, to the air, to the water and specifically, give thanks to life. And in giving thanks to life, we strengthen our bond to the land and to Mother Earth.

Spirituality is also part of it in the sense that we look at things as though they’re sacred. For example, we’re careful not to waste water, or to throw it away. Or, with corn, we’re careful not to throw away something that feeds us, that is sacred to us. We’re not going to step on the corn and eat it.

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EP: Now, what is the focus of your work?

NAS: One of our priorities is making sure that the rivers aren’t contaminated. Another one of our priorities is making sure that Indigenous communities’ rights are respected and observed. If I had to choose one priority, it would be protecting life, not just human life, that of all animals and of the planet.

EP: What was it like to be an honorary witness to the TRC?

NAS: It was a very positive experience, because, prior to that, I wasn’t aware that there were First Nations people in Canada. I became aware of their spirituality, customs, traditions and world vision, and I could just say that I hope that the government will meet its obligations that came as a result of the report that was published by the commission. 

A photo from Movimiento Rios Vivos in Colombia’s Twitter page, showing what was once the Cauca River, on which a hydroelectric dam is being built. 

Emma Prestwich: So you said that when you first got involved in this work, you had two fears: You would be disappeared and that you would be raped. Why did you decide to get involved regardless of those fears? 

Isabel Zuleta: When I was 14 years old, paramilitary groups would come to our towns and would say that all the girls belonged to them and that all the pretty girls had to go and present themselves before the bosses of these criminal groups. 

My whole family was displaced. We had to leave our municipality and our territory so that these groups would not harm me. 

I felt very guilty that I was a girl. I did not want to be beautiful, because I felt that all of this had hindered my family. I really, really struggled to feel good about myself, to believe that it was not my fault, but instead the fault of a patriarchal system, because we were under domination, and all of this was the result of the war. So I became involved in this struggle because I wanted to be able to live and to ensure that this did not happen to any other girl. I did not want my story to be repeated.

EP: You talked about solidarity and how often it is something that people do to feel good as opposed to something that’s actually effective. Can you expand on that a bit and what kinds of solidarity are actually effective?

IZ: I think that effective solidarity is permanent commitment. It is continued action. It is not just a signing of a petition, but being committed to a struggle. I think that the strategy that a lot of multinational companies want is to take away our hope. But as women, we need to be alive. We need to be committed to life. So one form of solidarity that you guys can provide is helping us to stay alive. Another way is by us giving our own lives and giving up many things that perhaps we wouldn’t want to give up.

For example, in a conference like today, if one person decides to help, to me, that’s solidarity, versus the entire group thinking that they’re going to help, that they’re going to have a long-lasting impact — sometimes, that is not successful. Many times when we fail in our struggles, we feel a sense of hopelessness, but the goal is to take steps so that we can be successful. For example, if one person here finds out that one of our women defenders is in jail, whatever that person can do, if she’s committed to help free that person, to me, that is a success. If you know that we’re struggling to live on our land and someone wants to help us, to me, that’s a form of solidarity. Sometimes we think about big ways that we can help, but we forget about the small ways that we can help as well. 

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.


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