Defending lives in the context of mining extractivism and militarization of lands and bodies in Bolivia

Women in Cantumarca Bolivia
Women in Cantumarca, Bolivia. Source:
Angela Cuenca Sempertegui

Unbridled exploitation of nature brings with it socio-environmental impact, violation of rights, expropriation of land and violence. One of the most aggressive activities affecting the environment, people’s bodies and territories, is mining extractivism.

‘Extractivism’ is a model of economic and political development established by governments, characterized by the extraction of large amounts of natural resources from the land, destined for export as raw material, with no or minimal processing (Gudinas. 2013) and its aim is the accumulation of capital.

The extractivist capitalist model inflicts destruction on Mother Earth and the consequences are born by the poorest populations, by women and by indigenous communities.

Extractivism prevails in many ways, it relies on co-option, criminalization, as well as militarization. The latter uses violence and repression as tools to deprive communities of natural resources. And it is countries who, in collusion with transnational companies, legitimize expropriation of land, enacting laws to criminalize social protest and exercise power, militarizing land. For example, in Bolivia, Law 367 of 2013 penalizes the “subjugation” (invasion and occupation) of mining concessions  with up to eight years in prison. In addition, articles 99 and 100 of the Mining and Metallurgy Law No. 535 of 2014 criminalize individual and collective actions that prevent mining activity, authorizing the use of public force to safeguard mining rights. It is worth noting that this law was drawn up in consultation with only those involved in mining, despite communities and social organizations demanding to be consulted.

In Latin America these practices are very common, they are backed by legal protection and are aggravated by increased foreign investment in the framework of extractivist policies, whether or not the governments are progressive or conservative. On the other hand, there is increasing mobilization and resistance by communities fighting the expropriation of common goods, by women defending their rights, and who hold patriarchal and criminal extractivism accountable for this.

Through some experiences in Bolivia and the accompaniment of the National Network of Women in Defense of Mother Earth (la Red Nacional de Mujeres en Defensa de la Madre Tierra), we want to highlight the features of mining extractivism and the militarization of  bodies-territories, and also acts of resistance in defense of life.

Militarization and repression for access and control of natural resources

In the community of Mallku Khota (from the Aymara meaning "Lake of the Condor"), where there are four lagoons at the top of a chain of hills and whose waters are used for agricultural production and to supply the water to the populations of Norte Potosí, a foreign mining company from Canada (South American Silver) arrived in 2012, without any prior, free and informed consultation, intending to mine indium, gallium and silver. Throughout this process, the population experienced different forms of violence:

  • Sexual Violence: Women from the community were sexually assaulted by workers of the mining company, outsiders who came from other places to work. These cases went unpunished.

  •  Physical and psychological violence: Police officers guarding the mine entered the homes of community members in the early hours of the morning, with the aim of taking indigenous leaders prisoner and preventing resistance to the mining project. They used tear gas, beat the women, terrorized families, frightened children had to escape to the hills, many were lost and even beaten. The police broke up a meeting between the company and the community with gunfire, killing a member of the community, this case remains unpunished.
  • Criminalization of social protest: An indigenous community leader was taken prisoner and accused of other acts unrelated to the conflict for instigating defending the water lagoons and attempting to keep them unpolluted. Later the community leader was cleared of any blame, but the effects of the arbitrary detention and the suffering of the family remained forever. 
  • Communities put pressure on the government with mobilizations, marches from the community to the seat of government, demanding that the mining concession be reversed. After Direct Nonviolent Action by hundreds of residents to protect their water sources and to protest against private investment, the government acted to take back the mining concession from the transnational company. Currently, the government still intends to hand over natural resources to foreign companies.

Communities in different regions and in other countries suffer violence to their bodies and their land as has happened in Mallku Khota. Companies and nations are becoming militarized and repressive because of access to natural resources:

 “Greater resistence is met with more militarization"

Environmental violence against women

Environmental impact continues to affect places where there is mining: highly polluted rivers, spoil heaps, communities without drinking water, without land to cultivate, and women receive a different impact from mining extractivism on their bodies and on their land. Women sustain life, they are responsible for reproductive and productive activities (the latter has increased due to a rise in male migration), on a daily basis they have to manage to supply water and food to their homes, in addition to all the extra burdens including health problems, impact on their sources of work such as land, excessive work-load, stress and worry.

From collective reflections with the National Network of Women in Defense of Mother Earth, we coined the term ‘environmental violence against women’, understanding that by harming Mother Earth, women's lives are being put at risk, affecting their right to water, health, food, work, the economy, to live in a healthy environment, aspects of the right to life. Just as the patriarchal model is imposed on women, so extractivism affects Mother Earth, trying to subdue, dominate and subordinate her. Militarization is the extreme way in which a state legitimizes the exercise of power. It is a way of controlling people, territory and bodies. It has to be understood that these territories are not only physical places, but are part of their culture and way of life, it is where their sacred places, their ancestral heritage and their medicines are, where humans have established reciprocal relationships with Mother Earth.

Nonviolent direct action in defense of territory and rights

Resistance to extractivism stems from the struggles of communities and the women who defend their rights, organising collectively. In 2013 the National Network of Women in Defense of Mother Earth was set up, made up of women from communities affected by mining and from communities that do not want mining in their territories. The organization enables the strengthening of resistance, with exchange of knowledge, awareness campaigns, training from a peripatetic School of Women Defenders that travels to communities, reaching women in their own territories.

It is very important to give the name ‘environmental violence against women’, on bodies and territories, caused by mining extractivism. For this reason, we have worked in community and collective investigations, managing socio-environmental conflicts and actively pursuing complaints. Action against the commodification of life is being promoted with campaigns, rallies, press conferences, vigils and peaceful marches, and life is being put at the center, which is why self-care practices and collective care are incorporated.

Alternatives to mining extractivism are being promoted from living in harmony with Mother Earth, ancestral knowledge, rejecting forms of repression and violence. Being part of the Antimilitarist Network of Latin America and the Caribbean - RAMALC, allows us to weave new views on the militarization of bodies and territories, it means being coordinated and supported to continue resisting.


Colectivo CASA. 2013. Mineria con M de Machismo madre Tierra con M de Mujer. Publication

Gudynas, E. 2013. Extracciones, extractivismos y extrahecciones. Observatorio del Desarrollo

RENAMAT. 2014. Violencia Medio Ambiental contra las Mujeres. Information leaflet


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Colectivo CASA Bolivia - RAMALC

Police militarisation theme

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About the authors

Colectivo CASA Bolivia - RAMALC

Colectivo CASA Bolivia - RAMALC