Plant yourself like a tree

By
magaly-next-to-pasture
Magaly Belalcázar Ortega stands near land carved out of rainforest to pasture cows. A swath of freshly cut forest is visible behind her. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

In Colombia, fighting for the future of the Amazon includes standing up for the lives and rights of women.

“I come from a campesino family, and my mother taught me to walk barefoot. She said ‘put down your roots and plant yourself like a tree where you were born and where you belong.’” says Magaly Belalcázar Ortega. “She taught us how to defend the land and water and trees.”

Belalcázar Ortega took her mother’s teachings to heart and added a dimension—defending the rights of women.

She lives in Colombia’s Amazonian department of Caquetá, where cattle ranching, mining, and coca production—as well as coca-eradication efforts—have devastated the rainforest. She is a member of the Caquetá Women’s Platform, a collective of women’s organizations devoted to protecting women’s rights and the environment.

“Previous governments have focused on extracting resources from the Amazon and on carrying out anti-drug policies that have been harmful to the environment,” she says. The current administration has a more protective approach, but business interests are as committed as ever to turning a profit, and the losses mount.

The Amazon’s importance to the health and future of the planet can’t be overstated. Neither can its beauty, complexity, and vulnerability. The notion that it is there for the taking—that the quest for power and money trumps all—reflects traditional male attitudes, says Belalcázar Ortega. And so does the treatment of women who try to put a stop to the destruction.

“We have traveled to many parts of the Amazon, and nowhere have we found a woman with a chainsaw in her hands, cutting down trees, or spreading toxic chemicals on the land. We see women growing food and collecting seeds. Most women here are interested in conserving the Amazon—its seeds, trees, water, and life. But women with these views can’t get to the table where decisions are made.”

Protecting trees, rivers, and the rights of women

The Platform consists of about 20 collectives that are pursuing a host of projects. Some focus on advocacy, some on assisting survivors of gender-based violence, some on helping women improve their incomes and financial independence—but all see their work as intimately connected to the fight to save the rainforest.

“Part of our work involves restoring damaged lands,” says member Neruda Díaz Martínez. “Some of the Platform members are focused on collecting and planting native seeds.”

“We raise and sell vegetables using organic methods,” adds member Sileny Sierra Olaya. “We make our own fertilizer.”

On the advocacy front, says Belalcázar Ortega, “We make sure the experience and perspective of women and girls is taken into account in the design of public policy. When it comes to implementation, these considerations are usually ignored, so we have to keep fighting.”

After the peace process that ended the armed conflict between government and key guerrilla forces in 2016, each region of the country created an institution to continue the peace-building process. The Platform was elected to the Caquetá Territorial Peace Council, where they bring a women’s-rights perspective to the work. “Building peace isn’t just about ending bloodshed,” says Belalcázar Ortega. “It’s also about ensuring that women have a voice and the right to shape the future.”

And, says Díaz Martínez, “The Platform designed the Caquetá Department’s policy on women. Nothing like that existed before.”

“There is a high level of impunity for perpetrators of violence against women, so we are working with the Ministry of Justice on establishing a gender justice committee,” she says. “We want to know why the mechanisms in place to protect women are not working.”

image
Seeds that will be used in reforestation projects. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Life in the crosshairs

Activists who speak up for the rainforest or women’s rights not only struggle to get elected to office or appointed to commissions—they live in fear for their lives. In Colombia in 2022, 215 human rights and social leaders, including environmental activists, were murdered. It is the highest number in the history of a country that is considered one of the most dangerous in the world for activists.

“Because of our work, we are constantly receiving death threats,” says Mariela Álvarez España, a member and former coordinator of the Platform.

Belalcázar Ortega often represents the Platform in public, but she is emphatic that she is simply a member. “Everything we accomplish in the Platform is part of a collaborative effort,” she says. “Here, we don’t have any leaders, or rather, we are all leaders.”

But as a visible spokesperson, Belalcázar Ortega has to contend with her share of death threats.

“After I testified at a hearing about sexual violence committed by paramilitary forces, a man who appeared to be a paramilitary soldier showed me his finger and said, ‘this finger has pulled a lot of triggers, and it’s going to keep firing,’” she says. “I filed a police report about this incident, but it was dismissed by the authorities.”

“Another time at a stoplight, a car came close to my motorcycle and the driver made a gesture that meant ‘I’m watching you.’ I returned it. Then he lowered his window to show me the shotgun he was carrying and drove away.”

Managing the emotional and logistical implications of threats is an element of daily life.

“We monitor each other’s movements and remind each other not to go places alone,” says Díaz Martínez. “When someone doesn’t answer her phone, we go to her house.”

Working in partnership

Oxfam has helped the Platform raise money for reforestation, water protection, and sustainable farming projects, and to share their experience and knowledge with other women’s organizations across the Amazonian region. To ensure the sustainability of the Platform itself, Oxfam has also helped strengthen the member groups, offering support in project and financial management.

“The Platform helps people understand that the fight for women’s rights is closely connected to the fight to protect the forests and rivers,” says Oxfam Colombia director Carlos Mejía. “We are proud to stand with them shoulder to shoulder.”

Uncrushable

When it comes to protecting the rainforest, the forces arrayed against the defenders are daunting: “Land ownership and power are concentrated in the hands of the wealthy,” says Belalcázar Ortega.

Physical threats are not the only attacks the women are contending with. “Now, our adversaries are trying to smear us with accusations of corruption,” she says.

No one would blame them for quitting when they fear for their reputations and their lives, yet they don’t.

It’s partly because they care so much. Álvarez España sums up their years of struggle: “We have done a lot of work with a lot of love.”

And partly because they know they have the power to shape a piece of the future.

“If they didn’t fear our influence,” says Belalcázar Ortega, “they wouldn’t be trying to crush us.”

Related content

Oxfam.org Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+