Indigenous women unite at UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues


By Rachel Warden, Gender Justice Program Coordinator, KAIROS Canada –

Date of publication: 
6 June 2014

I met Alma Brooks a year ago at the Wabanaki water convergence ceremony in New Brunswick. Alma, a Maliseet grandmother from St Mary’s, NB, is on the frontlines against fracking in her community. A powerful voice, she said: “We have to bring these issues to the UN. I want the world to know who we are as Maliseet people, the people of the beautiful river, and the struggle for our water and our land.”

Alma’s words were an effective motivator, and prophetic too. I joined Alma once again, from May 18 to 21, in New York City where we brought these issues to the 13th UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

We were part of the Honouring Indigenous Women’s delegation, which included women from Canada, Central America and the Philippines, all of whom are human rights defenders and activists. The idea of the delegation, jointly organized by KAIROS Canada and Horizons of Friendship, was to bring Indigenous women who are living and experiencing the impacts of resource extraction together at the most recognized Indigenous gathering in the world to highlight the gendered impacts of mining and to amplify the voices of Indigenous women.

Despite differences in language, culture and age, which ranged from 19 to 71 years, the delegates felt a deep connection that sometimes transcended translation. Delegate Joanne Jefferson identified it during our first meeting together: “We are all from different backgrounds, but the land has connected us together as our ancestors would want it.”

We learned that for Indigenous women it is often impossible to separate the impact of resource extraction on women from its impact on the land. Flora Jimenez, Maya Mam from Guatemala, spoke of the interrelationship between communities and the land as part of an Indigenous world view that does not separate nature from human existence.

The fact these women are working on the frontlines with communities impacted by resource extraction gives them legitimacy to speak on these issues at the UN: “We are holding the real information because we are living and experiencing these issues. We need to put our voices together as Indigenous women,” said Mila Singson, a delegate from the Cordillera region of the Philippines.

Their awareness of the social and environmental impacts of mining compels them to act. However, their acts of protest or resistance are often criminalized, and they risk being abused, assaulted, raped and even assassinated. Yet, because their role is often not recognized, they are invisible victims.

The delegation was an opportunity to share testimonies and strategies, and to learn from each others’ experiences. Serving as a translator, I won’t forget the look of admiration and a bit of mischief in the eyes of the delegates from Canada when they heard first-hand the creative and effective tactics used by women in the Philippines to defend their land. A few minutes later this same reaction was echoed when the Central America delegates heard the story through translation.

The delegation was one successful step in building relationships between the Indigenous women who participated, and in amplifying their voices at a critical UN Forum. It doesn’t end here. There emerged a strong commitment to strengthen these relationships, to deepen understanding of these issues and to make more visible the Indigenous women who are defending community rights and the environment.

The delegation launches what is anticipated to be a long-term partnership between KAIROS Canada and Horizons of Friendship to spotlight the impacts of resource extraction on the rights of Indigenous women worldwide.

We see this as important work for the well-being of all of us and for the future of the planet.