Weaving networks among indigenous women of the sea: everyday political action and resistance from the territories

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Indigenous women in Chile who inhabit coastal areas come together with the shared goal of defending the ocean, protecting biodiversity, and exercising their rights. Among their main issues are inequity in caregiving tasks, lack of recognition for their work and contributions to ocean governance, wage gaps, and lack of opportunities. Through local and national gatherings, they propose solutions for the protection of their territories and their communities.

In Chile, there are several indigenous peoples who inhabit coastal areas, islands, archipelagos, and channels throughout the country: Chango, Rapa Nui, Mapuche (lafkenche and williche), Kawésqar, Selknam, and Yagán. For these peoples, their territories, culture, worldview, and spirituality are closely linked to the sea. Leticia Caro, from the Kawésqar people of Magallanes, explains that, just as other indigenous peoples have a connection with trees, Indigenous peoples who share life on the coast have an “intrinsic connection with the sea, which cannot be severed.”

It is from the sea that they receive their livelihoods and their primary means of connection. And, of course, the cultural and spiritual bond they hold with the water gives them strength to defend these spaces. However, despite their enduring existence in these regions, their connection to the ocean and their rights over their coastal territories are not recognized. Moreover, they have been, in many cases, dispossessed and displaced, and their relationship with the sea, severed. Likewise, extractive activities that contaminate their territories, climate change, and urban development make the environments they live in even more precarious.

In response to this reality and to the increasing economization of the ocean, encouraged by  fishing laws that do not recognize or respect the inherent rights, practices, and customs of the Indigenous peoples of the sea, the Lafkenche Mapuche people promoted the Law of Coastal Marine Spaces of Indigenous Peoples (Ecmpo) with an aim to seek recognition and protection of their territorial rights over the coastal terrain and the sea.

Meeting of women from the Kawésqar Communities for the Defense of the Sea in Seno Obstrucción. Photo: Network of Indigenous Women for the Defense of the Sea

A law to protect coastal and marine spaces

The need to protect the sea and coastal spaces ancestrally inhabited by Indigenous peoples is powerfully expressed by Pérsida Cheuquenao who is of the Mapuche Lafkenche people and one of the main promoters of the Ecmpo Law: “If the sea is more restricted, we will suffer more, they’ll kill us as Mapuche. If we are already poor because of the land, because they took away our lands, we’ll be moreso if they were going to take the sea away from us, then it will be too much, too much. So, we have the strength, the will, the ability to be able to ensure that this space, in one way or another is not blocked from us.”

Cheuquenao explains that at that time, many people supported the law, from the eighth region southward, and that, now, almost everyone who lives by the seaside is in those same conditions, creating spaces to request ocean access. It is precisely there where women have played a very important role in issues of health issues, spirituality, and Mapuche kimche (Mapuche wisdom).

But the purpose of the law went beyond that. Its promoters were visionaries who were in solidarity with other Indigenous peoples and maintained language that was broad enough throughout the text of the law. Through its broad wording, the Kawésqar, Yaganes, Changos, Diaguitas, or Rapa Nui peoples can also request these spaces in their territories at any point, if they deem it appropriate.

Thus, since it came into force in 2008, the ECMoP was established as a mechanism to grant in administration a delimited coastal marine space to a community or association of communities that has exercised customary use of such areas. According to the law, the objective of this request should be to preserve the use of coastal and marine environments, to ensure the conservation of natural resources, and to seek the well-being of communities.

Smiles at the National Meeting of the women’s network in Calbuco. Photo: Network of Indigenous Women for the Defense of the Sea

Indigenous women, protectors of the sea

In this scenario, indigenous women have played a fundamental role, both in the elaboration of the law and in the management and processing of these requests. Likewise, it is women who carry out a large part of the customary uses and the  transmission of knowledge about the sea and its environment. From their work as gatherers, educators, artisans, gardeners, caregivers, and spiritual guides, to their role as leaders, fisherwomen, sailors, divers, and shipbuilders. However, their contributions are scarcely visible, their professions are rarely paid, and their participation in the governance of the territories is not adequately represented.

For indigenous women, the sea is their main source of sustenance: there they carry out multiple traditional practices and maintain a spiritual and cultural relationship that has been passed down through generations. Given this close and deep ancestral relationship, they are innate protectors and defenders of these spaces, as they find their good living, that of their families, and their community there. Despite their relevance to the reproduction of life, they face a lack of training and technical education due to the multiple tasks they perform, such as caregiving, domestic work, leadership work, and their work out on the sea.

There are also gaps in the recognition and accreditation of their trades and ocean activities where conditions of inequality persist and they occupy informal or temporary positions with little or no health and safety coverage. Similarly, they also suffer from sexism in leadership and family environments, which limits their participation and contributions to the governance of marine and coastal spaces.

What’s more, Indigenous communities, in general, face delays and administrative obstacles in the processing of requests for Coastal Marine Spaces of Indigenous Peoples before the State, which often responds first to economic and political interests. All this without considering the multiple threats coastal environments face, amongst which, the salmon industry stands out, as endangering their resources, way of life, and ancestral practices.

National Meeting of the Women’s Network in Calbuco. Photo: Network of Indigenous Women for the Defense of the Sea

A network of Indigenous women of the sea

Ingrid Echevarria, from the Mapuche Williche people, explains that although men have demanding jobs and provide for the household, their work is recognized, and they have projects to apply for diving teams, boats, and improvements. “And the women of the ocean, who knows them? Nobody knows them. Women of the sea light the fire early, they leave the children in bed so they don’t wake them up, and we go to collect and head straight to the water at dawn. That sacrifice of getting into the cold water and then carrying all that and drying it, and coming home afterward, and seeing that your children have already woken up and need breakfast, is tremendous,” explains Echevarria.
As if this weren’t enough, many of the women are heads of households and only receive sporadic support from the fathers of their children. These women rely on activities related to the ocean for their livelihood and often leave their communities to sell or work in fisheries and in the city. Otherwise, they have no other means to support their children. Echevarria adds that for single mothers, the situation is even more difficult and unjust: “And for them, where is the healthcare system? There isn’t one. For them, where is the ease of being able to apply for work that allows them to stay at home with their family and not have to go somewhere else? It’s not there.”

Faced with this gender gap, indigenous women from various coastal and marine territories, with seemingly “isolated” life trajectories but crossed by similar inequalities and united by the defense of the sea and their culture, have decided to come together. These women are organizing to “weave networks” from the familial and community spheres, raising a voice that is neither heard nor known: they aim to recognize each other, listen to each other, and support each other on their path of struggle and resistance.

Thus, in March 2022, the Network of Indigenous Women for the Defense of the Sea was born. This organization seeks to build and forge alliances among women of various ages, territories, and indigenous peoples who inhabit coastal spaces and who fight for the defense of the sea. Its purpose is to generate mutual learning among the various territories and to harness the knowledge, spiritualities, and traditional knowledge of women of the sea, seeking to highlight and articulate their contributions and proposals for more effective advocacy against decision-makers and stakeholders.

A woman reading the book “Women of the Sea.” Photo: Network of Indigenous Women for the Defense of the Sea

Women of the sea are gaining ground.

Through conversations and gatherings, through territorial meetings and training sessions, women raise their historically undervalued voices. Creating spaces of trust, describing their realities, informing others about the threats facing their territories, and sharing their knowledge and maritime practices allows them to “forget about household chores” and to talk amongst women. This exercise of micropolitics is a transformative practice of empowerment that allows them to build collective actions related to the care of the sea, community, territories, common goods, and their cultural identity.

It was from these meetings that testimonies and stories of their relationship with the sea emerged and were reflected in the book “Women of the Sea: Approaches to Coastal Marine Spaces of Indigenous Peoples.” This message continues to be transmitted through the bimonthly newsletter “Women of the Sea: Voices from the Territories,” in which the women themselves who inhabit coastal and marine borders write. These are personal and deeply political stories, oriented towards the common good and the defense of common goods.

The women of the network have also gained political spaces. Faced with recent attempts to amend the ECMoP Law, they were the first to raise their voices, to defend their rights, and to articulate their defense alongside other indigenous organizations. Faced with the wave of attacks and threats against representatives of coastal marine spaces of indigenous peoples, they have demanded that the government implement the international agreements it has signed, such as the Escazú Agreement, which seeks to ensure safe environments for defenders, recognize their work, and protect their rights.

Once a year, women of the sea come together at national gatherings, where they bring their children, who also have a space in the network and accompany their mothers’ resistance processes. There, the various peoples articulate and share their struggles, such as the recognition of their coastal marine spaces or the lack of a gender focus in public policies related to the sea. They also project their proposals and contributions for the defense of the sea and community care.

Through their newsletters, conversation gatherings, technical support on the Law of Coastal Marine Spaces of Indigenous Peoples, promotion of productive activities, monitoring and protection of biodiversity in their territories, Indigenous women of the sea are consolidating everyday political action for the defense of the sea from the feminine and from the territories.

Karina Vargas Hernández

Karina Vargas Hernández is Coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Program at the Citizens' Observatory and Technical Advisor to the Network of Indigenous Women for the Defense of the Sea.