K-luumil X’Ko’ olelo’ob: Land of Women

Interview with Alika Santiago Trejo, October 18, 2019

I think the important thing, how we look at each other now, is to understand that our collective of indigenous women is, in itself, a necessary political action, an organization born from us, with autonomy and independence of thought.

What is the K-luumil X’Ko ’olelo’ob Collective?

Our organization, K-luumil X’Ko ’olelo’ob, means “Land of Women” in peninsular Mayan. We are an organization of peninsular Mayan women of Bacalar, in Quintana Roo, Mexico. We’ve been together for about three and a half years as an organization born within the framework of defense of our territory, a process that began in the region since 2013, after the commercial production of soybeans was authorized in southeast Mexico. Our Mayan colleagues from a seed collective began this process, and a few of us women made several attempts to summon other women around this issue.

In the beginning we weren’t able to increase women’s participation as we had hoped, and it wasn’t until 2016 when three of us sat down to think more strategically about what would it take for women in our region to join this effort and, more importantly, to educate them.

We had been fighting for many years which resulted in a court decision [to suspend GMO soy farming for two years]. There had been a whole process of political, legal and other training, where it was mostly the men who participated. So in 2016 we knew that we had to think about our recruitment in a different way; there was the the legal side, the agrarian side, and environmental issues. We understood that the call for women to join us would have come from a different place. That’s when we decided that we should approach the issue from a more sensitive point of view for women, that is, a health issue.

Thus, in 2017, we started a massive information campaign in the region, aimed at indigenous women, where we reported on the health risks associated with the agro-industrial model, specifically on the use of agrochemicals. Along with that, we reported on the project that was authorized in our region, and that was beginning to be implemented based on the ruling of the Supreme Court. That was the moment when our organization was born, when we were no longer just three women. The horcones (pillars) of our organization are: community health, women’s rights, and the protection of our territory.

How do you build community empowerment that allows you to take the initiative to face a monster the size of Monsanto?

The women who founded the organization are women who have had many years of experience in community work, accompanying women in different struggles and processes. In the beginning, our concern was our project’s impact. When this initiative began, we, as organized indigenous women, began to generate a series of responses at the community level that had to do with creating spaces within each community where women could participate naturally. We also saw during our first campaign a series of situations that we interpreted as delicate, that personally surprised me.

For example, we reported the desire to prevent health issues, and we were surprised to know that people had already died in the communities from poisoning from the use of chemicals. In several cases there was severe poisoning due to the consumption of fumigated foods, for example, from the use of glyphosate.

There are four communities with multiple cases of cancer, compared to, for example, my community which is 35 kilometers away from those communities. It was really striking to see what was happening in these communities. But the saddest thing was to realize that it wasn’t just because of [corporate] projects–these were not places that had extensive monocultures–but this was happening in indigenous communities because there was an intensive production of different types of vegetables, marketed for Riviera Maya and Cancun. That was a big blow for us, to realize that this was a much bigger problem because the practice came from own our peers. It wasn’t just through the extensive cultivation of Monsanto and big landowners, but the people themselves who had appropiated a model that went against traditional indigenous practices. It is a practice that came about from public policies implemented in the ’80s that pushed a more intensive agriculture.

That also made us think that we had to address the issue much more carefully. When we informed women about the health risks, some of them were very overwhelmed because the symptoms we discussed was something they had seen in a relative, a husband or their father, and they immediately would start talking about all these deaths, the cause behind the diseases they had seen in their communities. There was a lot of frustration in terms of: “Even if I tell my husband or my dad, he won’t stop using these chemicals because he doesn’t believe me.” And we can’t decide for them to use it or not, because they need to produce in a certain way to have strong family economies.

That made it tougher when we understood that we needed to see our struggle, rather than looking outside, looking within the communities and weave, by embroidering capacities and strengths in indigenous and rural women, to be able to transform that reality.

We realized that it was going to be much more delicate than facing Monsanto, because Monsanto is indeed a monster but at least we have not yet seen direct threats to any of our leaders. But to question the practice of men or the tradition of the livelihood of others, that had to do with us women questioning life in the community. From that and later last year after participating in the Primer Encuentro de Mujeres que Luchan (First Council of Women Who Fight) with the Zapatista sisters, we had a much broader view of what we had to do.

Before doing anything, we had to get trained, to create a shared vision, much more politicized, to strengthen our leaderships and for our women collective to develop community actions that would have a greater impact on the life of our communities.

How do you understand the Mexican National State supposed equal treatment of indigenous peoples, when it does not provide support in indigenous languages, nor considers their cultural context? Public policy often reinforces the patriarchal culture of discrimination against indigenous women, for example. How does an organization of indigenous women raise this identity reconstruction of the Mayan being, of women, of considering other ways of struggle?

I think the important thing, how we look at each other now, is to understand that our collective of indigenous women is, in itself, a necessary political action, an organization born from us, with autonomy and independence of thought. In our communities there are several organizations where women participate, but they are usually led by the state or state programs, where you hardly find autonomy (maybe churches can summon, but that is also just an instance).

We have understood as a collective that from our way of seeing, feeling, thinking, we are the leaders; and that in itself is already a relevant political act.

To generate that with more women, having our space of political formation, is like a community feminism, and I think that is likely the most important thing. We have a clear understanding that as we gather to participate in workshops, to study our territory, to elaborate traditional medicine, and even to cook together; all of that already is an extraordinary act. Because in our communities rural women, we have very little time for us, to meet with each other, for the pleasure of meeting, to talk about the things that interest us, to organize ourselves, to solve those situations that we believe can change.

Something that has been remarkable this year is that, when looking into recruiting more women and look at why suddenly some participate or stop participating, why some women whowould like to join but they do not; that it has to do with an issue of economic independence. Therefore, we are already opening a line of strengthening the female economy, because we believe that this also goes hand in hand with indigenous community health, and even with the care and defense of the territory.

To the extent that a woman has economic independence, she will have the conditions to be able to have active participation in different spaces, to subsequently have more impact on the community. Our fight, at this time, more against the big state, has to be within our communities, we have to influence our spaces, community decision spaces, assemblies, communities with men and women. There is a dominant macho and patriarchal logic that tells us that we should not be there, that we should be taking care of life, of the family, and even that is not valued much.

What is your partnership strategy?

We have had the opportunity to share with other women in Mexico; doors have been opening in different spaces. One of the allied organizations that we are very grateful for is the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute that has brought us together with other women and other organizations, to be able to share our experiences. We have also participated in a new network, at the Mesoamerican level, where organizations from Mexico and Central America collaborate, and that has allowed us to approach the National Coordinator of Indigenous Women (Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Indígenas), with the National Network of Defenders of Land and Territory (Red Nacional de Defensores y Defensoras de la Tierra y el Territorio), and with the National Political Assembly of Indigenous Women (Asamblea Nacional Política de Mujeres Indígenas). Little by little we have been making our way, approaching experienced women who come from a very long road traveled.

It is very motivating and refreshing to meet more women who are fighting from other trenches, because that makes us feel accompanied, supported, gives us a horizon and hope for what we are doing, that what we are thinking makes sense and encourages us to keep walking.

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We see that in Mexico the situation is worsening, but we also look at other perspectives of other realities at the national and Mesoamerican levels, and it makes us realize  there are many things left to do in our region. I think in the Yucatan Peninsula, there is still time to be able to carry out many things in terms of prevention. We are an intergenerational Collective–there are girls, adults, the smallest member is 9 years old, and there are 68-year-old women. It is crucial that we involve different generations, especially the new ones, because it is a way of sharing and exchanging knowledge, and at some point give them up naturally, involving our daughters, our granddaughters and other girls in the communities, and boys as well.

Today being a defender of the environment is a high-risk activity. How does the organization live its action amid the monoculture offensive and the permissibility of the State?

We are very concerned about the national and international situation regarding reprisals against human rights defenders. The current government has a political discourse with double meaning where, on the one hand, they seem to be opening and a willingness to listen, to dialogue and to construct from the State with the people, but in practice it seems to us that it’s still the same, or worse.


Because their speech seems very benevolent, and with much openness, but it confuses people and makes them to be in a state of carefreeness. It disables them. In that sense, I think it’s worrisome. On the other hand, there is a strategy of the National State, under a logic of appropriation or indigenism, where it seems that there is a kind of value placed on indigenous culture. But with the use and abuse of the indigenous people, it is able to disable movements. We are very concerned to see leaders who have emerged during vital moments in different struggles at the national level, who are now becoming a part, direct or indirect ways, of the State, and that is a way of disabling all the struggles.

In our region, in the Yucatan Peninsula, compared to other areas of the country, we are apparently in a less risky situation. However, there have already been threats to different leaders, especially in the fight against aoelic (energy sources). This year in Tabasco there have been murders of leaders and environmental activists, in a reigion that is very close, here in the south-southeast region. We think there is an escalation of violence.

The Mayan Train [a mega interstatal transportation project], in our region, Bacalar, in Quintana Roo, has created a tremendous speculation of the land, and in the past year many people have come from outside, and violence, murders, and disappearances are already mounting, that didn’t exist here. This project has not yet started, but the mere fact of announcing it has brought speculation and modifications in our region.

What would you like to tell other peoples about your struggles about your collective aspirations?

I would tell the indigenous sisters and brothers of the Americaa, that we should not lower our guard, that we should ally, unite, weave nets between us, among us, because the capitalist monster is becoming more aggressive. We need to bond; I think it is essential that women in our villages join forces, that there are women’s organizations, that they defend life, we protect the lives of everyone. The being of women and youngsters in the struggle is necessary. We have much to do because they cannot take away this land that we have long taken care of, from our elders. We have to keep standing.

Now, you are not currently in Mexico. What are you doing in India?

One of the dreams of our organization is to develop a community center, with an educational space, that can summon women and girls, boys and young people from our communities to produce traditional medicine, to run workshops of political formation, to make our space of production for women, to be able to live with the colleagues of the Native Seed Collective.

Within the framework of that dream, we want to start our own community radio as well. We had the invitation this year from BareFoot College, which is like the community college here in India. We were awarded three scholarships for our organization to come to study solar engineering. We are learning to install solar panels, with the intention of returning to our communities, and starting that process, particularly with people who do not have [electric] energy. We think that this is a great opportunity because it would give us the ability, first, to make an installation in our community center, but above all, to teach other women and young people a new trade, which in this case is that of solar engineering.

We will be in India from September until February. We are living with 50 rural and indigenous women from all over the world, with women from Syria, Egypt, Botswana, Mali, Cameroon, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Paraguay, and Indonesia. It is a tremendous experience, first because it is a very inspiring space, a huge school, where we have an exciting cultural learning, where we seek together how to communicate (because we all have different languages). But it is an outstanding experience for us and very inspiring to return and do a lot in our communities. We are in northern India, Rajasthan, in a village called Tilonia.

More information K-luumil X’Ko’olelo’ob