Speak Up for Women Water Defenders at Risk in Chile

Environmental defenders with the Women’s Movement for the Defense of Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection in Chile are under attack as they courageously confront a water crisis, and its impact on women and their families. Mujeres Modatima, as they are known in Spanish, are dedicated to working together in an antipatriarchal movement for water as a human right, confronting extractivism which they say has “dried up entire communities, depriving them of such a vital element”. 

The University Austral de Chile reports that the Petorca Basin has become an icon of unequal access to water, amidst a water crisis

In response to their efforts to defend access to life giving water, leaders of Mujeres Modatima have suffered surveillance, intimidation, smear campaigns and threats. Meanwhile, authorities have failed to investigate or to protect the women.

Here are just some of the alarming incidents that represent a pattern of persecution:

Lorena Donaire Cataldo is a physical education teacher and mother of 3, who is currently the national spokesperson for Mujeres Modatima.

  • On 9 April 2021, around 1 am, a van showed up at Lorena’s house and took photographs. Her daughter leaned out the window and now she fears that she too has been photographed.
  • In February 2021, unknown people broke into Lorena’s home in the middle of the night, while she was at home with her children. Lorena called the Carabineros (police) but they said “they did not have a van” to assist her. Lorena had also called the police in response to at least 4 previous break ins, always in the middle of the night when she was at home with her children, during which nothing was stolen but papers were shuffled. The police never came.
  • Lorena has been followed by vehicles with tinted windows, without license plates. During the visit of a Swedish MP (of Swedish-Chilean nationality), several cars followed them as they visited the region to see the impacts of the water crisis. 
  • In December 2020, around Christmas, Lorena’s daughter F. was followed as she went to shop at the grocery store. She started screaming when the occupants of the car got out. As people came to help, the car sped off. F, who belongs to belongs to Modatima Youth, was sick with irritable bowel for weeks afterwards.

Verónica Vilches is a subsistence farmer and president of Rural Drinking Water (Agua Potable Rural or APR), a public program that works to supply drinking water to rural localities, promoting community organisation. Since she took on this work, Verónica began suffering increased surveillance and harassment.

  • On 13 February 2021, graffiti appeared on the APR plant that read: “Death APR. Death Verónica Vilches”. Verónica lost her voice for a few hours due to anguish and concern. On 8 March, an official from the Investigative Police (PDI) called her to inform her that the case would be closed due to lack of evidence. Amnesty International Chile, who had learned of the threat, raised concern in meetings with the Chilean Prosecutor’s Office, achieving changes in the investigation and finally having Verónica’s full statement taken. However, to date there has been no news regarding the investigation, now in the hands of the local prosecutor’s office.
  • Vehicles with tinted windows and no licence plates stop in front of Verónica’s house or the APR headquarters and the occupants shout threats. These have included: “Your mother’s pussy [in Chilean slang “concha”], we are going to kill you as long as you continue fucking around [in Chilean slang “hueveando”] with the water” or “we are going to go against your family” and “daughter of a bitch”.  

Carolina Vilches is a geographer, mother, and environmental advocate. In addition to Mujeres Modatima, Carolina belongs to the feminist collective of Petorca, the Union of Rural Drinking Water of the Petorca river basin and a hydro-feminist collective. Carolina was recently elected to form part of the Constituent Convention, the body responsible for drafting a new Chilean constitution following massive demonstrations across Chile in 2019. Like Veronica and Lorena, Carolina has suffered numerous troubling incidents.

  • In 2020, Carolina was the target of hate messages by people who falsely accused of her being “a terrorist” on Facebook and WhatsApp. 
  • Unknown people broke the locks on the gate of Carolina’s house.
  • Farmers from the area came to her workplace at the Municipality of Petorca, to pressure her to be removed from her post, arguing that Carolina is “stirring the chicken coop.” Carolina and her colleagues at the municipality, with the support of the mayor, were the first to create a “municipal water office” in Chile to defend the river and support community Rural Drinking Water systems.
  • Carolina survived terrifying incidents in 2017. A truck with tinted windows drove at her and her 12-year-old son and Carolina barely managed to save him by pushing him into a hedge of thorns. This attack took place after denouncing El Peñón de Zapallar, which has several farming operations that reportedly continue to extract water without measuring its impact. The same year, strangers broke into Carolina’s house, vandalized it, shuffled her papers but took nothing. Carolina filed a police complaint but there was no investigation. This attack occurred after discovering an illegal pipeline in the Petorca River. Carolina and her son moved out of their home out of fear for their safety.
  • Today Carolina tries not to be alone, not to leave her computer at home, and to warn those close to her of her whereabouts, out of fear that she may be disappeared. She reports that other women are experiencing death threats from farmers in the area but are too afraid to report them.

The experience of Carolina, Lorena, Verónica and other members of Mujeres Modatima has taught them to have little faith in the authorities. In some instances, the women have not even been allowed to report crimes committed against them. In other instances, when they were able to make official complaints, investigations were not carried out. The police have failed to provide protection and have told the women there is nothing they can do.

Send a short, polite letter to the Valparaíso Regional Prosecutor’s Office, the authority responsible for issuing protection measures and investigation orders, with copies to the police authorities responsible for carrying out these orders.

Make the following points in your letter, written in your own words:

  • Start with a sentence about yourself, where you are writing from and your interest in the protection of water everywhere.
  • Express your admiration for Verónica Vilches, Lorena Donaire, Carolina Vilches, and other women members of Mujeres Modatima – the Movement for the Defense of Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection – who seek to protect the right to water for women and their families.
  • Express your concern that women who belong to this organization have been subjected to surveillance, intimidation, smear campaigns, and death threats – as well as administrative obstacles from authorities when the women water defenders have tried to report crimes against them or sought protection from harm.
  • Urge the implementation of expedited complaint channels for human rights defenders, paying special attention to Mujeres Modatima, given that they have already been victims of various attacks.
  • Call for the provision of immediate and adequate protection in accordance with the wishes of the women, when they request it.
  • Call for all necessary steps to be taken to ensure that Investigative Police and/or the Chilean Carabineros conduct coordinated, timely, effective investigations, that are not intimidating for the complainants, and which ensure that those responsible for the crimes against them are brought to justice.
  • Ask to be updated about what actions are taken in response to this matter of urgent concern.

Send your letter to:

Sra. Claudia Perivancich Hoyuelos
Fiscal Regional Valparaíso
Blanco 937 Piso 4, Edificio Tecno Pacifico,
Valparaíso, CHILE
Email: murrutia@minpublico.cl [Secretaria Gabinete Fiscalía Regional de Valparaíso]

Send a copy to:

Luis Alberto Cortez Muñoz, Señor Fiscal Adjunto Jefe
Fiscalía Local de La Ligua
Portales 5, La Ligua, CHILE

Juan Vergara Báez, Prefecto Inspector
Policia de Investigaciones de Chile
Uruguay 174, Valparaíso, CHILE
Email: region.vpo@investigaciones.cl

Photo and more information found at https://www.facebook.com/MModatima