Leyla Noriega has been active for more than 20 years, campaigning and reporting on injustices against indigenous people and the natural environment across the northern regions of Chile. The newly independent state had conquered the area around 1880 to access mines and natural resources that had previously been under the rule of Peru and Bolivia, and before then, by Incas and Aymaras who called the area Qullasuyu. One day the mining companies which Leyla had seen tear towns apart before in the area arrived at her mother and grandparents' town of Belén, at around 133 km from the city of Arica and at an altitude of 2800m and it was a very different feeling.
Mining laws in Chile were created specifically to easily sell land and water to private companies, during the Pinochet dictatorship, so that any private company that finds an element in the mountain can claim it for their own, and exploratory machinery can be installed up to a total of 39 machines without requiring any specific permission. Indigenous peoples on the other hand, are usually ignored, land is not considered worth an environmental report and, if they speak up, they are intimidated. The new constitution is being voted on in a key plebiscite in October, but indigenous groups feel unrepresented and in some cases co-opted by national media and political interests.
When multinational mining company Rio Tinto came to Leyla's ancestral valley in Belén in 2018, she joined the people of that town, having agreed to abandon all political flags together with people from all the towns near and far, and one day they all walked up the mountain to see the "exploratory machines" right in the belly of Pachamama:
"So we went up, walking higher and higher, from the town up to about 4000-4200m up, because that altitude was where the exploration was happening. It was so high up that I began to feel dizzy, like an astronaut, and some people had to stay behind because they couldn't go further. We went with people from Tima, Tignamar, Pachica, Putre and so many other villages, I'm so grateful they came with us. And when we got up to the top, we found that the route that was being made by the mining company was closed, surveilled by cameras and protected by police. They were protecting the entrance to the mining route, but not protecting the town for example. They thought we were troublesome and knew we were coming that day. This coincided with the murder of Camilo Catrillanca [Mapuche activist killed by police during a land occupation in the south of Chile] where police with gopros were seen recording from their helmets, and we saw many strange things.They were recording us with Go-Pros as they were doing in the south, but we were not covering our faces, or denying what we were doing. Those are the town's own roads and we had the right to continue walking. So we went in, continued up, and we arrived, and saw with our own eyes what they were doing.
And I always repeat this but it brings huge pain. I have dedicated myself for maybe 20 years to visiting different towns and localities around the north and I have seen this advance, I've seen extractivism gradually increasing in the "great north"[northernmost region of Chile]. I've seen this before. I've seen, written, reported and heard how towns were left without water, some ended up negotiating with mining companies, others were divided[by money offered by them] and all because of this. And I used to see it as a journalist, as an activist, but when you see this happening in your town, in your territory. When I see the old ladies, in my mother's town, who I've seen in countless town festivals and celebrations, when I see them crying, because the mining companies are pulling things out, damaging the water, putting huge machines in - because those machines are enormous, they have gigantic tubes, and just to do an "exploration", and you see it. So then imagine in Tignamar they have more than 30 or more of those exploratory platforms on the Marquéz mountain, and we had seen just 4 of them in Belén. It was horrible.
When you talk about the connection between women and Pachamama, I have lived it there on that mountain, because you see they are extracting from our womb. And it's a huge pain. I was very angry, and other women were very angry, but the older women who are very wise said "Don't be angry: We have to ask", and then we did a ceremony, to ask for mother earth, pachamama, and our ancestors, grandparents and ancients to do what they need to do. So we asked for rain, and then it rained! And we asked for the rain to take it all away so that nothing is left. But then I already understood that across Latin America, in the Amazon, in Peru, next to your house they install these machines, to perforate. In the south of Argentina, they install machines to do fracking, huge drills to break the earth under the ground. And they are next to your community, and that's shocking. You don't expect it but it's a huge pain. I'm a mother so I felt as if I was being pulled out from my roots for an eternity. It was a very difficult process, but it was very good because we united much more. Now in Belén we are articulated and solidarising with other towns nearby who are in similar situations and also defending their land."
You can watch the full conversation on Facebook here, and if you speak spanish, catch her on Radio Ayni here and retransmitted on radio channels across Latin America. The community project to defend against mining is here: https://www.facebook.com/belendicenoalamineria and you can see the videos of their 2018 march
And if you, by some strange chance, are reading this and are able to affect how your city council, or government, business or educational institution manages its investments, please remember that even what can seem a small act from you could be the turning point that empowers us all to leave these dark times and gives us the ability to regenerate and protect our world, its environments and peoples.