Activists are particularly vulnerable to online gender-based violence, especially when they threaten profits and challenge corporate greed. Maria’s story shows the potential for what can be achieved when women feel empowered to use digital technology to advocate for their communities, and are able to overcome the threats that they face.
Maria, 45, has been working the land since she was born. She loves the beautiful place she grew up – where the rainforest meets the sea – as well as the Afro-Caribbean culture and ways of life of her community. Many generations of her family have lived here. Her family taught h
er to work with a variety of crops and farm animals. It is very important for her community that the small farms can ensure food security. Together with other women in her community, she is committed to maintaining the dignity and pride of being farmers.
In Costa Rica it is said that there are two countries, that of the great metropolitan area where the opportunities and services are centred and the coastal and border areas where people live in more vulnerable conditions. This is exacerbated by multinationals who, for the past 20 years, have been settling in the poorest areas of the country to plant monoculture crops, threatening not only the ecosystems, but also inhabitants of the communities who are expelled to make place for large plantations.
Where Maria lives, pineapple cultivation has been expanding at great speed. The water of the rivers and seas has been contaminated with chemicals, and the area has been inundated with pests related to pineapple farming, such as flies.
Distressed by these changes, Maria set out to defend her beloved land, culture and community’s way of life. She understands that food security must be defended, that water sources must not be damaged, that biodiversity must be preserved, and that the way her community lives, based on generations of farmers and rural culture, must be protected.
So she and her companions decided to start organising the community. They began to use WhatsApp to create work groups, send documents, and make calls for people to join the struggle against the multinational. They begin to use social networks to build a network of alliances at the national and international level. They use photographs taken with their cell phones to document evidence of the environmental and social impacts of the pineapple plantation. They also used digital communication to advocate their cause with journalists, congress and lawyers, encouraging these influential individuals to take up their cause.
Growing a mass movement
But this digital activism opened Maria and her allies to abuse, as is often the case with highly visible female activists. The same channels Maria used to create a social movement were also used to persecute and threaten the activists and their families, especially their daughters. As Maria’s efforts expanded into a national movement against abuse by multinationals, attempts to silence and discredit Maria and her allies intensified, with personal details about her life shared in an attempt to intimidate her.
Although Maria was scared by these threats, she has continued her work, as the problems which led to her activism remain in her country and community. After more than four years of work, this network of organisations led by María and her colleagues succeeded in limiting the expansion of pineapple in the country, but the multinationals have not gone away, and they are constantly pushing to appropriate land.
Students, social movements, political parties, lawyers, journalists and, above all, other communities have joined the struggle against monoculture. All communication is done through digital media, and, because of the experiences of the women at the front of this struggle, extra has been paid to ensuring that digital safety and security is prioritised as part of planning and coordination. This is a constant struggle and women are leading the way.
This story was told with assistance from Sula Batsu, a member of the Women’s Rights Online (WRO) network.