Indonesian environmentalist who diced with death hopes to inspire more women

by Beh Lih Yi | @BehLihYi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 March 2017 10:26 GMT

Indonesian environmental activist Aleta Baun poses for a photo in Jakarta, Indonesia March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Beh Lih Yi

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"My dream is to see women speak up, women become leaders to save the environment where they live"

By Beh Lih Yi

JAKARTA, March 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aleta Baun won praise for her environmental activism after defending her Indonesian indigenous community in a battle against mining companies that almost got her killed by machete-wielding thugs.

Now the campaigner is launching a $100,000 fund to help other women fight to protect their communities.

"My dream is to see women speak up, women become leaders to save the environment where they live," said Baun who is affectionately known as "Mama Aleta".

Baun's own fight centred on efforts to stop marble being mined from Mount Mutis on the western part of Timor island, a site considered sacred by her Molo tribespeople, with her activism irking mining companies and local officials.

One night in 2006 while walking home, she was surrounded by a group of men who discussed whether to rape or kill her. She escaped after they took her money and hacked her legs with machetes.

After the attack, she was forced to hide in a jungle with her two-month-old baby girl for months but it did not stop her.

With about 150 indigenous women from her village she staged a peaceful protest, sitting near the mining site weaving clothes for a year until the firms halted operations in 2010.

Her unlikely victory won her the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2013, an annual award acknowledging grassroots environmental activists, which also included $150,000 in prize money.

Baun is now giving this cash back to the cause she loves by setting up the "Mama Aleta Fund" to help women in rural areas fight for environmental causes by offering financial assistance and legal aid as well as training in leadership.

"I had faced a lot of challenges, threats. I think women like me can come together in our common struggle," Baun, who is in her 50s, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the fund's launch next month.

Indonesia is home to about 50-70 million indigenous people, many of whom do not have formal title to the land their families have lived on for generations. This gives little protection when mining or palm oil operations seek to move into their homeland.

Environmental activist Siti Maimunah said the fund is the first in Indonesia aiming to motivate women campaigners.

The women should help to inspire each other," said Maimunah from the Indonesian Mining Advocacy Network.

Baun hopes her success can inspire others. Since winning her fight against the mining companies, she has moved into politics and was elected to the regional parliament in 2014.

"We want to empower women who fight. We want to tell them there will be challenges in every struggle but what is important is they should not be afraid because if our environment is destroyed, it is women who suffer the most," she said.

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)