PhD in Anthropology and Sociology of Development
15 December 2020

Rural women’s translocal action for right to land and territory in Colombia

In her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Yira Lazala explores how peasant and indigenous women in Nariño, Colombia, make their conceptions of self-determination, land, and territorial rights become visible on the transnational scale and how such notions turn (or not) into authoritative legal knowledge. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

I chose this topic because, when I started my PhD in Geneva, I was surprised by the lack of visibility of Colombian rural women’s perspectives on human rights in the several conferences and events that I attended. Even though the country had recently signed a peace agreement in which rural and women’s rights were central, I had the feeling that rural women’s perspectives on issues such as the rights to self-determination, to water, to food sovereignty, to seeds and natural resources were not visible enough in the international discussions. I then decided to focus my research on how peasant and indigenous women’s claims related to the human right to land and territory travel between different scales of contentious politics. I explored how grassroots women’s conceptions of self-determination, land, and territorial rights become visible on the transnational scale and how such notions turn (or not) into authoritative legal knowledge. 

Can you describe your methodology?

I used multi-sited ethnography as the main method. I undertook participant observation in three different communities in the northern region of Nariño. Afterward, I followed the trajectories of NGO officers and civil servants of the department of Nariño that implement actions related to land rights and gender justice in the selected local settings. To trace the circulation of related discourses at the UN level of human rights activism, I analysed how some social organisations, NGOs, and State institutions engage in human rights monitoring in Geneva. For this purpose, I undertook an internship as a gender advocacy officer at a Geneva-based human rights organisation focusing on issues related to Colombia and other Latin American countries. I assumed a feminist standpoint, attentive to the spaces usually considered “private” and therefore “non-political”, such as kitchens and home gardens, as some of the main places where rural women build their political projects. 

What are your major findings?

The main findings of my research are that the rural women activists that I met in the north of Nariño endorse an inclusionary perspective on land ownership and territorial rights, which, when moving from local to global, goes through a deep transformation. 

These activists enact an unorthodox definition of land and territorial rights. Their interpretation goes beyond the idea of the right to land understood as exclusionary property. Their version of the right to territory goes beyond the sense that it is an expression of State sovereignty. These local definitions go beyond the individualistic conceptualisations of subjects of rights and transcend masculinised definitions of sovereignty and self-determination. 

Their holistic vision of access to water and knowledge, the need to fight climate change and their concern with intersectional discrimination lead them to criticise the commodification of nature. They include a care-based perspective on collective self-determination and worldmaking from the rural space. When moving from local to global, these claims go through a change of register or transduction, passing from a “politics of embodiment” to what Cowan describes as a “politics of audit”. 

I also found that there is a tensional relationship between territorial rights, gender, and inter-communitarian boundary-making; and that in the rural communities where I did fieldwork there is a double use of human rights as a tool of social control and as an instrument of social change. 

On the whole, my research underlines that rural women activists’ engagement with human rights ideas constitutes a practice of worldmaking from below that implies innovative definitions of autonomy, territory, and land ownership. 

These findings have considerable policy implications.

Indeed, these women’s communitarian, inter-relational, and care-based notion of the right to land and territory is a remarkable political project. They challenge worldmaking projects based on individual autonomy, masculinised sovereignty, and exclusionary self-determination. They defy the conventional human rights discourse and the modern liberal vision of personhood. Their example opens the political imagination to the possibility of constructing feminist territorial sovereignties, to use Colombian feminist anthropologist Astrid Ulloa’s terms. 

And now, with the PhD behind you, are you still doing research?

Right now, I work as a citizen participation consultant at the secretariat of gender equality of the office of the mayor in Bogotá, Colombia. I also work as a lecturer at the University of Nariño in Pasto, Colombia. I want to find a good balance between academic/research work and professional activities related to gender and inclusion policy.

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Yira Carmiña Lazala Silva Hernandez defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in September 2020. Associate Professor Graziella Moraes Dias Da Silva presided the committee, which included retired Senior Lecturer Christine Verschuur and Professor Grégoire Mallard, thesis co-supervisors, and retired Associate Professor Donny Meertens, Faculty of Political Science and International Relations, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Colombia.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Lazala Silva Hernandez, Yira Carmiña. “From Home Gardens to the Palais des Nations: Translocal Action for Rural Women’s Human Right to Land and Territory in Nariño-Colombia.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

As the PhD thesis is embargoed until September 2023, please contact Dr Lazala Silva Hernandez at for more information.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Javier Crespo/