Anita Peña Saavedra is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity – based at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Reading Anita’s biography, it is hard not to be impressed by the scope of her work and experience. After completing an undergraduate degree in public administration at the University of Valparaiso she did two masters degrees, one in gender studies at the University of Chile and another in social policy and development at LSE. Having been a part of the feminist movement in Chile since the early 2000s, Anita worked on violence against women and girls (VAWG), abortion rights and sexual and reproductive health, which begs the question: how did she get involved in resource extraction activism? According to Anita, very easily, as her feminist thinking is directly aligned to the fight against the impact of resource extraction on Chile’s communities. For Anita, the same rules of violence against women are being enacted upon the environment, meaning the resistance against VAWG and against resource extraction are one and the same. As a research fellow, one might expect this resistance to take the form of peer-reviewed papers. However, Anita is less interested in producing a wealth of academic papers and rather sees it as her responsibility to bridge the gap between activism and academia. She is currently producing a documentary focusing on the return of community activism, a project that combines her knowledge and that of the communities affected, to increase awareness and knowledge further afield.
Throughout her career Anita has felt it important to work with women, from Sisters Uncut in London to Chilean VAWG networks, the Plurinational Feminist Assembly and, more recently, MUZOSARE, a highly effective female grassroots organisation campaigning for a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in the Quintero-Puchuncaví. When asked why she feels it is important to work with women, Anita explains the difference in approach and dialogue that remains between men and women activists fighting the impact of resource extraction. Discussions between men often focus on industry and money, while women discuss life – how to both protect and improve it. She admits that while both discussions are necessary, she is overwhelmingly drawn to working with and facilitating women coming together to provide and share their knowledge. Given Anita’s politics and career, one could easily assume she comes from a family of activists, in which politics was regularly discussed around the dinner table. In reality, politics played little part in Anita’s childhood and early adolescent years. Anita describes her family as a typical, right-leaning working-class Chilean family, with no great engagement in politics. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until she moved from her small community in Algarrobo to San Antonio for secondary school that she learned of Chile’s previous dictator Pinochet and his regime. Anita credits one of her professors, a member of the Communist Party, for sparking her curiosity and subsequent route into activism and politics. The impact of resource extraction on both people and the environment is no secret in Chile, so much so that the government has labelled certain areas ‘Sacrifice Zones’, areas in which the negative cost of resource extraction is deemed an acceptable consequence for the benefit of the country at large. Home to an estimated 200,000 people, those residing in Sacrifice Zones live with dangerously polluted air, soil and water and often suffer negative health implications. In 2018, over a thousand people were hospitalised after a chemical leak in the Quintero-Puchuncaví area. As highlighted elsewhere in this newsletter, limited water supplies, deforestation and carbon-related pollution are all consequences of the extraction activities taking place in South America, with Indigenous and poor communities being hit the hardest. Anita explains that Indigenous people are especially affected by deforestation, as their identity and statehood is particularly tied to their land, which is increasingly denied to them for profit.
However, there is cause for optimism. An election in May 2021 brought in a majority left-wing assembly who will be drafting the country’s new constitution, a key demand of the recent social uprising. Environmental activists including Anita have hailed this as a historic moment for environmental protection as legal rights to clean air and access to water are now a realistic prospect. Anita admits the election results came as a complete surprise, but with Indigenous representatives and constituents aligned with environmental causes now in positions of power, it was a surprise that made her hopeful for the future.
As for Anita’s future plans, she is due to complete her PhD in the next few years, after which she hopes to be an agent of change in her country by working against societies inequalities and with those most affected by climate and gender injustice. Given her current work as a policymaker, educator, researcher and activist, it is safe to say Anita is already the agent of change she envisions herself to be in the future.