Human rights organization founded by Maryknoll Sister recognized with prestigious award

Sister Patricia Ryan from Queens started a Peruvian human rights organization that works with indigenous farmers in the Andes Mountains.
Courtesy of Maryknoll Sisters
By Cassidy Klein

Along the shores of Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountains of Peru, 13,000 feet above sea level, lives Maryknoll Sister Patricia Ryan from Jamaica. She has spent 47 years of her life working with indigenous communities and educating them on their rights.

Ryan co-founded a Peruvian human rights organization, known by its Spanish initials as DHUMA (Derechos Humanos y Medio Ambiente), which will be receiving the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award this week for its work with indigenous farmers.

DHUMA is based in Peru’s Puno region and educates communities about their rights under Peruvian international law while also providing legal defense in cases of rights violations.

“Because of the situation the Quechua and Aymara communities in Puno find themselves, they suffer from discrimination and are not taken into account when the government is making decisions about their territories,” said Ryan. “We are able to help with the education for people to know their rights about these issues, and it has made a significant impact on the people.”

The Letelier-Moffitt Award is sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, an organization based in Washington, D.C. A representative of the institute said DHUMA was chosen this year because of its “promotion of indigenous culture, autonomy and self-determination.”

“It is a tremendous honor to be receiving this award,” said Ryan. “For our work to be recognized on an international level, it is making visible our work, which is making visible the indigenous peoples of Peru and indigenous peoples throughout the world, that they are meant to be respected along with Mother Earth, whom they are taking care of.”

DHUMA was founded in 2007 by Ryan and others who formerly worked in the human rights office of the Catholic Prelature of Juli in Puno. Puno is wrought with conflict over mining concessions and industrial pollution that has contaminated pastures, rivers and streams, according to Ryan. DHUMA recently won a ruling that indigenous communities must be informed before the government can grant mining concessions on their lands.

“The prime concerns of the people is their quality of water,” Ryan said. “They raise cattle, grow crops — they are sustenance farmers. Their life depends on what they are able to produce. When their water is in danger, this endangers their lives.”

Ryan said that their water quality is at risk because of climate change and that the “irresponsible” mining releases toxins into the water.

“We have helped people to know their rights concerning the mining issue — that they can win the rights of their lands with no one harmed. There is a nonviolent, peaceful way,” she said.

Peruvian law and international treaties require that indigenous people be consulted about projects that would affect their communal rights, such as the right to territory. However, concessions are sometimes granted without consultation, Ryan said, and people often did not know about the mining concessions until surveyors arrived or the laws they could use in their own defense.

“When people know that these are their rights, and that rights are not negotiable, they can speak to power,” said Ryan. “We help people empower themselves to know their rights and the rights of Mother Earth, which are one and the same, because their relationship with the earth is so intimate.”

Last year, a court ordered the government to cancel 13 mining concessions because indigenous communities had not been consulted about them. Ryan attributes the change to DHUMA, which has provided judges and prosecutors education on laws and international treaties that protect indigenous rights.

Ryan said the organization depends on contributions to keep the work going. Those seeking to help DHUMA’s efforts can make a donation to Maryknoll Sisters under Ryan’s name. All donations go to their work.

“We are thrilled that our organization is getting recognized,” said Ryan. “We are hopeful about our efforts being recognized on an international level to promote the rights of all indigenous peoples not only in Peru but everywhere.”

Reach reporter Cassidy Klein by e-mail at cklein@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4574.

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