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Defending Territory Is Not a Crime

By Emma Gómez and María Longo

Protecting the earth’s natural resources, the community’s assets has sent many a Guatemalan leader to prison.  

According to UDEFEGUA (Protective Union for Human Rights Advocates in Guatemala) the number of reported assaults against human rights advocates between January and June 2020 rose to 677.  Most were criminal acts of defamation, stigmatization, arguments based on hatred as well as assassinations, threats, attempted assassinations, intimidations and acts by vigilantes.

In spite of being deemed criminals, their struggle continues.  Here are some accounts of events.

The CECOPA case

Recovery of CECOPA (Patzún’s Community Center) in Patzún, Chimaltenango, resulted in the criminalization of fifteen individuals.

The Center was created for the well-being of the community and fulfilled this objective for ten years.  However, for the next 20 years it was used for private gain which provoked an uneasiness and malaise among the people.

The citizenry organized itself to defend its center under a slogan saying there’d been no transparency in the electoral process of the executive board–and that it had taken over governance without renewing the center’s original purpose and objectives to serve the community.   In order to prevent their neighbors from taking back what belonged to them, those that were supposed to benefit from the Center’s services filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office against the elected group demanding the Center resume its original mission of welfare for the community.

On April 5, 2019 COPAE (Commission for Peace and Ecology) informed the thirteen accused that they were bound by the penal process because of their crimes of breaking and entering including specific aggravations, coercion and aggravated misappropriation.  And two others were notified on the 27th of September 2020 regarding charges of coercion and aggravated misappropriation.

The Hidro Salá Case

Opposition to mega-projects has also turned into persecution of community members based on wrongful reasoning, as happened in the Mayan Mam sub-group in the village of San Pablo, San Marcos.  Fausto Sánchez Roblero was threatened because of his rejection of hydroelectric projects.  He was protecting his land and especially the river.

The day before his capture he had participated in a meeting of communities in resistance. They were meeting because one of their female counterparts had been captured.  The residents remember that Fausto was taken from his home and his family didn’t know where he was being held.

“We found him in a very unfortunate state.  It was a kind of kidnapping, psychological trauma for him and his family”, remembers one of the residents who tells the story in the documentary Tropelia.

They named Fausto as one of the leaders who’d led the unrest against the company known as Hidroeléctrica Salá.  He was arrested even before the six-hour legal requirement which is not allowed allowed by the constitution.

He was charged with kidnapping an employee from the hydroelectric corporation, but in March 2017 after serving two years in prison, this community leader was declared innocent.  Fausto was not the only person they tried to turn into a criminal for having defended his land against Salá Hydroelectrics.

The Río Cabón Case

Bernardo Caal Xol from Santa María Cahabón, Alta Verapaz, is one of the most well-known of Guatemalan environmentalist leaders.  He was released from prison in April 2022.  His struggle for the Cahabón River was the reason for his arrest.  He assured us that he has decided to continue the struggle, “because the communities which have never given up the struggle are awaiting me.”

In 2015, Caal, a primary school teacher, organized peaceful opposition against the construction of two hydroelectric projects because of their harmful effects on the Cahabón River, considered sacred by the local community.  Caal initiated legal action against the hydroelectric company and Guatemala’s Supreme Court ruled in his favor accepting the evidence that OXEC had not obtained consent from the indigenous residents in the area before beginning the project.  The company appealed the decision.  The case went to the Constitutional Court which also ruled in Caal’s favor and suspended the project.

Nevertheless, giving in to political pressure and pressure from the company, the Constitutional Tribunal subsequently revoked the decision and allowed the company to continue operations.  

In January 2018 Caal was summoned to appear in court, detained and accused of aggravated robbery and for alleged illegal detention of employees at the central hydroelectric plant in 2015.  In November of 2018, based on minimal evidence or proof, he was sentenced to seven years and four months imprisonment.

Amnesty International officially declared him a prisoner of conscience and organized a campaign collecting signatures in support of his release.

The  Women Against Mines Case

María Magdalena Cuc Choc, es an indigenous woman from the Q’eqhi Mayan.  She’s from El Estor, Izabal.  She’s a teacher and an interpreter who supports other women so that together they can defend their land.

María decided to support the women when she realized that in various communities affected by foreign mining companies’ activity, the women were ignored because they only spoke Q’eqhi and not Spanish.

Here there were families that had been displaced.  The women had succeeded at registering a complaint in Canada, the home country of the mining enterprise responsible for displacing the locals.

Their defense of themselves provoked threats, persecution, arrests, and imprisonments.  The witnessing and accompaniment that María provided to the indigenous communities protecting their lands was the reason for her arrest.  They accused her of aggravating usurpation, illegal detainments, and threats.

María’s municipality has suffered the consequences of the mining companies presence:  the removal of people from their lands.  And companies growing African palm, sugar cane and bananas ruin the soil’s fertility.  Contamination of soil and harm to water resources are other problems caused by the hydroelectric companies.

“We have experienced being removed from our land many times.  Eleven women were sexually assaulted.  Who did it?  Security agents from the mining company and the federal police.  Our only crime was raising our voices,” says María.


The Abelino Chub Case

Abelino Chub Caal, environmental advocate, has supported indigenous communities with their legal proceedings to get recognition of their territorial rights and has encouraged self-sufficient projects in sustainable agriculture.  His history of being marked as criminal began in 2016 when two agribusinesses attempted to expand their banana growing to include palm for palm oil production.  To accomplish that they decided to utilize land where indigenous communities from the Q’eqchi speaking group in El Estor, Izabal were living.

Chub started out as a mediator for the communities and the transnational company.  He witnessed the removal of hundreds of families:  in 2007 when a Canadian mining company removed 100 families from El Estor near Guatemala’s Pacific coast; and in 2011 the ruthless displacement of 732 indigenous Q’eqchi- speaking families from their lands in the Polochic Valley.  Subsequently, sugar cane was planted for the production of bio-fuels.  People were injured and women from the communities were assaulted during the removal.  Yet, these assaults were never investigated in Guatemala.

On February 4, 2017, Abelino was detained while celebrating his birthday with his wife and two sons.  He remained in custody awaiting trial for over two years.  In April 2019 after having presented evidence of not being in the vicinity the day of the fire, Abelino was acquitted of the charges during the trial.  The Court’s conclusion was to dismiss the case.

He was imprisoned for two years for a crime he did not commit.  Abelino is now free, but his struggle and the struggle by other advocates is still far from over.

“I will continue denouncing all the problems that affect the communities.  And similarly, the defenders of the earth and the environment.  I don’t work for myself, rather I work to protect the rights of the communities which have been abandoned by the government”, he said through the international press.

The Case of Dominga Botzoc, the Polochic River Negociator

Dominga Botzoc lives in one of the far-off communities of Panzós, Alta Verapaz.  She is 41 and is a survivor of the 2011 removal of her people from their lands.

A single mother whose determination and commitment to her community turned her into one of the negotiators.  While being interviewed she’s said, “I am aware of the suffering of everyone because it was a collective suffering.  And so, I mustered up the courage to participate in actions and some meetings we had with agricultural agencies.

The struggles continue to date because the government of Guatemala still hasn’t guaranteed decent housing, schools, a public health clinic, nor roads for easy access to these places.

The people do not forget that in 2011 the government forcibly and violently removed them.  Their crops were burned, and three farm workers died at the hands of the government’s security forces and those of the Chabil Utzaj sugar-producing company.

Although some 134 families received land in June 2018, another 414 continue waiting totally abandoned.

Four governments have come and gone and so far not one has fulfilled their promises nor protected the rights of the majority of children, women and men who were torn from their lands.  

The Case of Chocabj-Piedra Canoa

Fifteen years have gone by in the Chocabj community since the struggle began for communal land (Chocabj translates as Piedra Canoa o stone canoe).

Chocabj is a village in Sibinal, San Marcos in the Western Highlands of the country.  Its location is strategic because of its proximity to the Mexican border and it has gained the attention of a number of companies.

According to community leaders, the community was founded some 200 years ago, yet in 2007 the municipality of Sibinal authorized a proposed ecological park which Chocabj community members saw as privatization of a large swath of territory.

The location was a communal one and was used as pasture by local families who were farmers– their herds being a means of subsistence.  But now it’s become private land where no one can enter according to locals.

In a three-part mini-series produced by COPAE community leaders relate how the community got its start and that it has the legal documentation supporting them as administrators.  Yet the state, through the municipality, has been able to impede their entrance onto the territory.

Porfirio Roblero, one of the leaders, assures that the struggle will continue as it has for a number of years.   He said a large piece of land has been privatized without consideration for the community.  They have been displaced and denied access.

Since 2008 when licensing for mining companies began, the struggle against these companies also began because of the community’s strategic location.

Eliu Orozco, another community leader, says that in order to support the community’s struggle, discussions have been organized during which community members can show their resistance and fight for their survival.  Community members say that the municipality has dragged out the process, and so, they are asking for the immediate return of the people, resolutions in favor of the community so they can manage their own resources.

The Marlin Mine Case

The Marlin Mine was operational in Guatemala for 12 years, located in San Miguel Ixtahuacán y Sipacapa, San Marcos.

Community members and leaders say that rather than developing the location, what mining left were dry wells, contaminated water resources, damaged housing, a bleak site–the Mam Mayan village and Sipacapenses full of sadness and uncertainty.

Neighbors in these municipalities encounter a scarcity of potable water, neither fit for human nor animal consumption because of the open pit mining at the Marlin Mine.  After more than a decade of mining it left 18 wells dry and contaminated with heavy metals making the water dangerous for consumption.

There are various studies done by international organizations which conclude that mining is related to the disappearance of approximately 350 acres of woods and forest lands during the first two years of operation.  When mining activity is finished the elimination of wooded areas reaches as much as 720 acres.  The Alliance of Central Americans Against Mining agrees with these estimates.

It reports that 170 barrels of waste are generated monthly estimating the total at 23-27 millions of tons of residue at the end of a mining project.

In 2005 the Sipacapa Municipality organized a community meeting for consulting.  Between nine and eleven communities opposed mining projects.  Although perfectly legitimate actions on the part of community members, nothing was binding according to the Guatemalan government.  And the mining company continued its exploitation of the resources for another 12 years.

According to COPAE communiques, communities near the mine, i.e. Ágel, Salitre, San José Ixcaniche and San José Nueva Esperanza have experienced damage to housing infrastructure, and so studies have been done to determine the cause. 

Communities have taken their struggle and demands as far as the Interamerican Court for Human Rights.  In December 2011 the Court announced a decision ordering a dialogue between parties, but affected communities couldn’t participate.  According to a study by the Institute of Analysis and Investigation of National Problems at the University of San Carlos, after various discussions attempting to gain environmental protections, nothing was achieved.