Dispossession of ancestral lands: The case of the Maya Q’eqchi ‘Cataljí community
*By Cesar Bol
In Guatemala, as in many other countries in the world that have been invaded and colonized, Indigenous People have not been taken into account as part of development, and rather actions have been taken and laws have even been created to legitimize the dispossession of land and natural resources. Some leaders who speak out against injustices are persecuted and imprisoned for crimes they have never committed. Many of the communities that claim the lands and who are often accused of invading territory with the excuse of being evicted are families that have worked for years and generations for these lands. This is the case of the Cataljí community, which is located in the municipality of Cobán, department of Alta Verapaz.
Cataljí is made up of forty families of Maya Q’eqchí descent, living in extreme poverty without access to piped water or electricity service. At present, they are dedicated to agricultural work, mainly to the cultivation of corn and beans, and during other months of the year men migrate to monoculture farms to carry out work as day laborers. Some young people who manage to finish their studies at the primary level are hired as security agents in the capital city. Some young women also temporarily migrate to the city of Cobán or the capital to do work at home.
Until 1965, the families of the Cataljí community had had historical possession of their lands, and had not had the need to register them in the General Property Registry. In that year, a person who identified himself by the name Manuel Reyes arrived in the community, and under different deceptions he converted all the men and women of Cataljí as his workers for the cultivation of sugarcane, who were never paid for their work in any way.
In 1985, due to the internal armed conflict, these families had to move to another place to survive the repression of the army. In the book Ruptures, reconstruction and continuity in five Q’eqchi ‘communities: Women and access to land , it is mentioned that in Cataljí, a Land Committee had been organized with the purpose of managing the ownership of land that until that moment they had in possession: “They were preparing the committee when the violence came” mentioned one of the interviewees.
When they returned to their lands in 1983, they found the news that Mr. German Wasseen had sold their lands to the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism INGUAT, since Cataljí is settled in an area of cloud forests where it is possible to observe the Quetzal and other animals such as deer, saraguates and a great variety of birds and plants. However, they were able to rebuild their houses and re-plant their crops. Over the years, in 1993, INGUAT notified the families that it was the owner of a large area of the farm (4 caballerías) and that it would grant them a temporary permit to stay, the cutting of large trees being prohibited.
From 2014 to 2017, the community looked for institutions that would provide accompaniment to Indigenous communities, and thus demonstrate their historical possession. With no other alternative, they asked the Secretary of Agrarian Affairs for support, and likewise, the Presidential Dialogue Commission, INGUAT and CONAP were involved in the case (it is worth noting that they are all government agencies), thus getting a commission to do a field trip.
The oldest residents of the community presented copies of their identity cards, where it was stated that they had been born on said lands, having been born on said lands, but this was not taken into account. It was very sad and disappointing for the community members, that after the visit, the government institutions concluded that the conservation of the forest is very important, the lands of the community should be declared as a reproduction center and sanctuary of the quetzal, leaving the inhabitants adrift.
With deep regret, the families realized that the actions of the Secretary of Agrarian Affairs were based on the documents presented by the lawyers of the government institutions; and they never took the testimony of the families of the historic possession seriously. The community does not disagree with the conservation of the forests, but at no time was there any proposal to relocate the families to other lands.
*Cesar Bol wrote this article with the testimony of community members and documents filed by the Cataljí community.
Photo for illustrative purposes: Somewhere in Alta Verapaz, by Nelson Cetino.