Exiled Maya leader Lolita Chávez: Nightmares of the past, dreams of the future
Interview by Patricia Macías
Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic, 47 years old, is a Maya K’iché community leader, feminist, and defender of Mother Earth. She has lived in exile in Spain since 2017. She left Guatemala after surviving a sixth assassination attempt for her activism as a rights defender and community leader. In the last attempt on her life, a group of armed men shot at a vehicle she was traveling in. The men were linked to the Guatemalan logging company engaged in the illegal logging that Chávez was protesting.
Deforestation is a major problem in Guatemala, which loses 180,000 hectares of forest every year. Thirty years ago, 58% of the country’s territory was forested. By 2010, only 34% was forested. Chávez is from the western province of K’iché (spelled Quiché on maps, it means forest in the eponymous Maya K’iché language) which is majority Native American and was hard-hit by the genocide of the 1980s. Forests in this province are threatened not only by illegal logging, but also by government reforestation programs that plant monocultures of fast-growing pine trees to be harvested for lumber.
Guatemala is one of the ten countries that together are home to over 70% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity. Lolita and her allies fight to preserve this biodiversity against government agencies like the National Forestry Institute (INAB), which receives international funds and promotes a reforestation model based on profit, not conservation.
Company owners and INAB officials have promoted campaigns to defame and delegitimize Native American communities and their right to defend their forests and territories. Quiché and its wealth of natural resources has long been a source of conflict. Today’s criminal networks employ strategies of repression that were used against Ixil and K’iché communities during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict to profit from logging, mines, dams, and other “megaprojects.” Paramilitary criminal networks work with corrupt government officials and company representatives who, with the complicity of their international partners, use government resources to criminalize Native American communities that oppose their economic agenda based on exploitation, displacement, and accumulation.
In 2018 alone, 26 human rights defenders like Lolita Chávez were murdered in Guatemala. Chávez was able to leave Guatemala thanks to an international protection program. Her six months in exile have stretched to two years because the Guatemalan government still cannot guarantee her safety. Those who tried to kill her remain free and therefore remain a threat to her life and the lives of her children and the rest of her family.
They have made other worlds believe that our [indigenous] nations are ignorant. But the ancestral wisdom that we have in our communities is so deep that I believe it’s the opposite, that those other nations are the ones incapable of understanding our wisdom.
What is the conflict in your community?
It started when we founded the K’iché Communities Council (Consejo de Pueblos K’iché – CPK) that represents over 87 communities. We organized a democratic and peaceful movement to defend life and shared resources. After the war that we suffered for 36 years, the neoliberal economic model arrived with transnational corporations with free trade agreements to occupy our territory. We were already fighting in a women’s movement to defend our rights and to fight for justice for everything that happened to us during the war, but then this neoliberal attack came, and we have to face it in an organized way.
The Guatemalan government has granted dozens of mining permits in the province of Quiché without consulting the communities. We began an independent process of self-determination with community referendums in 2010, and in that year the capital of Quiché passed a resolution declaring transnational corporations non grata. That’s how we stopped more than 32 mining concessions. After these victories came the attacks. They began to threaten those of us in leadership positions. They killed two of my colleagues, and they disappeared another. When we finally found the one they disappeared, we found him dead, tortured and dismembered. Then the electrical infrastructure companies arrived, Trecsa, Deorsa, and Unión Fenosa [now Energuate, owned by I Squared Capital, a private equity firm based in New York City], and again we set out our position: We won’t let them enter. We continued and the threats began again. That’s when they started to target me.
Why is it so important to defend water and territory?
Because it’s truly a spiritual connection. They have made other worlds believe that our [indigenous] nations are ignorant. But the ancestral wisdom that we have in our communities is so deep that I believe it’s the opposite, that those other nations are the ones incapable of understanding our wisdom. It’s a deep connection with nature. We don’t defend nature because it belongs to us or because it makes us money. They’re confused when they make their proposals to the communities. We’re not interested in tax revenue, profits, euros or dollars or quetzals. No. That’s not what our communities are connected to. We’re connected to life, to life in community.
We defend our life. We want to live well in our territory, and living well is not about accumulation; it’s living well according to our own understanding, according to the legacy our ancestors passed down to us and that we’ll pass down to those who come after us.
What do you think about the concept of “development” that the government and international corporations use to justify their initiatives?
For our communities, really, the way things are now, development is death. Development is destruction. Development is imposition. Development is racism. Development is torture. Development is genocide. That’s how development has come to us, so if this is development, we don’t want it. I believe this has been a fundamental failure of capitalism and neoliberalism, which are connected to patriarchy. It is a failure that should be admitted, and it is a failure that has caused many [indigenous] nations to disappear through the imposition of this model.
Guatemala’s problem is structural, and its constitution is racist. As long as there’s no redistribution of land or land reform, as long as Guatemala is not declared a plurinational state, and as long as they don’t declare that the country’s resources belong to its communities and we in the communities cannot decide what happens in our territories to the water, the land, and the other resources, this won’t change.
What do you think is behind the deterioration of the situation of human rights defenders in countries like Guatemala?
What is happening is that they are seeing that they have tried to convince us but have not been able to, to defame us and they have not been able to. They put us in prison and still we continue. They try to buy us off, and maybe they succeed with some, but the people continue. They plan murders, to send messages of fear, terror. A murder is an attack and a message they send to the communities because they know our communities are organized in a network and they want to impose their hatred. But we as communities are very conscious; we see this as a cowardly way to try to stop our mobilization, to stop our struggle to defend our shared resources, to defend nature. Their inability to silence it – and our persistence in the fight – only justifies our struggle to demand liberty, justice, and a decent life.
What is the role of the Guatemalan government in the criminalization of rights defenders?
The Guatemalan state operates a system of multiple kinds of oppression. It is racist, patriarchal, neoliberal, enforced by the army and narco governments, and it’s not just we in the communities who say this, but even the national oligarchy, and powers like the US do, too.
We know who the actors are, we know who is attacking us. There are historical forces at work and there are also new attackers who come out of new contexts, but they don’t listen to us. We see that what the government does is to try to protect its henchmen, using the government’s entire repressive apparatus to silence our voices, to oppress us. They use their media to defame us, media campaigns to say that what’s happening to us are isolated situations that don’t have anything to do with defense of territory, as if we’re coming out of the blue, as if nothing were happening.
The government is at the service of oligarchs and international corporations; it’s a puppet. Take the case of Bernardo Caal. When we protested the unjust incarceration of our friend, what the government does is meet with them and continue to cut deals with the people’s money. The government puts its resources at the service of people like Florentino Pérez, who’s taking our water from us.
I was born here. I’m going to fight for what’s ours, I’m going to fight for life, especially if they’re taking water from my people. But they are subjugated by corporations, which are the ones really governing. That’s why they can exploit people. The government knows they’re enslaving people, that they’re enslaving the rivers, and they remain silent, and, worse, they persecute us for it.
They want us to forget what those responsible for the genocide did, so that what already happened to our ancestors happens again to this generation. To forget puts our people in grave danger.
Former Attorney General Thelma Aldana was a presidential front-runner until her candidacy was declared illegal by the Supreme Court. She has been widely praised for her fight against corruption, but she wasn’t very effective in the fight against the criminalization of community leaders. You, for example, had to flee Guatemala during her time in office as attorney general. Other leaders like Rigoberto Juárez were also imprisoned during this time…
We have seen that the system has structure, that it is imposed, and this is why we are fighting against a system, regardless of who passes through it, because one comes and then another and nothing changes. So with all this structure that’s there, they only change who’s in what position… Now, under the current attorney general the killings and arrests are continuing…
Those who occupy these positions know that they have a direct mandate against the communities. Because Guatemala’s problem is structural, and its constitution is racist. As long as there’s no redistribution of land or land reform, as long as Guatemala is not declared a plurinational state, and as long as they don’t declare that the country’s resources belong to its communities and we in the communities cannot decide what happens in our territories to the water, the land, and the other resources, this won’t change.
And the amnesty law that the current Congress and administration are promoting?
It’s important to remember history, to analyze the power structures of different times. The Guatemalan government launched a campaign once to forgive and forget. Why? Because they want us to forget what those responsible for the genocide did, so they can do it again, and so that what already happened to our ancestors happens again to this generation, and so that this generation won’t connect what’s happening now to the past. This is extremely important. To forget puts our people in grave danger.
I dream that Guatemala becomes a model for the world in living together well, in pluralism, in reciprocity, and in diversity. That from below we can achieve a plurinational state, that our languages don’t die, that we can continue to wear our clothing, that our spirituality is strengthened, that we can heal together, that we can live with dignity.
What kind of criminalization have you suffered specifically for being a woman, inside and outside your community?
There are several things I’ve gone through for being a woman. One of the first things is how I’ve been attacked. After one of the big attempts to attack me publicly by the military, government officials, and the companies, they ended up very quiet. They were being sidelined and we in the women’s movement were advancing in our protests. So they had to look for new strategies and of one them was to organize a demonstration with lots of people against me personally. They were all men and trying to attack me with misogyny. They said, for example, “This woman is a witch.” They started a campaign accusing me of being a witch. I have never seen any of my male allies in the struggle suffering accusations of being wizards. They have also accused me of being insane, insane because I’m taking action in a way that is not appropriate for a woman.
Another thing was the threats. There was a call that I will never forget. It was very, very frightening. They said they were going to kill me, but first they were going to rape me. The worst was that they didn’t just threaten me directly but also they spread it around my town, so people were saying, “Lolita, be careful, because they’re going to kill you, you know they’re saying they’re going to rape you and torture you like the Kailbiles did.” [Kaibiles are Guatemalan special forces troops accused of some of the worst war crimes of Guatemala’s armed conflict.] Every time anyone said that to me, it affected me so much that I was living as if the things they were saying were coming true. I remember that I was very afraid. I felt pain as if they were already doing it to me. This part of sexual violence, the cruelty of the way they use it is an attack on our bodies. And so I understand too that we need to liberate women’s bodies, to heal these bodies, to defend the territory of our bodies, because our sexuality is also under attack.
I suffered all kinds of harassment. I was harassed not only by people outside the movement, but by people inside as well, as if I were a commodity, a thing. How can we tell the world that we’re not things, we’re not commodities? They created a big media campaign against me, saying that I was an embarrassment for my family, an embarrassment for my community, because I didn’t take on the role that I supposedly should as a mother: an uncomplaining mother, a self-sacrificing mother, a humble mother, a mother the Church says “no” to as it does to all mothers. All this was imposed on me just because I’m a woman, because this has never happened to any male ally who has kids and is a father. I never heard “Poor kids of that man who leaves,” or anyone ask a man, “And your children? Who do you leave them with?” or “You’re not going home tonight to your husband?” To me, yes, they have asked all these things.
They don’t let us be independent. They control our bodies and our lives. Since I started protesting, I haven’t been able to find work, for example. But this doesn’t happen to the men. They have a system of agreements, patriarchal agreements, in which they help each other, but we don’t. That’s why it’s so important for us to have a system of agreements too, to create our own support networks.
What changes do you dream of seeing in Guatemala?
I dream of going back free and alive to my territory, I dream of being alongside Guatemala. I dream that our different communities understand each other. I dream that the Maya people can live together better with the mestizo community, because there are chasms between us created by racism and class divides, and if we overcome these chasms, we can find the generations to come, find art, find the dreams of boys and girls, find ancestral wisdom. I dream that Guatemala becomes a model for the world in living together well, in pluralism, in reciprocity, and in diversity. That from below we can achieve a plurinational state, that our languages don’t die, that we can continue to wear our clothing, that our spirituality is strengthened, that we can heal together, that we can live with dignity. I dream and hope for Guatemala that we stop the violence against us, the women. I dream of seeing my kids and that I can live again in my community, that I can dance to marimba music and be with my people. I dream of this all the time.
Interview by Patricia Macías. Translated by Richard Brown.
Cover photo: Aura Lolita Chávez in Madrid. Photo by @PATRICIAMACÍAS