The onset of Coronavirus only made an already complicated historical context worse. The exploitation, repression, agrarian conflict and criminalization suffered by the communities, and exacerbated by the climate crisis, has been worsened by the pandemic. (Lesbia Artola, Coordinator of the Community Council of the Highlands CCDA - Las Verapaces)
At least half of the population of Guatemala are indigenous peoples.1 This population experiences the highest percentages of poverty and malnutrition in the country, and suffers from lack of access to basic rights such as health and water. The repression, exclusion and invisibility which they are subjected to have historical roots that go back to the Spanish invasion, continuing through the formation of the colonial state and to the present day with the establishment of an extractive economic model based on the exploitation of the territories that these peoples inhabit. Their response to this harsh reality has been resistance based on their rich cultural, identity and their diverse cosmovisions, as well as their millennial knowledge, all of which have developed without State recognition.
The impacts of measures to stop the spread of Covid-19
The first case of Covid-19 in Guatemala occurred in mid-March 2020 and immediately prompted the government to implement measures to address the spread of the virus. It is important to note the high vulnerability of indigenous peoples’ to the virus, due to the conditions of poverty in which a large part of this population lives. In spite of this, the ancestral authorities have denounced the fact that they were not invited by the government to the meetings it has held with civil society to discuss prevention measures. Thus, the living circumstances of indigenous and campesino communities have not been taken into account in the design of these measures, some of which have had a very negative impact on them. For example, the limited hours of popular markets and transportation between communities, municipalities and departments have strongly affected their livelihoods, since the economy of these families is based primarily on the sale of surplus crops in the municipal capitals.
The municipality of Cahabón was closed for months, we were unable to access it, which prevented us from selling our products and obtaining other goods. Even though we cultivate products for self-sufficiency in communities across the region, we continue to have the need to buy other products, which were inaccessible to us during the first months of the pandemic.
Pedro Ramírez, land defender and member of the Pacific Resistance of Cahabón
At the same time, the programs promoted by the government to deal with the economic impacts of these measures excluded, the mostly indigenous, rural areas which is clearly discriminatory. One example is the so-called ‘Family Bonus’, whose beneficiaries were designated based on their electricity receipts, and did not include those who do not have access to an electricity service, i.e., the poorest population located principally in indigenous territories.
With regard to the right to health, the non-recognition of those who practice Mayan medicine as essential personnel, which would have granted them permission to break the curfew, severely limited access to health for many families, in contexts where this is the only resource available because there is no access to public health services.
According to community leaders, however, it appears that the restrictions have not been applied equally. For example, the large companies that are driving mining, hydroelectric and agricultural mono-culture projects, as well as the work on the Inter-Oceanic Corridor, have continued to work despite the fact that many of their permits have expired or are subject to legal actions that prohibit their activities. Furthermore, in the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz, the pandemic has been used as a mechanism to increase intimidation, threats and criminalization and has been used by private actors to carry out evictions without any respect for human life.2 At the same time, restrictions on mobility and assembly have made it difficult to defend the territories.
With regard to the quarantine measures, it is important to highlight that women have been the most affected. In many cases, the measures have contributed to exacerbating situations of violence, both in their homes and in their communities. In fact, records of sexual violence against women and girls have increased. In addition, the burden of care for women in their families has also increased without an effective response from the State to these situations.
The community response
Faced with the ineffectiveness and negative impacts of the measures implemented by the State, Guatemala’s indigenous peoples have coordinated autonomous and self-managed initiatives aimed at protecting communities from the virus.
Many communities have implemented health security cordons to control the entry into their territories, as well as the application of disinfection measures for vehicles and people. For their part, community radio stations have played a key role in providing information in Mayan languages and guidance on recommendations for virus prevention, such as handwashing, wearing masks, and keeping physical distance.
The role of women, with respect to health care, has been key since the outbreak of the pandemic. They have promoted the reawakening of the immunological memory of the people with the use of medicinal plants and ancestral healing practices based on their cosmovision, always keeping in mind the need to balance physical and mental energies.
The consumption of processed products is displacing the communities' nutritional relationship with fruits, tubers, seeds, flowers, buds and leaves. This rich diversity of plants, which is what our peoples eat, strengthens our immunity, helping us respond to the attacks of viruses and bacteria with which we have been living for millions of years. It is important to make our food consumption a political act through the consciousness that links these daily acts with the memory of the plundering that our people have experienced.
Lorena Cabnal, member of the Tzk'at Network of Ancestral Healers of Community Feminism from Iximulew
The community organization has also served to confront the economic impacts caused by transportation limitations. In the department of El Quiché, for example, community mayors from different micro regions agreed to organize transportation and commerce. They developed coordinated security measures throughout the area, defining the number of people who could travel and the cargo they could carry, as well as the use of masks and gloves.
Another response to the economic impacts has been the recovery of ancestral practices and customs such as barter, the exchange of products not mediated by money but directed to the satisfaction of basic human needs.
[Through barter] we managed to obtain products that we did not have access to, such as green beans and radishes, and in exchange we have given onions and tomatoes. We have been able to support our families through the exchange of products.
Adrían Caal, Poqomchi’ leader of the Union of Peasant Organizations UVOC
In response to the lack of work and income generation activities caused by government measures, communities have increased the cultivation of basic family food products such as corn, beans, squash, and herbs. They are supporting families who do not have access to land or the harvest with the products obtained from their gardens.
Vital help has come from some social organizations who have supported the families with bags of food and seeds, even though government measures limited their possibilities of being present in the territories. Together with this humanitarian response, the organizations have strengthened their political work to support the communities and peoples. The Iximulew Campesino Front, composed of the CCDA, the UVOC, the New Day Chorti Campesino Central Coordinator (CCCND) and the United Campesino Comittee (CUC) has sought a dialogue with the authorities to address concerns such as: the lack of public policies in relation to rural and agrarian development; the dismantling of the institutions constituted by the Peace Accords to address the structural problem of access to land;3 and the increase in violent attacks on campesino and indigenous communities since the beginning of the pandemic.4
With regard to social organization in the territories, communities and organizations have had to reinvent themselves in the face of the limitations of assembly, in order to continue their work and keep the social fabric alive. They have held smaller meetings (as permitted by law), during which participants have assumed the responsibility for sharing what has been discussed in these spaces with other reduced circles of neighbors, thus building networks for information transmission.
In this context, both in Guatemala and in other regions of the world, the importance of what José Francisco Cali Tzay, a Kaqchikel Maya and UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has pointed out is that "the indigenous communities who can best resist the COVID-19 pandemic are those who have achieved autonomy and self-government, which allows them to manage their lands, territories and resources, and to guarantee food security through their traditional crops and traditional medicine. Now more than ever, governments around the world must support indigenous peoples to implement their own plans to protect their communities and to participate in the development of national initiatives to ensure that they are not discriminated against.”.
1 According to the National Population Census of 2018, 43,8% of the Guatemalan population is indigenous. However, academics such as the K’iche’ anthropologist Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj emphasize that “censuses provoke an ethnocide because their methodology is not capable to reflect the real diversity existing in this country”; in: Entrevista a Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, Radio Ocote, 03.09.2020.
2 For further information on the subject of evictions of indigenous communities during the Covid-19 emergency go to El derecho a la tierra bajo amenaza en las Verapaces: desalojos en tiempos de COVID-19, PBI Guatemala, 28.05.2020.
3 In July of 2020, president Alejandro Giammattei declared the closure – among other entities – of the Secretariat for Agrarian Affairs (SAA), see: Toro, D., Giammattei le dio el tiro de gracia a la institucionalidad de la paz, Prensa Comunitaria, 30.07.2020
4 PBI Guatemala, Op.Cit. Furthermore the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit (UDEFEGUA) registered 4 assassination between January and September of 2020. Half of the attacks were committed against indigenous people who defend land and territory.