The purpose of this “Alert” is to call your attention to and share our concern about the atmosphere of threats in which the Verapaz Union of Campesino Organisations is carrying out its work. These threats have been directed against its members as well as different communities that the organisation accompanies and supports in Alta and Baja Verapaz.
The Verapaz Union of Campesino Organisations (UVOC) is an indigenous, campesino community organisation that focuses its efforts on the defence and promotion of access to land for the campesino communities in the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz. Among other activities, UVOC offers legal assistance and service to a number of rural communities on achieving legal ownership of their properties and provide accompaniment in processes aimed at the defence of their right to land. UVOC also takes part in roundtable talks with the hope that these offer a way to bring about solutions and changes that many reports have indicated as key to address the problem of land and the agrarian conflicts.1 PBI has accompanied UVOC since 2005 following serious threats and intimidation against several of its members.
In December 2011 and January 2012, UVOC has identified and reported an escalation of threats against members of the organisation and aggression against several communities it supports in Alta Verapaz. UVOC has pointed out that this context represents a serious risk to the security of its members as well as to the development of community processes for access to land which for years have been pursued by legal means, dialogue and negotiation.2
Among the threats and risks outlined, we call your attention to the following:
- regular surveillance of the UVOC office in Santa Cruz (Alta Verapaz), and of the private home of one its members in that town by unknown men as well as rumours about intentions to kill its coordinator, Carlos Morales.
- threats and violence against several communities supported by UVOC in particular the community of La Primavera, and San Miguel Cotoxjá. The community of La Primavera, in the municipality of San Cristóbal, is made up of 400 families of pocomchíes settlers which for more than 100 years have inhabited that estate of the Azurdia Saravía and Azurdia Poole family. Local inhabitants have reported that private security agents using vehicles of the Eco Tierra company and supposedly sent by Maderas Filitz Díaz Society, S.A., have committed serious aggressions against them, jeopardising the rights of this population. The majority of the original property owners of the land have become shareholders of Maderas Filitz Diaz S.A and their property rights have been attributed to the company in October 2011. Nonetheless, this land has been subject to negotiation for over 10 years by means of access and/or purchase by the Land Fund (FONTIERRA)3. Among other aggressions, in the course of January the community has reported the following to the respective authorities
- repeated threats of eviction by heavily armed private security agents;
- death threats by heavily armed private security agents of the company;
- intimidation with weapons, insults, and harassment by the armed private agents by removing the coffee seedlings planted by the community on one part of the land subject to current negotiation4;
On January 26, the bodies of two elderly persons (Sebastián Xona, age 82 and Petrona Morán Suc, 72) were found bound, gagged and beaten in their homes in the community of Santa Rosa, located within the estate of La Primavera. Awaiting the investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), these acts deepen the desolation and terror of the community in the face of new acts of violence against it and its members5.
Additionally, the community of San Miguel Cotoxjá, located in the municipality of El Estor (Alta Verapaz) has observed armed people circulating late at night and the neighbours were alerted to rumours about intentions to kill one of the leaders of the community. The community is made up of 78 q’eqchi families settled in the Polochic river valley. The community faces displacement stemming from an eviction order issued in March 2011 when another 13 communities from the area were evicted as part of a land dispute with the Chabil Utzaj company, a sugar cane producer. The community had reached an agreement with the authorities during the roundtable talks in which it participates with the support of UVOC, stating it would not be evicted while a solution was being sought in these talks or in the courts. Nonetheless, the eviction order has been pending for almost a year causing constant concern among the community. This situation has worsened during the first month of 2012
Given this situation, PBI urges the International Community to pay special attention to the security situation of UVOC, its members and the communities it supports and accompanies in the region. In particular we call on you to:
- follow up on the investigation carried out by the MP and the corresponding legal actions, to ensure these acts of violence reported by the community of La Primavera do not remain unpunished;
- urge the responsible public authorities and institutions to make themselves present in the communities accompanied by UVOC when it is required, in order to protect the community population and the members of UVOC as well as to guarantee their rights to life, physical integrity and defence of their human rights.
- communicate to the respective public institutions the obligation of the Guatemalan State to comply with precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) for the protection of the Valle del Polochic communities and, in particular, those measures aimed at guaranteeing security and food, and the investigation of the acts that gave rise to the precautionary measures6.
- organise visits to the region by diplomatic missions or representatives of the international community as a protective measure and to make visible the international concern over the threats and aggression that gravely affect the peaceful work of the communities and of UVOC in defence of the right to land.
Finally, we encourage you to use all instruments and measures at your disposal to offer protection to the UVOC and the communities it accompanies in Alta Verapaz.
The PBI Guatemala Project
PEACE BRIGADES INTERNATIONAL (PBI)
- Among others, consult: CIIDH, Informe de seguimiento a las recomendaciones del Relator Especial sobre el derecho a la alimentación para Guatemala. Guatemala. October 2007; and CNOC and CONGCOOP, Fontierras El modelo del mercado y el acceso a la tierra en Guatemala. Balance y perspectivas Guatemala, September 2002.
- Since 2003, a monthly roundtable is held where members of UVOC and community leaders meet with government representatives from the Secretary of Agrarian Affairs (SAA), the Land Fund (FONTIERRA), and the Title Information Registry (RIC) from Alta Verapaz to discuss the ongoing land conflicts. The purpose of the roundtable is to promote dialogue among communities and authorities in search of peaceful solutions to the land conflicts in the Verapaz regions.
- UVOC, Radiomontaje La Primavera, www.youtube.com/watch
- UVOC, Memorial de la Comunidad La Primavera, municipio de San Cristóbal, Alta Verapaz, 09.01.2012 www.uvocguatemala.org/2012/01/memorial-comunidad-la-primavera.html
- UVOC, UVOC condena el asesinato de la Sra. Petrona Morán Suc y el Sr. Sebastián Xona en la finca La Primavera, comunicado 27.01.2012