The indigenous peoples of Iximulew, which was renamed Guatemala during the colonial era, have been claiming the right to free determination over their economic, social and cultural development and the territory which they inhabit for years and using their own forms of governance. This right is recognized internationally through two legal instruments ratified by the Republic of Guatemala: ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Maya C’horti’ people live primarily in the department of Chiquimula, in the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán and Olopa. This eastern area of the Dry Corridor is characterized by water scarcity which has negative effects on the harvest of basic foods. For a population that lives principally on agriculture, the consequences of this reality are widespread acute and chronic malnutrition, which especially affects children. This problem stems from the unequal distribution of land, as well as in the permanent drought caused by the increasingly irregular rainfall, the seizing of rivers by extractive companies and increasing deforestation. All this translates into a lack of water for planting and for all the essential uses of everyday life in the communities, it even has repercussions in terms of the recommendation for frequent hand washing as the principal measure to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Restictions Imposed by the State of Calamity
The State of Calamity entered into force in Guatemala from March 6, 2020. Measures include the suspension of all public transport and the prohibition of public gatherings and restrictions on free movement during curfew hours. This has been an impediment for communities in exercising their right to resist extractive projects. At the same time, it has contributed to increasing isolation as neither the local nor the international organizations that accompany them can maintain a presence in the territories.
These difficulties are accompanied by a reduced presence of State institutions responsible for ensuring the safety of citizens and respect for human rights. However, the companies have the necessary resources and permits to continue with their activities1. This has increased the risks to human rights defenders and communities, who have been claiming respect for their rights over ancestral territories for years.
In the Ch’orti’ territory two projects in particular demonstrate this alarming reality.
Mining Project “Cantera Los Manantiales”
The American Minerals S.A. company has been operating an antimony extraction mining project, “Cantera Los Manantiales”, in the municipality of Olopa, department of Chiquimula, since 2016. In response to this project, imposed without consultation, and which has had negative impacts on water, the communities began to organize with the support of the ‘New Day’ Ch'orti' Campesino Central Coordinator (CCCND). In November 2019, they achieved a ruling from the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) who dictated a provisional injunction in favour of the Maya Ch'orti' Indigenous Council and suspended the mining license.
The Ch’orti’ leaders in the communities surrounding the mine have received threats and attacks since the resistance began. This was compounded by the entry into force of the State of Calamity. Ch’orti’ leaders from the La Prensa community received threats and intimidation and were subjected to surveillance. These began after the community reported that unknown individuals removed the metal chain placed by the community authorities at the entrance of the community road that leads to the mine. As a result, the company managed to bring machinery to the mining facilities without the authorization of the communities and disrespecting the temporary suspension of the mine as ordered by the CSJ.
According to CCCND, intimidation and provocation to communities in the municipality of Olopa has been continuous during the State of Calamity, including a forest fire in late April that spread to the communal forest. Community members suspect that it was caused by one of the mine operators. As a result of the previous episodes, the Ch'orti' Indigenous Council of Olopa presented a memorandum to the town’s Municipality at the end of April, denouncing the fact that the mine was still operating (despite the suspension ordered by the CSJ), as well as the frequent acts of harassment perpetrated by people linked to the mine.
Assassination of defender Medardo Alonzo Lucero
The most serious and regrettable act has been the murder, by strangulation, of the human rights defender Medardo Alonzo Lucero, of the La Cumbre community, whose lifeless body was found on June 15. Medardo was the brother of Ovidio Alonzo Lucero, vice president of the La Cumbre Indigenous Council. Both the Indigenous Council of the community and Ovidio himself have receive constant threats and intimidation that put their lives at risk for their work defending the territory against the extractive industry. The investigation of the case, as well as the prompt identification of the material and intellectual authors of the murder of Medardo, is essential for justice to be done and to protect the life of Ovidio Alonzo Lucero and other members of the Indigenous Council of La Cumbre.
Mining company "Cantera El Porvenir"
Another of the extractive projects present in the area is that of the mining company "Cantera El Porvenir", located in the community forest "El Zompopero" in the territory of the community of Lelá Obraje (municipality of Camotán, department of Chiquimula). According to CCCND and the community leaders who live around the mine, the mine is clearing the forest without legal authorization and despite opposition from the communities. On March 25, when the State of Calamity had already been declared, there was a forest fire in the communal forest of Lela Chancó that started moments before the curfew. The communities, who extinguished the fire themselves, consider it an act of provocation that also forced them to expose themselves during the curfew. Likewise, community leaders have indicated a military presence in several hamlets in the Lelá Obraje community since March. So far, no one has informed them about the purpose of the military presence in the territory.
Aggravation of conflicts over the control of natural resources
These situations are an example of what is currently being experienced by communities across Guatemala’s diverse territories, aggravating the existing conflicts between communities and external actors over the control of natural resources. This should be understood within the global context of struggles over natural resources, which are essential for the operation of an economic system based on their exploitation and which have very serious impacts on indigenous populations.
Faced with this panorama, the Mayan, Xinka and Garifuna peoples have presented their concrete proposals through a communiqué entitled Demands on Crises COVID-19, and have asked the State "... not to use the State of Calamity to impose investment projects in our territories burdensome to our rights and respect in spirit and letter our right to free prior and informed consultation and the response of the peoples. Convene the representations of the peoples to discuss and agree with us on any medium or long-term emergency measure that impacts our population.”
Peace Brigades International reiterates the urgent need to listen to the voices of indigenous peoples.
1The energy industry is considered an essential activities and thus companies have permission to operate during the restrictions imposed by the State of Calamity (Government Decree 5-2020, 6-2020 y 7-2020). https://bit.ly/2VakIk8
2Central Campesina Ch’orti’ Nuevo Día, Alert 25.03.2020 y Alert 28.03.2020
3Central Campesina Ch’orti’ Nuevo Día, Alert 01.05.2020, Alert 25.03.2020