"The communities in rural areas were caught by the storm while they were sleeping and had to escape then and there, leaving all their belongings, clothes, food and animals. Entire communities were completely flooded, and the waters have still not receded. There are still communities that cannot be reached.” This is the how Q'eqchi leader Lesbia Artola, coordinator of the Community Council of the Highlands CCDA-Las Verapaces, recounts the situation in the rural areas of Alta Verapaz, one month after the Hurricane Eta and Tropical Storm Iota passed through the region. These tropical phenomena hit Central America hard at the beginning of November 2020, leaving some 5 million people affected, of which almost 2.5 million are from Guatemala. There are an estimated 60 people dead and 100 missing in the country. The areas most affected were the departments of Huehuetenango, Quiché, Alta Verapaz and Izabal, which have the highest percentage of indigenous peoples. In the department of Alta Verapaz alone, CCDA-Las Verapaces and the Union of Campesino Organizations (UVOC) registered more than 280 flooded communities and more than 32,000 affected families.
Extractivist model exacerbates impacts of tropical storms
According to Erwin Garzona, a sociologist specializing in risk management and climate change adaptation studies, 76% of Guatemala's population is exposed to tropical cyclones, amounting to more than 11 million people. Guatemala is located on an isthmus, this and its topography, making it highly vulnerable to both an excess and lack of precipitation, a risk which will only increase with human activity-induced global warming. This, among other factors, means that Guatemala is in seventh place out of 194 countries facing the greatest risk from disasters. Garzona agrees with Gerardo Páiz, a natural resource engineer and member of the environmental collective Madre Selva, that Guatemala's main defense against natural disasters is to maintain its ecosystems in a good condition. However, according to these and other analysts in risk management, the country is undergoing a process of destruction of nature, rooted in the implementation of an economic policy based on extractive activities and industries which involve major changes in land use and loss of forest cover.
They point out that, although there is growing agreement among experts that natural forests are the main defense against excesses or shortages in precipitation, it is estimated that in 2020 only 34% of Guatemalan territory will be covered by forests. Paradoxically, the original meaning of the word Guatemala is the "place of many trees," which refers to what the country was like before the brutal deforestation it faces today. They also point out that this situation is aggravated by an institutional framework that does not invest in disaster prevention and mitigation, has not developed an adequate classification of environmental crimes to curb the abuses of private actors, and which seems unaware of the need to organize the territory according to its natural division: along its geographical basin. In addition to all of the above, there are very high levels of social inequality, which have forced the majority of the population to live in high-risk areas and to use traditionally non-agricultural land for purposes of growing subsistence crops.
"We cannot fight against nature," says Lesbia Artola. "These are the consequences of the dispossession of land that our peoples have suffered, due to the expansion of monocultures, the diversion of rivers by hydroelectric companies and the destruction of all our natural resources. In the department of Alta Verapaz," she points out, "the impacts of the last storms were more disastrous than those left by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
More than 20 years have passed since Hurricane Mitch, during which time there has been an increase in the activity of extractive projects - in Alta Verapaz these are mainly hydroelectric, African palm monocultures, and logging - which have caused numerous conflicts with Q'eqchí, Poqomchí, and Achí communities who have been demanding respect for their rights to access land and to manage the natural resources of the territories they inhabit according to their worldviews.
The defender of the territory and Q'eqchi leader, María Josefina Caal Xol, has reported how, in the municipality of Santa María Cahabón, the hydroelectric dams built on the Oxec and Cahabón rivers released water during the storms, further impacting the communities. Her brother, Bernardo Caal Xol, leader of the Peaceful Resistance of Cahabón, has been imprisoned for more than a thousand days for denouncing the impacts that the OXEC hydroelectric complex has had on the rights of the Q'eqchi communities. He has been declared a political prisoner by Amnesty International.
A little more than 100 kilometers from Santa María Cahabón, Justino Ilom, leader of the community La Primavera, in the municipality of San Cristóbal Verapaz, lost his home and his crops to the impact of the storms. With UVOC's legal support, the Poqomchí families of La Primavera obtained their land titles in 2015 through an agreement with the lumber company Filitz Díaz. Part of this land is now buried under the landslide that completely buried the neighboring village of Quejá, leaving more than 50 people dead, with the community of 300 families becoming a cemetery. For years the families of La Primavera have been denouncing illegal logging in the area. Because of these reports, Justino Ilom has been suffering a process of criminalization and judicialization since 2018, which has continued in the court of Cobán.
These are two examples of communities affected by the impacts of the recent tropical storms, demonstrating how by defending their territory and protesting against the economic model that is at the root of these so-called natural disasters in Guatemala, they become victims of attacks and persecutions. It is because of these attacks that Peace Brigades International have provided accompaniment to these communities for years. In fact, the international organization Global Witness, in its 2019 report, places Guatemala among the sixth most dangerous countries in the world to defend the land and the environment. According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Unit (UDEFEGUA), 14 human rights defenders have been killed so far this year, most of them for defending nature.
The absence of the state and self-organization of indigenous communities in the face of disasters
Faced with this situation, the response of the Guatemalan state has been slow in coming. The communities have reported that the tropical phenomena caught them unprepared because, although the National Institute for Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology (INSIVUMEH) had warned the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (CONRED), the latter did not communicate this warning across the territories.
In addition, the CCDA-Las Verapaces and the UVOC have reported that the government has not provided quick responses to communities who are at risk and without food. Rather, solidarity has been shown from families who have not been affected by the tropical phenomena, and the communities from other departments across the country. Furthermore, it is the campesino and indigenous organizations who have mobilized to support the people affected. More than a month on from the storms and the communities are still facing a lack of food, clothing, medicine, clean water and agricultural tools to continue recovering what little has survived of their crops. "In Guatemala only the people save the people... it is not by chance that the government does not reach the communities, it is a way of punishing us for our struggle in defense of the land and natural resources," concludes Lesbia Artola. "The government only reaches the communities to repress and criminalize.” According to UDEFEGUA 287 cases of criminalization of human rights defenders were registered in the first nine months of 2020 alone.
The organizations also warn about the approaching food crisis. The flooding of agricultural land caused the loss of the harvest and the destruction of the land for the coming season. Campesino farmers are already warning of shortages in basic grains, as it will take years to recover the fertility of the land that was covered by the mud. In addition, the increase in food prices due to speculation has further aggravated the already significant economic losses suffered by families due to the quarantine measures imposed in response to COVID 19. Many families have been forced into debt due to lack of income, because during the first months of the pandemic they were unable to sell their surplus agricultural production on local markets. In the context of Alta Verapaz, where 83% of the population lives in poverty and 56% in extreme poverty, this situation could lead to an extremely serious humanitarian crisis.
Peasant and indigenous communities and organizations are planning to continue responding to this situation: "we are making plans to support communities in recovering food production through the implementation of family gardens that use organic fertilizers and native seeds, as well as mixing and crop diversification to strengthen food sovereignty," says Sandra Calel, Poqomchí leader and deputy-coordinator of UVOC.
"We are seeds and we will continue to sprout" is the message from the communities. Despite the painful situation, the future means continued efforts to strengthen the struggle for the defense of the territory against a state that has historically turned its back on communities and indigenous peoples. For years, the indigenous peoples and organized civil society have been denouncing how successive governments have shown a clear lack of political will to improve their living conditions and to seek solutions to the country's principal conflicts. Examples of this lack of will, which has been decried by organizations and diverse social movements, are the recent closures of institutions created following the signing of the Peace Accords to confront the structural causes of the internal armed conflict, and which remain unresolved: the Presidential Commission on Human Rights (COPREDEH), the Secretariat for Peace (SEPAZ), the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM), the National Program for Reparations (PNR) and the Secretariat for Agrarian Affairs (SAA).
The indigenous peoples’ struggles in defense of the territory and natural resources is the same struggle to prevent the tropical phenomena, such as Eta and Iota, from becoming disastrous. It is the struggle to counteract the effects of the climate crisis; in short, it is the struggle for life. And in the face of the situation described, as Sandra Calel points out, there is no choice but to "continue weaving networks of solidarity to defend Mother Nature and the planet, because it is the ship we live on, and if we continue to destroy it, not only will the Q'eqchí people, the Poqomchí people or the indigenous populations of the world suffer, we will all suffer.”