Fighting to Stay on Their Land: The Maya Q’Eqchi of Guatemala
One Mayan community in Guatemala is fighting for its right to stay on its own land, and they are looking for support from other Indigenous Peoples also.
The Mayan Q’eqchi’ indigenous community of Agua Caliente filed a petition on August 19 against the government of Guatemala in order to seek protection of their land and human rights, in response to the latest conflicts involving the Guatemala Nickel Company (CGN) and the federal governments responses to a variety of legal decisions. The Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) of Washington, D.C. is representing the community in the international court as it has for several years.
Agua Caliente, a Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous community of 385 people living in El Estor, in the country’s Izabal province, filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concerning the violation of their rights to property, self-government, due process of law and judicial protection by the state of Guatemala.
Community residents and others allege that the company has continued to try to force Maya Q’ecqchi’ citizens to leave their lands and the petition seeks redress for those violations. The Commission is an independent organ of the Organization of American States, created by countries to promote and protect human rights in the Americas.
The complaint centers on a 40-year dispute over the community’s traditional ownership rights to land rich with nickel deposits. The Guatemala government gave CGN, a former subsidiary of HudBay Minerals from Canada, rights to extract nickel from lands held by sixteen Maya Q’eqchi’ communities, including Agua Caliente. The permission was granted without regard for the ownership and self-government rights of the communities. Additionally, Guatemala failed to properly notify and consult with community members. In February 2011, Guatemala’s highest court ruled in favor of Agua Caliente, recognizing their collective property rights and questioning the legality of the mining permits and activities on their traditional lands.
In the February ruling the Court ordered Guatemala’s executive branch to take all corrective actions necessary to properly title Agua Caliente’s lands. This includes replacing pages that were removed from the official land registry book, pages that show land ownership belongs to the Agua Caliente community, but which have gone missing according to the ILRC. The Court also stated that the executive branch’s failure to properly register and title indigenous lands violates Agua Caliente’s land rights and rights to equality before the law, as well as the legal principle of self-determination.
This recent legal action comes after the community has suffered from numerous threats, violent assaults and forced displacements according to Rodrigo Tot, President of the Agua Caliente pro-development committee, which is also responsible for management of land, natural resources, and protection of human rights. Tot also represents the community in dealings with local, regional and federal government officials.
"It is the threat of being displaced from our lands that we seek this petition," Tot explained in a recent interview. "Because we have the most nickel deposits in our territory, and the mining company has used various tactics to divide our community also."
"We used to be 64 families in our community," Tot continued, "but because of company threats—at least two families left for fear of being attacked—we are now approximately 370 people, men, women and children."
"One of their recent tactics is they use helicopters to fly very low over the community to scare people," he asserted. "Many women and children were frightened by this."
Tot noted that the mining company is operating right beside a lake, and that "...we along with some environmental groups are worried that Lake Izabal will become very polluted."
"I also ask for support, for indigenous leaders to stand with us, and I encourage them to talk to the U.S. leaders to find out about the indigenous people of Guatemala," Tot said. "My community and I are motivated by the help of the ILRC, to help keep us going and not give up."
"I invite journalists to come to Agua Caliente, to see for themselves the reality that lies in our community," he said.
According to ILRC Attorney Leonardo Crippa, the legal proceedings involved in the case could take up to two to three years.