A New Era for Guatemala’s Indigenous Peoples?

Indigenous representatives gathered from across the country on August 9 in a local school in the municipality of Totonicapán demanding that the state honor their rights to self determination. This event, convened by the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán, was one of 25 acts of protest nationwide, including road blockades at strategic points throughout the country marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous representatives gathered from across the country on August 9 in a local school in the municipality of Totonicapán demanding that the state honor their rights to self determination. This event, convened by the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán, was one of 25 acts of protest nationwide, including road blockades at strategic points throughout the country marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous peoples’ right to participate in decision-making regarding projects that will impact them, such as the ongoing encroachment of large-scale extraction projects on their territories, is enshrined in several international agreements to which Guatemala is bound to. Demanding the right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) on mega-projects on or near their communities, local people have organized community referendums throughout the country. To date, approximately 74 community referendums have been convened by Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, turning them into a defining feature of resistance to mega-projects. These community referendums have articulated an overwhelming rejection of of so-called development projects, such as new mines and hydroelectric dams, the majority of them being situated or proposed on Indigenous lands.

The state’s and multinational corporations’ consistent violation of Indigenous people’s legal right to FPIC is at the heart of conflict tainting many of these projects. Appeals to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court have consistently ruled community referendums to be non-binding. James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in a 2011 report, pointed to the lack of a “legal and institutional framework to carry out the state’s duty to consult indigenous peoples” as an underlying problem. His calls for internal regulation of the consultation process echoed the long-standing calls of several national and international organizations. A 2011 proposal by President Alvaro Colom to regulate the International Labour Organization Convention 169 consultation process was vehemently rejected by Indigenous organizations citing a lack of adequate Indigenous input into the process, as well as the proposal’s failure to encompass the true spirit of ILO 169. An amparo [injunction] in the Constitutional Court put forward by the Western Peoples Council (CPO) was ultimately successful in halting the proposal.

Contemporary conflict between Indigenous Peoples and the Guatemalan state takes place in the shadow of the country’s bloody 36-year civil war. Reaching its height of violence in the 1980s with the dictatorships of Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, the conflict ultimately claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, an estimated 83 percent of whom were of Maya descent and non-combatants. This targeting was part of the government’s racist and genocidal counter-insurgency strategy. The conflict formally ended in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords. However, in the immediate postwar period, the Guatemalan government enacted several neoliberal policies aimed at making the country attractive to foreign investors. The neoliberal era, characterized by the proliferation of transnational and national state-backed resource extraction projects in many ways harkens back to the internal armed conflict. The parallels are evident in an examination of two emblematic cases.

Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango – home to the Maya Q’anjob’al people – remains the site of ongoing conflict over the installation of a hydroelectric project owned by Hidro Santa Cruz, subsidiary of Spanish company Hidralia Energia. Construction for the project began in 2009, despite a community referendum rejecting the project. Company security forces are alleged to be behind an attack which resulted in the serious injury of two and death of one.

Earlier this year, in the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores, Santa Rosa, US-Canadian company Tahoe Resources was granted licenses for mining, despite heavy opposition locally, evidenced by several community referenda voting to reject the project. Peaceful protest and organizing efforts were met with violence, including the kidnapping of four Indigenous Xinca men returning from the observation of a community referendum, leaving one dead.

The state response? In both cases, President Perez Molina declared martial law, entailing limits to civil liberties, such as the right to assembly, the deployment of state security forces, and arrests against those opposing the projects. In the postwar era, martial law has been deployed by the Guatemalan government to quell public protest at the behest of corporate interests. The deployment of martial law as a tool of repression has its roots in the internal armed conflict, when the legislation governing “states of emergency” first came into effect.

The incursion of the state’s security forces in these cases highlights another troubling trend in the country: militarization. Given the prominent role of the military in the internal armed conflict, the state made a commitment to the demilitarization of its society in the Peace Accords, although this has never been fully implemented. The scapegoating of legitimate protest through accusations of terrorism and narcotrafficking have fomented fear, serve as new alibis to justify militarization and violent oppression.

As these cases highlight, activists in Guatemala face ongoing criminalization, apparent in the levelling of legal processes in relation to legitimate social protest. UDEFEGUA (Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit) reports that from 2004 to 2008, there were 567 legal proceedings against human rights defenders in Guatemala, with 60 percent of them being dropped by 2008. In relation to Tahoe’s Escobal project alone, a total of approximately 67 people have been processed, the majority arrested during peaceful protest. Alternately, there is an ongoing failure to prosecute attacks and threats against human rights defenders.

Meanwhile, foreign direct investment in the mining sector and a steady supply of cheap electricity are crucial components of the state’s neoliberal development strategy, resulting in a state intent on defending these projects at all costs. To date, the state has granted 369 licenses for mineral prospecting, exploration and exploitation, with 601 mining licenses pending. President Perez Molina’s recent proposal to Congress for a two year moratorium on the granting of new licences for metallic mining has been characterized by Indigenous organizations as a political ploy to subdue mining opposition. Importantly, this proposal would not have an effect on mining licences that have already been granted. The state plans to almost double the nation’s energy capacity, with an emphasis on hydroelectric energy. This target is aimed at meeting the energy needs of large-scale industries such as the mining sector, while also turning the country into a leader in the export of electricity to the rest of the region. Already, there are 20 hydroelectric dams in operation, as well as 3 in construction, and many more have been approved.

Despite the rhetoric of “development,” history brings to light the unmet promises associated with such schemes. At the height of the internal armed conflict, paramilitaries and soldiers massacred over 400 people in Rio Negro, Rabinal to pave the way for the Chixoy dam which forcibly displaced over 3,500 people. The Chixoy dam constitutes the country’s largest hydroelectric project to date. In addition, the Marlin mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacan and Sipacapa, San Marcos, the first mining project to go into operation in the postwar neoliberal era, has proven to be another source of environmental degradation, health concerns, social disintegration and increased violence. As these examples emphasize, communities have legitimate fears regarding mega projects.

While community will has rarely been respected, there is reason for optimism. Civil society opposition to the Escobal project paid off with the recently announced suspension of Tahoe’s mining license, indicating that legal challenges to such projects can yield positive results. In Santa Cruz Barillas, however, resistance continues. Since April 7, those intent on stopping the hydroelectric dam have been blocking the path to the project site in a peaceful encampment.

The movement in defense of territory and earth appears to be gathering strength despite ongoing repression. Throughout the country, Indigenous women are seen on the frontlines of resistance to mega projects; for example, engaging in nonviolent direct actions and, at times, as prominent spokespeople for their communities. Their participation, a defining feature of the movement, has proven them to be important political actors, challenging historically entrenched sexism and racism. The movement has also been characterized by pan-Indigenous solidarity, as well as solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, challenging the divide-and-conquer tactics of elites which have so often impeded alliance-building. As is to be expected, however, there are ongoing challenges to the movement, from internal as well as external forces.

The Oxlajuj B’ak’tun, which marked the end the Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new cycle, was celebrated on December 21, 2012. For the Maya, the start of this new cycle is seen as an opportunity for renewal and progressive change. Despite an apparent return to the past – suggested by the deployment of mechanisms of state repression dating back to the internal armed conflict – important changes are occurring. Features of the movement in defense of territory and earth – solidarity across ethnic and racial divisions, as well as women’s active participation – address challenges which have long impeded the country’s Leftist social movements, suggesting that we are indeed in the midst of a new era.