Guatemala part 1- facing a climate crisis on stolen land
Solidarity Engineering completed two hurricane response trips in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala in November 2020 and March 2021. These trips were the source of this episode.
Andrea Ixchíu Hernández
Andrea is a Maya K’iche’ woman, journalist, filmmaker, land protector and a self-professed geek. She has been an indigenous authority in Totonicapán, Guatemala. Is a Nobel Women's Fellow /2014, Sakharov Fellow /2016, Bertha Fellow /2020. She works developing communication strategies, narratives and technologies for the defense of life and territory with indigenous communities in the Latin American region.
Engracia Reyna Caba Solano
We met Engracia Reyna Caba Solano, or Reyna, at a rally on World Water Day in Chisec, Guatemala in March 2021. She was on stage with a microphone demanding, in both Spanish and Ixil, the deprivitization of water via the redistribution of land rights. As a Mayan-Ixil woman, she believes water is sacred and therefore must be protected and conserved. When asked why she spoke at the protests, she replied it was "a result of the armed conflict. We are survivors of that conflict that left many consequences in our lives, my family and I were forced to take refuge in the mountains to save ourselves. And here we are. I continue to demand respect, no more violations of human and collective rights."
Facebook: Comunidad indígena Qeqchi sesaquiquib
Juan is a community leader and secretary of the Q’eqchi’ Indigenous Committee of Sesaquiquib (Comunidad indígena Qeqchi Sesaquiquib). In the early 2000s, just a few years after the Guatemalan Civil War and genocide ended, his community had their land declared national territory by the former president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo. Since then, he has fought for the community to get legal rights to their ancestral land returned and has led numerous community projects including the recent construction of a school.
Marcela Reyes is a menstrual health advocate from Guatemala City. She is also a feminist and human rights activist. Currently, she is a university student in Guatemala finishing her Literature and Philosophy graduation project about The Power of Speech in the State-Nation project.
Women of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
Speaker at World Water Day protests: [in english and spanish] If to us, water has life that implies that water has rights. So we have the obligation to defend the rights of water.
Chloe Rastatter: Hi and welcome to Dignity Displaced a podcast by Solidarity engineering. We you’re hosts. I’m Chloe Rastatter.
Christa Cook: and I’m Christa Cook.
Chloe Rastatter: We are field engineers and founders at Solidarity Engineering a small grassroots humanitarian organization. We’re urrently working on the US/Mexico border in refugee camps on the Mexican side but we also work in disaster response.
Christa Cook: As you heard on the last episode, the lack of access to clean water often is a driving force for migration. So after the hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Guatemala in Novemeber 2020, we went to distribute water filters to indigenous communities most affected by the hurricanes. While we were there we met a lot of amazing people who are advancing their communities. So today we’ll hear their stories.
Chloe Rastatter: Weve been working at the US/Mexico border for over a year and have seen a lot Guatemalans and got interested in as to why. So we made this podcast
Christa Cook: This episode includes 4 interviews with Guatemalan indigenous leaders, youth protesters, and water rights activists. Together, these interviews will give you an idea of how the historic power imbalances, foreign investment, and the ongoing fight for human rights in Guatemala effects migration toward the US/Mexico border.
Chloe Rastatter: Guatemala was colonized in 1524 by Spanish colonizer Pedro de Alvarado which lead to the region being held under Spanish and then Mexican rule until 1839 when the country gained its independence. Over the next century, Guatemala began developing a government focused on social-democratic reforms such as social security and land redistributions to the people of Guatemala.
However, in 1954 land reform was stopped when a US backed-coup intervened to oust the sitting president, Jacobo Arbenz, after he initiated the transferring of Guatemalan land rights from the United Fruit Company to the Guatemalan people. At the time, the United Fruit Company was a large and wealthy company out of the United States that owned 42% of the land in Guatemala but paid no taxes or had no import duties. Leading up to the coup, Arbenz proposed Decree 900, which would have transferred undeveloped land that was owned by held by lard property owners the landless Guatemalan farmers which consistuited approximately 90% of the population at the time.
Four years later in 1960, a 36 year long civil war started in which largely indigenous group fought the Guatemalan government. This civil war ultimately resulted in over 200,000 casualties with 83% of those killed being indigenous persons who were murdered throughout 626 separate massacres in Mayan villages. In 2013, 17 years after the ending of the war, the former head of state of Guatemala was charged with genocide for his crimes during the war.
According to the UN, since the ending of the warmed conflict and genocide in the 1996 criminal groups have been corrupting the government by “infiltrating state institutions, fostering impunity and undermining democratic gains in Guatemala” and now today, nearly 50% of total population live underneath the poverty line.
The power-imbalance between the indigenous communities in Guatemala, which make up 44% of the general population, and the government is still perpetuated as Guatemala to this day still lacks a clear system to address indigenous communities right to ancestorial land.
Further exacerbating problems in Guatemala, two Category 4 hurricanes Eta and Iota, made landfall back to back in the fall of 2020 leading to the displacement of over 56,000 people . This summer, in July 2021, the firing of an anti-corruption official in the government, Juan Fransisco Sandaval, reignited nationwide protests calling for the immediate resignation of the president of Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei.
The long history of exploitation in Guatemala compounded with climate change and the pandemic has resulted in over 218 thousand Guatemalans approaching the US/Mexico border in search of asylum between July 2020 and July 2021- almost all of whom have been turned away into Mexico due to COVID border closures under Title 42.
Chloe Rastatter: This episode walks us through a timeline to tie together how colanism still affects today and focuses on the fight for their land by the Indigenous people in Guatemala as well has an update from the ground in Guatemala about why exactly people are protesting and what could be next for the country.
We were joined by Andrea Ixchíu Herandez who is a Maya K’iche woman, journalist, film makers, and self-professed geek. She is an indigenous authority in Totonicapán, Guatemala and had been a Nobel Women fellow, a Sakharov Fellow, and a Bertha fellow. She works in developing communication strategies, narratives and technologies for the defense of the life and territory with indigenous communities in the Latin American region.
Andrea Ixchíu Herandez: Well, I will say that the violence against indigenous territories are really long, but specifically the colonial violence that comes from 1870s until today has been this long story of the disposition of the land. Uh, and the creation of this private property in indigenous communal lands and forests, as the data that had affected really hard Q'eqchi' communities in the north side of Guatemala. So, the effect also of the war against the indigenous and, especially the Q'eqchi' region, was because the Guatemalan army operated the interests of private landowners and the private corporations that wanted to dispossess land from indigenous communities so they can plant Monaco thieves. They can do mining. And they can have their extractive processes in ancestral lands, ancestral forests, ancestral spaces, especially in all the region that we know now as Alta Verapaz, as Izabal, as Baja Verapaz, which is mostly Q'eqchi' region that is habitated by the Q'eqchi' communities and that also goes into Belize. So, during the war, during the genocide in Guatemala, there were several horrible massacres perpetrated against Q'eqchi' communities. One that we remember is the is the Masacre de Panzós. It was a massacre that was perpetrated by the Guatemalan Army against Q'eqchi' community that was mobilizing in the central square of the municipality of Panzós, demanding their land back. Asking to the Guatemalan Government to respect the community ownership of the land. The ownership of Maya Q'eqchi' communities that has on the other ways of relation with the land and the forests. So since then the war, the disposition of the land, went worse and a lot of community property went into private investor. Some of them, they are still operating in the Q'eqchi' region as monoculture of industry that are planting palm oil that are planting fruits. Exotic fruits that then are exported to the US to Canada and to Europe. The communities in the Q'eqchi' region faced the extractivist process of a big nickel company that has destroyed the land, the forest, and this ancient and sacred lake of Izabal since 100 years ago. The construction of this nickel mined has caused death, water pollution, division of the communities, a lot of killings, sexual violence against the women from the communities that are around the mine. And all this has been documented and even one of the violations against indigenous women in the communities of El Estor Izabal is into a court and went into a trial in Canada. So all this violence has been registrated and being demonstrated by the communities. The problem is that these extractive model doesn't stop. Recently, in the past 20-10 years, the region of Alta and Baja Verapaz has been affected by the construction of mega projects of hydroelectrical plants that are huge hydroelectrical projects that are extracting the water from important rivers that feeds lots of communities and put it into an electrical service system that is not given electricity even to the Q'eqchi' communities; that is just feeding and giving this electricity to private companies as Walmart for example, or the big companies as the Brewer company in Guatemala which is also a monopoly. So, the cement mines, the nickel mines, the supermarkets are the ones that are consuming the electricity that this produce, uh, on behalf, the destruction of the Maya Q'eqchi' communities of Alta/Baja Verapaz and Izabal. So, what we are seeing is that this extractive model is selling us the idea that the producing electricity in these hydroelectrical dams is green energy is fake. It's completely false, because there cannot be clean energy if he's at the cost of the blood of the indigenous communities. So, what we are saying and then what we are seeing is that this model of this position, this model of violence and extractivism that affects the indigenous communities, is the same old model that install in our communities 500 years ago and hasn't changed. Just renewed the way that it operates. So that's why it's really important to listen to the voices of the Q'eqchi' people that is organizing in Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Izabal, and that are fighting to defend their lands. They are fighting to defend the water and they are fighting to defend the life itself. We are facing right now terrible consequences of this model of this position that it's creating a terrible climate crisis. And the worst thing is that the climate crisis is affecting the most vulnerable communities, which are indigenous, but also the less responsible of the emission of all the gases that are contaminating our atmosphere and that are creating the global warming. So that's why it's really important to share the responsibility, not only with the indigenous communities that are already facing the effects and fighting the effects of climate change, but also account responsible for the governments and the private big companies that are creating this pollution in Guatemala and in other parts of the world, so that's a bit of what I can share.
Chloe Rastatter: I know you spoke to this at least a little bit in that answer but on a smaller scale today, how are the big palm oil industries and these industries that are coming into your land affecting the livelihood of the Q'eqchi' people of the indigenous communities in the area today?
Andea Ixchíu Herandez: So, the palm oil industries are really evil thing. The palm oil, the mono cultivates, are destroying the forests that regulates the rains. They are accelerating the climate change, all the agro-toxics that are used for the production of the palm oil plantation are one of the main responsibles for the extermination of different species of insects and plants. And today we know that all the areas that are used for the palm oil industry, killed the Earth. You cannot reuse the Earth after of 20 years of harvesting palm oil. That means killing the earth, destroying the earth, so that this way of production degradates the ecosystem is responsible for the increasement of all the gases that are creating the global warming. And the contamination or the pollution that is caused by this monocultive industry, it is not only happening during the seeding of these monocultives, it's also during the transport and the distribution of all the derivative products that comes from the palm industry. So, this increasing of the seeding of Palma of Palm in Guatemala started in the 2000s, and the main motive was the high demand of junk food and the consumption of agro-gases, like for example biodiesel. So the palm oil, uh, is cheaper and a lot of companies are using this to substitute a kernel, olive and and other types of oils that are less polluting. And today we know that one of every two products that are sellling in all supermarkets contain palm oil. And we can palm oil in soaps, freeze food, candy, a lot of the oil that we use for cooking, ice cream, instant soups. So, all this way of consumption is also creating this and it's also polluting the Earth and it's also feeding a machinery of [inaudible] of Maya Q'eqchi' communities. So, this is really important because there is a whole relationship in the way that we consume and the way that the palm oil producing process is causing pollution, it's causing direct effects on climate change, and it's also affecting and especially affecting the lives of indigenous communities in Guatemala, and in this case especially, they are damaging the lives of Maya Q'eqchi'.
Chloe Rastatter: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between indigenous communities and land with the government specifically when these big hurricanes came through and flooded out lot of this region. People don't want to leave 'cause they're going to lose their land; can you speak to the history of that a little bit?
Andrea Ixchíu Herandez: Yeah, the Maya Q'eqchi' communities have faced a lot of displacements from their lands. They have faced it 500 years ago and recently with the war. A lot of communities were massacred, other communities were displaced. So, a lot of people is afraid to lose the land because the land is what sustains us. You know our food comes from the land we live in the land. You know, that's where we build our communities, we build their houses where we received the water. So there is a deep connection in between the Maya Q'eqchi' communities and the land and the Maya Q'eqchi' in their Mayan language they call themselves R'al Ch'och, which in a way of translating it means ‘sons and daughters of the Earth’. So they they understand their relationship as part of the Earth. They not see the land as their property. The Mayan communities, we see ourselves as parts of nature. We do not live without it, so that's why there is a branch that deep branch between us and the land and there's a long relationship. And also, because it gave us our sustained, you know, the food, the forest, the water, that [inaudible] our life. And a lot of Q'eqchi' communities has been forced to live in slavery conditions until today, working in private land ownerships that we call finkas where they harvest the palm oil, they harvest the, you know, the banana. This used to be land also owned by United Fruit Company, which was a monopoly that in Guatemala created a lot of violence for hundreds of years. So, we have seen how this has been affecting the communities. During the recent hurricanes Eta and Iota, the effects of climate change were shown how these communities were affected. How all the pollution and the degradation of the ecosystems that have been caused by the mining companies, but the palm oil plantation, by the hydroelectrical dams, is producing and giving more vulnerability to the Maya Q'eqchi' communities. All these communities were completely flooded. A lot of them lost their harvests, especially for the corn and for the food that sustains the family. A lot of families lost their chicken, their pigs, all the animals that are important for the sustainability of their lives. And the response of Guatemalan state was zero. A lot of families were left behind, not attended the in the emergency was only the solidarity between communities outside and in Guatemala. The ones that gave answer to the urgent needs to the people. So, what we are seeing in Guatemala is that we have a corrupted state that only takes care for the foreign investors interests and do not take care of Guatemalan people. And what we also learn from this moment, that it's also in the midst of a pandemic the COVID-19 pandemic, is that only when we organize and we self suggest the alternatives so we can sustain the life, the things that things are going to happen, things are going to change. So it's really important to see how in these moments of emergency it has been the solidarity in between communities that has helped and support the Maya Q'eqchi' most affected families and communities that were devastated by the path of the Hurricanes Eta and Iota.
Chloe Rastatter: The Q'eqchi' community has experienced a lot of displacement within Guatemala. How are the effects of climate change, the effects of the privatization of water, land rights. How is it affecting migration out? Not only of the region, the indigenous region, but out of Guatemala entirely?
Andrea Ixchíu Herandez: Mostly, uh, when you see now numbers of illegal migrants trying to get into the US, you will see that the numbers from Q'eqchi' people is increasing and it's increasing wildly because there is a long history of violence and repression. There is a whole history of impoverishment of these communities. But recently, with all the arrival of these extractive companies and the increasing of the monoculture plantation, a lot of families doesn't have other alternatives than leaving there all land their own community and fled into the United States to cross this dangerous road through Mexico and then into the US borders, risking their lives. There had been really dramatic stories of a father and a daughter, both Q'eqchi', that were killed in the US border, by the US controlled border. There has been other stories of kids that has been put into cages because they were they are trying to get into the United States. And they are they are climate refugees. They are. They are people that is displaced by all the effects of climate change. They are displaced by the effects of the pollution created by the big companies and transnationals, so that's why it's really important to say that is a responsibility of Guatemala State, is a responsibility of transnational companies, and it's a responsibility of U.S. government that has supported and gave money to private investors in Guatemala. Government to do nothing for their people, but only to protect the corporate interests. So it's really important to say that the most affected that is, the indigenous communities are the ones that have to migrate, and they're doing it because that's the only way to survive, not because they want to leave their community and their homeland.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, I mean I work at the I work at the US Mexico border, and I personally know a Q'eqchi' man who was murdered last year by some cartel violence, it's absolutely heartbreaking and you know, my heart goes out to your community and we're trying to, you know, get your guyses voice out there to an American audience, because these are really important issues and people should know this is happening. I mean, Americans have no idea what their consumption is doing to the rest of the world. So, how can people support your work and support the movement in general?
Andrea Ixchíu Herandez: I think something really important to say is that the work that the indigenous communities are doing to take back their stolen lands, the resistance of Q'eqchi' communities that have taken care of the land and the territory, and the water are already living alternatives for the climate crisis, so who habitats other territories can be part of the defense of the future and the land. Every time that a person stop consuming all the products that are derivated from the mono-cultive industry and the agro-industry, you stop financing a machinery of [inaudible] that is destroying the diversity, biological and cultural, of the earth. So, in these times of climate crisis, it's really important to put closer or food to the land and to the people that work the land. It's really important to listen to the voices and learn from the practices of the people that are that is already defending the life and curing the land, by having their indigenous ancestral systems of existence. So it's really important to stop paying with your own money the destruction of the planet, and that's part of the consciousness that is really important that we are aware from.
Chloe Rastatter: In your perspective, I know you spoke to it, a little bit just then, but what do you see as steps towards solutions? Or what is the solution that you see to this crisis that has been happening not only for centuries, but is being exacerbated today with climate change and everything else?
Andrea Ixchíu Herandez: Well, it's really important to say that the alternatives are already here. The solutions are already here. They're part of Earth and you seeing it in the people that is fighting the Dakota Access pipeline. You know the alternatives to the climate crisis is defending the life. The alternatives to climate crisis is supporting the resistance of people that it's taking care of ancestral seeds. The answers are already here, and the problem is that this extractive model is exterminating these alternatives that are already here and lives in ancient wisdom of indigenous communities all over the world. Indigenous communities are only the 6% of the planet population, but inner lands and territories we preserve the 80% of the remnant biodiversity of the Earth. So that means that in our ways of existing, it's a way of being in the Earth without destroying it. So that's from where we need to keep learning so we can have a better world and better futures.
Chloe Rastatter: Thank you so much Andrea for making time for us.
Andrea Ixchíu Herandez: Thank you Chloe and thank you for the solidarity that you're bringing to Q'eqchi' families in Guatemala. It’s the solidarity between people, the ones that make change and difference. So that's why it's really important what you're doing, and I'm thankful for it.
Riena Caba Solano: My name is Reina and I am here [in Chisec] because we came to participate in World Water Day. I was raised in the country, and we lived close to a river. I would carry water in buckets every day, because it was costly to have water in the house. I suffered f rom the conflict [the Guatemalan civil war] as a child, we had to abandon our house, our town, I had to leave behind my studies, and we fled to the mountains. There I had to learn Spanish, because I only spoke my language. Then I grew up, and still couldn’t return to my town because something could happen. So, I think when we participate in protests, we can create change, since we have lived through the injustice.
Who suffers the most from water problems? Its women because we cannot work in the house without water. We can’t do any cleaning or anything, water is a part of our lives. And, for us, the indigenous peoples, water is sacred. That is what we’re fighting for, clean water. Today [the protest] is a call to attention for us, that we are not going to continue contaminating the water, because what kind of future are we leaving for our children? So maybe we must have patience for some part of us [civil society] to change, but who is polluting the most, using the most water and that are leaving us without water? The large companies. And the responsibility especially falls on the government, because they don’t have any way to regulate the distribution of water. There is still no right [law] for communities to access water. Some have access to and hoard tons of water, while other don’t have any access at all. That is the poor distribution, the disorder of the government, because they should be regulating the water. And it has to be done with justice. And that is why we are here today, because right now there is injustice. The problem has gotten worse with the arrival of the palm industry, not only because they use so much water, but because the chemicals needed for this industry also pollute the water. They throw the chemicals in the water wherever they want. And like I said the government has no plan to regulate. So, these are the big problems we are living right now with the palm oil companies and the dams. And apart from that, the politicians of the government don’t help to regulate…. I believe that the change we need is to sound like one people, that we understand that the fault is theirs's, the large companies, the government. And that we are not going to be able to trust in them.
Let's remember we aren't just fighting for the water; we are fighting for everything that lives in the water. The river holds a lot of life. This river is like us, it feels pain. So one has to think about how we can keep the river alive. If we just stand around and do nothing, what is going to change? Nothing. We are not losing time, we fight and resist. We aren't people who don’t think. They think indigenous people are ignorant and lazy because we are uneducated. But that is not true, we are smarter than them because they don’t understand the problems they are bringing to humanity. Because it's not just the indigenous people who are going to feel the effects of the lack of clean water, its all of humanity. And they have been able to do these things because we have been quiet.
The production of palm unfortunately also came to Ixcán. And they said if anyone wanted to sell their parcel of land, they would buy it for a good price. But us women led a campaign against people selling their land because we had heard of what happened to people in Petén and Alta Verapaz when they sold their land. So, we went around all the communities warning the people what could happen if they sold their land, some listened to us and some didn’t. In the end, the company offered the people little money for their land, so they did not succeed in buying more land. They changed plans, instead of buying land they would give credits to people to plant palm on their land and rent out their land. This is how the palm oil industry entered the area. But when people took out credit, that’s where they lost. People took out credit to plant the palm, but they were not able to maintain the palms without special chemicals that you can only get in the capitol. So basically, only companies or people with access to cars could afford the chemicals, so individual did not succeed. Their debt just rose and rose and rose so that they had to sell their land to pay it off. So, you can see the injustice. The palm oil industry was able to kick people off their land by drowning them with debt. And many people are scared to talk about it because this industry has the support of the government, the police, the judges, the mayors, they have support from everyone. So that is why we hold these protests, to inform people.
Chirsta Cook: Alta Verapaz is mountainous region in central Guatemala, with most inhabitants identifying as indigenous Mayans. The area is mostly Q'eqch’I speaking, although other indigenous languages and Spanish are widely spoken as well.
Alta Verapaz suffered a disproportionate amount of deaths during the Guatemalan civil war at the hands of the Guatemalan military. One of the most brutal massacres of indigenous peoples in Guatemalan history, the Massacre at Panzos which was mentioned by Andrea, occurred there during the civil war.
In addition to the massacres, many indigenous people in Alta Verapaz were displaced from their homes during the 36 year war and were subsquently denied access to their ancestral lands upon their return as the government had quietly sold their land to private industries, namely the United Fruit Company and the palm oil industry. The government was able to do this because, as is common across the world, many indigenous people did not hold official land titles prior to the civil war. While the genocide officially ended in the 90s, the psychological effects of the trauma placed on these communities, and a general distrust of the government, is still felt today.
This past fall in November of 2020, the region of Alta Verapaz was hit with two back-to-back hurricanes, Eta and Iota. Solidarity Engineering went to the region in December 2020 for an assessment trip with medical NGO Global Response Management. Solidarity Engineering returned to Alta Verapaz in March and April 2021 in order to promote household access to clean drinking water in three indigenous Q’quiche communities: Sesajal, Sesaquiquib and Secacao. Some of these communities were only accessible by foot as they either never had a road, or the road was unpassable due to the hurricane aftermath. None of these communities have a water distribution system, relying mostly on rainwater for their principal water source. For food, they depend on subsistence farming with a focus on corn, and 2 of the 3 communities do not have access to electricity. In partnership with the leadership team in each community, we distributed 188 household LifeStraw water filters, which included providing training at each individual household in their native language in their own homes, 2 community size LifeStraw's, performed water quality testing, held hygiene promotion classes at the local schools, hosted a reusable pad workshop with a group of 30 women, and provided basic medications and menstrual pads to the local clinic and took drone imagery to document the extent of the hurricanes impact. Acknowledging that water filters are a temporary response to the ongoing problem of hurricanes, the underlying water source issues still need to be addressed so that these communities can be more resilient in the face of imminent climate change intensified disasters. We have also connected the community leaders of Sesaquiquib with Engineers Without Borders with the hopes that they can create more sustainable long term water solutions.
Today we will be hearing from Juan Gilberto, a leader with Q’eqchi’ Indigenous Committee of Sesaquiquib (Comunidad Indígena Q’eqchi’ Sesaquiquib). In the early 2000s, just a few years after the civil war and genocide ended, his community had their land declared national territory by the former president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo. Since then, he has fought for the community to get legal rights to their land returned and lead numerous community projects including the recent construction of a school. We met him through a local nurse Dulce who we worked with in Sesajal, then he helped us coordinate and distribute household water filters in Sesaquiquib. Most importantly, he ensured that each individual family understood how to properly use and maintain their filters by going door to door with us to train families in their homes and in their native language. Juan also introduced us to other cocodes, or community leaders, to help us distribute humanitarian aid to more remote communities.
Conch shell plays
Juan Gilberto: I’m Juan Gilberto from Sesaquiquib, San Pedro Carcha. I’m an authority figure here. We are in charge of all the communities around here, analyzing and addressing all our basic needs. I’m the secretary of the indigneous community (Q'eqch’i). As a foundation we have worked hard for the Q’eqch’i indigenous community. We have always supported the work that’s taking place in favor of the people, the 123 families [of Sesequiquib].
In 1994, the land was registered under the names of our grandparents, of our ancestors. Alfonso Portillo visited when he was president and declared it a national property [territory]. He took our land, the juridical certainty of the people. Then we found out through the Diario de Centroamerica [the newspaper of public record in Guatemala] that it was declared national property, more than anything. As such, we subsequently started a lawsuit against the state so it could return the juridical certainty to the people that they are taking away.
We first spoke there at the congress with a deputy that helped us contract another association, which is the Association of Guatemalan Mayan Lawyers and Notaries, who helped us gather all our legal documents, including historical, to begin soliciting it [the land] back. We have lots of experience. One: w e have spoken in the high tribunal to fight for our right to, for our ancestral rights to be recognized. Two: We learned that they did not treat us well. We had to present ourselves to the fondo de tierra [state institution controlling land access]. And subsequently we obtained good results. In 2018, then president Jimmy Morales came to give us, to return, juridical rights.
Christa Cook: In November of 2020 hurricans Eta and Iota hit your community. What happened during and after the hurricane from your perspective?
Juan Gilberto: Affectively [back ground: turkey gobbles] before the hurricane passed, the people, everyone was content, they were happy working for their daily sustenance when all of a sudden it began to rain and the winds got stronger. In a few short days, the lower area where we had our crops started to flood and quickly the people began evacuating. The floods reached a level we had never seen or dealt with before. During this phenomenon, everyone needed help because their homes were flooded, their properties were flooded, their clothes, their food, everything. Then everyone started rebuilding homes in the mountains where the water couldn’t reach them. Today, after the hurricanes, after all the floods, we have no water, everything is contaminated with the hurricane [water] that happened and thanks to some institutions that help with emergency situations, they came to assess and help. Thanks also to those that helped during the evacuation of people from the area.
I think that the government has done nothing about the situation. We had to receive help from elsewhere. Always help and assistance from NGO’s who gave a helping hand and heart to support the people who were suffering tremendously from what happened. We have never received aid or assistance from the government. It never sent out commissions to physically verify or inspect the damage left during the disaster.
Christa Cook: Can you talk about climate change and the effects on your community?
Juan Gilberto: Absolutely. I believe that the people who don’t have knowledge of how to respect and valorize the environment, are misusing everything we have around us. We are contributing directly to the increased warming of the earth through our waste, through other ways that we do not recognize and do without thinking of the consequences. Through the plastic that fills the streets, the drains. We contaminate the air through burning trash, through various other practices. Additionally, it’s also in part due to consumerism. We are on our own land and a major part of what we consume we purchase and use plastic bags, plastic bottles, and such. It would be good if we can sort them out through recycling, but we only chose to contaminate the environment. Another issue we see is that the forests aren't being respected. They are being illegally cut down, whereas the people need to plant more than is chopped down. We have the right to use the trees, but we should plant more so that trees are replenished. The mountains also play a role in reducing the damage wrought.
Christa Cook: Can you tell us how the palm oil industry affects your communities' access to water?
Juan Gilberto: Absolutely. The entire area of the Northern Transversal Strip, what is the Peten Fray, Xayarche and everything. They are supposedly there to help with reforestation when in reality they are contaminating the water through their use and disposal of chemicals to grow and produce palm. Then they dam and reroute the river and its not being respected. They dam it for their cultivation of palm, they reroute it and the water becomes less consumable for us because of the high chemical levels in the cultivation of palm. There is a palm oil business that stole the land, betrayed a local community’s trust, violated their human and environmental rights. Basically, the palm industry is affecting the community, because the water is also being valued less.
Christa Cook: After the hurricanes some communities voiced that they did not want to evacuate for fear that they would not return because the government would take their land. Is that something a lot of people think here- if they leave their homes the government will take their property?
Juan Gilberto: Absolutely. The government here does not favor the people. They simply want to steal the land away from the communities. When the government sees that you are not here, that the land is not being used, the quickly being the process to obtain it. They transfer the land title to business people such as those from the palm and mining industries. They’re always self-serving and quickly know when the land is not in use. They always want it for themselves. That is why the people, regardless of what happens, remain there, because if they leave, in two or three years, they are not going to own their land anymore.
Christa Cook: There are a lot of people migrating out of Guatemala for various reasons. Can you tell us a little bit about why lots of people want to leave right now?
Juan Gilberto: Yes, because the government doesn’t tend to the will and need of the people. The government doesn’t provide opportunities to begin our own businesses. It’s merely governing in a self-serving manner, for personal issues, to bail themselves out and have everything. It’s not thinking nor acting legally to help its people, it's not generating employment, it's not looking to advance the quality of education. Nothing. Can you imagine, currently with covid, the education system, everything is destroyed, dysfunctional. Its psychologically violating the kids and our youth because the new system it's employing today its not working for them at each level. So then here in Guatemala, even if you have education, whether you have a bachelor’s, an engineering degree, a master’s or something else, there are no jobs. So then people begin to migrate, they begin looking for their dreams and to provide for their families elsewhere. And it’s all due to the bad government that we have today.
Christa Cook: Perhaps there are other reasons people migrate, or is it only for economic reasons?
Juan Gilberto: Well I do think there are other reasons why, such as the violence here in Guatemala. It’s a lot. It’s like how we’ve previously talked about today’s situation. The violence here never stops. Violence to children, violence to women. I’ve heard that living in the US is more calm, that it’s more silent, that people live well, with healthy and active minds, and are happier than here in Guatemala. Because here in Guatemala you hear about certain things that could not happen between humans over there.
Christa Cook: How did the hurricanes affect the people in the caravans leaving Alta Verapaz?
Juan Gilberto: I do believe that it did affect them. It affects them a lot because the caravan of people that are leaving from their country are also suffering a lot during their journeys. Some have even been violently hurt or have died en route. And what is worse is that they are not in their homes, in their country. I think they suffer more along the way than here.
Christa Cook: You’re in a leadership position here in this community? What motivates you, why do you do it?
Juan Gilberto: I do it because this community was manipulated in the past. No one spoke Spanish. No one documented nor did something for its development. Certain people only came to take advantage of the community to give them access here in Guatemala for their business dealings whether successful or not. Additionally, all the business paperwork would be done through translators and they would find and hire guides to be accepted by a certain group or business. But when we entered the picture, we didn’t need guides, we didn’t need translators; we did everything out of our own free will and with a clear system of accountability (checks and balances) so as to not manipulate the people. You’re asking me why I do this. No one else is going to come and do it. No one else is going to help the people. No one wants to start. That is why we show the love for our people. We must begin the development ourselves. And thanks to that action, we began. Myself, Juan Gilberto as secretary, and David, the legal representative, we do everything by heart without violating the rights of our people [communities]. We are making sure that the laws in place are followed. We have also had our successes and advances. We now have a People’s Center that we’ve constructed with our own money, money collected from the community. We just finished constructing a three-room school, including with a second-story balcony. We have worked with money from the community [local and governmental] here successfully. Unfortunately, we did not have enough funds, so that’s when I solicited cement from the municipal government. Thanks to them, a week later they gave it to us. So why do we do it? So that our community has sovereignty. We are an autonomous community, we auto-govern ourselves and our community knowing full-well that no one else comes to help us in our development, knowing that no one thinks about us. We have to do the development ourselves.
Christa Cook: As a leader, where would you like to see your community in 5 years [JG: in five years]? What is your vision?
Juan Gilberto: In five years, since we are visionaries, in five years we’d want to see the community fully developed. For them to have their own buildings to attend to the needs of the children, to have a place fully equipped where we can attend children’s health needs. We would like to have everything, but we can’t achieve it all at once. One by one, step by step we’re making due and putting the community forward. Here, in five years, our vision is to meet the complete needs of the community. That’s it.
Christa Cook: Thank you for taking the time to interview with us today Juan and for partnering with us during the hurricane response. We wish you and your community the best.
Juan Gilberto: [Speaks in indigenous Q’eqch’i] What I’m saying is that we are thankful to you and your presence, and for everything that is being done. It’s being done in a legal and orderly manner. Greetings and thanks to your team, and we wish that everyone will be well and for everything to turn out great. Thank you so much.
Street Music Plays
Chloe Rastatter: The UN has a branch known as the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, or the DPA, which focuses on preventing and resolving deadly conflict around the world. Over the past 10 years, the Guatemalan government partnered with the DPA to establish the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, which was a UN lead response aiming to provide an independent international body to investigate corruption and the infiltration of criminal groups in the Guatemalan government.
Corruption, drug trafficking and organized crime have believed to have been corrupting the Guatemalan government since the civil war ended in 1996. CICIG investgations were mandated by the government of Guatemala in 2011, 2015, and in 2016 but the commission was removed by the Guatemalan government in 2019, leaving behind a unit known as the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity or FECI- the office within the Guatemalan government that used to work together with CICIG to investigate corruption in the Guatemalan government.
On July 23rd 2021, after multiple legal challenges attempted to declare FECI unconstitutational, the acting Attorney General of Guatemala, Maria Porras, fired the head of FECI, Juan Fransicio Sandoval, accusing him of “abuses” but did not provide further information or specification as to what those abuses were.
Before his firing, Juan Fransicio Sandoval was investigating high up officials such as the President of Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammerti (jah-mah-tey), as well as judges within the Guatemala Supreme Court, which has been in the process of renewing the elected officials since 2019. However, the election of new officials has been repeatedly stalled due attempts by corrupt groups to influence processes in which judges are elected.
The firing of Juan Fransicio Sandoval led to widespread protests at the end of July as Guatemalans demanded for the immediate resignation of President Alejandro Giammerti. These protests are following up similar protests that occurred in Guatemala in November 2020, which again, called for the resignation of President Giammerti after the government approved a 12.8 billion dollar budget that cut funding for human rights agencies, healthcare, and education. In these Novemeber 2020 protests, parts of congress building were set on fire as demonstrators claimed the majority of the funds would benefit big businesses rather than the people of Guatemala.
To learn more about whats going on in Guatemala today, we talked to Marcela Reyes 2 weeks after the major protests in July. Marcela attended the protests in Guatemala City and is a student, feminist, and human rights advocate. Solidarity met Marcela in Guatemala City at the 2020 womens March through her work with the menstal rights roganzation period.org.
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Marcela Reyes: So back in 2015, we had like this special commission against corruption [International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala], CICIG. And it was expelled from the country. Uh, so from that moment on, people in Guatemala has been worried about what's going on and why the fight against corruption is so concerning to government, right? So in this year, the Attorney general [Maria Porras] she fired the special prosecutor against impunity [Juan Francisco Sandoval] . And he was like the let's say, last hope for the people in Guatemala, because he was in charge of investigating the current president, the last president as well. Also he was investigating the case of the Supreme Court of Justice, like why the Supreme Court has not decided yet when to start again the election process. So he was in charge of a lot of cases that were very important against the corruption fighting. So two weeks ago that happened, the attorney general fired him. Now he's in another country he’s in the United States, and he already told the media, that he's really concerned because there were some situations goin g on and he already could, like sniff almost that he was going to be fired because he was investigating the president and when he told the Attorney General that he was doing so, the attorney general told him that he was not able to do so, and even if he wanted to, he should like tell her first and that is something that is not really - like it doesn't make sense. It doesn't make a lot of sense, because if he's a special prosecutor investigating, the government, you are not supposed to like to reveal all the information to someone that is so close to the president and also to all the people in the government, right? So, yes, protests started like 2 weeks ago because of that, but they are also started because there's this feeling that it's happening all over again, like when the CICIG was expel is happening all over again.
Back in 2015, I think there was this sense of nation like we are all united in this, we all want corruption to end and that was like the main goal in 2015. But now I think that we are all kind of agreeing that that is not possible anymore like it is not only about fighting corruption, right, we have to rethink or try to structure again our way of doing nation because this this idea of nation itself is dangerous, right? So this nation has been violent towards indigenous people and also it has not been respectful to all diverse kind of thinking's. And so yeah, I think that is like the main objective right now to rethink the way we do nation and to rethink the way we want to have our government working. Also on a personal note, I feel this real close because back in 2015 I was almost graduating from high school, right, so I was one of those people of change, we're all united in this how we want to make a better nation blah blah. But of course after you start looking backwards, like 2016, 2017, nothing really changed. We had another president. He was not efficient at all. He was also corrupt, but he was also protected by the military forces and we couldn't do anything about it. So it was kind of, well, that didn't work at all. So what we can do now? Uh, so I think this is the break point, right? So if we don't do anything right now and not only about this one person specific person, the president, or the attorney general, right, we don't want to fire just them, and that's it, no? So we want structural changes we want to make a new way of well, to be a nation that speaks one to the other right, not only the city people talking and deciding for everyone else, but we want to have conversations about how we can be more diverse and how we can respect each other better. How can we give this space to people who has who have not had this had this space for so long, right? What we're trying to do is have a national consensus, and so I think is this so-called Para Plurinational that is basically gathering all communities together and deciding how we can restructure the nation.
But right now we don't, we don't have a lot of certainty of what is going to happen because our current President, umm, let's say he tried to mask the dictatorial process under this phase of democracy, let's say, so he uses a lot of repression with the police and he doesn't like these strikes and the protest, because two weeks ago it was like a the first protest about all of this. But the police were really pacific like they didn't do anything, uh, they didn't hit anyone. Uh, that on last November they did, but they didn't. So it was really weird, and what we are assuming is that maybe he's waiting for the mobilization of indigenous people to come to the city so they can like attack, right?
Chloe Rastatter: Do you think that Guatemala could be on the road to an overthrowing of the government or a potential revolution? Or do you think that it's stable enough that reform can fix the problems that people are, you know, yelling in the streets about.
Marcela Reyes: Yes, so this is kind of the main issue, right? Because we, we don't want there to be any violence or to be any deaths or to quote unquote sacrifice anybody. But what is truth is that a lot of people have spoken about the rule of law, but that rule of law doesn't exist really in Guatemala, right? Because it is a rule of law that doesn't - it is not good for any for everybody, so it's just, uh, making good for some people and it's excluding other people. And that is not really what a nation should be about, right? So what I think we, we are approaching is yes, probably we will have like an uprising or like a violent environment, soon uh, because, as I said, the current president is also very dictatorial. He's very authoritarian, so I think he would display like a lot of violence within the police, well forces, and also there is a lot of people that are willing to risk their own lives well for this purpose. So yes, I think we are approaching this violent uprising. I hope that there would be better ways to do this, but we don't know if they're they're going to be.
Chloe Rastatter: How can people support the Guatemalan movement or stand in solidarity with? Guatemalans?
Marcela Reyes: Well, I think that first we need to we, we need to talk to what they want on people, right? Because I feel that there's still this sense of 2015, about ‘yeah, this is 1 nation and we should make everything better and we should fight against corruption’, but not everyone is really considering the option of restructuring the nation, right? The government, the ways we are going to approach to new ways of living in Guatemala. So I think that the first step is, is trying to make conscious people about that this is not only about one person in the government, it's about the whole structure. So that would be the first step to really talk to Guatemalan people about that, this should be a bigger change and not only let's fire the President and that is, no. And as to people in other countries that want to support Guatemala, I think that is really important to well informed themselves, right? So to read about the situation. To read about what's going on and also to think in better ways, right? Because I think this is not only Guatemala, we have seen it recently in Latin Latin America, right? Chile, Peru, Bolivia, right? There has been this awakening like this awakening of this is not the way we want to live in our countries. So so yeah, I think to think how we want to live, not only as an as one country, but as a whole, not a continent, but let's say as a region right? Because inevitable in some years we are going to work in these new ways of countries, let's say with one another. So why not start thinking how we can improve the ways we make democracy in Latin America?
Chloe Rastatter: Thank you for listening to Dignity Displaced a podcast by Solidarity Engineering.
Christa Cook: The past month our organization, Solidarity Engineering, has been working in Reynosa, Mexico to provide access to water, sanitation, and hygiene to asylum seekers living in refugee camps and shelters throughout the city.
Over the past few months, an informal refugee camp has formed in the Plaza de la República. The plaza now is home to over 2,000 asylum seekers living in tents in an area half the size of a standard soccer field and access to safe drinking water and properly managed hygiene and sanitation services are a constant struggle. To address this, we partnered with Doctors without Borders and Team Brownsville, to start providing 1,650 liters per day of potable water to the population in the plaza. While that quantity of water is significant, it still falls well short of the UNHCR recommendations of over 5,000 liters per day for consumption and 16,000 liters per day for general use required for this population.
We also continued our support for empowering individuals within the plaza by providing materials and logistics support for a self-organized hygiene team composed of asylum sekker that address sanitation issues within the plaza. We have, to date, provided over 3,700 rolls of toilet paper, 4,000 ounces of hand sanitizer, 2,500 masks, 2,500 pairs of gloves, along with garbage bags, menstrual pads, gallons of bleach, and face shields for the asylum seeker led team. We have built on the success of this initiative and expanded the hygiene team concept to another local shelter.
Additionally, drawing on experience in the Matamoros refugee camp we have, in direct coordination with the asylum seekers, founded what are known as free stores within the plaza and a nearby shelter. These “stores” are located within shelters and the camp and run by asylum seekers so residents have consistent access to important hygiene supplies such as hand soap, menstrual pads, condoms, and more, for free.
Outside of the plaza, we have continued to combat insufficient access to water through the installation and modification of a mobile Aquablock water treatment system at a local shelter.
On top of all our new projects, other ongoing projects in Reynosa include science technology engineering, and math (STEM) activities and lessons for children in shelters, geotechnical analysis and site assessments for ongoing and future shelter construction and maintenance, and provided technical guidance on the establishment of a COVID quarantine shelter within the city.
Chloe Rastatter: To support this podcast and all of our other projects subscribe to our Pateron, Solidarity Engineering! In addition to the podcast content, you’ll get biweekly updates bout whats going on at our project locations, bonus interviews, and more. If you want to find out more about the podcast or our work, go to our website at solidarityengineering.org or follow us on social media @solidarityengineering.
This episode was edited and produced by Christa Cook, Chloe Rastatter, and Erin Hughes. Translations were completed by Lupe Alberto Flores and Christa Cook. Voiceovers were by Lupe Alberto Flores, Wesley Shugart-Schmidt, and Soibhan Merrill. Special thanks to Dulce Rosario, the nurse from sesajal, GRM for getting us there to begin with, Adam Erispaha our operations coordinator, Sabrina austurias (the doctor who gave us the medicine to distribute), Tara McDowell and all of LifeStraw, Dr. Bronners, all the women at period.org, The Q'eqchi' indigenous committee of sesaquiquib, and most importantly the amazing Q’eqchi communities we worked with.
Finally, a speical update! Our co-worker, advisor, and most importantly friend, Dison Valladeres from epsiode one if Diginity Displaced was finally able to enter the United States lawfully as an asylum seeker after more than 2 years of waiting at the border!
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