Interview with Guatemalan Maya Ch'orti Indigenous authority: 'We need to be consulted directly, not through a mayor or community development council'

Ana Zbona, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Domingo Vázquez Ramírez in London (credit: PBI UK)

In the second part of 2018, UN human rights experts have raised alarm over the increase in killings, attacks and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders in Guatemala. We sat down with a human rights defender from Guatemala, Domingo Vázquez Ramírez, a Maya Ch'orti indigenous authority, who talked to us about the difficulties indigenous defenders encounter when faced with entry of development projects, including renewable energy companies.

Hi Domingo! Could you share your full name, where you are from and which organization you are a part of?

My name is Domingo Vázquez Ramírez, I am a Maya Ch'orti indigenous authority and I am a human rights defender. I also belong to the Ch'orti Nuevo Día of Guatemala.

In Guatemala, we are seeing a serious increase in attacks and murders of human rights defenders, especially those defending indigenous rights, land and environment. Is this also impacting your community?

We as human rights defenders have always received many threats for defending the land, water, forests and resources that exist in the territory. For that reason, we are attacked, threatened, criminalized, stigmatized, and imprisoned. The recent escalation in attacks, for example against our general coordinator, Omar Jerónimo, comes as a result of land disputes in the territory of Jocotan, Camotan, San Juan Hermita, and Olopa.

There is a hydroelectric company present in your territory. Can you tell me a little about your community, the values ​​of the community, how do you live now and if and how  your lives have changed, after the arrival of the hydro-company?

Before the company tried to settle in the territory, my community lived in peace, in tranquility. There were no conflicts. But when the hydroelectric company arrived and started to manipulate some leaders of the communities, then is when bad information, conflicts between families, between vecinos [neighbors, community members] started, because there are some who are in favor of the company and some who are against. That's where the social conflict in the communities emerges from. We as communities defend our land because we know that the land is what gives us food, we put seeds in the soil for food for our children and for the future generation. And that is why we dedicate ourselves to its defense - because we know that without the land, we as indigenous communities cannot live.

What was the consultation process like, before the hydroelectric company arrived? Who was it done with?

Well, the question is very good because here I am to declare and inform that the consultation was not done with the communities. We know that there is an article of ILO Convention 169 that when a company intends to settle in the territory, it must first consult the people. But unfortunately, it was not like that. First, the government consulted the mayor, the mayor consulted the leader that works with COCODE, which is the Community development council, and it is that person who signed the agreement with the mayor - but the vecinos [neighbors, community members] were never consulted.

The indigenous authorities were not consulted, nor the indigenous communities’ members, because, I repeat, only the mayor was consulted, and the mayor only consulted COCODE. So COCODE decided for the community, saying that there would be development for the communities, for the people.

There is an escalating attack on the defenders in Guatemala right now, as we said. From your point of view, what can renewable energy companies do to prevent or respond to these attacks, what is their responsibility?

The leaders of the company always treat us, if you will, as guerrillas, as communists. They say that we are anti-development. We are not anti-development. We are people who inform our communities and ask them if they want to accept a company in the territory or not. But the community is the one who decides and has to analyze if it is going to be of benefit for all the people.

A recommendation that I would give is that companies consult the people directly because we know about the ILO Convention 169. It is clear to us that when a company intends to settle in the territory, it has to consult the people, not a mayor and a COCODE.

How is the COCODE, the Community development council, elected? 

There are COCODEs that are in favor of the communities - and are elected by the communities. But when a COCODE is elected by the mayor, it lets the mayor manipulate it and also manipulates the vecinos [neighbors, community members] in the communities.

[To Peaces Brigades International UK (PBI UK), the accompanying organization] Why have you, as PBI, chosen to support this community and how do you do that?

Since 2009 we have been providing security support to the Ch'orti 'Nuevo Dia' rural center. We accompany only when there is a request from an organization. When that happens, we from PBI do an analysis to ensure that the organization works according to the laws of the country and according to international human rights law.  If the organization complies with all this, we provide accompaniment. Accompaniment implies 3 things: physical accompaniment means that we have a team in the field and in Guatemala: when the members of the organization and the community members in the region want to carry out an activity where they perceive a threat, they can request physical accompaniment from the team. In such cases, two members of the team arrive to accompany physically, and as a result, they lower the level of risk and impunity for people who may want to attack [defenders] or create obstacles to that activity.  We also provide political accompaniment, which means creating networks with the authorities in the country. Also, we have an international support network. We create channels and links for these communities, so they can better communicate their situation.

[To PBI UK] What is your point of view about corporate responsibility with regard to attacks on defenders?

Companies have an obligation under international law to respect the human rights of communities, and the most important thing is that communities are consulted.  And this means they are consulted according to their political processes.

What happens in many instances is that if a consultation is done, it is done according to the orders of the mayor or the municipal government or the state government or as a process that the company creates. However, this is not a consultation process because it does not work according to the customs of the communities.

That is the most important thing because there are processes underway in Guatemala, also in Honduras now, to supposedly regulate the process of the consultation. But, the new regulation of the consultation process cannot be done just according to the law of the state or the municipality, without consulting with the communities - it has to be valid according to the customs of the communities.

Domingo, my understanding is that you have achieved recognition of your land some years ago, but the company and the state or the municipality have appealed the decision of the court and you are now waiting for the decision of the court, right? Do you think that if the court decides that the lands are yours, there may be a further escalation in the threats and attacks?

We have recovered some land (635 caballerias) in the municipality of Jocotán. We have historical titles where it says that in 1777 our ancestors bought the land from the Spanish crown. After we recovered that title, the mayor took away our rights to the land. We filed a writ of amparo in court and the court ruled in our favor. But the mayor and the company, Las 3 Niñas, appealed the ruling. We think that is because the company Las 3 Niñas has already made an investment in the territory and bought plots from some of the vecinos [neighbors, community members] in the communities. Since the mayor has an agreement with the company, he appealed the sentence, so right now we are waiting for the court to make the final ruling, favorable to us. In the case of positive ruling, the threats could increase because there are 39 owners who have registered their lands in the 635 caballerias that are dissatisfied with our achievement [i.e. the recovery of land rights]. 

So we believe that there will come more persecution, more finger-pointing, and even death threats. We already filed a complaint [about this] more than 20 days ago before I came to Europe, because a young man heard 3 people say that they would eliminate myself, Luis Ramírez de Rosa and Damaso Aldano García, for opposing development.

The young man gave this information to the public ministry. So we already informed them that these people are going to attack us, if the sentence comes out in our favor.

What could be useful to guarantee the security of you and the other defenders?

Well, the truth is that we need private personal security. Sometimes we do not know who is the person that is chasing us. If they are strangers from other communities, we would have to have our own personal security, so that those people do not attack us.

What is your vision of development that you want to see in your community?

We want a type of development that benefits the community. We will have development if the communities have land. For us, human development is to have land. That is the reason why we dedicate ourselves to its defense - because it is part of the life of society as a whole.

Is there something else you want to add?

I just wanted to say a little about the Dry Corridor [Corredor Seco] which has also been promoted. In 2012 it was going to be constructed, but it hasn’t been possible because of the resistance in the territory. It was suspended. Residents of the community of Curquiapa informed us in an assembly of indigenous authorities in the capital city that the Dry Corridor project, which is meant to go from the ocean to the Caribbean Sea, is being promoted again. It would be 372 km long and 140 m wide, which for us means the total destruction of our community. If it goes through a small community, it will destroy the land, and that is very worrying for us because there will be many evictions and displacements of people. I have information that 7,340 people have already sold their lands.

And what is your message to potential investors in the Dry Corridor?

For the communities, this project is going to have a great impact because they are not well informed. The companies only consult the mayor and COCODE. Since only COCODE decides, people get confused. COCODE is always the one that manipulates the vecinos [neighbors, community members] and for that reason they have sold their lands to the leaders of the company. That is very worrying for us. I would like to recommend that if they want to do that, they consult the people directly, which means not just a COCODE or a mayor. Although we know that the mayor is supposed to be there to represent the people and to look out for the welfare of the communities, in the end, by not consulting the people in  general, they are not respecting the decision of the people.

Thank you and good luck!

Photo credit: PBI UK

More information available at: Domingo Vasquez, indigenous land rights, Guatemala