It’s difficult to take an interest in permaculture and environmental protection in Central America without coming across stories of the severe persecution faced by many land defenders at the hands of powerful political and corporate alliances. During my time on the Gotoco programme in Guatemala, I heard of a number of environmental initiatives that threatened the security of those involved, and unfortunately the risks are even greater for land activists in other Central American countries.
According to Dr Jessica Hernandez, land defenders are activists who work to protect ecosystems and the human right to a safe, healthy environment. They are often members of indigenous communities, like her, who are protecting the natural resources that they depend upon for sustenance and spirituality from expropriation, pollution, depletion and destruction. It’s important to note that indigenous peoples in central America are far from homogenous; with over 20 Mayan groups in Guatemala alone, alongside the Garifuna descendants of mixed free-African and indigenous American ancestry. One thing that each struggle over land rights has in common is the way it sustains colonial structures by contributing to the power and wealth of a small minority through the pollution and extraction of la Madre Tierra.
The first time we were made aware of the threat posed to environmental activists in Guatemala was at IMAP, where we learnt about la Red Nacional por la Defensa de la Soberania Alimentaria en Guatemala; a network of civil society organisations that strives to uphold food sovereignty for vulnerable people. We were told that many members are forced to hide their identities when they join and that some are too afraid to speak publicly or appear in press. Relatively speaking, IMAP is considered a safe haven for permaculturists who are practicing and educating about alternatives to the dominant extractive practices, but even so, the session facilitator told us that they are always aware of who might be in the room.
Peace Brigades International, who accompany land defenders and report internationally on violations of human rights, observed in March 2023 that land defenders in Guatemala who oppose extractive projects and unsustainable agricultural developments are facing threats, intimidation and killings. They also noted an increase in cases of criminalisation against human rights defenders as well as a wave of violent evictions of indigenous communities. A particularly recent example of this occurred in June last year when Cristóbal Pop Coc, a Q’eqchi’ Mayan activist in Izabal, was arrested and accused of intent to commit a crime. This followed Cristóbal’s lawful campaign against the notorious Fenix Nickel Mine which operates on Q’eqchi’ lands without a valid licence and without consulting the representatives of the indigenous community affected by the mining operations. Leaked documents also show payments to the police by the mining company for the persecution and detention of activists and journalists who oppose their operations.
This incident demonstrates the collusion between large-scale corporations and Guatemalan authorities to criminalise land defenders who threaten to disrupt extractive resource methods and capitalist growth. For indigenous environmental activists to be able to continue their important work in peace, the State of Guatemala must:
- Implement and apply national and international laws that guarantee the rights of indigenous people
- Stop criminalising defenders of human rights, land and territory
- Guarantee access to justice for environmental campaigners and release the wrongly accused from prison