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Forced evictions in Guatemala: whose land is it anyway?

Land ownership and occupation are complex and highly contentious issues in many parts of Latin America, and the tropical, resource-rich plains of northeastern Guatemala are no exception. On the one hand, legal title to land is generally brokered in formal processes between governments and private buyers. On the other hand, indigenous peoples who have lived in an area for several generations see themselves as having a traditional or ancestral entitlement to remain there. The following video, released by the pressure group Rights Action, shows how a Canadian mining company recently called in state prosecutors and armed law enforcement officers to move indigenous peoples off land it had bought from the Guatemalan government:

The villagers being forcibly removed here are indigenous Mayan Q’eqchi’ peoples, who claim this territory near Lake Izabal as part of their ancestral lands. They want to carry out arable farming, as their forefathers had done peacefully on these plantations until the 1960s. The indigenous perspective on mining is generally negative, fearing harm to the environment and destruction of the local culture and communities.

However, beneath these same lands lie rich seams of nickel, a metal whose scarcity on the world market has this week caused its value to reach a record high

As reported in earlier dispatches from Rights Action, Canadian nickel-mining firm INCO first purchased the land from Guatemala’s military government of the 1960s, leading to violent evictions of the original Mayan Q’eqchi’ inhabitants. The current proprietor, another Canadian company called Skye Resources, acquired the land from INCO in 2004 and has announced its intention to recommence mining for nickel under the rebranded “Fenix Project”. The Mayan Q’eqchi’ peoples feel that their views on use of the land have not been properly taken into account and decided to restate their claims to live and farm there before the “Fenix Project” got underway.

The question at the heart of this story is to what extent the Mayan Q’eqchi’ peoples have a right to influence the use of the land they have traditionally lived on. It is a question that has yielded increasingly bitter disputes in Guatemala over several decades and is widely regarded as a legacy of the country's history of conflict and military rule, as well as a facet of the society's broader discrimination against its indigenous communities.

Guatemala has signed up to an important multilateral human rights treaty dealing with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. Known as Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organisation, the treaty covers a range of contexts, including land rights, respect for indigenous customs and traditions, and eliminating socio-economic gaps between indigenous peoples and the rest of the national population.

Moreover, at the end of a 40-year armed confrontation in which 83% of the victims were Mayans, the Guatemala Peace and Reconstruction Plan, agreed in 1996, places responsibilities on the government to protect its most disadvantaged communities and is supposed to enshrine the right of indigenous peoples to meaningful consultation on land use. The right to consultation is expressly formulated to give indigenous peoples a voice in negotiating fair outcomes to legislative or administrative processes that affect them – including land rights decrees. In this instance, the government’s decision to grant a mining licence to Skye was seemingly taken without “dialogue and negotiation”.

And so it transpired, in a campaign to receive viable farming land from the Guatemalan Government, the indigenous Mayan families reoccupied parts of the intended Skye mining plots in September 2006. After initial clashes with the police in November 2006 had left these families in what Upside Down World described as a “cycle of landlessness, poverty and repression”, they were finally forced off the land unceremoniously when Skye obtained a legal order for their eviction.

The evictions themselves were captured in a compelling photo-journal on the MiMundo blog, depicting the anguish of the residents, the burning of homes by Skye Resources, and the deployment of armed force by the state. As GV Latin America Editor David Sasaki picked up earlier this week there’s a podcast on the Rabble Podcast Network in which the evictions are described by Canadian journalist Dawn Paley, who was at the scene and who had earlier written a provocative article entitled: “this is what development looks like”.

An immediate letter-writing campaign condemning the evictions drew a telling response from the CEO of Skye Resources, in which he spoke of “land invasions” by “squatters” who were removed “in the best possible manner while respecting human rights”. However, Dawn Paley responded with a further open letter to Skye claiming that many of the CEO’s assertions were “simply not true” and seemed to “betray the horrific reality of these evictions”.

In analysing a contentious issue such as land rights, regular, balanced blogging from civil society groups such as the Guatemala Solidarity Network becomes all the more important because of the starkly divergent views that emerge from the actors involved.

By way of example, Skye Resources’ carefully worded press release on the day of the evictions couched the company’s efforts in terms of trying to “help local communities step into a more certain future by helping to define their land rights”, and working to “find a peaceful resolution to the dispute”…

… while in contrast, quoted in an open letter by a researcher who visited the affected communities in September 2006, one Mayan community leader interpreted the relationship somewhat differently: “To them [Skye Resources] we are garbage… they walk all over us.”

3 comments

  • Gunboat Diplomacy
    The US John C Stennis Strike Group has taken up station in the Persian Gulf near Iran.
    As the carrier attack force could vaporize 92 millions Persians, some critics might say this is an excessive show of force.
    A few others may point to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,as an omen of evil intent.
    The Americans can ease the tensions with one step.
    The US Navy could station another Carrier Strike Group offshore near Vancouver BC Canada. The home of Skye Resources, this may encourage to redefine its policies in Guatemala.

  • Hi Gavin,

    Just wanted to commend you for following up on this story, you’ve put together a great collection of information and links.

    I am also updating on the situation in El Estor at blog.reportero.org, my weblog, where I have just posted another letter to Skye Resources CEO Ian Austin.

    Thanks,

    Dawn Paley
    March 5, 2007

  • […] 4, 2007 in Human Rights [Originally published here as part of WITNESS’s collaboration with Global Voices Online – this post was written by Gavin […]

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