On April 12, PBI-Guatemala posted: “PBI accompanies UVOC. Yesterday, we met to update on the situation of communities defending their land.”

In the photo above, you can see Mayan Poqomchi defender Sandra Calel, the leader of the Verapaz Union of Campesino Organizations (UVOC).

UVOC is made up of 367 affiliated communities (about 50,000 families), 98 percent of which are indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’, Poqomchi’ and Achi.

The situation in Guatemala

The PBI-Guatemala report We Defend Life! The Social Struggles in Alta Verapaz notes: “The indigenous peoples and campesinos of AV have been subjected to continuous dispossession dating back to the Spanish conquest, when the looting of natural wealth in the region began through the exploitation of raw materials.”

The armed conflict in Guatemala was fought from 1960 to 1996 between the government and various leftist groups, which were supported by Mayan peoples. During this time, approximately 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. Over 90% of this violence was perpetrated by the state and over 80% of the victims were Mayan.

The Guardian has reported: “The Guatemalan civil war ended in 1996 with a peace agreement that promised to return land to indigenous and peasant farmers, from whom it had been taken over 200 years before. Instead, there has been only a trickle of cases and it remains one of the world’s most unequal countries.”

Mario Minera of the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) in Guatemala City has commented: “The whole country has been opened to concessions for mining, sugar cane, palm oil to provide exports. Rivers have been diverted, others are drying up. Access to land and water is denied. The resources are in the hands of a very few people. It is a predatory model of economic development which is penalizing the rural poor and does not benefit communities or the common good.”

And Mike Taylor, the director of the International Land Coalition, the global alliance of UN agencies and 278 civil society and farmers’ groups, says: “Anyone who opposes mines, evictions, palm oil plantations or who even takes part in roundtables to find solutions to the rising tide of violence against land rights defenders is likely to be targeted.”

Taylor adds: “We have seen evidence of criminality, prosecution, false imprisonment and killings. These are not random acts of violence but the systematic persecution of people who have been standing up to defend their land. At the base of the violence against defenders is the decision by the state to use land, water and natural resources not for the benefit of the many but the very few.”

Eleven human rights defenders were killed in Guatemala in 2021, according to the latest report from Front Line Defenders.

UVOC’s ongoing work

Despite this difficult situation, Calel says there is no choice but to “continue weaving networks together to defend Mother Earth, to defend the planet, because it is the ship where we live, and if we continue destroying it, it will not only to suffer the Q’eqchí people, the Poqomchí people or the indigenous population of the world, but we will all suffer.”

PBI-Guatemala has been accompanying UVOC since 2005, following threats and serious intimidation against some of its members.