2021-2022 Trócaire Annual ReportLearn More
Maudi Tzay Patal is an indigenous Mayan defender from Guatemala. She works as the Gender Based Violence programme coordinator with Trócaire partner, Community Studies and Psychosocial Action Team (ECAP). ECAP is a well-known Guatemalan organisation that provides psychosocial support to survivors of human rights violations.
Here, Ms Patal says that the indigenous community of Guatemala, who have been under attack for generations for their lands and natural resources, are now facing new human rights abuses as impunity continues for multinational companies and governments.
It is a very difficult time to be a human rights defender in Guatemala. Our country lived through thirty years of internal armed conflict, where we saw a very high rate of human rights violations against the Guatemalan population. We are seeing new cycles of abuses happening again.
Today, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of hunger and malnutrition in Latin America. More than 70pc of people are living in extreme poverty and one in every two children is suffering from chronic malnutrition. This is especially the case in rural areas and among the indigenous population. Large business projects have led to environmental destruction and land grabs, while attacks against human rights defenders are common. Violence against women is a serious problem in the country. Guatemala is also vulnerable to natural and climate related disasters.
I worry with the elections next year for the presidential positions and local mayors, that human rights abuses will continue to rise. Candidates who are favoured in the opinion polls are not leaders or politicians who support human rights but have been complicit in cases of corruption and human rights violations. There is a sense of a lack of hope and a deep worry that the human rights abuses that were committed during the armed conflict could begin to take place again.
Sexual violence as a weapon of war
A high proportion of human rights abuses have been committed against land and territorial defenders, and against women. During the 36-year-long Guatemalan civil war (1960 – 1996), indigenous women were systematically raped and enslaved by the military in a small community near the Sepur Zarco outpost in Polochic Valley. What happened to them then was not unique, but what happened next, changed history.
From 2011 – 2016, 15 women survivors fought for justice at the highest court of Guatemala. The ground-breaking case resulted in the conviction of two former military officers of crimes against humanity and granted 18 reparation measures to the women survivors and their community. The women are now waiting to experience justice, including education for the children of their community, access to land, a health-care clinic and poverty-reduction measures.
It is very worrying to me, that while sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war, we are now also seeing it being used in times of peace in Guatemala.
In 2007, there was a violent eviction of an indigenous community called Lote Ocho also in Polochic Valley by a Canadian Nickel company. During that eviction, the security forces burned houses and crops and 11 women were raped. The soldiers were private security staff for the mining company and the Guatemalan national police.
In all contexts of war, men and women don’t have the same experience. My experience in this area, has been accompanying women in this process with psychological support and supporting women to break their silence and be able to name their crime. The impunity for crimes of sexual violence has normalised it.
The women in the community of Lote Ocho, by naming publicly the sexual violence that happened, it is a political statement to break the silence. It’s a huge challenge to bring justice to this case so it doesn’t end in impunity like so many other cases. It is a very brave act and it’s very important to support them through this process.
The women brought a civil case against the company in Canada because they had a real fear that they wouldn’t be able to access justice in Guatemala and they wanted the Canadian nickel company to be brought to justice for the abuses they carried out in other countries. The company didn’t recognise the testimony of the women and the company used all the strategies they could to slow down the case, so unfortunately it is not progressing very much.
In 2019, the women brought a criminal case within Guatemala. The case hasn’t moved forward either. Access to justice for indigenous women is extremely complicated. This Lote Ocho case can’t remain in impunity, it needs to be heard and a ruling issued because cases of sexual abuse will continue if this is not addressed.
The state of Guatemala has done nothing in terms of reparations and is making crimes against women invisible and continues to be racist and patriarchal in denying women access to their rights. Justice is still very far away.
Hope for a better tomorrow
In this post-conflict context, it’s been very difficult to build the rule of law, but the victims and civil society are convinced that it is possible to build a different reality for the Guatemalan population. Our one source of hope is our work with the younger generation. We’re seeing generational change where sons and daughters of victims of the armed conflict and youth in general are continuing the fight for justice for indigenous communities.
Thanks to your support, Trócaire and ECAP are helping communities in Guatemala to protect their land in the face of corporate greed. Our work helps to tackle violence against women and to support female survivors of abuse. We are also saving lives by supporting communities to prepare for and respond to disasters.
In 2021, Trócaire supported 21,000 people with humanitarian assistance, 15,000 were supported through human rights programmes, 5,000 were supported through women’s empowerment and 11,000 people were helped through resource rights projects.
International community must act
It is also important in Guatemala that all national and international companies should not commit human rights abuses on our lands, and those that do should be sanctioned. A binding UN treaty would be useful, but one of the problems is that countries don’t always observe treaties they’ve signed. The Guatemalan state has signed and ignored various treaties, so the challenge is that countries would sign and observe a UN treaty.
We do need stronger EU laws, but for the Indigenous communities the land itself has life, so any type of mining or extractive activity is harming mother earth. For indigenous communities, that is already a form of violence against life. Within international treaties, it’s very important that the voices of indigenous communities would be included.
The public should also be aware of the products they are consuming and whether they are connected to human rights abuses in Guatemala. In the case of Lote Ocho, the Canadian mining company evicted the indigenous communities to mine for nickel which is being used in phones and batteries across the world. The extraction of palm oil is also leading to indigenous communities being evicted. As a society, we need to think about what we consume, and how it can come from communities that are living through violence.
We as civil society are working tirelessly to protect human rights in Guatemala and we will continue to raise our voice. It’s very important for us to get international support to be able to continue our activities and defend human rights.