Guatemala’s Mayan community pleads before human rights tribunal

CITY OF GUATEMALA — Lawyers for an indigenous community in eastern Guatemala pleaded Wednesday before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a case that could have profound implications for indigenous communities across the Americas.

The community of Agua Caliente, one of 16 Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in the municipality of El Estor, is asking the Guatemalan government to give them title to their land and the right to determine how its natural resources are exploited.

“This case offers the court, for the first time, a chance to decide whether governments should act to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to permanent sovereignty over their natural resources, as a principle of public international law,” said Leonardo. Crippa, an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center and one of those representing the community, in a statement.

The plaintiffs expect that the deliberations of the court sitting in Costa Rica could take at least seven months. Mining and other natural resource exploitation operations on indigenous lands are frequent sources of conflict in the Americas and this problem is expected to worsen as pressure increases to produce valuable minerals needed for green energy initiatives, said the center.

The murky ownership status of land near Lake Izabal has been the source of conflict in the region for decades.

Rodrigo Tot, an Indigenous leader who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2017 for defending community lands, told a virtual press conference on Tuesday that they have been waiting for justice for more than four decades.

In the 1960s, the government granted a 40-year mining license to a company without setting clearly defined limits and boundaries.

In the 1980s, the National Institute for Agrarian Transformation agreed to give indigenous communities in the area land to collectively manage, but never gave them titles.

Over the years, families have been driven from their land by mining interests, especially during the armed conflict in Guatemala, which ended in 1996.

Today, 16 indigenous communities in El Estor live with the huge Fenix ​​open-pit nickel mine, owned by a subsidiary of the Swiss investment group Solway.

Last year, protests against the mine led the government to impose martial law and a curfew in the region to protect operations at the nickel processing plant.

The mine is under a court order to conduct a community public consultation process on the project. In an October statement, Solway said it fully complied with the court-ordered consultation on the Fenix ​​mine and noted that the nickel processing plant at the site was not subject to the court order.