Dominga Vásquez: "In Guatemala the Peace Accords regarding the identity and rights of the indigenous communities are not being complied with."

Interview with the Mayan ex-mayoress of Sololá and with Helen Woodcock, of Peace Brigades International.

Mónica Bergós, London

Dominga Vásquez and Helen Woodcock are two exceptional women. One is Guatemalan, of Mayan ethnicity, the other English, from Manchester. They come from very different worlds but are united by a common bond: their passion for the defence of women's rights. Dominga, indigenous ex-mayoress of Sololá, capital of the department of the same name in the southwest of Guatemala, and prominent member of the organisation Fundamaya, has received multiple death threats and coercions for denouncing human rights violations. Helen Woodcock travelled to Guatemala with Peace Brigades International (PBI), to act as an international observer,  providing protective accompaniment to Dominga in her work. In recognition of their intensive work in defence of women's rights, Dominga and Helen in December 2006 received the prestigious International Human Rights Service Award in London.  

How is the situation of indigenous women in Guatemala?

Dominga: The majority of women in Mayan communities are illiterate. They don't have formal employment that would allow them to survive, and they depend a lot on informal work and on their cohabiting partner. For this reason there is wide spread discrimination and violence against them. One of my jobs as indigenous mayoress of Sololá involved organising the women in the communities to know their rights as individuals and as citizens. The role of women in Mayan communities is fundamental as they are the ones who are fighting to preserve our ancestral customs.

Are the rights of indigenous communities being respected?

Dominga: No, the Peace Accords regarding the identity and rights of the indigenous communities are not being complied with. These Accords state that we should be consulted by the authorities when projects which could affect our land in a negative way are promoted, but this consultation never takes place. In the educational centres, children are forced to wear uniforms, despite the fact that the Accords state that our traditional dress has to be respected. This failing in terms of respecting the indigenous identity is particularly serious if we take into account that 65% of the population of Guatemala is indigenous, according to the official statistics.

While you held the post of indigenous mayoress of Sololá, between 2004 and 2006, you received serious threats against your life. What was the context of these threats?

Dominga: In the indigenous communities we have been strongly opposed to the exploitation of mines on our land, because it is an attack against the way of life of the people who live there, which would destroy the flora and fauna and contaminate our rivers. As mayoress, I informed the communities of these risks and directed the campaign against the exploitation of the mines; this is when I received the threats. Also, a few years ago, the governor of the department of Sololá accused me and other associates of very serious charges which included terrorism and having illegal weapons; charges which, of course, never could be substantiated.

What alternative proposals for development do the indigenous communities offer?

Dominga: The government says that the mines would bring development to the country, but that's not true. The profits would go to a Canadian company, Glamis Gold, which would scarcely leave royalties of 1%. They offer to construct roads and hospitals, but in exchange for taking all the gold and silver and contaminating the water. There are other alternatives, like improving agriculture, exporting our handicrafts to foreign markets or promoting tourism.

Helen, why did you decide to work in Guatemala as part of the Peace Brigades International (PBI)?

Helen: I felt that was the most useful thing I could do with my British passport. It seemed to me that the work of PBI was especially valuable because it contributes towards creating space for peace and justice in many countries. The international observers of PBI, by providing protective accompaniment to human rights defenders whose lives are threatened, dissuade potential aggressors from carrying out acts of violence, thus widening the space in which these people can work.

Did you feel in danger at any point while you accompanied Dominga and other Guatemalan human rights defenders?

Helen: No, because the foundation of our work is visibility and security. We inform local authorities, the Diplomatic Corps, the UN and other actors that we are there, and that we have the backing of the International Community, and we wear jackets with visible PBI logos. None of the PBI volunteers over the 25 years in which PBI has been working in areas of conflict has ever been killed.