It is said among human rights organisations in Guatemala that the first year of a new presidency tends to be calm, but that old patterns of human rights violations emerge in the second. Arriving as a PBI volunteer in Guatemala on the cusp of Jimmy Morales' second year in power, I felt the truth of this adage, as our risk analyses showed a progressively more worrying panorama. The need to provide protection in this context was daunting but, as my year progressed, the impacts of PBI's accompaniment became clearer to me.

Physical protection

My first accompaniment was for the assembly of the Quiché Peoples' Council (CPK), a monthly gathering of representatives from the indigenous communities of the state of Quiché to agree collective strategies for the defence of their land and resources. In recent years, the primary concern of the CPK has been excessive and illegal commercial logging activities, which are rapidly deforesting the state of Quiché and threatening its biodiversity and water supply. The meeting had barely begun when it was interrupted by the news that members of the Council had detained a logging truck on the outskirts of the city to request official revision of its permits, and the assembly took to the streets to support, in what became an impromptu but peaceful demonstration. We accompanied the community leaders throughout several tense hours while they waited for the response of the authorities. At one point, in the face of intimidatory behaviour from the logger, CPK spokeswoman Lolita Chavez requested that we deliver a brief explanation of PBI's accompaniment, via megaphone, to the gathered crowd. Eventually, officials of the National Forestry Institute arrived to measure the wood and found that the truck was carrying more than its papers permitted. I felt fortunate, so early in my PBI year, to have witnessed both how a discriminated indigenous organisation can confront powerful interests through peaceful means, and how the accompaniment of PBI can defuse potentially threatening situations. Several months later, Lolita Chavez was forced to leave the country after a similar situation escalated, the authorities failed to arrive, and shots were fired by men associated with the loggers. I was left speculating as to the impact our presence had had on the occasion I witnessed, and whether our accompaniment could have averted the violence.

Building capacity and resilience

As permanent PBI presence in threatened communities is neither feasible nor conducive to community autonomy, building defenders' capacity for self-protection is vital. Throughout my PBI year I assisted in the organisation of various workshops for defenders, aimed at increasing their knowledge of specific threats and developing their capacity for risk analysis and the implementation of security protocols. They also provide spaces where disparate social movements can share and learn from each other, encouraging grassroot solidarity networks. Workshops are frequently targeted at women defenders, in recognition of the specific threats of gendered violence and marginalisation they face in their work. Through interviews with defenders and observations from the field, PBI field volunteers also contribute to the elaboration of informative magazines, which aim to clarify the facts and legal resources associated with particular conflict situations in terms accessible to the communities most affected by them.

Raising awareness and profile

While these popular magazines represent one aspect of PBI's informative accompaniment, another aspect is aimed at raising awareness of the threats faced by defenders among national authorities and civil society, and the international community. As a field volunteer, one of my tasks was the elaboration of the monthly newsletter through which we update our networks on the situations of our accompanied organisations, and our bi-annual magazine. The magazine provides a space to analyse in greater depth the political dynamics that affect human rights in Guatemala and, through interviews, allow defenders to explain their struggles in their own words.

Political and legal protection

A crucial aspect of PBI's accompaniment is the advocacy work through which we visibilise the threats faced by defenders and the implications of our international accompaniment, a powerful mechanism to dissuade attacks. During my first months in PBI, much of our advocacy work was focused on the community evictions in the Verapaz region of northern Guatemala. Through our accompaniment of the Verapaz Union of Campesino Organisations (UVOC), PBI Guatemala is in contact with many indigenous communities which, although they have worked their land for generations, have never succeeded in securing formal land titles. A wave of evictions of such communities, routinely with disproportionate use of force, no plans for relocation and accompanying processes of criminalisation against community members, dominated the first half of my PBI year and had a powerful emotional impact. Although the problem of access to land is rooted in Guatemala's colonial past and far too complex for PBI to address directly, we focused our advocacy on highlighting the violations of international protocols associated with such evictions, as well as the undermining of possibilities for negotiated solutions, such as the dialogue tables in which the UVOC is a regular participant. Through regular meetings with national authorities, foreign embassies and international organisations, we contributed to holding institutional attention on the issue and facilitating embassy contacts through which the UVOC could engage in its own international advocacy. The impact of such work is hard to measure, but I felt privileged to be able, in some small way, to stand by the campesino families in one chapter of a decades-long struggle for justice. PBI for me has been a uniquely challenging and rewarding experience. The wide range of tasks the field volunteers undertake obliges every team member to develop skills in new areas, and the reality of living and working by consensus with the same ten people 24 hours a day requires an uncommon patience. The rewards are “colleagues” who become like family, a privileged access into the complexities of a troubled country, a wealth of learning, and a warm bond with defenders who have suffered more and struggled harder than I can truly comprehend. Their bravery and determination were inspirations throughout my year but it was their humanity – the stories, jokes and peculiarities of each defender I got to know – that will remain with me most and convinced me that perhaps the most important aspect of PBI's presence is simply solidarity.


Cat Rainsford