9 August marks the International Day of Indigenous People, whose 2018 theme focuses on addressing the root causes of forced indigenous migration. The deteriorating human rights situation for rural communities in Guatemala shows that protecting indigenous activists is crucial.
On Friday 27 July 2018, the father of Juana Raymundo became concerned when he called her mobile phone and found that it had been turned off. She worked as a nurse and had been expected to go to the departmental capital to submit some work reports. She never arrived. Her body was found the next day on the banks of a creek between Nebaj and the community of Acambalam. Marks on her body indicated that she had been tortured.
Juana was a twenty-five year-old member of the Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA), a grassroots human rights organisation dedicated to promoting land rights and rural development for indigenous communities in Guatemala. She was a member of the Maya Ixil indigenous group, and worked as a coordinator of CODECA in Nebaj. Her killing was the fifteenth of a land rights activist in Guatemala so far in 2018 – already over double 2017’s total. In this wave of assassinations, CODECA has been particularly targeted, alongside the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), an organisation focused on promoting social equality and participation for indigenous and rural Guatemalan communities. Other indigenous and campesino organisations across the country have also seen death threats and direct attacks against them increase.
An alert released by PBI Guatemala in June details the initial wave of killings and concurrent attacks against PBI’s accompanied organisations. Tragically, these incidents were only the beginning of what has become an intensifying spiral of violence. A recent update compiles a full list of the 14 Guatemalan human rights defenders killed in 2018 prior to Juana, alongside analysis of a series of current legislative proposals that threaten alarming restrictions on civil society freedoms in the country. As PBI has witnessed time and again over our decades protecting threatened defenders, physical attacks and political attacks tend to reinforce one another in the effort to silence those who speak up for social justice.
The issues being confronted by Juana and other murdered and threatened members of Guatemala’s indigenous associations are similar to those faced by indigenous communities across the world. The forced displacement of indigenous families, the construction of megaprojects on indigenous lands without the communities’ consent, and unequal access to basic resources such as water and electricity are among the primary causes of indigenous migration and the disintegration of indigenous communities and cultures.
This year, the UN’s International Day of Indigenous Peoples, celebrated on 9 August, has as its theme the situation of indigenous territories and the root causes of indigenous migration. Its aim is to “explore the challenges and ways forward to revitalize indigenous peoples’ identities and encourage the protection of their rights in or outside their traditional territories”.
In order to achieve this goal, the political participation of indigenous human rights defenders such as Juana Raymundo is crucial. Across the world, indigenous communities are working together to denounce threats to their lands and cultures and formulate creative strategies for alternative development. 20 years ago, the role of such activists in promoting peaceful social change was recognised and celebrated in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
The crisis in Guatemala illustrates how far we still have to go in protecting and promoting the work of marginalised indigenous and rural Human Rights Defenders.
There can be no meaningful change while their voices continue to be ignored or even, tragically, silenced.
For information on our Nobel Peace Prize campaign to highlight the collective contribution of Human Rights Defenders to peace and democracy, click here.