On July 27, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court resolved the final appeal in the Indigenous Ch’ortí land case, recognising the right to ancestral and community lands in the municipality of Jocotán, Chiquimula.
The court notified the parties that the initial sentence received in 2015 was final, which means that joint ownership of the 240km2 of indigenous territory once again belongs to the Maya Ch’ortí people, and implies that the municipality must coordinate with the indigenous council for land administration. This is a major victory for the indigenous communities who have fought for years to gain recognition of their rights and to protect their territory from extractive projects.
Guatemala is home to 21 Maya indigenous groups, comprising 51% of the population. Since the Spanish conquest of America the indigenous populations have resisted colonisation and fought to protect their ancestral lands. Today many indigenous groups continue the struggle to protect their collective rights in the face of ever increasing threats from extractive activity and hydroelectric dam construction.
The Ch’ortí are a Mayan people who have lived for centuries in what is now Eastern Guatemala and Northern Honduras. While the Ch’ortí once occupied a large share of the region, wars, plundering, and evictions have restricted the area they now occupy. Their right to territory was denied during the 1900s with the creation of the municipality structure and again in 2000 with the creation of the National Land Registry.
Following this landmark judgement, the Ch’ortí have been able to prove that that their ancestors purchased the deeds and property titles to their ancestral land in the mid-19th century, making them the rightful owners of the territory. This reaffirmation of their right to the land will allow them to make decisions about the use and sale of the land, particularly in the context of the installation of extractive projects without consultation. In 2007, the Bosch Gutierrez family’s Tres Niñas hydroelectric plant was granted a licence for 50 years. With the ruling, this and any prospective hydroelectric projects will be cancelled.
The final report concluded that the Ch’ortí’s collective rights as an indigenous people, as guaranteed both by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation and Article 67 of the Guatemalan Constitution, have been violated by the failure to adequately consult the communities prior to the approval of the projects. It goes on to make a series of recommendations on how the companies and the Guatemalan government can strengthen the community consultation process and ensure the undertaking of an independent social and environmental study on the impact of the dams. It also recommends a national review of legislation and policy to ensure that government practice regarding indigenous rights aligns with international law. Once the reports were printed in Spanish they were distributed amongst the Maya Ch’ortí communities. The report is an important tool for local leaders; in a meeting with the German embassy a community member held up the report and called it ‘their bible’, as it documented the situation and helped legitimise their historic struggle.
The New Day Ch’ortí Campesino Central Coordinator (CCCND) have spearheaded this campaign and in 2015 filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court demanding the co-ownership of the land. The CCCND work in Chiquimula department providing support and legal representation to local communities campaigning on issues related to land, environmental, and cultural rights.
PBI have been accompanying CCCND and the indigenous Maya Ch’ortí communities of Jocotán for more than a decade. PBI UK have specifically provided support through advocacy and awareness raising actions including a 2015 legal delegation and fact-finding mission. The delegation was composed of Human Rights professor Dr Julian Burger and barristers Monica Feria-Tinta and Claire McGregor, all experts in the fields of indigenous rights and corporate social responsibility. During their time in the country, they met with a range of actors and organisations relevant to the conflict.
CCCND coordinator Omar Jeronimo also visited the UK in 2015 to launch the report and carry out advocacy for the rights of the indigenous communities. In 2018 Domingo Vazquez, a Maya Ch’ortí indigenous leader from Jocotán village Pelillo Negro, undertook a Europe wide speaker tour, where he met with MPs and the FCO as well as the UK legal community and presented the situation at a parliamentary panel event. Domingo’s community was covered by the constitutional court ruling.
Due to their work defending human rights, CCCND members have suffered numerous aggressions including attacks, death threats, illegal surveillance and acts of intimidation. The situation has become deeply worrying, with spokesman Omar Jerónimo and other prominent figures in the organisation increasingly warned of assassination plots against them.
In addition, the organization continues to denounce a campaign of criminalization against it. Numerous CCCND members have had to respond in court to repeated accusations, mainly from the Chiquimula state prosecutor, after complaints filed by private parties and local public authorities in relation to their human rights work in the region’s communities. CCCND members Agustín García and Timoteo Suchite, members of the Indigenous Council of the community of Las Flores, were sentenced in May 2014 to 6 years in prison. The CCCND has denounced the lack of a proper investigation, due process and the failure to guarantee their rights.
PBI has been accompanying CCCND since 2009, following initial reports of threats and harassment of its members. Our protective accompaniment strategy includes risk assessments, documentation of violations, and engagement with influential stakeholders such as pro bono legal experts to ensure their safety. Omar Jeronimo (coordinator of the CCCND) says: ‘accompaniment in Guatemala saves lives’.