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Environmental Human Rights: Q’eqchi’ land & environment defenders vs Mining A 60-year human rights & justice struggle

Rights Action

Greetings. I just finished an 18 day trip, mainly in the mining-harmed territories of the Maya Q’eqchi’ people in eastern Guatemala. 
As I was completing this report / funding appeal, yet another Q’eqchi’ land and rights defender – Cristobal Pop (who Rights Action has been supporting since 2017) – has been (arbitrarily, of course) jailed.

As many of you know, Rights Action has been very involved in funding and supporting Indigenous land and environmental defenders, and their human rights and justice struggles in the Q’eqchi’ territories of eastern Guatemala since 2004.
With the immediacy of this recent trip in mind, Rights Action sends this special appeal for their work and struggles.

For a number of complex and very unfortunate reasons, the human rights/ repression/ corruption/ impunity situation is even harder in this region, and has been going on longer, than in other regions of Guatemala – Honduras, as well - where people and communities that Rights Action supports are involved in their own community defense struggles.

Rights Action - In summary
Funding community defense struggles
Since 1995, Rights Action has been funding Indigenous and non-Indigenous community organizations carrying out territory and environmental defense struggles, and human rights and justice struggles in Guatemala and Honduras.

Emergency response funds
Rights Action provides funds to our partner groups and communities in response to climate disasters (ex: hurricanes Mitch, Stan, Eta, Iota), to the harsh impact of COVID, and to repression that they suffer on an on-going basis.

Global north accountability
At every step of the way, Rights Action builds north-south relationships between partner groups and solidarity groups and folks in the US and Canada, and carries out education, activism and legal actions to try and hold accountable the US and Canadian governments, our companies and investors – including institutions such as the World Bank - that often contribute to and profit from the exploitation and poverty, environmental destruction, repression and violence, corruption and impunity that our partner groups are suffering.


The exploitative, global economic «development» model
Across Honduras and Guatemala, like in many countries of the global south, people suffer systemic human rights violations, environmental and health harms, land theft, repression and corruption, caused by the ‘for-export’ production of African palm and sugar cane, bananas and pineapples, mineral resources and hydro-electric energy, maquiladora ‘sweatshop’ clothing, and by the tourism industry.

Much of what they suffer, year in and year out, is caused by this violently imposed economic/political order … that many refer to as global capitalism, free markets, neo-liberalism, neo-imperialism, etc.

"Our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may -in ways we prefer not to imagine- be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others."
(Susan Sontag)

And they resist.
They struggle, work and advocate to stay on their own lands, and for an end to the repression, harms and corruption caused by this global economic model.
They struggle for a different “development” model, one that is owned, controlled and implemented locally, based on fundamental notions of equality of individuals and peoples, one that is respectful of the environment, of Mother Earth.

Not a “resource curse”
In certain circles, one hears of a so-called “resource curse” - ie, that people live on lands that wealthy economic interests (national and international) covet, to produce these ‘for-export’ products, or for tourism complexes.

The problem is not, of course, land and earth, forests, water sources and mountains.

The problem is, of course, the exploitative, oft-times violent global economic model.

The curse is the repression and exploitation, corruption and impunity with which powerful economic actors operate, backed by complicit governments, local economic elites, military and police.

Q’eqchi’ territories
The Q’eqchi’ territories of eastern Guatemala are rich with arable lands, fresh water, forests, rivers and mountains.

Without re-telling a 500-year story of violent dispossession during centuries of imperialism, colonialism and settler-colonialism, in the late 1800s, racist, repressive regimes (that of Rufino Barrios in particular, a military general and president from 1873 to 1885) began violently evicting Q’eqchi’ peoples from their lands in the Polochic and Cahobon river valleys through to the north shores of lake Izabal in El Estor, illegally handing these lands to European immigrants who were “bringing development”.

“Glorious victory”
This model of violent “development” picked up ever more so after the US military coup in 1954, that ousted Guatemala’s last real democratic government.

The curse of violent, corrupt mining
While a range of powerful international economic interests (with their local economic elite partners) have long coveted the lands of the Q’eqchi’ peoples, no sector of the global economy has been more dominating, violent, corrupt and destructive in this region than nickel mining.

In the 1950s, after the US-orchestrated military coup, huge nickel deposits were located in the mountains that run east-west along the north and south shores of Lake Izabal.

From the 1960s through to 2011, successive Canadian companies (INCO, Skye Resources, Hudbay Minerals) controlled (illegally, according to the Q’eqchi’ peoples of the region) huge swathes of Q’eqchi’ lands, backed by the Canadian government and successive Guatemalan regimes.

Since 2011, Solway Investment Group, a Swiss company, took over ownership and control of these nickel mining interests, through to today.
Since the 1960s, the Q’eqchi’ people have been under siege of nickel-mining, on and off.

In the 1970s and early 80s, they experienced a serious wave of violent dispossession and repression. Then, after a 20-year lull, the dispossession, repression and harms began again in 2004, and continue through to today.

There is no end in sight.