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Guatemala: Water, Memory, & Militarization: How one of our partners is building Power.

Water, Memory, & Militarization: How one of our partners is building Power.

Written by: Maisie, first published on February 1st, 2023, by  the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)

It can be difficult for people outside of NISGUA to understand the struggles we support here on the ground in Guatemala. If you ask me, this is in large part because of the amount of story required. Because what is truly needed is not only for someone to wrap their head around what struggles for life mean in Guatemala, but also to have this understanding lead them back to the makings of their own stories. And it is this revolution– casting our perspective out only to swing back home again– that makes revolutions.

One of the central struggles of Guatemalan land defenders today is the fight for municipal water protection agreements. To understand why land defenders are organizing in this way at this moment, a bit of story is required. 

In 2016, three rivers of demonstrators poured in from the North, East, and South to converge in Guatemala City. They were walking for water. Hundreds of people – primarily poor and Indigenous – traveled up to 250 km on foot in a socio-political climate where environmental activism significantly shortens one’s life span (1). With many land defenders ending up either in prison or an early grave, Guatemala continues to have one of the highest murder rates for environmental activists in the world.

Yet, hundreds of people risked their lives, as well as many days of work and earnings, in order to demand water protection. Upon arriving in Guatemala City, the demonstrators united to host the “Peoples’ Court of Conscience,” during which they condemned corporations for violating the rights of the land, water, and Indigenous peoples. These threats often take the form of mines, hydroelectric dams, and other extractive projects imposed on Indigenous land without consent. This event was an important moment for community organizers around the country to discuss strategy and goals (2). One result was the decision to establish municipal water protection agreements in all 31 municipalities in the western department of Huehuetenango. NISGUA’s long-time partner, the People’s Assembly of the Department of Huehuetenango (ADH), continues organizing towards this goal today, seven years later.

A quick bit of context: Huehuetenango is a majority-Indigenous department on the border with Mexico. It is made up of bountiful rivers, forests, and communities cultivating coffee and other crops in the mountains. The region has seen some of the highest numbers of migration northward, as well as the increasing presence of Guatemalan, Mexican, and even US military on its border as the transnational crackdown against migration has intensified over the last years.

Of course, the march in 2016 was far from the first, last, or the only fight for water at its time. For as long as there has been colonization, monoculture, mining, and hydroelectric projects in Guatemala, people have fought for water. For many people in the United States, unless you are one of the few lucky residents with a well, water arrives at our faucets without much thought about where it comes from or how many miles it’s been diverted to arrive at your door. Many people take our distance from water – as well as its transportation and sanitization – for granted. And that, perhaps, contributes to why we do not all feel an automatic, fervent impulse to get up in arms every time we learn about water struggles in other places.

While the fight for clean, potable water has looked different ways at different times across Guatemala, the violence used to dispossess people of water has taken a continuous form: militarization. 

In general terms, militarization is the cultural, symbolic, and material preparation for war, and is marked by the presence of state militaries in everyday life (3). According to this definition, the Guatemalan government and transnational corporations have been waging a war against the right to water for decades. This is not hyperbole. How is war not an accurate description, when in the recent words of land defenders, the profit-driven state is “attempting to turn us into slaves in our own lands. They call us invaders of our own territories and evict us, women, children, grandmothers, grandfathers, men and women are persecuted, displaced, murdered”(4). When military-grade vehicles, weapons, and intelligence are used against civilians because it is a national security threat for one to protect something as elemental as clean water, doesn’t it make sense for people to feel like they are fighting for their lives? This militarization disrupts entire communities not only physically but also culturally. Water, along with being necessary to live, holds symbolic and spiritual meanings across Mayan cultures that are older than Western society itself.

Why, then, when so many lives are on the line, would the ADH use municipal water agreements as their organizing weapon of choice? What is the significance of these agreements and how do they protect communities?

In brief, the municipal water agreements state that under national and international law, governments have a responsibility to promote and protect people’s survival, and since water is essential to life, governments have a responsibility to protect the water. As such, all water sources, tributaries, and resources are guaranteed legal protection and their detriment – whether via privatization, contamination, or diversion –  is punishable under law (5).

These agreements must be signed by the municipal mayor in order to pass. Because politics is a game of favors and favorites, the 33 municipal mayors in Huehuetenango closely align themselves with the conservative elite and seldom take action without pressure. That pressure is where the role of community organizing comes into the picture.

Each municipal water agreement is a feat of community organizing. In each of the 4 municipalities in which officials have drafted water agreements, the members of the ADH’s small team have dedicated countless hours talking to people. Through workshops, posters, and one-on-ones, the ADH slowly educates neighbors about the human right to water and how they can protect that right by demanding their mayor sign a municipal water agreement. Bear in mind that one of the biggest ways corruption rears its head in Guatemala is by denying the majority of the population education about their rights, laws, and how the government works. As a result, the ADH’s work requires strategic building blocks of popular education all while communicating across Mayan language and cultural differences.

And, yet, one cannot help but ask why these land defenders put so much weight in legislation in a country where the law has never kept the powerful elites from doing what they want. The ADH knows this. During a conversation I had with them last fall, they clarified that “the people’s memory is more important than the law.” This phrase contains the key to their organizing.

The individual conversations that the ADH has with everyday people, the dissemination of the basic understanding that every person – Indigenous, poor, female, young – has inalienable rights, the proof that a united voice can make legislators take action they wouldn’t have otherwise – these memories of change-making is what matters. For it is this seed of dignity, sown through relationship,that no government or level of militarization can truly uproot. By doing this work, the ADH shows us one way of gaining power in a losing game. And this is precisely the kind of wisdom needed in the United States and beyond as corruption, climate change, and racism increasingly make it feel like death is outrunning justice.

The ADH teaches us that everyone contains the incredible organizing tool of reminding others how human, sacred, and worthy they are. And when one moves from this place of inherent power, it becomes inevitable to fight for life; to fight for water.