Freedom for the Voices of the Lake
(Editor’s Note: This piece introduces the campaign for the Freedom of the Voices of Lake Izabal–a campaign to share information and denounce the repression being faced by Indigenous land and water defenders in the Lake Izabal region of Guatemala. The original in Spanish was published by Radio Kürrüf and can be found here).
“Freedom for the Voices of the Lake” is a campaign that seeks to make visible and denounce the reality of territorial plunder and dispossession, criminalization, persecution, assassinations, sexual violations, and political prison being lived by the Q’eqchi’ communities of El Estor and the communities around the Lake of Izabal and the Valley of Polochic in Izabel and Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. This violence is the result of these communities defending the lake from the contamination of extractive mining projects (CGN-PRONICO) in the territory and defending the hills that are being destroyed by this company. They are carrying out this defense in the face of a constant siege by local landowners and monoculture businesses that dispossess them of their territory and do not allow them to live in a dignified and peaceful manner.
On the other hand, is the problem of historical land dispossession from the neoliberal reform in the Valley of Polochic with structural causes, where the majority of communities have been dispossessed from their lands for the cultivation of African palm, sugar, banana, rubber, as well as mining exploitation by transnational businesses. Meanwhile the Q’eqchi’ people do not have land on which to grow their food and live in dignified places in a permanent manner. This problem without doubt has caused the highest levels of extreme poverty in these communities and chronic malnutrition due to the lack of land to cultivate their food.
The Guatemalan state has been insensitive and totally disengaged in the search for solutions to these problems. Furthermore, the institutions in charge have played a role in the persecution and criminalization of those searching to legally defend their lands. As long as the state does not seek true solutions and prioritize the majority of the population, the problems will persist and worsen. In this sense, it is not destabilizing communities, nor social organizations that are responsible for the agrarian problem, but on the contrary, extractive companies.
At the same time, the levels of contamination and diversion of the rivers is worrisome. This contamination and diversion is done for the use of monoculture crops and the mining industry seeking to exploit the lake of Izabal and other natural resources. The communities have denounced these practices with scientific evidence. However, the state institutions in charge are not promoting concrete actions to solve the problem but on the contrary, are criminalizing and persecuting the organizations and peoples that raise their voice in defense of the land and other natural resources. Spaces of dialogue must be built, but with concrete and viable responses and solutions, not only to entertain, deceive and criminalize Indigenous communities and the population in general.
We are working with the Q’eqchi’ ombudsmen and the Gillermo Toriello Foundation that has for more than 15 years accompanied and made visible the reality in El Estor. For two years we have joined in Solidarity Festivals to accompany the communities. All of this with the support of the Guatemalan Federation of Radiophonic Schools, a media organization with more than 40 years of work with community radios.
This campaign works on three cross-thematic lines to make visible the diversity of problems of the land and water defenders, those who are the voices of Lake of Izabal, who courageously have defended water, land and the freedom of expression.
Right to Freedom of Expression:
Jerson Xitumul Morales and Carlos Ernesto Choc are two men criminalized for exercising their work as journalists, for spreading information and investigating the contamination of the lake and for sharing denunciations of the Union of Artisan Fisherman of Estor, Izabal.
Jerson Xitumal is a journalist working with various written, radio and photo media. He was detained on November 11th, 2017, and was arbitrarily imprisoned for 38 days. His process was closed this past July 24th, due to lack of evidence in the District Court of Puerto Barrios, Izabal.
Right to Land:
Abelino Chub Caal and Maria Magdalena Cuc Choc are human rights defenders, criminalized for territorial defense and making visible the violent displacement and dispossession in the area.
Abelino Chub Caal is a professor and human rights promoter that has been imprisoned since February 4th of 2017. He has been imprisoned for more than 540 days in an arbitrary and irregular manner, for crimes that he did not commit. The prosecutor has asked for the dismissal of the case and Judge Anibal Arteaga López has refused to dismiss the case, also negating the right of the presumption of innocence.
Maria Magdalena Cuc Choc is a bilingual teacher that has worked as a translator in criminal cases on part of the justice system. She has accompanied and denounced the violent displacement in the Valley of Polochic and El Estor. She was a prisoner from January 17th-19th, 2018 and her process continues. She is also prohibited from leaving the department of Izabal and has to pay a very steep fine to be able to leave as an alternative measure.
Right to Water:
Cristobal Pop, Vicente Rax Pop, Eduardo Bin Poou, Juan Eduardo Caal Suram, Tomas Che Cucul and Marco Tulio Cuc, are human rights defenders and members of the Union of Fisherman of El Estor Izabal. They have been criminalized for denouncing the contamination of Lake Izabal being carried out by the nickel extractive company (CGN-PRONICO). On May 27th, 2017, they went to protest against the mining company and were repressed and criminalized leaving one fisherman dead, Carlos Maaz. Furthermore, the acts that occurred that day left a large list of people with arrest orders.
Juan Eduardo Caal Suram was a prisoner, detained from October 11th, 2017 to November 24th, 2017. He was imprisoned for 43 days.
Eduardo Bin Poou has been a prisoner since June 29th, with more than 28 days in arbitrary detention, accused of crimes that he did not commit.