José Méndez climbed the mountain behind his rural Ch’orti ‘Mayan community of Corozal, in eastern Guatemala. He pointed to an abandoned house owned by the plantation owner who ran that hill. “Right in front of this house, they killed our three companions, the same day the county government recognized us as an indigenous community with rights to the land. “
Higher up the mountain, in the haze of corn and coffee fields, Méndez shows a large reservoir of water that irrigates the community’s crops as well as small family gardens of nutritious and medicinal herbs. “That’s why we sacrificed ourselves. To reclaim our land and our water for a chance to survive here.
He said that all of this – the crops, the gardens, the land, the water – is due to the local organization Comunich (the coordinator of associations and communities for the holistic development of the Ch’orti ‘Maya). This small organization of nine full-time defenders is making historic gains.
He reclaimed huge swathes of ancestral land for indigenous communities through a revolutionary legal strategy that is replicated across Guatemala and Central America. It also runs workshops on governance, nutrition and climate resilience that help communities avoid displacement and migration in the face of intensifying droughts and storms.
Comundich is an example of the type of climate change mitigation project funded by Global Greengrants Fund United Kingdom, one of four charities supported by the 2021 Guardian and Observer Call for climate justice. Global Greengrants works with international partners through the Clima Fund invest in small climate projects across the south of the world.
Comunich works in difficult conditions. Guatemala is among the 10 countries already most affected by climate change, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In eastern Guatemala, Comundich is “in the eye of the storm,” according to Silvel Elías, professor of agricultural development at the Guatemalan University of San Carlos. He said the region – which is part of Central America’s “dry corridor” – has some of the highest rates of poverty, migration and climate vulnerability in the country, in large part because indigenous communities have gradually been stripped of their territory for centuries.
Elías said that by focusing on land ownership, Comundich is addressing the roots of the problem. “In this region, you can’t talk about development and leave the land out of the equation. But, he says, “talking about land is dangerous there.”
Land elites dominate the political class, and attempts to reclaim ancestral lands threaten powerful interests.
Since its founding in 2004, 10 leaders and community partners of Comunich have been murdered and 30 have spent time in prison. In 2020 alone, the Unit for the Protection of Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders documented 15 targeted killings of human rights defenders, more than 1,000 assaults and acts of aggression and more than 300 cases of criminalization – the filing of false accusations for political reasons.
But Comunich never backed down. “They are not afraid,” said Elías, who consults with international donors and works with community groups across Guatemala. He said the organization is one of the most effective in the country because of its low overhead costs, its commitment to long-term planning and women’s leadership, and the tremendous confidence it has built with communities by involving them in decision-making.
He developed these strengths by helping the Ch’orti ‘Mayan towns of the Chiquimula Department face a triple threat of displacement as a major mining project, local plantation owners and county authorities all sought to s’ seize the lands and springs of Ch’orti ‘.
Comundich took charge, devising a long-term legal strategy with affected towns to unite local Ch’orti communities, oppose the mine, and convince county governors to officially recognize them as indigenous communities, which which would grant them special rights to the land. and water.
It was not easy ; Comundich had to transform the deep-rooted fear of Indigenous identity into pride, unity and strength. For decades, plantation owners who encroached on Ch’orti ‘territory and then employed land-poor laborers for a pittance saw indigenous language and clothing as signs of resistance that deserve abuse. or arrests.
This identity repression intensified during the brutal 36-year internal armed conflict in Guatemala, which lasted until 1996, left 200,000 dead and 45,000 missing, and led to a genocide of indigenous peoples in the years 1980. Most of the dead were non-combatants killed by the military and government-aligned death squads.
“That’s when we lost a lot of our traditional language and clothing and other signs of our identity, so now the plantation owners say we are not indigenous and we are not. ‘have no rights to our ancestral territory,’ said Esteban Ramírez, a Ch’orti ‘. Indigenous mayor of the city of Guayabo.
These programs enabled communities to rally around the concept of Ch’orti ‘identity and, on June 6, 2013, a new governor granted formal recognition. Families no longer had to pay to live on their small plots and gained sovereignty over vital forest sources. “It was like our independence day,” Méndez said.
That same June night, three community leaders were killed. “Our opportunity has now been paid for in blood,” said Yesenia Martínez de Corozal. “We have become more united. We had no choice but to keep fighting for this land. The plantation owners no longer wanted to hire us, even for this horrible job, and our children were hungry. “
After years of dialogue with national authorities, Comundich found a 19th century land concession that showed what communities had always known: Land claims taken from the Ch’orti ‘families were illegitimate. Finally, in 2018, Corozal obtained legal title to the land. That’s when they started building the reservoirs and planning for the future.
Méndez said: “We have a long way to go. But now we are truly free.