By: Este Chep, Interim BTS Guatemala Coordinator
Just over one hundred days have passed since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Guatemala and the beginning of various containment responses by the Guatemalan Government. The sudden reaction to the crisis led to a wide social, political and economic disarray affecting millions. Under the banner of an emergency mitigation response to COVID-19, over a dozen decrees have been passed through the Guatemalan Congress and in this shuffle millions of dollars in loans have been taken out. While some of the loans were meant to provide assistance to the most vulnerable populations, the programs through which these would be distributed were largely inaccessible to most working-class Guatemalans and have yet to reach target.
In anticipation of this and out of deep concern for our friends and partners in Guatemala, in late April BTS launched an urgent action addressed to the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala as well as the Guatemalan Government. Our aim in this was to demonstrate international solidarity and provide visibility for land struggles, the defense of territory and human rights in Guatemala. Given the repression communities face through extractivism, agro-industries, and large-scale land ownership, we wanted to lend our voice to help ensure that the pandemic was not used to further exacerbate and exploit the vulnerabilities of communities in resistance. Through the many letters that were sent out, we demanded that the Guatemalan Government stop the criminalization and dispossession of communities, and we urged authorities to:
- Defend the interests of small-scale farmers;
- Ensure the working class access to basic necessities such as food, shelter and safety;
- Uphold the rights of Indigenous communities to land and to free, prior and informed consent in regard to their territories;
- Cease the criminalization of human rights and land defenders and guarantee their legal protection.
Our letters went unanswered by the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala and by Guatemalan government officials. Fast forwarding to today, we see that our initial concerns at the onset of the pandemic continue to mount and incur dangerous realities for many. With the rise of daily infections in Guatemala we continue to also witness a rise in repression and disregard for the most vulnerable. Failure to mitigate the pandemic while safeguarding the interests of the majority of Guatemalans and in particular Indigenous, working class and vulnerable populations is exposed in the following ways:
- Small-scale farmers have suffered from inter-departmental restrictions preventing them from finding local markets for their harvests which in some cases forced entire yields to rot in place before they could be bought or sold, and in other cases had to be given away for free to support local communities at the expense of months of hard labour and investment by farmers. At the same time, private companies and multinationals enjoyed access to distribution permits to continue flooding communities across the country with processed foods. This led to the mass mobilizations of farmers in Sololá in mid May and the blocking of major roads demanding access to mobility for farmers. Similar actions took place in other parts of the country including in San Marcos, Quiché and Totonicapan.
- Access to basic necessities such as food, shelter and safety has not been provided for the majority of the 70% of Guatemalans who’s income comes from the informal economy. Various forms of restrictions to mobility and a halt to public services have left countless out of work, food, access to basic health services and in general limbo as to what to expect in the near future. Social assistance programs announced by the government through decree 15 were stalled in congress for weeks after not being approved by the president citing the need for reform and were finally only made official on May 21 (well over two months after the crisis began). Other initiatives such as the providing subsidies to laid off workers or providing food boxes for families, which promised to reach millions of families with a one-time donation of processed foods has not reached its target. In many parts of the country we have spoken with communities who have not yet seen any of the government’s COVID-19 assistance programs. As Guatemala merely begins to enter the steep climb towards reaching its pandemic peak, its poorly kept healthcare system has already collapsed. On June 10 there were 7.866 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 289 deaths. This grew to 15,619 confirmed cases and 623 deaths by June 26.
- The rights of Indigenous communities to land and to free, prior and informed consent in regard to their territories continues to be denied through forced evictions and undermined by mining companies including PanAmerican Silver’s Escobal project in San Rafael las Flores as well as the CGN-Solway Fenix project in El Estor. Both companies have been found to be distributing food in exchange for signatures and identification numbers to people around their project sites who are in desperate need of food, a tactic seen as an attempt to sway the trust and support of communities, raising concerns that this will be a way to coerce people into supporting and approving their projects during the pending consultations required for each project to legally operate in the country. Both projects are allegedly still operating despite Constitutional Court rulings preventing them from doing so, and the communities around both projects continue to deal with the impacts of escalating tension, violence and threats to communities who are in opposition to mining.
- The criminalization of human rights and land defenders continues to increase despite the imposed restrictions on mobility due to the pandemic. In the Xalapán region of Jalapa there have been at least 11 arrest warrants issued against community members allegedly for their participation in the peaceful resistance to the Escobal project. It is likely that more warrants will be issued in this region as well as others across the country. In addition to this, intimidation and threats to human rights and land defenders is on the rise. There have also been multiple murders of environmentalists as well as community leaders.
As the worldwide impacts of the pandemic are increasingly felt, the disruption to the economies that finance international cooperation implies even more uncertainty around where future resources and support for human rights and land defenders will come from. The quick acceleration of community spread of COVID-19 in the context of a weakened state means that the precariousness of life in Guatemala will likely only become more entrenched in the weeks and months to come. BTS’ structure as a voluntary-based network and our commitment to work on the ground is a strength in this difficult context. Now more than ever, we are called to strengthen our solidarity and follow through with the responsibility placed upon us to give back and support the relationships that sustain us. We will continue to observe the situation on the ground and work on building closer relations with our partners in Guatemala to support their struggles despite the new challenges.
In the weeks and months to come, we will continue to meet, organize, plan, and take action in the face of the most pressing issues affecting our friends and partners in Guatemala as in the Maritimes. Thank you for your attentiveness, support and all the energy you pour into our collective work for justice.