By Jim Hodgson
After a drenching ride along Guatemala’s Atlantic coast from the city of Livingston, our boat approached Macho Creek. It’s a small, mangrove-lined river that leads inland to the Indigenous Q’eqchi’ community also known as Macho Creek. This day, March 21, the river was overflowing its banks because of heavy morning rain.
The rain stopped an hour or so later when the people of the community began a ceremony of prayer, song and dance to welcome their visitors: a team from the Comité Campesino del Altiplano – CCDA (Highlands Committee of Small Farmers) accompanied by Raphael Freston and I from BTS, and lawyers from Livingston.
And so began a day of getting to know each other: telling stories, building trust, drawing maps and pictures – all with the intention of strengthening the claim of the people to the land where they live.
The tools used by CCDA here (as in many of the other 1,300+ situations of land conflict where CCDA is involved) are borrowed from different fields (law, popular education, anthropology, social history) and have different names (appreciative inquiry, participatory research). I saw a similar process unfold over three days a year ago in Granada Uno, a Q’eqchi’ community in northern Quiché department.
(Cerro de Gallo [Rooster’s Peak], photo and child’s drawing)
After an attempt last August to evict the 78 families who live there, Macho Creek became one of CCDA’s newest cases. The land claim here is large: almost 9,000 hectares, but not all of it can be lived on or farmed. The community, first described in a 1913 census document, has been threatened several times previously over the past century, including by cattle ranchers. The most recent attempts come from a group of forestry companies. Their strategy is the common one in Guatemala of making fake complaints that can result in real charges and the criminalization of land defenders. When police and government officials acting on behalf of those companies arrived in Macho Creek last Aug. 17, community leaders called Gustavo Vélez of the Aboconsult law firm in Livingston. “They called me so that I would come to defend them against a forced eviction,” Vélez explained in an interview. “I came and convinced those who were to carry out the eviction that dialogue would be better.” Later, however, the so-called “owners” rejected the idea of dialogue.
(Gustavo Vélez, lawyer from Livingston who works with Macho Creek residents)
Meanwhile, Vélez contacted CCDA because he knew of its work in similar situations. CCDA staff met with Vélez and community leaders in December in a nearby city, Río Dulce, and plans began for our March visit. Land title searches so far show no connection between the land claimed by the companies and the actual location of Macho Creek.
After the ceremony, several community leaders outlined their expectations, and CCDA coordinator Leocadio Juracán proposed a way of working in small groups that would bring forth the people’s history and description of Macho Creek. This would be a preliminary process, with more work to be done later.
This day, Leocadio worked with leaders of several community organizations; Everaldo Morales worked with the women; Luis Xep handed out crayons and paper so that children could draw pictures of their homes and the town; Raphael interviewed elders in the community – two couples with long memories.
Meanwhile, I set off with four younger men on motorcycles who would show me their town: the creek, risen so high that people from the other side could not cross to join our meeting; the Cerro de Gallo (Rooster’s Peak), where roosters can be heard calling even though there are no chickens on that mountain; three churches (one Catholic and two Protestant); a soggy soccer field where boys played; and fields of corn and pineapple. That’s one of a few cash crops: life here is provided by the land, creek and ocean.
Ever curious about languages, I had to ask about the name of the community and the river: Macho Creek. Why?
In the 1913 census, the community is listed as Macho Crigua. The answer to the first part was clear. The curling mangroves seemed like men’s beards to people in the distant past, and “macho,” my friends said, means beard in Q’eqchi’. Crigua may be from another Maya language, perhaps Mam: a research question for a different day, a different gathering. Guatemala’s Atlantic coast has long been an intercultural space: diverse Indigenous groups; French, English and Garífuna speakers of African and Arawak descent; Asians whose ancestors may have been indentured labourers in Belize or elsewhere in the Caribbean; and the descendants of European settlers. Over time, Crigua gave way to the English word Creek. I asked one of my guides, Gerardo Choc, 38, about his hopes for the future.
“We hope for a solution, so we carry forward this project: Mother Earth. We love this place. We want juridical certainty, legalization. There’s no place we’ll say that we’ll go: this is our place, what our grandparents left for us in these times.”