Land defenders in Guatemala. Images courtesy of Saul Paau Maaz.

Guatemalan land defenders are under threat and need justice

by Andrew Fandino, forests campaigner

Guatemalan land rights activist Rigoberto Lima Choc was shot and killed outside a courthouse in Peten, Guatemala on September 18, 2015. The murder occurred one day after a ruling by Judge Karla Hernandez, in a new USAID-supported environmental court, to suspend the palm oil operations of REPSA, a local company, due to its alleged massive contamination of the Pasion River. Rigoberto had been one of the first people to document and denounce the contamination, which has been referred to by activists and experts alike as “ecocide,” with over a million fish dead and over 12,000 people affected in 17 different communities. The court’s ruling of ecocide was precedent-setting — or would have been, if the violence that followed had not undermined the court’s authority.

Investigations into the ecocide and the murder of Rigoberto have not advanced. And just as recently as last month human rights defender Saul Paau Maaz, public spokesman for the Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature of Sayaxché, was the latest target of apparent intimidation by REPSA employees. At a private Commission meeting, REPSA employees showed up uninvited accompanied by three unknown individuals. It was later reputed that the unknown individuals were hired assassins, there to allegedly attack Saul.

The best way to defend our lands, rivers and forests is to speak out for the defenders — the people at the front lines of these struggles — so they may live on to continue fighting for all of us.

This threat is one of several that are highlighted by AmnestyInternational in a new digital platform called Speak out for Defenders! that makes visible the dangers faced by territory, land and environmental rights defenders in Latin America. The platform was launched last week in recognition of December 9, International Human Rights Defenders Day — the anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Saul Paau Maaz speaking to Friends of the Earth about the a mass fish die-off in Guatemala, April 2016. Photo credit: Josette Matoto.

Friends of the Earth has recognized International Human Rights Defenders Day, and taken another in a series of measures to spotlight the REPSA palm oil case, by sending a letter signed by eight leading international environmental and human rights organizations, demanding that the Guatemalan government take concrete steps to ensure the safety and protection of Saul and other land defenders in the Peten. The letter also urges progress in the investigation into Rigoberto Lima Choc’s murder, the death threats against human rights defender Marco Antonio Mateo; the kidnapping and release of three other activists; and the investigation into the ecocide of the Pasion River.

Read the letter to the Guatemalan government.

The best way to defend our lands, rivers and forests is to speak out for the defenders — the people at the front lines of these struggles — so they may live on to continue fighting for all of us.