Bernardo Caal represents an emblematic case of criminalization for the defense of land and territory in Guatemala. In 2018, he was imprisoned without evidence for defending the Cahabón River - key and sacred to the indigenous Maya Q'eqchi communities - against the installation of hydroelectric companies, which was intended to be carried out without the prior consultation with the affected communities established by law. On March 24, after more than four years in prison, he was released. His fight for the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples continues stronger than ever.
You are a recognized environmental defender in Guatemala. Why were you imprisoned?
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN GUATEMALA IS THAT COMPANIES ARE PLUNDERING THE MAYA Q'EQCHI INDIGENOUS TERRITORIES.
THE COMMUNITIES ARE NOT BEING INFORMED OR CONSULTED ABOUT THE MEGA-PROJECTS THAT ARE PROPOSED, SO THE STATE IS NOT COMPLYING WITH INTERNATIONAL NORMS SUCH AS AGREEMENT 169 OF THE ILO.
When we in our community realized that the Cahabón river - which is of vital importance to our people - was being diverted for the installation of hydroelectric dams, we began to find out what would happen in our territory. When we became clearer about the megaprojects and their consequences, we began to demonstrate publicly.
I was appointed spokesperson for the one hundred communities that spoke out against them and we decided to take legal action to claim our rights to be informed, consulted and give our consent, so we filed an injunction through me before the judicial institutions. The judicial institutions agreed with us, recognizing that the rights of the indigenous peoples had been violated, and the licenses of Oxec S.A.'s hydroelectric companies were momentarily suspended.
It was at that moment that I began to be defamed and persecuted, and crimes of aggravated robbery and illegal detention were fabricated against me. The judge gave evidentiary value to testimonies of people linked to Oxec S.A. and I received a sentence of 7 years. In the next few months I will face another judicial process and I don't know what will happen.
One feels that there is nothing one can do about these crimes that are charged, because the justice system is corrupt and is managed by the companies that generate the dispossession. Corruption is also evident because there are judges and prosecutors who are persecuted and must leave the country.
In March of this year he was released after 4 years in prison. How was this achieved?
We presented evidence proving my innocence and appeals in accordance with the law when I was imprisoned, but these were not taken into account by the judicial bodies due to the corruption I mention.
I have spent four years and two months in prison for the sentence of more than seven years that I received and I got out for good behavior. In Guatemala there is a rule that states that when half of the sentence is served and the person demonstrates good behavior, the prison system can grant benefits. I was released because I was able to present documentation and evidence again - not because the criminalization by the State has ended.
What is the status of the struggle of the Q'eqchí indigenous communities for the Cahabón River and the natural resources on which they depend?
THE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN IN RESISTANCE AND FIGHTING FOR NATURE AND NATURAL RESOURCES.
Since we were children we have been taught to love nature and take care of it, it is part of our memory. That is why we will always raise our voices in the face of threats to natural resources, and in this particular case, in defense of the Cahabón River. We only give continuity to the struggle of the people that has been going on for hundreds of years in the face of the plundering by those who established the State of Guatemala 200 years ago. In 1821 a State was delineated that, although in theory involves us, in practice it has only dispossessed us of our lands, impoverishing the native peoples.
In the communities' territories, the State is totally absent, as there are no public services for people to develop. The State only appears when it arrives to support the companies and authorizes them to appropriate what we have taken such great care of. The struggle of indigenous peoples will continue until the day we manage to free ourselves from oppression.
Between 2018 and 2019 alone, 234 land and environmental defenders were imprisoned in Guatemala. How do you see the current situation of these defenders?
THE SITUATION OF THOSE WHO DEFEND THE LAND AND THE ENVIRONMENT HAS WORSENED A LOT IN GUATEMALA. CRIMINALIZATION HAS SKYROCKETED AND TODAY IS EVEN MORE CRITICAL THAN IN PREVIOUS YEARS.
The dispossession and evictions in the Q'eqchi territories have increased. Now, for example, natural resources around Lake Izabal in the municipality of El Estor are being plundered by mining companies. There the state security forces have escorted the trucks of the company that is operating in the territory because there was resistance on the part of the sisters and brothers. The army and police deployed thousands of troops and repressed those resisting the mining company.
THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF ARREST WARRANTS AGAINST Q'EQCHÍ MEN AND WOMEN FOR DEFENDING LAND AND TERRITORIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY.
People who participate in demonstrations against companies that plunder the territories are exposed to persecution by the State. For example, Sister Maria Choc has just been sentenced to two years in prison for a crime of usurpation that they have invented. She does not usurp! She is accused of usurping a farm when in fact she lives in the town of El Estor.
Like her there are many other brothers and sisters with substitute measures, which means that if they meet certain requirements and pay a bail they can be free, but they must appear in court periodically to sign a certificate. We see how institutions such as the Public Ministry and the courts are controlled by economic powers and are used to intimidate people who speak out and demand their rights.
THE INTENTION IS TO INTIMIDATE AND PRESSURE PEOPLE WITH LEGAL PROCEEDINGS TO STOP FIGHTING FOR THEIR RIGHTS, BUT IN MOST CASES THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN AND THEY CONTINUE TO FIGHT.
Several human rights organizations, including the International Land Coalition via Land Rights Now, have advocated around your emblematic criminalization case. What impact has this had and how do you see your role in supporting the struggle of indigenous peoples for their rights?
The support of different organizations has been the most important thing in this whole process. When I was imprisoned, several of us began to denounce the criminalization that we are suffering. I began to write letters to different organizations, which were published on their own networks. Before I was imprisoned I already managed the social networks, so my accounts remained open and there were people who were also in charge of uploading information about my case and what was happening with the Cahabón River. Through the letters from prison and the networks, it was possible to learn about the criminalization that occurs in Guatemala in several countries.
Amnesty International declared me a prisoner of conscience after studying the criminal proceedings against me and finding that there was no evidence to support the charges, and launched a campaign in my support. The UN also spoke out and called on the Guatemalan government to respect the human rights of activists. The International Land Coalition through Land Rights Now also joined in denouncing what is happening to those who defend the land and demanding my release.
In spite of the fact that many organizations have demonstrated and have approached the government to stop the criminalization, the situation has not only not improved, but has worsened.
What are the calls and proposals of the indigenous communities regarding the care of the environment and to put an end to the conflict over natural resources?
What we will always maintain is that the communities and territories must be respected. We have been living on these lands for thousands of years and we are being dispossessed. The communities only want to live in peace and harmony with nature as we have been taught from generation to generation, the only thing we ask is that our customs and way of seeing the world be respected. It is not possible for companies to come to the communities with the support of the State and deceive them in order to dispossess them.
OUR RIGHT TO BE INFORMED AND CONSULTED ABOUT THE MEGAPROJECTS THAT ARE INTENDED TO BE INSTALLED IN OUR TERRITORIES MUST BE RESPECTED.
The Cahabón River for which we raise our voices has been used by our ancestors as a means of transportation and for communication. It has always been protected because it was of great importance, but now we see that the companies are bringing machinery, digging, leaving the river without water, diverting it, etc. and for us this is torture and kidnapping our river, which is sacred.
How do you see the future of your community? What are your plans?
We will continue to resist and fight for our rights and the defense of our land and territories. We will continue to carry out consultations within the communities to make decisions. This is how we reach agreements through self-determination, which is what we have always practiced, since before the companies arrived.
That is why we are surprised that the State itself refuses to carry out consultations, since it is obliged to do so. They say that consultations have been carried out, but they were false, only people who agreed with the arrival of the companies were consulted, there were no consultations as required by law. The State does not respect the customs of the native peoples when it wants to impose without consultation.