In 2020, Global Witness recorded 227 killings of land and environmental defenders, making 2020 the most dangerous year on record for people defending their land, livelihoods and vital ecosystems. According to this report, Guatemala ranks no less than 4th among countries with the highest number of killings of defenders per capita.
AHEAD OF THE GLOBAL LAND FORUM, WHICH WILL TAKE PLACE FROM 21 TO 26 MAY IN JORDAN, WE TALKED TO JACOB OMAR JERÓNIMO.
Omar is Mayan Ch'orti', co-founder of the Central de Organizaciones Indígenas y Campesinas Nuevo Día, and will participate in the panel Last line of defence against the climate crisis (You can register here), a space to delve into the reality faced daily by those who defend their land and the environment.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION OF LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS IN THE REGION - AND IN GUATEMALA SPECIFICALLY - TODAY? WHAT RISKS DO THEY FACE?
The so-called "adverse effects of development", including the risks faced by human rights defenders (especially women and indigenous peoples), are intimately linked to the extraction and exploitation of natural resources, and to the development of monocultures on land owned or customarily used by indigenous peoples.
For hundreds of years, indigenous peoples have been the main custodians of natural wealth and ecological balance, but extractivism has strongly affected their lives as well as the environment, accelerating the effects of climate change.
This situation has led many human rights defenders and indigenous peoples to increasingly highlight the need to protect the environment and the lives of indigenous peoples, which has been met with direct aggression against defenders by the State - as in the case of Guatemala. Often there is also collusion between state officials, companies and the organised crime to attack and imprison idividuals, and/or burn down houses or even entire villages, as part of a strategy of dispossession and control. Our organisation in 4 years has suffered more than 300 attacks and we have had to face numerous legal cases, with at least 10 illegal detentions in the last year.
WHAT STRATEGIES HAVE SOCIAL AND/OR CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANISATIONS PUT IN PLACE TO DEAL WITH THIS CONTEXT?
The most important strategy developed is to build broad networks of solidarity and reporting. We must continue to believe that the justice system works, despite the fact that in the case of Guatemala, economic elites interested in the natural wealth of indigenous peoples have co-opted state institutions, with the possible participation of organised crime groups. They persecute judges, lawyers, justice operators, indigenous authorities and defenders who dare to question and report the illegality of land dispossession, as well as the collusion of the State.
WHAT MEASURES SHOULD BE IMPLEMENTED IN GUATEMALA TO PROTECT THOSE WHO DEFEND LAND AND THE ENVIRONMENT?
It is essential that international human rights mechanisms and the United Nations system actually works, that international bodies committed to world development and environmental protection be more active and proactive, so that States are obliged to commit to policies to protect defenders and the environment. What is happening in Guatemala, where the State, far from protecting human rights defenders, attacks and imprisons them, must not happen.
In this case, I am talking about bodies such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and other organisations that cooperate with Guatemala, demanding mechanisms of compliance with human rights in order to be able to grant funding for infrastructure or from the national budget.
WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN THE CLIMATE CRISIS AND VIOLENCE AGAINST DEFENDERS?
As the voices of human rights defenders are silenced, we see how extractive industries extract natural wealth without caring for the climate and ecosystems, so there is an intimate relationship between human rights and the environment. Reversing climate change means securing human rights.
WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF ADDRESSING THIS ISSUE IN A SPACE SUCH AS THE GLOBAL LAND FORUM?
The Global Land Forum is a place where we find diverse actors and organisations concerned and committed to access to land, governance and climate change, as well as cooperation bodies - which also collaborate with states, so it becomes strategic to raise a joint voice to guarantee the human rights of all people, and to ensure that we can do something together to improve climate conditions and the lives of the populations that suffer most from the impact of climate change.
IN THE FRAMEWORK OF THE WORK AT REGIONAL LEVEL THAT THE ILC LAC IS PROMOTING IN RELATION TO LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS: WHAT ISSUES DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE A PRIORITY FOR LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN?
We must continue to insist that States develop public policies for the protection and promotion of human rights. In Latin America today, it is urgent to talk about respect for human rights on the part of States, so that they guarantee the integrity and lives of human rights defenders. Above all, the governance of the territories of indigenous peoples must be guaranteed, as we are ultimately the ones who protect and defend the ecosystems, which are considered sacred and are part of a whole between nature and human beings.
Jacob Omar Jerónimo has worked and coordinated actions in multiple spaces to propose and influence the creation and application of public policies focused on ensuring the collective rights of indigenous peoples in land, territories, and Integral Rural Development. He has been part of different national spaces, peasant and human rights organisations, from which he has contributed to the creation of jurisprudence on the Right to Food in Guatemalan courts.