Blog | Jan. 13, 2020

Against all odds: the criminalisation of land rights activists in Guatemala

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In 2018, our annual report on killings of land and environmental defenders took a new focus: for the first time, we looked more closely at the tool of criminalisation, and how it is used by states and businesses to silence and attack defenders.

We recently interviewed the defender Abelino Chub Caal to learn about his experiences of criminalisation, his recommendations on how states and businesses can stop this happening, and what must happen next.

Abelino, the Q’eqchi community and the expansion of palm oil on their land

For over a decade Abelino Chub Caal has worked in his native Guatemala for the civil society organisation the Guillermo Toriello Foundation, supporting indigenous communities with legal processes to have their land rights recognised, and driving forward self-sufficient sustainable agriculture projects.

Over the last two years his life, the lives of the communities he works to protect and the lives of his own family have been turned upside down.

This story starts in 2016, with two agribusiness companies that were looking to expand from bananas into palm oil. To do that, they wanted to use land which indigenous Q’eqchi communities claimed to have lived on for centuries and had ancestral rights to. But according to Abelino, the companies did not consult fully with the communities living there, before rolling out their new crops and starting to plan their projects.

This is where Abelino enters. In carrying out his work for the Guillermo Toriello Foundation, he looked to mediate the conversation happening between communities living in the area, and the agribusiness companies looking to expand into their area.

Criminal charges of aggravated trespass, arson and illicit association were then brought against him.  It was claimed that Abelino had previously organised members of the community to burn oil palm trees which had been planted on land at the Plan Grande estate where the Q’eqchi community lived, and of provoking a confrontation against the police.

Abelino was arrested on 4 February 2017, while celebrating his birthday with his wife and two young children. He remained in custody awaiting trial for more than 2 years. In April 2019, having produced evidence that he was not even in the area on the day of the fire, he was acquitted of all charges at his trial. The Court concluded that Abelino’s charges should be dismissed, and commented that “criminal law was being used to criminalise the defendant’s conduct.”
I was in jail for more than two years, for a crime that I hadn’t committed.

“But when you are in jail, it doesn’t matter if you are guilty or not, you are simply treated as a criminal. You share the prison with hitmen, assassins, robbers. I was under the same ceiling of an Army man who was convicted for his involvement in a massacre against indigenous people, during the civil war. This is unjust, and is one of the psychological damages that being in jail gives you.”

This pattern – where states and powerful businesses use the criminal law against those seeking to challenge them – is not a new one.

Attacks from all sides

Abelino identifies criminalisation as only one of the strategies used in Guatemala to silence those that resist forced evictions, land grabs and pollution from dams, mines, and palm oil or sugar plantations.

“In 2007, a Canadian mining firm evicted 100 families from El Estor, near Guatemala's Pacific coast. People were injured and women from the community were raped during this eviction, but these rapes were never investigated in Guatemala”, he alleges.

He goes on with his account: “In 2009, security guards from the company shot various people from Las Nubes community. The community leader Adolfo Ich Chamán was killed during this event.” The company denied involvement with any forced evictions or with the death of Mr Chamán.

Abelino says it is not the first time the Q’eqchi people have faced these kinds of attacks:

“In 2011, I witnessed some ruthless evictions by the police of 732 Q’eqchi indigenous families from their land in the Polochic Valley, which was later planted with sugar crops for biofuels. One person died, several were injured and hundreds displaced from their homes. Their shacks and crops were burnt down.”

Following the eviction of Q’eqchi families in the Polochic Valley, the organisation Abelino works for, the Guillermo Toriello Foundation, suffered a serious break-in, with equipment containing sensitive information stolen. Abelino and members of the Foundation believed this incident was not a burglary, but a reprisal for their attempt to support the victims of evictions.

The ripples of criminalisation spread wide

The criminal prosecution of Abelino did not just harm him, but was felt by his own community over distance and time.

During two arduous years in jail, he was constantly worried about his family and their well-being. His family’s visiting time was limited and they had to rely on other family members to survive. “When they wanted to visit me, they had to queue in front of the prison at 3am, and if they were lucky, they would see me at around 10am. Some days, they were sent home without seeing me, because the visiting time was over.”

But probably the worst part of it all was the uncertainty: the system kept postponing the hearings and the trial, and therefore I had no clue about when I would be able to prove myself innocent nor when I would be released.

The role that corporates and governments must play

Where there are natural resources, those looking to exploit them for profit inevitably follow. The economic model in Guatemala relies heavily on agricultural and natural resource extraction and export. This model has directed land concentration toward the wealthy, pushing poorer communities off their land and fuelling violence.  

But while defenders are targets of evictions and legal attacks like these, often driven by or at the hands of businesses, Abelino still welcomes corporations that operate in an ethical way and that are supportive of the community and the wider environment.

“We are not against corporations, but we oppose the enterprises that evict people from their land and divide communities with total impunity. We oppose businesses that do not respect the right to life and the way communities organise themselves. They should at minimum consult us, and respect the international treaties.”

Businesses, and those that fund them, are not the only ones who need to act. Governments, both nationally and internationally, must take decisive action to hold businesses and investors to account.

Following cases like Abelino’s and a fivefold increase in killings of Land and Environmental defenders in Guatemala in 2018, the government must take steps now to support and protect defenders protecting their land and our global environment from rapidly escalating climate breakdown.

And other governments – like those in the UK, US, EU and beyond, should introduce proper due diligence rules that mean that their companies, investing and extracting abroad, are not making money at the expense of human lives or freedoms.

The fight continues

Abelino is now free, but his fight, and those of others, is still far from over.

Whilst he has been acquitted, criminalisation of community activists still continues, enabling big businesses to profit from indigenous land and risking severe destruction of the planet in the process. The Q’eqchi community from Palo Grande is still at risk of being evicted. Abelino fears this could be imminent.

Despite suffering criminalisation, Abelino never thought of giving up, and when asked what he is going to do next, he says:

I will carry on uncovering all the problems affecting the communities. Like other land and environmental defenders, I don’t work for myself, but to protect the rights of communities that have been abandoned by the State.

Show your support and stand with Abelino by sharing this case as far and wide as possible. And keep up to date with our campaign news on protecting land and environmental defenders.

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