This story was originally published in Spanish by Nómada.
This year, three Indigenous communities have won the support of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court in their struggles to gain legal ownership of land they have lived on for generations.
Many Indigenous communities in Guatemala exist under protections afforded by their ancestral rights to territory. In some cases, the state officially recognizes the communal legitimacy of landholdings, meaning the property is registered within a legal framework that acknowledges it as belonging to a group of people with specific cultural characteristics. In such cases, it is unlawful to divide these communal landholdings since doing so would jeopardize a community’s ability to maintain its identity and cultural integrity as a people.
In Guatemala, however, the state itself, and specifically the local municipal authorities, often disrespect these rights. Such is the case in the communities of Morola, Jocotán, and Nebaj, where residents have long fought for legal recognition of their ownership over large swaths of land expropriated through fraudulent record keeping practices.
Without legal certainty of land ownership, explains archaeologist, anthropologist, and Rafael Landívar University researcher Diego Vásquez Monterroso, Indigenous communities are left to contend with racism in all of its various expressions: institutional (from mayors and other local government authorities), economic (from local Ladinos and foreign businessmen), cultural (the non-recognition of their very existence), territorial (the theft or expropriation of their legitimate property), and political (the non-recognition of their legitimate traditional authorities).
The following three cases have one clear thing in common: communities in a fight for land and against racism.
Morola: Narcotrafficking and a community at risk
The Ch'orti' Mayan community of Morola is located roughly 236 kilometers from Guatemala City, in the municipality of Camotán, Chiquimula.
Until June of this year, residents lived on plots of land they had owned since 2011 but which municipal authorities refused to acknowledge as legitimately theirs. “The struggle has been worth it,” says Isabel Jerónimo, a Morola community member and participant in the land struggle.
The conflict began in 2014, says Jerónimo, when the then mayor appointed a community assembly representative who began conducting decision-making in deceitful and illegitimate ways.
This new representative convened an assembly and then called for a vote on dividing up community territory, despite the fact that the land was legally protected from such subdivision under Guatemala’s special communal framework for Indigenous land holdings. He succeeded in obtaining the required votes by stacking the assembly with people from outside the community, successfully greenlighting the subdivision of 21 community fincas.
“Some people agreed to sell their plots because a lot of families had borrowed money from the families of narcos, and were deep in debt, so they had to sell their land. Those 21 fincas were the first parcels to be broken up but in reality more have also been sectioned off. All told there are about 150 properties that were split up,” explains Rodimiro Lantán, a member of the Coordinator of Associations and Communities for the Integral Development of the Ch'orti' People (COMUNDICH) who has been following the situation since it began.
The reason these tracts of land have garnered so much interest has to do with the location of the community. Morola is situated in a blind spot on the border between Guatemala and Honduras, and has become a strategic point along smuggling and drug trafficking routes.
On June 11, 2020, the Constitutional Court ordered Guatemala’s Registro de la Propiedad to cancel the registration of all subdivided lands, reaffirming the right of Indigenous communities to decide how to manage their own territories. “This is a historic achievement for our communities. We were desperate after having been dismissed for so long by government officials, after suffering discrimination, defamation, attacks, and even murder,” says Jerónimo, one of the residents at the fore of the land struggle.
But joy is not the only emotion pervading the community.
In their annual report from 2015, the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit (Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos Guatemala, or UDEFEGUA) warned of the dangers faced by land defenders in Chiquimula. In just the last five years, Isabel Jerónimo says, she has lost five compañeros.
“We’re really concerned because we’re a pretty small community and the forces we’re up against are so great, and we know that these are people who don’t deal in dialogue—they deal in violence.”
Confronting a hydroelectric monster
A few kilometers from Morola, in Jocotán, other Ch'orti' communities have just learned of a historical legal decision that promises peace, but also inspires fear.
The municipality of Jocotán, Chiquimula, is located 197 kilometers from Guatemala City. A group of Maya Ch’orti’ villages here—Las Flores, Ingenio, Guaraquiche, El Matazano, Suchiquer, Guareruche and Pelillo Negro—have declared themselves victors in a legal battle over the ownership of 635 caballerías of land (28,575 hectares).
In 2011, Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mines authorized permits for the construction of El Orégano Hydroelectric Plant in Jocotán, a project owned and operated by Desarrollo de Generación Eléctrica y Manejo de Recursos Naturales “Las Tres Niñas,” S.A.
'The project proposed building a 120-meter-high dam across the only river in Ch'orti' territory. We objected to the proposal and the Ministry of Environment sided with us and decided not to approve the environmental impact study for these hydroelectric projects,” says community representative Omar Jerónimo.
Years later, the Jocotán municipal government granted a portion of the Ch'orti' communities’ land to the hydroelectric company for use under terms of usufruct. The communities were never consulted about the decision, despite owning the land.
Since 2000, the municipal government has been registered as the sole owner and manager of the land. This claim was nullified, however, after the Constitutional Court’s decision on July 23, 2020, which upheld the community’s assertions of ownership.
In its ruling, not only did the court recognize the right of the Ch'orti' communities to about 600 caballerías of land (2,700 hectares), it also affirmed the official existence of the Ch'orti' people, a fact long denied by municipal authorities. Denying the very existence of Indigenous groups, according to anthropologist Diego Vásquez, is a tactic used by many municipal governments to make discretionary use of community lands.
“In many cases, the Ch'orti' are a minority living across a large geographic area. Ladinos and mestizos in the region use this minority status to subordinate the Ch'orti' economically and exploit them as workers, but also to assert their non-existence as justification for appropriating community property,” Vásquez explains.
On the one hand, communities are celebrating the historic Constitutional Court ruling, which recognizes both their property rights and their very existence as Ch'orti' people. On the other hand, many fear that the decision will bring yet more criminalization of their communities, as well as more violence and attacks.
“In this country,” says Jerónimo, “the violence makes it so people often just end up letting companies stay in their communities. This has not been the case in Jocotán.”
The struggle to enforce the court’s resolution has only just begun, she says. “It will require that [the municipal government] obey the constitutional authority of the court, and under the last two governments we’ve seen a total disrespect for court rulings.”
Nebaj reclaims 45,000 hectares of land
On June 16, 2020, twelve Indigenous communities in the municipality of Santa María Nebaj, Quiché, were also celebrating a resolution returning their ownership rights to over one thousand caballerías of land (45,000 hectares). The ruling was the culmination of a community struggle that began in 2013.
The abuse and misuse of community land in Nebaj date back to the time of the armed conflict, when inhabitants of the village of Tzalbal fled their homes to escape the war. During these years of exile, the then mayor of Santa María Nebaj, Jacinto de Paz Pérez, allegedly signed a public deed that ceded a portion of the community’s landholdings to various municipal residents and members of the Ixil community. It was a fraudulent transaction that resulted in a decades-long struggle to recover these 33 caballerías (1,485 hectares) lost during the war.
Juan Castro, a lawyer with the Bufete para Pueblos Indígenas, a law firm that defends Indigenous rights, has followed the case closely. “What the community wanted,” Castro says, “was to reclaim the 33 caballerías of Tzalbal land, but we knew that the municipality of Nebaj and some nearby residents owned everything. We realized that it was the Indigenous representatives who represented the community, but in 2010 the municipal government removed community members’ names from the land titles, leaving the property in the hands of the municipality.”
On June 16, 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled in the community’s favor and ordered that land rights be returned to the villagers of Nebaj.
Throughout the whole process, government agencies involved have acted unfavorably toward the residents of Nebaj. Indeed, according to Castro, starting in 2012, Guatemala’s Land Fund and the Secretary of Agrarian Affairs began threatening Indigneous communities with eviction. On top of that, he says, congressional representatives like Estuardo Galdamez have tried to intervene in the struggle over ownership, making promises to residents or threatening them with blackmail.
Castro says that enforcing this historic ruling won’t be easy given all the economic interests at play.
“It’s important to recognize that there is a larger structure behind these individual situations. For more than 100 years, communal lands were kept intact, but lately, and with the arrival of extractive industries, it’s easier for companies to negotiate with a mayor than with a whole community,” he says.
In a country where questions of land ownership are plagued by legal uncertainties, these recent court rulings represent a significant victory for Guatemala’s Indigenous communities. According to Diego Vásquez, “the problem with not having resolutions like these is that local and regional authorities often use racism to impose pseudo-legal criteria that dismisses the rights of Indigenous communities, their representatives, and their claims to the land.”
Indeed, even their very existence.
*Translated by Max Granger