Agaisnt all odds: The Criminalisation of Land Rights Activists in Guatemala

We are grateful to Global Witness for permission to reproduce their blog of 13th January this year (2020) in both English and Spanish.

English version:

Versión español:


Key words: Guatemala; criminalisation; land rights; palm oil expansion; indigenous Q’eqchi; agribusiness companies; forced evictions; Guillermo Toriello Foundation.

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. (Global Witness)


Estamos agradecido a Global Witness por su autorización para reproducir su blog de 13 de enero este año (2020) en español y en inglés.

Versión inglés:

Versión español:

Palabras claves: Guatemala; criminalización; derechos territoriales; expansión de palma africana; Indígena Q’eqchi; empresas de agronegocio; desalojos forzosos; Fundación Guillermo Toriello.


En 2018, nuestro informe anual sobre los asesinatos de personas defensoras de la tierra y el medio ambiente adoptó un nuevo enfoque: por primera vez, analizamos más de cerca la estrategia de criminalización y cómo es utilizada por los Estados y las empresas por igual para silenciar y atacar a las personas defensoras.

Entrevistamos recientemente al defensor Abelino Chub Caal, conversamos sobre su historia de criminalización, sus recomendaciones y sobre cómo los Estados y las empresas pueden evitar estos hechos.


Abelino, las comunidades Q’eqchi y la expansión de la palma aceitera

En su Guatemala natal, Abelino Chub Caal ha trabajado para la Fundación Guillermo Toriello durante más de una década. Abelino ha apoyado a comunidades indígenas con procesos legales para el reconocimiento de sus derechos territoriales e impulso de proyectos autosuficientes de agricultura sostenible.

En los últimos dos años, su vida, las de las comunidades que él busca proteger y la de su propia familia se han puesto cuesta arriba.

Esta historia comienza en el año 2016, cuando dos empresas de agronegocio intentaron expandir su producción de banano a la de palma aceitera. Para hacer eso, decidieron utilizar tierra donde comunidades indígenas Q’eqchi alegaban haber vivido por siglos y por lo tanto, haber adquirido derecho sobre el territorio ancestral indígena. De acuerdo con Abelino, antes de introducir sus nuevos cultivos y comenzar a sembrar, las empresas no consultaron integralmente las comunidades que vivían allí.

Aquí es donde Abelino empieza a hacer parte de esta historia. Como parte de su trabajo con la Fundación Guillermo Toriello, él intermedió las conversaciones entre las comunidades que vivían en la zona y las empresas de agronegocio que tenían como objetivo expandir su producción.

Los cargos de usurpación agravada, incendio y asociación ilícita fueron entonces presentados en contra de él. Se alegó que Abelino había organizado miembros de las comunidades para incendiar la plantación de palma aceitera en la finca Plan Grande, donde vivían comunidades Q’eqchi, y de provocar un enfrentamiento contra la policía.

El 4 de febrero del 2017, Abelino fue detenido mientras celebraba su cumpleaños con su esposa y sus dos hijos. Él permaneció en custodia esperando por su juicio por más de dos años. En abril de 2019, tras haber presentado evidencia de no haber estado en la zona el día del incendio, Abelino fue absuelto de todos los cargos durante su juicio. La Corte concluyó que los cargos de Abelino deberían ser desestimados, y comentó que “el Derecho Penal había sido utilizado para criminalizar la conducta del acusado.”

Estuve en la cárcel por más de dos años, por un crimen que no he cometido.

“Pero cuando estás en la cárcel, no importa si eres culpable o no, simplemente eres tratado como un criminal. Compartes la prisión con sicarios, asesinos, ladrones. Estuve bajo el mismo techo que un militar condenado por su participación en una masacre contra pueblos indígenas, durante la guerra civil. Esto es injusto y es uno de los daños psicológicos que te causa la cárcel.”

Este patrón, donde Estados y empresas poderosas utilizan la legislación penal en contra de aquellos que cuestionan sus acciones, no es nuevo.


Ataques desde todos los lados

Abelino identifica la criminalización como una de las estrategias utilizadas en Guatemala para silenciar a quienes se resisten a los desalojos forzosos, al acaparamiento de tierras y a la contaminación producto de la construcción de represas, la explotación de minas y la expansión de plantaciones de palma aceitera o de caña de azúcar.

“En 2007, una empresa minera canadiense desalojó a 100 familias de El Estor, cerca de la costa del Pacífico de Guatemala. Personas resultaron heridas, y mujeres de la comunidad fueron violadas durante el desalojo, pero esas violaciones nunca fueron investigadas en Guatemala.” – alega Abelino.

Él continúa su relato: “En 2009, fuerzas de seguridad de la empresa dispararon a varias personas de la comunidad de Las Nubes. El líder comunitario Adolfo Ich Chamán fue asesinado durante este evento.” La empresa negó haber estado involucrada en los desalojos forzados o con la muerte de Adolfo Ich Chamán.

Abelino dice que ésta no es la primera vez que las personas Q’eqchi se enfrentan a este tipo de ataques:

“En 2011, presencié los despiadados desalojos de 732 familias indígenas Q’eqchi de sus tierras en el Valle de Polochic, donde posteriormente fueron plantados cultivos de azúcar para la producción de biocombustibles. Una persona murió, varias resultaron heridas y cientos fueron desplazadas de sus hogares. Sus ranchos y cultivos fueron quemados.”

Tras el desalojo de las familias Q’eqchi en el Valle de Polochic, la oficina de la organización para la cual Abelino trabaja, la Fundación Guillermo Toriello, fue allanada y equipos que contenían información confidencial fueron robados. Abelino y miembros de la FGT creen que este incidente no fue un simple allanamiento, sino una represalia por su intento de apoyar a las víctimas de los desalojos.


Los efectos de la criminalización se expanden

La persecución penal de Abelino no sólo lo perjudicó, sino que su propia comunidad lo sintió a lo largo del tiempo y la distancia.

Durante los dos arduos años que estuvo en la cárcel, se preocupaba constantemente por su familia y su bienestar. Su horario de visita era limitado y sus familiares dependían de otros miembros de la familia para sobrevivir. “Cuando querían visitarme, tenían que empezar a hacer fila frente a la prisión desde las 3 de la mañana; y si tenían suerte, me veían alrededor de las 10 de la mañana. Algunos días los devolvieron a la casa sin haberme visto, porque se había terminado el horario de visita”.

Pero probablemente la peor parte fue la incertidumbre: el sistema seguía posponiendo las audiencias y el juicio y, por lo tanto, no tenía idea de cuándo podría demostrar mi inocencia ni cuándo sería liberado.


El papel que deberían jugar las corporaciones y los gobiernos

Los lugares donde hay recursos naturales, son inevitablemente perseguidos por aquellos que buscan explotarlos con ánimo de lucro. El modelo económico vigente en Guatemala depende en gran medida de la extracción y exportación de recursos agrícolas y naturales. Este modelo ha promovido la concentración de la tierra por parte de los sectores más acaudalados, frecuentemente desplazando las poblaciones pobres fuera de sus tierras y provocando altos niveles de violencia.

Si bien las personas defensoras son blanco de ataques físicos y legales como estos, a menudo impulsados o provenientes de las empresas, Abelino ve con buenos ojos a aquellas personas que operan de manera ética, apoyando a la comunidad y al entorno en general.

“Nosotros no estamos en contra de las corporaciones, pero nos oponemos a aquellas que desalojan a las personas de sus tierras y dividen a las comunidades con total impunidad. Nos oponemos a las empresas que no respetan el derecho a la vida y la forma en que las comunidades se organizan. Como mínimo, ellas deberían consultarnos y respetar los tratados internacionales.”

Las empresas y quienes las financian no son las únicas que deben actuar. Los gobiernos, tanto a nivel nacional como internacional, deben tomar medidas decisivas para exigir rendición de cuentas a empresas e inversores.

Después de casos como el de Abelino y de ver los asesinatos de personas defensoras de la tierra y el medio ambiente quintuplicarse en Guatemala en 2018, el gobierno debe tomar medidas urgentes para apoyar y proteger a las personas defensoras que protegen su tierra y el medio ambiente del colapso climático que se aproxima a un ritmo vertiginoso.

Otros gobiernos – como los del Reino Unido, Estados Unidos, la Unión Europea y otros países – deberían introducir normas claras sobre debida diligencia, que garanticen que sus empresas, que invierten y extraen en el extranjero, no generen ganancias a expensas de la libertad o de la vida de las personas.


La lucha continúa

Abelino ahora es libre, pero su lucha, y la lucha de otras personas defensoras, aún están lejos de terminar.

Si bien él ha sido absuelto, la criminalización continúa, permitiendo que las grandes empresas generen ganancias a costa de la explotación de tierras indígenas y causen una destrucción severa al planeta en ese proceso. La comunidad Q’eqchi de Palo Grande todavía está en riesgo de ser desalojada. Abelino teme que esto podría ser inminente.

A pesar de haber sido criminalizado, Abelino nunca pensó en darse por vencido, y cuando se le pregunta qué hará ahora, dice:

Seguiré denunciando todos los problemas que afectan a las comunidades. Al igual que otros defensores de la tierra y del medio ambiente, no trabajo para mí, sino para proteger los derechos de las comunidades que han sido abandonadas por el Estado.

Comparte este caso para demostrar solidaridad y apoyo a Abelino.

The Mayangna of the Awas Tingni community, Nicaragua

Awas Tingni is one of numerous indigenous Mayangna (or Sumo[1]) communities in the remote, densely forested region on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Around 1,500 people live in Awas Tingni. During the 1990s, the Nicaraguan government granted a logging concession to a Korean multinational company (Solcarsa) for the logging of 62,000 hectares of land inhabited by the community, without asking for their consent.

The Nicaraguan justice system failed to address the Awas Tingni community’s concerns. A petition was lodged with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, accusing the government of failing to demarcate their communal lands or provide judicial protection of their ancestral rights to their land and resources.

On 31 August 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark verdict that the Nicaraguan government had violated the rights of the Awas Tingni community. The Court affirmed that the American Convention of Human Rights offers protection of indigenous peoples’ property rights, and denounced the State for granting concessions to their land without consulting the community first.[2]

The Court ordered that the Nicaraguan government demarcate and title the traditional lands of the Awas Tingni community, and furthermore, that they establish the necessary legal procedures for protecting the land rights of all indigenous communities in the country.

In January 2003 the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed a new law allowing for the demarcation of indigenous land. In December 2008, the Awas Tingni community finally received the property title to 73,000 hectares of its traditional territory.

This case was a historic achievement for the protection of indigenous peoples’ human rights, not just in Nicaragua but also elsewhere in the world. A United Nations news release stated, “this was the first case in which an international tribunal with legally binding authority found a Government in violation of the collective land rights of an indigenous group, setting an important precedent in international law.”[3]

Consistent with the outcome of the Awas Tingni case, on 13 September 2007 the United Nations adopted a ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, further consolidating the rights of indigenous peoples to their traditionally occupied territories, and the resources therein.[4]

“In a nutshell, the Court held that the American Convention on Human Rights obligates states to recognise and adopt specific measures to protect indigenous peoples’ rights to land and natural resources in accordance with indigenous peoples’ own customary use and occupancy patterns.”[5]

The significance of this precedent and of the titling of their land have not shielded the Mayangna people from the continuing threats of timber companies and illegal squatters on their land. Since the ruling there has been conflict within the Mayangna community relating to the alleged, but later denied, sale of land to a timber company, Mapinicsa,[6] as well as conflict between the Mayangna and squatters and other indigenous groups of the Atlantic zones of Nicaragua.[7]

The area inhabited by the Mayangna includes part of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve which, apart from being attractive to timber companies, has also suffered regular invasions of squatters, sometimes in organised groups and at other times individually. The beginning of 2010 saw a combined force from the Nicaraguan army and police force join with the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to remove 80 families who had illegally colonised the Reserve. A further 200 families were to be removed at a later date. Mayangna leaders, however, considered the action to be insufficient to solve the problems caused by illegal squatters and have claimed that they have received death threats from some of the squatters.[8]

Some of the squatters are simply refugees from landlessness elsewhere in the country and are simply trying to find an area suitable for subsistence. Most such cases are victims for a second time around having suffered elsewhere at the hands of other gangsters. Mayangna leader Rolando Lewis, however, said that other settlers destroy the forest under orders from cattle ranchers who want to move into Bosawas.[9] And José Luis Garcia, the National Environmental Ombudsman, believes, alarmingly, that there are more than 30,000 colonists who have taken over 4,000 hectares of the Bosawas Reserve. He said that “In the past, the timber traffickers cut down the trees and took them to sell, but now these people possess large sections of the territory where they cut down the trees, burn them and then plant pasture to sell to the highest bidder.”[10]

This clash of interests in an area such as the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve clearly illustrates the link between conservation and indigenous peoples. It has been widely recognised that the major agents of destruction of the Bosawas ecology have been timber companies and colonisers or squatters. The western model of development has much to learn from indigenous peoples about the conservation of its natural environment.

[1] The people of Awas Tingni prefer to call themselves Mayagna, as opposed to Sumo, a commonly used designation. They regard the latter term as one imposed by outsiders.
[2] International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (accessed 31 July 2009).
[3] United Nations News Centre (accessed 3 August 2009).
[4] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, March 2008, United Nations (accessed 4 August 2009).
[5] S. James Anaya and Claudio Grossman ‘The Case of Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua: A New Step in the International Law of Indigenous Peoples’, The Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law
[6] Nicaragua Network Hotline (25 August 2009) ‘Government cancels sales of communal lands; YATAMA members protest’, Nicaragua News Service.
Nicaragua Network Hotline (29 September 2009) ‘Awas Tingni leaders clarify land sale accusation’, Nicaragua News Service
[7] Ramón H. Potosme (27 August 2009) ‘Nación sumo mayagna bajo agresión de Yatama’, El Nuevo Diaria, Managua.
[8] Nicaragua News (1 June 2010) ‘Squatters removed from Bosawas Nature Preserve’, Nicaragua News Service. Eira Martens (21 January 2010) ‘Crisis de Bosawas’, Personal communication.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Nicaragua News Bulletin (9 February 2010) ‘Government postpones visit to Bosawas Reserve to evict colonists’, Nicaragua News Service.

A note about conservationists and Indigenous Peoples

By Martin Mowforth

The fact that areas inhabited by indigenous peoples are often deemed hugely important for conservation has been the focus of long-standing conflict and debate. It is estimated that 85% of designated protected areas in Central America are inhabited by indigenous peoples.[1]

Historically, the colonial paradigm for conservation involved the creation of parks and protected areas. In the endeavour to preserve ‘pristine’ nature or ‘wilderness’, indigenous people were excluded from conservation programmes and even forcibly evicted from the land.[2] It is now widely acknowledged that conservation programmes must involve the participation of the local people dependent on the areas under protection, but the feasibility of harmonising conservation and indigenous interests remains very much in dispute.

A project undertaken by National Geographic Society in 2002, superimposed a map of indigenous territories in Central America over a map with forest cover and marine ecosystems.[3] They found a striking correlation between indigenous habitation and the survival of natural ecosystems. That the subsistence lifestyles of indigenous peoples are less destructive to the environment than the industrialised economies of non-indigenous peoples is a reasonable assumption.

It is often noted that indigenous peoples have an inherent and sacred relationship with nature, a wealth of traditional knowledge, and natural resource management practices which they have been using for centuries to protect and preserve their lands.[4] Such claims about the stewardship role of indigenous peoples strongly support the possibility of collaboration with conservation organisations for maintaining biodiversity today. Mark Dowie contends that for both parties, maintaining a “healthy and diverse biosphere” is key.[5] Furthermore, the land and ecosystems that both conservationists and indigenous peoples are so keen to defend are seriously threatened by multiple and competing demands, including intensive agriculture, industrial forestry, and large scale development projects such as dams and mines.

An increasing awareness of indigenous peoples’ rights and the problems associated with the exclusionary conservation paradigm has led to attempts at more people-centred conservation programmes during the last 20 years. But, it has been suggested that there are inherent and irreconcilable differences in the agendas of indigenous people and conservationists. Whilst the former are primarily concerned for their economic wellbeing and protecting their land for their own use, the latter above all want to keep nature intact, prioritising protected areas and programmes grounded in rigorous biological and ecological science.[6]

The terms of involvement of local communities have been dictated by the conservation organisations, and indigenous peoples have continued to feel excluded, and some conservationists seem to have been incapable of coping with the social aspect of these types of projects.

Mac Chapin provided a damning critique of the three largest and dominant global conservation organisations – World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).[7] He noted that their neglect of indigenous peoples in conservation programmes is partly due to their corporate and government funding and the conditions attached to it. He points out that indigenous resistance is often directed at projects executed by the organisations’ funding partners, who are also often perpetrators of environmental degradation.

Some hardline conversationists insist that any human presence will have a negative impact on biodiversity. Kent Redford suggested that ‘the noble ecological savage’ living in harmony with nature is an over-romanticised myth of indigenous people; that in reality they are prone to deplete or over-exploit their resources.[8]

There has been a recent resurgence of such a protectionist stance. Advocates of socially exclusive parks and protected areas insist that community based approaches to conservation do not offer adequate protection for endangered species and ecosystems. For example, John Oates argues that the compromise of agendas inherent in community based conservation programmes means that neither social nor conservation goals will be met.[9]

Others are more optimistic and see progress made in the uncertain relationship between indigenous peoples and conservationists. Mark Dowie comments that:

“Although tension persists, along with arrogance, ignorance and the conflicts they breed … I found, mostly in the field, a new generation of conservationists who realise that the very landscapes they seek to protect owe their high biodiversity to the practices of the people who have lived there, in some cases for thousands of years … Enlightened conservationists are beginning to accept the axiom that only by preserving cultural diversity can biological diversity be protected, and vice versa.”[10]

As Kent Redford and Michael Painter point out, achieving successful collaboration between indigenous people and conservationists is critical, and urgent: “while park advocates are arguing with indigenous peoples and their advo­cates about the proper role for people in conservation, the forest they both wish to preserve is being destroyed.”[11]

[1]   Alcorn, J.B. (1994) ‘Noble savage or noble state? Northern myths and southern realities in biodiversity conservation’. Ethnoecologica 2 (3): 6-19.

[2]   See Adams, W.M. (2004) Against Extinction: the story of conservation, Earthscan, London; also Monbiot, G. (1994) No man’s land: an investigative journey through Kenya and Tanzania, Picador, London.

[3]   National Geographic Society (2003). (accessed 29 July 2009).

[4]   Mark Dowie (2009) Conservation Refugees: The hundred-year conflict between global conservation and native peoples, MIT Press, Cambridge.

[5]   Mark Dowie (2003) (accessed 22 July 2009).

[6]   Mac Chapin (2004) ‘A challenge to conservationists’, World Watch Institute.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   Redford, K. (1991) ‘The Ecologically Noble Savage’, Cultural Survival Quarterly 15 (1): 46-48.

[9]   Oates, J.F. (1999) Myth and Reality in the Rainforest: how conservation strategies are failing in West Africa, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

[10]   Op.cit. (Dowie).

[11]   Redford, K.H. and Painter, M. (2006) Natural alliances between conservationists and indigenous peoples. WCS Working Paper No.25, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA.

Indigenous groups rebut the statements of Carlos Alvarado at COP-26

Further to our round-up of Central America COP-26 related news and issues – see previous article uploaded in November 2021 – on 5th November the Costa Rican weekly newspaper Semanario Universidad included an article by Vinicio Chacón on the difference between Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado’s speech at the COP-26 conference and the reality experienced by Indigenous peoples in that country. We are grateful to Vinicio for his permission to include the article and its translation in The Violence of Development website.

By Vinicio Chacón | 5 November 2021,  Semanario Universidad, San José, Costa Rica

(English translation by Martin Mowforth)


Aggressions remembered, many assassinations and failures to implement land rights – after the leader’s speech at the global summit.

“The President says that he recognises that we look after the forests; there should be no killings of those who defend their land …”, said one activist identified as Lesner, a Bribri land recoverer of the Tuádiwak clan in the Salitre territory.

His striking words were repeated by the Coordinating Organisation of the South-South Struggle (CLSS by its Spanish initials) in a communication countering and examining the actual actions of President Carlos Alvarado against his words in Glasgow, Scotland, at the global summit on climate change, COP-26.

During one forum titled ‘Forests and Use of Soils’, Alvarado claimed that “the best guardians of the forests and the earth are the Indigenous Peoples”, at the same time he was projecting the Programme of Payment for Environmental Services (PSA by its Spanish initials) as a mechanism for forest conservation.

In this regard, the Indigenous and campesino organisations which make up the CLSS noted a mismatch between what Alvarado said, in the first place because the State “has not been able and has not had the political will to guarantee the life and personal integrity of the First Peoples” as witness “the 18th March 2019 assassination for political motives of Sergio Rojas Ortiz, a Uniwak of the Bribri People of Salitre and the 24th February 2020 assassination of Jerhy Rivera Rivera of the Brörán People of Térraba.” In effect, these were two assassinations in less than one year of “brothers who were assassinated for defending their lands and Peoples.”

At the same time, the CLSS published a report on the attacks against and violations of the human rights of the First Peoples in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica which denounced that during 2020 there were 14 death threats made against activists and human rights defenders of the First Peoples of the Southern Zone.

That is only one small element of the 86 incidents documented in the report and which remain in impunity.


Pending Debt

The CLSS emphasised that in the Indigenous territories of the Southern Zone an illegal occupation is maintained with 40 per cent of their territories held by non-Indigenous peoples, and in some cases this reaches 75 per cent.

With respect to the issue of land delineation, the CLSS noted that the Recovery Plan for Indigenous Territories (PRTI by its Spanish initials) initiated by the government in 2017 has not materialised with “not one single defined land area”, with the exception of two fincas [small farms] in Salitre which had already been recovered by the appropriate Indigenous Peoples but which “against the will of the People” were delivered to the Association of Indigenous Development.

It’s worth recalling that these development associations are organisations which were imposed on Indigenous Peoples by the State, but they do not correspond to their cultural or historic traditions, while the recognised organisation in Bribri territory is the Ditsö Itiria Ajkönuk Wakpa.

The CLSS also denounced that the State has been incapable of devolving the lands prioritized by the Original Peoples’ own organisations, specifically eight territories in Salitre, 13 in Cabagra and 17 in Térraba. Moreover, during 2020 and 2021 three judicial decisions ordered the eviction of Cabécar people from China Kichá and one decision relating to the eviction of the Brörán people of Térraba who appealed in time, but three of them are still under “the danger and threat of judicial eviction”.

The CLSS referred to the PSA and emphasised Alvarado’s omission that these payments are managed and administered by the above-mentioned Indigenous Development Associations, which as already mentioned are not considered as their own organisations but rather are seen as being imposed by the State on these communities. “Neither did Alvarado make note of the many denunciations and judicial procedures against the irregular management of funds from the PSA and the little real participation of the communities and owners of these forests in the decisions and economic benefits,” said the CLSS communication.

One unidentified woman, a land recoverer in the area of Crun Shurin in the Térraba territory of the Brörán People, observed that to be “a protector of the forests”, as Alvarado called them, “has cost us two assassinated First Peoples rights defenders, and many more of us cannot even sleep at peace at night along with our families because of the land owners’ threats. We are the forest protectors, but we face the powers of the State against our rights.”

Thus she asserted that “the world should not be listening to these lies by President Carlos Alvarado because our struggles are very unequal and as Indigenous women we suffer all manner of abuses for continuing to conserve our Mother Earth from the ravages of the transnational companies with their extractive projects.”

“Our struggle will continue to defend our lands which belong to all of us; Forests, Water, Air, Spirituality, Culture, and Autonomy; despite the threats we receive and despite the fact that President Alvarado lies in international summits,” she added.

For his part, Lesner also accused the President and said: “We are not protectors of our lands; we are part of the earth and we look after it in an intuitive and natural way. She looks after us and we look after her; for us the forest is a living being as are the other elements which make up the earth.”

He added that: “we don’t need money to look after our forests and our lands, because when we are offered money to look after the forest and the land, the sense of living in equilibrium is lost and we start looking after only money. Our cosmovision tells us how we must live with our forest and lands. Paying for it distorts this manner of living with it.”

Indígenas salen al paso de declaraciones de Carlos Alvarado en la COP-26

Con referencia a nuestro resumen de las noticias y los temas pertinentes a COP-26 – véase el artículo previo cargado en noviembre 2021 – el 5 de noviembre el periódico costarricense Semanario Universidad incluyó un artículo por Vinicio Chacón sobre las diferencias entre el discurso del Presidente Costaricense Carlos Alvarado a la conferencia COP-26 y la realidad experimentado por los Pueblos Indígenos en ese país. Estamos muy agradecido a Vinicio por su autorización de incluir el artículo y su traducción en nuestro sitio web La Violencia del Desarrollo.

 Por Vinicio Chacón |

 5 noviembre, 2021   Semanario Universidad, San José, Costa Rica 

Recordaron agresiones sufridas, los asesinatos y muchos de los incumplimientos a sus derechos territoriales, tras discurso del mandatario en cumbre mundial.

“El Presidente dice que reconoce que cuidamos los bosques; no deberían haber muertos por defender la tierra, ni siquiera deberíamos estar en esta lucha”, dijo un activista identificado como Lesner, recuperador Bribri del clan Tuádiwak, en el territorio de Salitre.

Sus fuertes palabras fueron divulgadas por la Coordinadora de Lucha Sur Sur (CLSS) en un comunicado con el que salió al paso de las manifestaciones hechas por el presidente Carlos Alvarado en Glasgow, Escocia, en el marco de la cumbre mundial de cambio climático COP-26.

Durante la realización de un foro denominado “Bosques y Uso del Suelo” que se realizó el pasado lunes, Alvarado manifestó que “los mayores guardianes del bosque y la tierra son los Pueblos Indígenas”, al tiempo que resaltó el Programa de Pago por Servicios Ambientales (PSA) como un mecanismo para la conservación de bosques.

Al respecto, las organizaciones indígenas y campesinas que integran la CLSS expresaron un inconformidad con lo dicho por Alvarado, en primer lugar porque el Estado “no ha sido capaz, ni ha tenido la voluntad política para garantizar la vida e integridad personal de los Pueblos Originarios” y al respecto recordó “los asesinatos por razones políticas de Sergio Rojas Ortiz, Uniwak del Pueblo Bribri de Salitre el 18 de marzo de 2019 y de Jerhy Rivera Rivera del Pueblo Brörán de Térraba el 24 de febrero de 2020”.

En efecto, dos asesinatos en menos de un año de “hermanos que fueron asesinados defendiendo sus territorios y Pueblos”.

Al mismo tiempo, la organización recordó que el Informe de agresiones y violaciones a los Derechos Humanos contra los pueblos originarios en la Zona Sur de Costa Rica, publicado por la misma CLSS, denunció que durante 2020 se dieron 14 amenazas de muerte contra activistas de los Pueblos Originarios de la Zona Sur del país, así como dos defensores de los derechos humanos de estos Pueblos.

Ello es sólo una pequeña pero significativa parte de los 86 incidentes documentados en ese Informe y que se mantienen en la impunidad.


Deuda pendiente

Con gravedad, la CLSS subrayó que en los territorios indígenas de la zona Sur se mantiene una ocupación ilegal según detalla de un 40% de esos territorios por parte de personas no indígenas, que en algunos casos alcanza el un 75%.

Precisamente respecto al tema de saneamiento territorial, la CLSS resalta que el Plan de Recuperación de Territorios Indígenas (PRTI) que inició el gobierno en 2017, no se ha materializado en la devolución efectiva de “ni un solo terreno”, a excepción de dos fincas de Salitre que ya habían sido recuperados por los propios indígenas pero que “contrario a lo que este Pueblo solicitaba”, fueron entregados a la Asociación de Desarrollo Indígena.

Cabe recordar que estas asociaciones de desarrollo son instancias impuestas a los pueblos indígenas por el Estado, pero no se corresponden con sus tradiciones culturales o históricas, mientras que la organización de autogobierno que reconocen en el caso de ese territorio Bribri es el Concejo Ditsö Iriria Ajkönuk Wakpa.

La CLSS también denunció que el Estado ha sido incapaz de devolver los terrenos priorizados por las organizaciones propias de varios Pueblos Originarios, específicamente ocho en Salitre, 13 en Cabagra y 17 en Térraba. Además, durante 2020 y 2021 se han dado tres resoluciones judiciales que ordenan el desalojo de personas del pueblo Cabécar de China Kichá y una del pueblo Brörán de Térraba, que apeladas oportunamente, pero que tres de ellas aún representan “un peligro y una amenaza de desalojo judicial”.

Con gravedad, la CLSS se refirió al PSA y destacó la omisión de Alvarado de que esos pagos son gestionados y administrados por las mencionadas asociaciones de desarrollo indígena, que como se dijo, no se consideran organizaciones propias, sino más bien impuestas por el Estado en estas comunidades.

“Tampoco señala Alvarado los muchos casos en los que se encuentra denunciadas y en procesos judiciales, algunas de estas ADI, no todas, por el manejo irregular de los fondos provenientes de PSA y la poca participación real de las comunidades y propietarios de estos bosques, en las decisiones y beneficios económicos”, apunta el comunicado.

Una mujer recuperadora en la localidad de Crun Shurin, en el territorio Térraba del pueblo Brörán, no identificada en el documento divulgado, observó que ser “guardianes de los bosques”, como dijo Alvarado, “nos ha costado dos asesinatos de defensores de nuestros derechos como Pueblos Originarios, muchas personas más no podemos ni siquiera dormir tranquilas con nuestras familias por las amenazas de los terratenientes; somos guardianes pero tenemos a los poderes del Estado en contra de nuestros derechos”.

Por ello, asevero que “no se vale que el mundo escuche estas mentiras del presidente Carlos Alvarado, ya que nuestras luchas son muy desiguales y nosotras como mujeres indígenas sufrimos toda clase de atropellos por seguir acompañando y conservando a nuestra madre tierra para evitar que las empresas transnacionales con sus proyectos extractivos la sigan matando”.

“Nuestra lucha continuará por defender nuestras tierras que son un todo: Bosques, Agua, Aire, Espiritualidad, Cultura y Autonomía; aunque nos tengan amenazadas y aunque el Presidente Alvarado mienta en los foros internacionales”, añadió.

Por su parte, Lesner también plantó cara al Presidente y dijo “no somos guardianes de nuestras tierras, nosotros somos parte de la tierra y la cuidamos de forma innata, natural. Ella nos cuida y nosotros la cuidamos, para nosotros el bosque es un ser vivo como cualquier otro elemento que compone esta tierra”.

Añadió que “no necesitamos dinero para cuidar nuestros bosques y tierras, porque a la hora de que se ofrece dinero por cuidar nuestros bosques y tierra, se pierde el sentido de vivir en equilibrio y se cuida solo por dinero. Nuestra cosmogonía dice como debemos vivir con nuestro bosque y tierra, el hacerlo pagado distorsiona esa forma de hacerlo.”


Government cancels sales of communal lands

Taken from the Nicaragua Network Hotline, 25th August 2009.

The Public Property Register of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) of Nicaragua, answering an order from the Attorney General’s office, last week annulled the titles issued in violation of the Law on Communal Property of Indigenous and Ethnic Communities (Law 445). According to that law, the land cannot be taxed, seized or sold but is to be used by the indigenous peoples in accord with their traditional uses of communal property. The sale of indigenous lands by leaders of the Caribbean Coast group YATAMA was reported the previous week in the Nicaraguan media. Government attorneys are investigating further the irregularities that were reported, including the sale to a timber company of over 12,000 hectares of land belonging to the community of Awas Tingni.

Attorney General Hernan Estrada also made a formal accusation in the Supreme Court against David Rodriguez Gaitán, Property Registrar in Bilwi, for acts of corruption. He accused Rodriguez of registering sale of communal property with full knowledge that it was illegal. Estrada also asked the Court not to recognize any transaction involving communal lands by foreign or national speculators.

However, some 400 ex-contra fighters, members of Yatama, blocked the two main roads leading to Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) in protest over the government’s action saying that they would allow no traffic to pass and would burn any government vehicle that approached the roadblocks. At the roadblock located at Maniwatla, 120 men are led by Commander Cienfuegos and Perro Bravo and Tigre Suelto. Three hundred men, armed with firearms and machetes at the junction of the roads that link Bilwi with Waspam and Rosita, are led by Commanders León and Culumuco. The leaders read a communiqué in which they stated that, “The ex-combatants reject the attitude of the Attorney General and his delegate in the region who are trying to annul the registration of our ownership rights which represent the only way we can protect our rights as we confront the prejudicial refusal of the State to title indigenous land.” La Prensa reports that the leader of the protest is René Garcia Beker, former mayor of Prinzapolka and president of four collectives of former combatants of YATAMA.

Modesto Frank Wilson, who opposes the sale of indigenous lands, said that in recent months there has been an increase in the sale of communal land because of offers from rich timber companies which have tempted ambitious leaders of groups of former combatants. He said that the community of Awas Tingni could have lost almost 70% of its 73,000 hectares of communal land. Meanwhile, in Bilwi, the population is suffering because its links to the capital and other cities which provide it with goods have been cut. Men, women and children who were expecting to take public transportation from Bilwi to their villages are sleeping on the roadside waiting for the blockades to come down.