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Indigenous community takes Guatemalan land rights fight to international court

Q'eqchi ownership of the land.

Rodrigo Tot began visiting households in Agua Caliente and gathering evidence of Q'eqchi ownership of the land. Image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

  • The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is hearing the land rights case of the Maya Q’eqchi’ community Agua Caliente Lote 9 versus Guatemala on Feb. 9.
  • The eventual ruling could be a landmark decision, establishing an international precedent on Indigenous collective rights over natural resources, such as nickel.
  • The Fenix nickel mining license, suspended by court order, was reinstated last month following a controversial consultation process held during a period of Q’eqchi’ protests and crackdowns.

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – An Indigenous community engaged in a decades-long struggle for land rights in Guatemala is bringing its battle to an international court this week in a case that could have far-reaching implications for Indigenous rights and mining activity.

The Maya Q’eqchi’ community of Agua Caliente Lote 9 is presenting its case against the State of Guatemala to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a hearing Wednesday. A ruling is tentatively expected within a year.

Collective land rights in Agua Caliente Lote 9, located roughly 300 kilometers (186 miles) northeast of Guatemala City, are the core issue. However, the case also addresses a nearby nickel mining project that has been tied to conflict and violence for more than 60 years.

Fenix mine
The ongoing operation of the ferronickel processing plant. Image courtesy of James A. Rodriguez.

“We are seeking substantiative measures,” said Leonardo Crippa, a senior attorney at the U.S.-based Indian Law Resource Center.

The Agua Caliente Lote 9 case will give the court an opportunity to rule on recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights to sovereignty over their natural resources, according to Crippa. He has been working on Indigenous collective land rights cases for years, including that of Agua Caliente Lote 9.

“We hope the court orders the state to establish legislative and other measures to recognize the right of communities to collective property over lands they possess and to use, develop, control and benefit from the natural resources that are in their territories,” Crippa told Mongabay.

Now owned by the Solway Investment Group, a metals and mining conglomerate based in Switzerland, the Fenix project in the Q’eqchi’ region includes mountaintop mining and ferronickel processing facilities near the shore of Lake Izabal.

The lake and associated waterways sustain important ecosystems and protected areas home to diverse fish, bird, reptile and mammal species, including the endangered Guatemalan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra). Pollution is a concern for many local residents whose livelihoods depend on subsistence agriculture and fishing.

‘We need to legalize our lands’

Mining is just one more aspect of dispossession over the past 150 years by non-Indigenous landowners and companies with worldviews that clash with the Q’eqchi’ relationship to lands and territory, according to Victoria Sanford, an anthropology professor at the City University of New York.

“The Q’eqchi’ are the stewards,” Sanford, a court-appointed expert witness in the Agua Caliente Lote 9 case, told Mongabay. “They live in the land differently.”

Twenty years ago, Agua Caliente Lote 9 residents paid the Guatemalan government in full to buy their land back, but have never been granted their definitive land title. They have been fighting in courts, first domestically and now internationally, ever since.

Two Q’eqchi’ women watch an army truck carrying soldiers drive past along a main street in El Estor during the state of siege. Image courtesy of Sandra Cuffe.

Rodrigo Tot has been at the forefront of the community’s fight for land rights for years. In 2017, he was awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize honoring “grassroots environmental heroes” for his leadership role in the land title quest.

“I have suffered first-hand,” Tot said Tuesday during a press conference, alluding to the fatal shooting of his son Edin Leonel Tot Sub 10 years ago in what appeared to be a targeted attack.

“There are other communities in the same situation,” said Tot. “We need to legalize our lands.”

The Guatemalan government was notified in September 2020 that the case was subject to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Procuraduría de la Nación (PGN) told Mongabay in a written statement Wednesday. The PGN represents the State of Guatemala’s legal interests, including in domestic and international proceedings.

Guatemala has complied with its obligations under national law to ensure the human rights of Agua Caliente community members are respected, according to the PGN, which laid out its response to all three points of controversy in the case.

Map of Fenix mine
Map of Fenix mine extraction in El Estor, Guatemala. Image courtesy of Indian Law Resource Center.

Land was registered to community members in 2019, a consultation process concerning the Fenix mine concluded in agreements last December, and investigations into acts of violence continue, the PGN told Mongabay.

“The State emphasizes its commitment to ensure the human rights of all of its population, which will be demonstrated in the hearing [Wednesday],” according to the PGN statement.

A conflict over consultation

From the 1950s and 1960s under military rule, Guatemala has granted surface and subsoil rights to a string of transnational mining companies in the area. Successive owners of the Fenix mine, which operated for a few years in the late 1970s and was restarted in 2014, have engaged in exploration in Lote 9 lands.

“Fenix concession does not include the lands of Lote 9. This land is owned by representatives of the Aguas Caliente community. […] The company does not operate on the land of Lote 9,” the Solway Investment Group’s press office told Mongabay in a written statement.

In 2020, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court upheld a previous ruling ordering the government to suspend the Fenix mine exploitation license pending consultation with potentially affected Indigenous communities in the region, a legal requirement the government had failed to fulfil.

Q’eqchi’ community leaders and fishermen engaged in sustained protests in the town of El Estor last October over Q’eqchi’ representation issues in the consultation process, preventing the passage of trucks carrying coal to fuel the mining company’s processing plant.

Guatemalan marines fan out along the access street to a pier during the state of siege in El Estor. Image courtesy of Sandra Cuffe.

The protests ended in a violent crackdown and a month-long state of siege akin to martial law, during which time security forces raided the homes of several outspoken Indigenous mine opponents as well as local journalists.

While constitutional rights were suspended locally, the government also held meetings elsewhere to advance its consultation process, which wrapped up December 9 with agreements. The Minister of Energy and Mines signed a resolution on January 6 to reinstate the Fenix mine exploitation license, and Solway’s press office told Mongabay its subsidiary “has restarted its extraction operations.”

Many Q’eqchi’ community residents, including Rodrigo Tot, do not consider the government’s consultation process to be valid. In Tot’s case, he noted international conventions ratified by Guatemala are clear that “prior” is a key characteristic of consultation.

“Talking about consultation is the first thing that is done,” said Tot. “At this point in time, talking about consultation is already too late.”


Banner image: Rodrigo Tot began visiting households in Agua Caliente and gathering evidence of Q’eqchi ownership of the land. Image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here:

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