Thursday afternoon following our tour of The Survivors’ Foundation, we traveled to another part of Guatemala City to meet with members from the Alliance of Rural Women for Life, Earth, and Dignity (La Alianza de Mujeres Rurales por la Vida, Tierra, y Dignidad). The Alliance is a coalition of three organizations formed by women forced to flee to Mexico as refugees during Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict.
These three organizations–Mama Maquin, Madre Tierra, and Ixmucané–formed a coalition in 2000, under the common goal of defending their rights to land as rural and indigenous people. As we had learned earlier in the week from our talk with land rights activist Lolita Chavez, the Guatemalan government’s promotion of transnational development projects (such as hydroelectric dams, gold and nickel mines, and mono-crop agriculture) are undertaken without the consent of the indigenous communities who live in the rural localities primed for development. These communities do not merely live on their land, they depend on its natural resources for their livelihoods, and feel a strong ancestral tie to the earth and all aspects of the natural world in accordance with their Cosmo-vision.
These development projects use processes forbidden in many countries because they introduce harmful effects to the environment and people’s health. For example, the Marlin mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán uses cyanide to extract gold from the rocks. Members of the Alliance educate their respective communities about these issues through trainings that teach political awareness and people’s rights to land and health.
On Thursday, the Alliance divided the members of our delegation into two groups so that we could talk more intimately. Afterward, our delegation leaders commented that our conversation was a “window” for us to meet rural Maya Mam women in Guatemala’s capital. The women in my discussion group came from many areas, including Alta Verapaz, Santa Cruz Barillas, and Huehuetenango.
I and my fellow delegates observed how the women listened attentively to one another and shared turns speaking during our conversation. Their genuine ability to honor the voices of all members truly showed their intention to cultivate female leadership. In our conversation, the women elaborated on the reason the coalition came together to address development from a rural and indigenous perspective.
They emphasized the spiritual connection they feel to “Mother Earth,” whom they believe lives in the land. The women explained, “the government’s vision of development is not the vision of our communities. Our development comes from us and from a vision from our ancestors.” Aware that the chemical fertilizers used in mono-crop agricultural projects are “killing the land,” the Alliance works with health promoters to educate communities about the environmental dangers of chemical fertilizers, and encourages them to use natural fertilizers instead.
The women also spoke about how their experiences as landless refugees in Mexico made them feel weak and humiliated, and that they returned to Guatemala to pursue “dignified land and life.” The Alliance has presented 58 community referendums to the government to try to recuperate their land, which was damaged from the Armed Conflict. Although the Alliance has a strong goal of promoting female empowerment, and members are training young women “to speak without fear,” the increased militarization of President Molina’s administration has rekindled fears and traumas experienced in the Internal Armed Conflict.
Learn more about La Alianza de Mujeres Rurales por la Vida, Tierra, y Dignidad and the beliefs informing their activism
1. “Alianza de mujeres rurales de Guatemala.” YouTube. June 8, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwVVav7a9pc This interview in Spanish without subtitles on Cubainformación TV features two members of the Alliance–Dalila Vásquez and María Mateo speaking about the environmental and social factors in Guatemala surrounding development that led to the Alliance’s formation.
2. Alianza de Mujeres Rurales. http://alianzamujeresrurales.un-mundo.net/ This official website has not been updated since 2010.
3. Black, Eric and Frauke Sandig. Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth. http://www.heart-of-sky.com/ This visually stunning documentary, in Spanish and Mam with English subtitles, addresses the impacts of transnational development projects on indigenous Guatemalan communities. The film also weaves together historical information regarding the Armed Conflict with discussion of the Mayan Cosmo-vision and the deep connection indigenous communities feel to their land and one another.
In March 2013, I had the honor of seeing this film, which made me deeply nostalgic for Guatemala. I was also tremendously moved by the courage demonstrated in the film of many indigenous Guatemalan communities. After the film, I listened to indigenous environmental rights activist Juanita Cabrera Lopez give a talk filled with the potent collective wisdom that I heard from the members of the Alliance of Rural Women back in August. Juanita described how she and her fellow activists, who are speaking out to defend their land and human rights in an environment that seeks to silence them, draw strength from the ongoing Rios Montt trial; she added that the recent increased militarization, threats and acts of violence against human rights defenders “gives us fire to keep fighting.”