The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Indigenous peoples are defending their rights in court—and winning

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indigenous rights activists Indigenous Xinka leaders are fighting for their rights in Guatemala. Photo: Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

What a groundbreaking court decision in Guatemala means for environmental justice and indigenous rights.

Raging fires in the Amazon are once again putting the spotlight on parts of Latin America where indigenous communities face violence and extreme pressure for their land and resources.

While these tactics might be resurgent, they are nothing new. From heavy-metal poisoning to murder, indigenous communities across the region have faced decades of neglect and repression. Despite the odds, many are defying these injustices and taking their fight to the courts.

Even more remarkable? They are winning.

Searching for accountability

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Guatemala—a Central American country under intense pressure from the Trump administration to curb migration of its people to the US.

In 2013, security services opened fire on peaceful indigenous protesters at the entrance to the Escobal silver mine—one of many extractive projects. The incident could have just been another violent response to indigenous activism; instead, the protestors took legal action in Canada—seeking to hold the private company operating the mine—Tahoe Resources—accountable.

In July, their actions were rewarded. Pan American Silver, the Canadian company which acquired Tahoe this year, reached a settlement with the protesters and issued a formal apology. The case will now pave the way for future legal action on behalf of human rights defenders and others wronged by companies abroad.

The right to say no

This conclusion in Canada follows a series of recent decisions by Guatemala’s constitutional court to suspend outright a number of mining and hydroelectric projects—including the Escobal mine—because of the Guatemalan government’s failure to consult affected indigenous groups adequately.

On a recent visit to Washington, DC, Quelvin Jiménez, an indigenous Guatemalan lawyer representing the Xinka people affected by the mine, explained the significance of the unprecedented decision to suspend operations at Escobal.

  • This is the first time a constitutional court in Central America has suspended an extractive project of this size while in operation.
  • The ruling states that the government must consult indigenous communities around decisions that affect them, specifically referencing their right to provide Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
  • The decision also requires the government to categorize mining projects as “high risk” (triggering additional environmental safeguards), hire experts to assist indigenous communities in the consultation process, and assess environmental risks and consult communities about project impacts before awarding future mining licenses.

In the case of Escobal, there was overwhelming public opposition to mining on local lands. And it’s no surprise: research launched this year by the Center for Conservation Studies, the Diocesan Commission for the Defense of Nature, and Virginia Tech University—with support from Oxfam—documented arsenic levels above the level permitted by government in water samples near the mine, including from local families’ tap water.

The limits of the courts

Unfortunately, opposition informed by science and victories in court only go so far. A new report by Global Witness found that Guatemala had the greatest increase in the number of killings of land and environmental defenders last year. Sixteen defenders were murdered, five times more than the previous year.

Jiménez and others have received numerous threats because of their work. “The rising tensions, proliferation of threats, and acts of provocation and intimidation are making us feel like we are back in 2013,” Jiménez says. “Now as then, this is a result of this mining project being forced on our communities against our will and right to self-determination.”

Guatemala’s newly elected government should heed these recent court rulings. Rather than continue down the path of repression, the government should conduct robust and participatory consultation processes with indigenous peoples and seek their free, prior, and informed consent.

Defending indigenous rights and protecting our shared global environment is not only the responsibility of governments in Latin America. Major western countries, including those of the G7 which just convened in France, are also responsible for violence against indigenous people leading to environmental destruction and climate change. If this summer is any indication, it is clearly past time to support indigenous movements: from courtrooms to mines to the Amazon.

To learn more about the fight for indigenous rights in Guatemala, view Quelvin’s presentation at Oxfam’s offices here.

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