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Jamie McDowell: This land is your land

Across the globe, big corporations are engaged in a land-grab to dispossess indigenous peoples. Belfast journalist Jamie McDowell travelled to Guatemala to visit a human rights activist jailed for standing up to corporate power

Public support: people protest over the imprisonment of activist Abelino Chub Caal (inset left)
Public support: people protest over the imprisonment of activist Abelino Chub Caal (inset left)
Oppression: Jamie McDowell interviews an evicted Guatemalan family
Abelino in court

By Jamie McDowell

In a country where plantations, mining and dam-building companies call the shots, where homes are torched and people 'disappeared' from their ancestral rural homes to make room for sugar cane and palm oil, Abelino Chub Caal knows what it's like speak out.

For over two years, the human rights defender has suffered at the hands of the Guatemalan government, in cahoots with big companies who want to banish the indigenous people of Guatemala from their meagre ancestral homes - all for that extra slither of land.

Here, greed is measured in tiny percentages of profit, where an entire community means nothing to a major company pining for an extra dollar on top of billions.

Those who resist face murder, intimidation and midnight evictions, with the wooden huts they call home torched and their crops destroyed so they don't return.

When a large banana company failed with bribes in an attempt to expel his community from their land, they turned their attention to Abelino (34), a Q'eqchi Mayan leader from a community called Quebrada Sec.

They reported him to the military and claimed he was "stealing" the company's land, which they wanted to grow bananas on.

Appeased by a government which has historically acquiesced to big companies keen to obtain land for palm oil, banana and sugar cane plantations, as well as hugely polluting mining projects and dam-building ventures, many of which have strong links with the US and Europe, the Guatemalan authorities buckled and arrested Abelino. After two years in jail, he has still not been sentenced.

An active member of groups which fight for land rights for indigenous Mayans, as well as environmental issues, the Fundacion Guillermo Toriello (FGT) and formerly of the Committee for Peasant Unity, Abelino is a thorn in the side of big business and, by proxy, the government.

I travelled with Trocaire, the Irish overseas development agency, to meet the families and people who had suffered like Abelino, to hear their stories first-hand and learn how Trocaire's Lenten Appeal is highlighting how the corporate race for natural resources around the globe, particularly in developing countries, is putting millions of people at risk of exploitation.

With Trocaire's support, non-governmental organisations in Guatemala have been able to provide legal assistance to people like Abelino.

Since 2007, he has been working with FGT Fundacion Guillermo Toriello in Trocaire's project with the evicted communities of the Polochic Valley. I visited Abelino inside a Guatemala City penitentiary to hear his story.

The prison itself is overcrowded by thousands, something visibly obvious on the morning we arrived as hundreds of gang members had been corralled into the yards of the prison by heavily armed guards to allow forensics teams into block 11 to investigate a murder which had taken place just an hour earlier.

In a small side-room, a guard was present as we spoke to Abelino. He explained: "I was jailed in February 2017, meaning I'm now going into my third year in jail. When I was first detained by the police, they told me I was being detained because I am an indigenous leader. Other people who have stood up for Mayan rights have been detained in the same way.

"My case is not as terrible as some of the other Mayan people who have been detained in the same way and what I have suffered is not as bad as what others have suffered.

"In my case, it is clear the authorities have set out to criminalise me. What I want to do is highlight the dispossession of land happening all over the country.

"I have just been detained, but there have been worse things which have happened to other men and women who have raised the voices regarding the situation. Many have been arrested and detained, but how many have been sentenced? The answer is none. My detention - and the detention of others like me - is to delegitimise and slander our struggle."

Abelino described the details of bribes offered to him by the banana company in return for him convincing his community to leave the area.

"A banana company offered me money to expel the community from their land. They tried to give 1,500 Quetzals (£150) to each person on the board of the community and 1,700 Quetzals to me to move.

"They also offered me a job as an advisor for the company, a car and offered to pay for travel. But I refused. That was in 2016," he says.

"You cannot sell dignity - dignity is very sacred. You also cannot sell the dignity of the motherland. After I refused to work for the company, it created a delicate situation which led to me being arrested and charged with stealing land from the company."

While being held in the Guatemala City prison, Abelino has used the time to learn how to draw and has obtained a certificate after taking part in a weaving workshop.

He keeps himself busy, but he doesn't have any visits because his family lives so far away.

However, even in prison, he receives regular verbal attacks for his refusal to bend the knee to the companies seeking to plunder Guatemala for its natural resources.

"The staff really don't see me as different to any of the other inmates," he said. "I treat them with respect and I don't go looking for trouble.

"In my sector (of the prison), they also keep government officials who have been accused of corruption.

"They do confront me sometimes. They call me a Leftist and a guerrilla in an attempt to humiliate me.

"I try to engage with them, but I do treat them with respect. I tell them there is no need for me to be a guerrilla.

"Meanwhile, government officials continue to steal money, while our people are going hungry, our children are without shoes and our schools are without roofs."

It was then a prison guard entered the room to tell us the visit had been concluded and Abelino returned to his cell - in a country where rebuffing corruption can mean a lengthy spell behind bars - not knowing when he'll see his home again, or if it will still be standing when he returns.

However, Trocaire is working with their partners right now to help those who have been targeted, like Abelino.

To donate to Trocaire's Lenten Appeal, look out for one of their donation boxes, which are widely distributed across Northern Ireland, visit trocaire.org, or ring 0800 912 1200

l The Lenten Appeal helped Trocaire to support 2.8 million people in 23 developing countries last year

l Some 165,000 Trocaire boxes are distributed every year to schools, homes and businesses in Northern Ireland

l This year's box carries the faces of three girls: Maria (Guatemala, 9), Maya (Syria, 10) and Patricia (Uganda, 8), who have lost their homes and land

l Last year, over £2m was raised in Northern Ireland for Trocaire's Lenten Appeal

l This year's campaign focuses on land rights - land more than 34 times the size of Northern Ireland has been sold to corporations since 2000 as a global resource-grab gathers pace

l Over 1.3 million people were reached with humanitarian assistance from Trocaire last year

l In 2018, 780,000 people directly benefited from Trocaire-supported justice and human rights programmes

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