Interview

“Mayans have been self-sufficient for centuries. Why do they come to tell us how we have to live our lives?”

Lolita Chávez

Indigenous activist and leader of the K’iche’ Peoples’ Council

Lolita Chávez.
Lolita Chávez. Autor/a: José Rodríguez / Imatge cedida per AlterNativa
 Guatemala is one of the countries with the highest proportion of Indigenous people in the world. Systematic racist discrimination that has been present in Guatemalan society for many centuries, as well as the introduction of foreign transnational companies in its economy, has endangered the Mayan peoples, native to the region, who wish to maintain their ancestral customs and ways of life. One of their most prominent voices is that of Lolita Chávez: a Maya activist, leader of the K’iche’ People’s Council and representative of the Indigenous resistance to postcolonial oppression. Chávez visited Catalonia in November, invited by the NGO AlterNativa, thanks to which she has held meetings with members of several grassroots groups in the country.

Indigenous peoples of Guatemala have suffered the abuses of these transnational corporations especially since the end of the brutal civil war that lasted 36 years (1960-1996), through what Naomi Klein defines as the Shock Doctrine: the economic dogma that takes advantage of disasters or crisis to introduce neoliberal economic measures, where political power mixes with the corporate and together act in connivance. Indigenous ecological activism, intrinsic to the Mayan cosmology, is severely repressed both by the state and by transnational corporations with the use of force, intimidation and violence. Chávez is a veteran of a relentless activist movement in Guatemala that through the community action they achieved the repeal of the 19-2014 decree, better known as the Monsanto Law, which sought the privatisation of maize seeds. Having undergone restless persecutions from the aforementioned institutions, today Chávez is in exile after suffering an attack on her life in Guatemala this year. However, she says, the struggle against inequality must continue in a country where 70% of arable land (the milpa) is in the hands of 2% of the population, so the fight against inequality goes on, “more strongly then ever, until life is victorious against the tyranny of death.”

Nationalia: What is the hope in the struggle for the rights of the Indigeous peoples? How can you overcome mass privatisation?

Lolita Chávez: Repression is constant: they use fear, death and coercion to make us silent. We have suffered abuses, murders, intimidation... but the fight continues. While they continue to occupy the land, cutting down ancestral forests and making business out of everything, our peaceful struggle will continue and our voices will not be silent no matter how many of us they manage to kill, for a person’s voice can be muted, but that of an entire people persists over the centuries. That is why we cling to our Mayan identity, to make a call to life against the neoliberal macroeconomic model of death that aims to rob what is sacred to our people. We have suffered a lot but we have also won battles: as a result of the Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Central America in 2014, they tried to impose us a privatisation law for Creole Corn so that the evil Monsanto corporation could pervert all fields with GMOs, take control of our land and waste it with monocultures. Through peaceful demonstrations, demonstrations, assemblies and occupying public spaces, we have managed to build cohesion with the affected communities, and finally putting pressure on the government of criminal Otto Pérez Molina to repeal the law. With this collective action, we pushed forward the K’iche’ Peoples’ Council in Defense of Life, Mother Nature, Earth and Territory.

N: The name clearly states your position.

L. C.: They tried to privatise the milpa for mercantile purposes, leave our town without forests and contaminate the earth with their monstrous transgenics. The state has opened the door to transnational companies one by one, and they establish a commercial relationship that only harms indigenous peoples and obliterates the biodiversity. That is why we declare ourselves in favour of life, because what they represent means only the end of our people, they are preachers of this nefarious capitalism that sees everything as something to profit from. Not only with maize: they also tried to patent textile designs of our people. They have respect for nothing, they only want to win and accumulate as much as they can. They do not understand and will never understand our values, while the state that should represent us is sold for a miserable portion of the businesses of these corporations. Of the mining industry, which uses extremely aggressive extraction techniques, only 1% of the profits are taxed by the state. We are alone, so we all join in the name of life and face what we know how to do better: organization, mobilization and peasant joint action.

N: There is also strong pressure to generate patents on medicinal plants. Apart from peasant cohesion, do you also fight from the ancestral perspective of Mayan peoples?

L. C.: They tried to erase us from history, as if we had never existed: they burned our books and massacred our people. For centuries our people have suffered the tyranny of colonialist forces. Therefore, many believe that the Maya people have disappeared in history but this is not the case: we continue to cling to the values of solidarity between peoples and harmony with nature, we are calling for life. They have tried to impose a neoliberal, patriarchal, racist and capitalist system in a space of a people that have their own model of life and their own worldview. We have always seen capitalist development as a false, materialistic and greedy development. Not only did they want to patent medicinal plants to commercialize them: they also wanted to criminalize the healing old ladies who have cured our people for ages. They have also tried to patent the ayahuasca plant, a tea we have used since always. Everybody ignores these grandmas with their hearts full of ancestral wisdom. The government prioritizes the political lobbying of these transnational corporations, and ignores the demands of the Mayan courts. Based on a decree that had been applied in Bolivia, we proposed a Law of Consultation so that our people had a legal voice. Such law was repealed.

What we ask for is a reconciliation with the ancestry of our people. Native peoples are the only ones that appeal to the fundamental issue of the human species: that we are all one and we all come from the same. We come from the stars, science tells us, and Mayans already knew that ever since. Nowadays people look down towards their phones instead of looking at the sky as their ancestors did, who were primitive savages in the eyes of the white man. They prioritize money over nature and land, and that is why Indigenous peoples from all over the world are in serious danger: the white man has no respect for the ancestral way of life of our people, nor for our beliefs or traditions. If we do not focus the struggle from our worldview and our identity as a Maya people, we will forget who we are, and that is precisely what they want: to divide ourselves into castes and races so we fight each other.

N: Do you think the imposition of neoliberal dogma is a perpetuation of colonialism?

L. C.: Today, Spanish and Canadian transnational corporations hurt our way of life, they are behind this corporate imperialism. Many landowners have been sold to the Renace and Renace II project, two massive hydroelectric plants of Florentino Pérez’s ACS company. Along with the Central American conglomerate, Corporación Multi-Inversiones (CMI) they have appropriated the land to build these plants, and ensured that it would have a minimal environmental impact. Even so, our people cannot use river water, because its water is privatized. On top of that, the energy given by the plant is at a gold price for Guatemalans: our relatives who have emigrated tell us that light is more expensive in Guatemala than in the United States. A few years ago the World Bank made a ghostly appearance with a million dollar investment for action against climate change, theoretically to protect the environment. We still have to see this famous action. We have learned that no one can trust in Western institutions. On top of that, with the corrupt public prosecutor, the only thing we can expect from the state is weakness and complacency with the neoliberal machinery: they are part of the transnational companies and have no problem with demonstrating it with their dismal war on the indigenous peoples. The state has established a systematic criminalization of social protest, with a public prosecutor who sabotages everyone’s efforts to deface these transnational corporations from the constitutional legality.

N: In what manner?

L. C.: They put endless legal impediments. When landowners refused to sell their land, the prosecutor accused them of incitement to violence or any other bullshit. They use any premise to stop political activists and ban demonstrations. Nor do they have any hindrance in murdering us in cold blood: on May 1, 2012, two security guards from the Spanish company Hidralia Energía killed the leader of the department of Huehuetenango, Francisco Miguel, because he opposed the construction of a power station of Hidralia Energía in Santa Cruz de Barillas. Then the communities joined us, all in a group we went out to demand justice for this perverse act, we went to the hotel where the guards of Hidralia were residing and they were not there, therefore we went to the military field, where we believed that they were hidden, and we entered on the cries of “Justice”. On May 2, President Otto Pérez Molina, a mass murderer who is now in prison, declared the state of siege, took out the tanks to the streets and arbitrarily arrested many people and obtained the names of a hundred activists, with me among them. It was the toughest and most sad blow to the social protest, and they blamed everything on us. They want to see us as criminals, and many Guatemalans, especially those who work in these corporations, believe the bullshit that this is the development that Guatemala needs, when the only thing that it brings to us is inequality, accumulation of wealth in the hands of a foreign minority, desecration of land and annihilation of biodiversity. They have a highly manipulated conception of what development is. Europeans who have always boasted about human rights and respect among peoples are those who have brought misfortune and exploitation to Indigenous peoples, and the worst thing is that they sell us this colonization in numbers, they say it helps us, that it is development and progress, and people swallow it. Look: I am not a woman of numbers, I only see what is happening directly to my land and to my people instead of receiving adulterated information from the idiot box.

N: You speak about the role of television. Do you think that media is related with this acceptance of the neoliberal dogma?

L. C: Without a doubt. The state propaganda machine is in charge of the systematic criminalization of social protest. They say that we are conflicting but the only thing we want is to live in peace. And they will not let us live in peace until they have taken everything. Nature is most essential for our way of life and we take care of defending it, because Mother Earth alone cannot defend herself against her exploiters.

As simple an idea as this, they distort it and place us as guilty and transnational companies as victims. I am so sorry that my compatriots call us criminals and attack us so freely. Many men are positioned with these transnational corporations because they focus on what generates earnings and money, in terms of quantities and materialism. And they will do everything possible to present our way of life as an impediment to development. What we say is that this development is toxic and unequaled, unacceptable under any condition, and that is why they chase and kill us.

N: That is why they tried to kill you?

L. C.: I had to leave my country in a hurry because henchmen sent in by loggers shot me on the street. I took my son and left in the first flight. They want to kill me because of my opposition to the cutting of ancestral forests, but especially because I made a public statement about a matter that everyone knows: that weapons and drugs are also transported in trucks that carry wood. But the state is deaf. That is the way it works: the state tolerates the activities of the underworld as long as they do not come to light or attract much attention. We become a problem for both when we expose what they do, and therefore they consent these murders. They are not worried at all that they may kill us indiscriminately, it rather benefits them. What concerns them is our stubbornness as a people outraged by the insults they are committing to the earth. They see us as an obstacle to progress, which for them is the increase in the presence of transnational corporations. You Westerners always speak of figures, budgetary agreements, deficits and GDP, and this is nothing more than the tyranny of the alliance of corporations, oligarchic elites and governments.

N: Author Peter Lamborn Wilson talks about various methods of escaping this empire of capital, especially from the point of view of Indigenous peoples, in which communities create what he calls a “temporarily autonomous zone.” Is it feasible, since legality has failed, to react independently from the structures of the system? How can you ensure the survival not only of the Maya people, but also of Indigenous peoples in general, their culture, cosmology and traditions?

L. C.: It is feasible in the sense that there is a codependency between the Indigenous communities that we all have in mind when assembling and organizing demonstrations. We have always tried to act from a constitutional framework, with the Consultation law or the Law on resources, which limited the framework of action of these multinational corporations, but both were abrogated after strong pressure from American and European lobbies. The fact that you cannot touch an ancestral process of connection of our people with the Earth is not taken seriously. The Mayans and all the First Peoples have been self-sufficient for centuries. Why do they come to explain how we have to live our lives?

Natives continue and will remain to be the only voice that oppose the conception that the white man has about nature: a materialistic and utilitarian thing. The four main measures that we are claiming are the non-indifference pacts, the links between societies, fraternity between communities and the boycott of the patriarchal racist caste of the state and transnational corporations. This means that, if we remain united, they will not succeed in silencing or eliminating us easily; if we organize ourselves, our voices will have more strength. That is why we celebrate joint consultations, put our ideas in common and we realize that we want to recover an ancestral path of harmony with Mother Earth, a much longer way for our species than the short path of greed and immediate gains from neoliberalism. Our path is solidarity between peoples, regenerating a network of life that capitalism wants to destroy, and above all transcend borders between peoples, because borders only divide and create tensions between us.

N: How is the sociopolitical situation of Indigenous women in Guatemala?

L. C.: Women suffer from constant patriarchal oppression, exclusion from education, racism, they say the territories are not ours... People judge girls for how they dress, Indigenous clothes are poorly seen by certain elements of society... White women always have a pretentious attitude of moral superiority towards our people, and this is very sad, because they do not realize that they are also victims of this patriarchal dogma.

N: What do you think is the origin of these tensions?

L. C.: The conception of the person in the West. This ignorance of “the other” that always derives from the mentality of colonizing patriarchal superiority. That people are only born to work, consume and die, and the rest does not matter. You live and die for money, and on top of that you think that this is the future, the way our species should undergo. I was very angry when a member of the European Parliament dressed in a tie told me: “You cannot say ‘no’ to development.” As if “developing” meant making a business out of everything, treat the Earth as a toy and carelessly forget about future generations.

N: Is money a god?

L. C.: Obviously not for me. But for Westerners, money has transcended the idea of God, because at least God had a sacred component. Money is what brings out the worst of us: greed, arrogance, violence and lies. It is good that there are people here that realize that something beyond statistics, economy, figures and internet exists. Let them realize that there is an energy that transcends all of this that we have been progressively losing, that we are all one and we come from the same. Money in many places is not the center of development. People cannot be conceived only with the Western perspective of capitalism, because otherwise, we would all be lost peoples.

N: Lost peoples?

L. C.: Peoples that have ceased to exist as a result of colonial empires.