PBI-Guatemala accompanies BDH in defence of Indigenous land defender Samuel Choc Ac

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On September 6, the Peace Brigades International-Guatemala Project posted, “Yesterday we accompanied the BDH in the court of Cobán to the hearings of Samuel Choc of the Las Mercedes community, Chisec, criminalized with two legal charges. In both cases, the beginning of the debate was rescheduled for January 2020.”

Indigenous land defender Samuel Choc Ac is being represented by BDH (the Human Rights Law Firm), a group of lawyers who represent those who human rights have been violated, that has been accompanied by PBI-Guatemala since 2013.

On September 5, 2019, Prensa Comunitaria reported, “Choc Ac, a Maya Q’eqchi’ originally from the community of Las Mercedes, was denounced by the palm oil producing company, Tecniservicios Agroindustriales SA, through its legal representative Luis Fernando Oliva Oliva, and charged with the crime of aggravated usurpation on October 29, 2018.”

“As stated in the complaint, Choc Ac along with other families settled on land that is claimed as the property of the oil palm production company.”

After seven months of preventive detention, Judge Úrsula Teyul ordered that Choc Ac be released from prison.

The Prensa Comunitaria article continues, “Samuel Choc denounced having been criminalized and imprisoned for not wanting to give up his land and for promoting, together with the community, the defence of the land.”

Choc Ac says, “My parents, grandparents and families in the community have lived for several generations in that place. We are a family of farmers, merchants and fishermen on the Chiribiscal, Quimala, San Román and Negro rivers, which are being contaminated by palm planting waste these days. They have caused serious damage, many fish have died and many people have sprouted skin diseases, the pestilence of waste has increased and caused the increase in flies.”

The article also notes, “On several occasions the workers of the company have threatened the community members and destroyed the sown fields, they have attacked women as a form of pressure to sell their land for the sowing of the oil palm.”

“The crime of aggravated usurpation is one of the ways that oil palm companies use to criminalize the peasant population living in the northern transverse strip (FTN).”

“The community demands the withdrawal of the palm company as they are responsible for the pollution of the rivers and for promoting social conflicts. The communities reject that the authorities are defending business interests and do not take care of the waste produced by monoculture of African palm. They demand that those responsible for the death of the fish be prosecuted and this irreparable damage in impunity remains.”

PBI-Guatemala has previously posted, “Indigenous leaders and leaders continue to be criminalized in [the department/province of] Alta Verapaz. We reaffirm that defending rights is not a crime.”

Usurpation used against Indigenous land defenders

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, has stated in a report to the UN Human Rights Council that the “crime of aggravated usurpation is commonly brought against indigenous land rights defenders.”

She highlights, “Disregard of indigenous rights of traditional lands ownership breeds tensions, subsequent violence and criminalization, as indigenous peoples become trespassers or illegal occupants of their own lands, subject to criminal charges such as ‘usurpation’ or illegal occupation, and liable to forced evictions and removal from the lands they rely upon for their livelihoods, social and cultural cohesion and spiritual traditions.”

Palm oil plantations, violence against human rights defenders, and climate change

On July 30, the Global Witness report Enemies of the State? highlighted that 164 land and environment defenders were killed in 2018.

That report specified that in 2018 there were 16 land and environment defenders were killed in Guatemala. That report also notes that among the key resource sectors that are driving the violence against human rights defenders is agribusiness.

Furthermore, the Union of Concerned Scientists has reported, “Unfortunately, because current palm oil production methods often cause the destruction of carbon-rich tropical forests and peatlands, it is a major contributor to global warming.”

Further reading

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report (dated August 2018) where she comments on how states use the charge of usurpation against Indigenous peoples can be found here.

The Prensa Comunitaria article (in Spanish) can be read here.

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