Top Guatemalan beauty spot mired in indigenous rights conflict

 David Hill

David Hill

The Guardian
December 17th, 2016
By David Hill

“There’s, like, 50 people on the way up, so take your photos,” said a young American man, shirtless, his face daubed with paint, as he came striding through the forest towards the look-out. The view was spectacular: lush tropical foliage clinging to the sheer rock-face of a canyon plunging several 100 feet to a series of stunning turquoisey pools where tourists could be spotted swimming.

This was Semuc Champey, a must-visit on the Central American backpacker circuit and increasingly one of Guatemala’s most well-known tourist destinations. “Hidden”, “unique” and “natural paradise” are all thrown around to describe it. Lonely Planet calls Semuc “arguably the loveliest spot in the country”, while CNN dubbed the River Cahabón, which flows under the pools, the world’s “third best river for travellers” after the Amazon and Zambezi.

But how many of the tens of 1000s of tourists who visit every year are aware of the years-long social conflict over Semuc? This includes violations of indigenous people’s land rights, severe division among indigenous communities, allegations of politically-motivated arrests and criminalisation of indigenous authorities, 1000s protesting, fighting with riot police, a recent appeal by the local mayor to the president to install the army in the region, and a general climate of fear, intimidation and suspicion.

Jorge Samayoa, from the Guatemalan Tourism Institute (Inguat), says tourists aren’t aware of the conflict and he is “extremely concerned” it could mean closing Semuc - for a second time. “We don’t have anything else like it and it’s one of our main tourist sites for nature,” he told the Guardian. “It’s part of the country’s image. We’re worried that at any moment a visitor - Guatemalan or international - could be directly affected, not only economically but physically.”

Semuc - or Semuq - Champey is in the Alta Verapaz department in north-central Guatemala. It was identified as a conservation target by a 1989 law and declared a “protected area” and “natural monument” in 2005, and is currently administered by the National Council on Protected Areas (Conap). For several months in 2016 - and for periods before that - it was taken over and run by some members of the four indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in the region, leading Inguat to recommend tourists to steer clear. That ended in July when, over two days, riot police and soldiers drove them out and recovered government control of the area, firing tear-gas, reportedly shooting in the air, and entering at least two of the communities in the surrounding hills.

“When the police began to throw the tear-gas, we - mothers, with babies - ran into the forest,” Doña Concepción, from the Chizubin community, told the Guardian. “We had to escape to protect ourselves. There were children with us crying. Some were intoxicated by the tear-gas. We had to flee because we didn’t have any other option.”

Police and Conap personnel reported stones being thrown at them and shots being fired. A short film released by Guatemala’s Procurador on Human Rights states that three policemen were injured and accuses the communities of responding violently to government attempts at dialogue.

Utz Che, a network of grassroots organisations based south of Guatemala City, disputes that version of events. “A media campaign against the communities says that it was they who were inciting the violence and they are usurping and invading Semuc Champey, when it was the security forces using excessive force and lethal weapons against unarmed community members,” reads a statement circulated to journalists. “The communities have always been in favour of dialogue, but local Conap personnel didn’t take them seriously. They want to make it clear that they’re not invaders and they’re on their own property.”

According to Utz Che, at least nine young people were injured and many elderly and children were affected by the tear-gas in July. One man from the Santa Maria Semuc Champey community told the Guardian the subsequent death of his uncle, Don Nicolas, was connected to being tear-gassed.

Since the July violence warrants have been issued for the arrest of various Q’eqchi’s, with Utz Che warning of rumours of requests being made for warrants for at least another 30 people. The charges include usurping a protected area, coercion, incitement to commit crime, and assaulting security services, but the warrants are seen more as an attempt to undermine and intimidate Q’eqchi’ leaders considered threatening to Conap.


“According to information I received yesterday, all our ancestral authorities will have to be arrested,” Don Anastasio, in Chizubin, told the Guardian. “Conap has realised that we’re organised and know how to defend ourselves.”

On 4 December 71 year old Francisco Pop Pop, from the Chicanuz community, and two other Q’eqchi’ men were roughly bundled into a pick-up truck and driven to nearby city Cobán, before being released on bail. A warrant for Pop Pop’s arrest had been issued, according to Utz Che, but he hadn’t been notified and his captors didn’t identify themselves.

Pop Pop has been a long-standing critic of Conap and just over a week before he was seized his son, Crisanto Pop Mo, had been involved in a violent incident with a Conap representative, Arnoldo Tec Caal. Accounts of events differ. Pop Mo’s wife, Doña Elvira, told the Guardian that Tec Caal was armed and broke into her house at 11:45 pm, but her husband successfully defended himself with a machete by striking and wounding Tec Caal, tying him up and reporting the incident to the police - before himself being detained, imprisoned and then freed on bail. Guatemalan media presented Pop Mo as the aggressor, with La Hora calling Tec Caal latter a “defender” of Semuc and Prensa Libre describing him as a “defender of conservation.”

Just hours before he was captured, Pop Pop had spoken out, at a meeting in Chizubin, against Conap and the warrants for arrest. “We’ve been persecuted for a very long time and we remain persecuted to this day,” he said, just a few hours before he was forced into the pick-up. “We can’t leave our communities. They could seize us at any moment. That’s our fear.”

Asked about allegations that the arrest warrants are politically-motivated, Conap’s Otilio Chavez, in Guatemala City, says he is unable to comment. “That’s the public prosecutor that’s in charge.”

Many Q’eqchi’ men and women say they now fear being evicted from their communities, or having future use of their land severely restricted. Such fears have numerous grounds, including the way the protected area was established in 2005 without consulting them, Conap’s subsequent failure to include them in managing it, threats allegedly made to them by different local people, and reported plans by Conap to “expand” its management reach. In the mid-1990s the communities coordinated with the local municipality to buy the title to their land, but the municipality put two key “caballerias” - about 90 hectares - in its own name: the very area where the turquoisey pools are. Given that the 2005 law establishing Semuc as a protected area makes it 919 hectares, Conap’s administration should extend way beyond the municipality-owned 90 hectares - which the Q’eqchi’s consider theirs anyway - and into the communities to which they have title.

“Conap is not claiming land ownership. The way Conap works is that they establish protected areas and restrict the rights to certain things, like cutting down trees, even walking, or building roads,” says David Garcia, a Guatemalan anthropologist from the Agronomes et Vétérinaires Sans Frontieres which has been facilitating meetings between the communities and Conap. “Basically, they’re taking away the right of self-determination. The Q’eqchi’s would still own [that land], but Conap would have certain rights within it.”

For Don Matteo Chub, though, Conap running Semuc means potential eviction. “The intention is to remove the majority of the people, put the area in its name, and bring in whatever is required so more tourists come,” says Chub, from Santa Maria.

Another reason to fear eviction is Conap’s record elsewhere. Andrew Davis, from El Salvador-based NGO Prisma, says Conap has a “very old school” vision of conservation.

“You have to displace people. You have to protect nature from people,” says Davis, co-lead author of a report on conservation in Central America released in Mexico on 8 December which features Semuc as a case-study. He calls that vision “ironic”: “the Mayans have protected these forests for 100s of years.”

A further reason for fearing eviction is more general and country-wide: the several centuries-old experience among indigenous peoples in Guatemala of being driven off their land. This continues despite the Constitution which commits to protecting indigenous peoples, and the Peace Accords signed in the 1990s after the civil war - one of which commits specifically to respecting indigenous peoples’ identities and rights. Over the last 15 years the Q’eqchi’s in Alta Verapaz and neighbouring departments have been particularly badly-affected, says Davis, because oil palm has “exploded” and “violent dispossession has been common.”

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