August 10, 2010
By Simon Chambers
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Raquel Vasquez, a Mayan woman from Guatemala, and hear from her the story of the work of Madre Tierra, a PWRDF partner working for women’s rights and sustainable development in Guatemala. While the current work of Madre Tierra is important, I was deeply moved in hearing the story of how they came to be. Yet again, I was struck by the realization that the news I hear and the history I learn in school is coloured deeply, and carries an enormous bias. Raquel helped to flesh out my understanding of the 1980s and 90s in Mexico and Guatemala, and I am tremendously thankful to her for the sharing of her story!
For 25 years, Madre Tierra has been advocating for the rights of Indigenous refugees from Guatemala. Raquel Vasquez shared the history of the persecution of Mayan Guatemalans. She shared stories of her role with Madre Tierra, about the need for its continued existence, the exciting new work they are engaged with, and finished with a message to Anglicans in Canada. Madre Tierra has been a PWRDF partner organization since 1997, supporting their work which is currently focused on: Social Participation and Non-Violence, Women’s Health, Economic Productivity and Sustainability, and Education.
Raquel talked about the importance of the relationship between Madre Tierra and PWRDF, “The long-term relationship is based on mutual trust, collaboration, and open communication. Human contact is important between us. Other organizations want reports, PWRDF wants relationships.” Madre Tierra appreciates the time that is spent sharing stories with each other.
Here is their story:
The Mayan and Mestizo (Metis) people of Guatemala have been persecuted for centuries. From the Spanish explorers in the 1500s through multi-national corporations in the 20th century, the Mayan people have been oppressed in order for other people to take their land.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the Guatemalan government changed the constitution to legalize the expropriation of Mayan lands. Then in 1982, after a coup d’etat saw General Efrain Rios Montt installed as the president of Guatemala, the army began to attack Mayan and Mestizo people in Guatemala. According to Vasquez, “the army was exterminating Mayans so the land would be empty and the elite could expand their territory”.
In the face of this violence, many families began to flee across the border into Mexico, where they founded a refugee camp in Chiapas. The Guatemalan military invaded Mexico and continued to attack Mayan refugees in this camp. Eventually, the Mexican government set up a refugee area in eastern Mexico. While safe from attack, the camp suffered from a lack of food and access to medicine. Refugees began to get sick and die because of the lack of resources.
The refugees organized themselves and began to advocate for their needs. From 1986-1991, they managed to get better access to food and medicine. The refugee network worked in small groups to solve immediate problems. After the success of this model, they began to look at broader social causes in their camps, and grew more competent at organization and leadership.
In 1992, they worked with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to bring the needs of the refugees to the attention of the Mexican government. The UNHCR helped the refugees to work on securing their safe return to Guatemala.
In 1993, Madre Tierra was formed as an organization to participate in the negotiations between the Mayan and Mestizo people and the Guatemalan government. While most of the negotiators were men, Raquel Vasquez was among the women who participated.
Madre Tierra advocated for four conditions before their return to Guatemala:
1. The government of Guatemala had to guarantee the refugees’ safe return
2. The refugees had to be guaranteed freedom of movement; and
3. Freedom of assembly
4. The refugees needed to be able to choose where they wanted to return to live.
In 1995, the refugees returned to Guatemala. The Mayan and Meszito people discovered that while they were living in Mexico, the government had appropriated their land as part of the “national interest” because it was rich in resources. And while the government was “giving” them land to settle on upon their return, the government forced them to take on enormous debt in order to pay the government for the land. They didn’t pay anything up front, but were charged for the land.
One group of 130 families that Madre Tierra worked with were charged 11 million quetzals (approximately $1.4 million) for their land. Madre Tierra negotiated with the government to get these exorbitant figures reduced. In the case of these 130 families, they got the 11 million quetzal fee slashed to a mere 1 million. (Photo: Madre Tierra helps returning refugees get access to seed to grow food for their families. Larger image.)
This was accomplished through the newly created Fundo del Tierras (Land Fund) created by the Guatemalan government to provide land for de-militarized guerillas. Madre Tierra demanded that the refugees be allowed to access that money as well.
Madre Tierra Today
Since the Mayan and Mestizo people returned to Guatemala, Madre Tierra has expanded its priorities to include advocacy in the fields of education, health, and food production and income for the Mayan people. In 2000, a 5-year strategic plan was created focusing on: enhancing the role of women at the local, regional, and national level; literacy training; skills development in human rights, leadership, and self-esteem; and food production.
Madre Tierra currently works with 14 Mayan and Mestizo communities, with local groups totaling 790 members engaged in the work. They are also working with other non-governmental organizations to improve the standard of living for their people.
They are now focused on promoting awareness of Mayan and Mestizo’s rights and also the rights of the women, and on ensuring that returning refugees have access to seeds and animals to begin their lives in Guatemala.
A Message to Canadians
When asked what she would like to say to people in Canada, Raquel replied, “Even though you live in a rich country, Indigenous people are marginalized here. They face similar challenges to Indigenous people in Latin America. Everyone must be conscious of the abuses of human rights, and Canadians must learn about violations of human rights in their own country.”