Rodrigo Tot

2017 Goldman Prize Recipient
South and Central America

  • Guatemala
  • Oil & Mining

An indigenous leader in Guatemala’s Agua Caliente, Rodrigo Tot led his community to a landmark court decision that ordered the government to issue land titles to the Q’eqchi people and kept environmentally destructive nickel mining from expanding into his community.

A long history of incursions

Lake Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala, and its surrounding land in El Estor, are a place of vital importance to the indigenous Q’eqchi people. Descendants of the ancient Maya, the Q’eqchi maintain their living by farming and fishing. They defended their territory from Spanish colonists in the 16th century and hundreds of years later, they are fighting for their land yet again, this time against their own government and multinational corporations interested in tapping the nickel deposits under their land.

In the 1960s, the Guatemalan government began issuing permits to multinational mining companies in an attempt to cash in on the rising nickel prices. Among the mines established during this rush was the Fénix mine. It stopped its operations in the 1980s as the price of nickel crashed, but not before discharging untreated wastewater into Lake Izabal and rendering it the most polluted lake in the country.

The global price of nickel rebounded, and in 2006, the mining companies returned to El Estor. The government issued a permit to restart the Fénix mine and expand its operations into the Q’eqchi village of Agua Caliente. The company’s security forces began to forcibly remove people from their land, in violation of international treaties that require free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities.

Establishing legal grounds to defend their land

An indigenous Q’eqchi leader, Rodrigo Tot, 59, was born in central Guatemala just as the mining boom of the 60s was underway. After losing his parents at a young age, he moved to live with extended family in Agua Caliente when he was 12 years old. The small village became his home where he grew up, learned how to farm, got married, and raised his children.

Tot never received a formal education but taught himself to speak Spanish by listening to others—a valuable skill to an indigenous community that was culturally disenfranchised from the rest of the country. Tot remembers how government and company officials never spoke with the local community about the mines. The Q’eqchi only found out when the miners came on their land to begin work.

Fear began to spread in the community. People were worried that they were losing their land and with it, their livelihood. Tot saw the need to start gathering evidence of Q’eqchi ownership of the land and in 2002, as the elected president of Agua Caliente, he brought these documents to the government and petitioned for land titles. To his dismay, he discovered that several pages from the official land registry had been removed in a deliberate attempt to deny his people their land rights.

An unexpected landmark ruling

The community’s next recourse was to take the government to court. Tot found legal support with the US-based Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) and Defensoria Q’eqchi, a small human rights organization in Guatemala. The team spent years preparing its case to establish the community’s legal claims to the land, including a geographical study of Agua Caliente and the land’s chain of ownership. As one of the few people of Agua Caliente who spoke Spanish, Tot translated all the details of the proceedings for the community, organized meetings to help gather evidence, and fielded questions from villagers.

On February 8, 2011, two years after the community of Agua Caliente filed its lawsuit, the Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision. Recognizing the Q’eqchi’s collective property rights, the court ordered the government to replace the missing pages from the registry and issue land titles to the people of Agua Caliente. The ruling came as a surprise to environmental and indigenous activists around the world who were well aware of corruption in Guatemala’s legal system and had been skeptical of the court’s ability to see how egregious these violations had been.

The victory has come at an enormous personal cost for Tot. In 2012, two of his sons were on a bus to Guatemala City when they were shot in what appeared to be a staged robbery. One of them died, and the other survived with grave injuries.

Meanwhile, Tot and the community’s quest to secure land titles continues. The government has yet to enforce the court’s ruling, and the mining company continued to pursue the expansion. In response, Tot set up a community watch group to keep trespassers at bay. In 2014, security forces attempted to enter the village but withdrew after a peaceful standoff led by Tot. They have not returned since. The case has been escalated to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and is currently being reviewed under an expedited status.

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