This is a guest blog from Program Officer Ryan Mack about his journey to meet 2017 Goldman Prize winner Rodrigo Tot in Eastern Guatemala. 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.
Earlier this year I traveled to remote, eastern Guatemala to meet up with our 2017 Prize winner, Rodrigo Tot. Rodrigo received the Prize for his efforts to protect the environment by documenting Q’eqchi land titles. In 2011, his work led to a historic ruling in Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The journey to El Estor from Guatemala City was a lengthy one – lasting 9 hours. Rising early the following day, we met Rodrigo for breakfast and then piled into a pickup. We headed out along the shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake. Our route took us toward verdant, jungle-clad mountains that jutted skyward on the lake’s northern shore. En route we passed the Fenix nickel processing plant. Inside, massive dump trucks carried rock, while armed guards patrolled the front entrance.
Mining was not the only industry to take hold in the region. We soon continued past massive palm plantations. Rows of African palm dotted the landscape as far as the eye can see. Some local communities had organized sit-ins to protest their evictions from these lands.
As the road inched upwards, large semi-trucks sped down the mountain, carrying loads of rock and mineral to be processed in plant below. The truck traffic was constant, one right after the next until we finally turned off on a dirt path and headed into the dense foliage of the mountains.
The road we now traveled on had recently been built with funds from a US-based foundation. The people of Agua Caliente rented the equipment and did the manual labor themselves. Yet, even with a road, the going was slow. I had a vice grip on the roll bar for two hours of bone-shattering driving. We finally pulled into Lote 9 to the warm welcome of the local mayor and entire community.
I met with Rodrigo and villagers for the next few hours. They explained that the community needed better health services and education for their children. Despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the Guatemalan government has not recognized Lote 9’s land titles. Because of this, the community receives no government support. They must travel to El Estor for health services. And teachers sometimes do not show up for class.
After enjoying the local specialty (chicken soup), we piled back in our pickup to travel to the upper part of Agua Caliente.
The community made the decision to divide themselves into two to protect their land. M2 (the upper part of Lote 9) serves as guardians of the land. Visiting M2 required another hour’s drive up through the dense forest to the ridgeline. At the top of the mountain, the views were expansive. We could see Lake Izabal far below, and El Estor in the distance – and miles of forest around us. We ate lunch while listening to villagers play the marimba. Rodrigo took me on a short hike to visit their fresh water spring. Villagers living in M2 had to visit the spring every day and carry water to the homes in buckets. One of his hopes was to access funding to bring potable water to all the homes in Lote 9 M2.
The people of Lote 9 are survivors. Thanks to their own ingenuity and organizing, they have kept mining operations out of their territory. Yet that is just part of the struggle. Despite the country’s highest court affirming their rights to the land, the Guatemalan government has refused to act. As a result, the people of Agua Caliente live without fully-staffed schools, health posts, electricity, and potable water.