In the Q&A below, we get to know more about 2017 Goldman Prize winner Rodrigo Tot, an indigenous leader in Guatemala’s Agua Caliente. 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.
Where were you born and what was it like where you grew up?
I grew up in a very cold place in the north of Guatemala. It was a very small village and the people there were farmers of beans and corn. It continues to be a farming community today but it has grown over the years. My mother and father died when I was young and I left home when I was about 12 years old and came to live where I am today. I’ve been in the Izabal area for more than 40 years. I began to work in agriculture right away after I moved to Izabal.
Can you describe the Q’eqchi’s historic ties to the land?
Our parents are indigenous people, and indigenous people have always worked on the land. They love the land and they believe it provides life to everyone, and we live from it. It produces life. We are indigenous people because we work the land. In their language people are described as children of the land which means everything comes from the land, especially water and food which is what we need to survive.
What does it mean to be an elected leader of the Q’eqchi?
Being a leader means being a guide for your people, a people that has long suffered. My people have suffered abuses and massacres and have had their rights violated. Being a leader means to suffer like the people, to guide them and to defend the rights of the people. Not only to fight for your personal rights but to fight for the rights of everyone.
How did you learn to read and write Spanish? Why was this important to you?
I only write in Q’eqchi but I taught myself to speak Spanish when I was 12 years old. I learned with other children who spoke Spanish and I took it upon myself to learn. The reason I thought it was important to learn was so I could communicate with people who spoke Spanish.
What memories do you have of mining companies? Do you remember when the mining companies first started coming in?
I do remember, and what is most present in my mind is that they never spoke with the people. Neither the authorities nor the companies themselves ever communicated with the people, and so the locals didn’t know the miners were coming in until they were there and started work. It was a very humble village and when the mining companies came in they started to invite some of the people from the community to work with them. I never worked with them because they preferred people who had formal schooling, which I did not have. When the miners came in, the suffering started, they took up a lot of land for their work and began to intimidate people. That is when people began to be scared.
Why did you start documenting land ownership and pursuing land titles for Q’eqchi? What’s the motivation for your work?
The Q’eqchi people noticed that mining activities were increasing so we began to organize. We decided that we were going to present our request for our land before the state. You can’t feel secure unless you have land, and the mining companies wanted to take that land that we had.
I began to document land grabbing activities in 1972. Large cattle ranches had also come into the area and they were taking up a lot of the land, the best land, without allowing indigenous people to work. That is why I began to document our land.
Tell us more about the system of recording land ownership:
We realized that there was a registry of land where you could figure out whether land was national land or if it had an owner. That’s how the Q’eqchi could identify a national ranch, and inquire about the ranch (to be Q’eqchi land). The state never said that the land was Q’eqchi land. We organized ourselves and chose a leader who had to travel a lot to see the land registry, and he was eventually persecuted and disappeared. He passed away. We went to the state and petitioned for the land and made a formal request stating that it was Q’eqchi land.
In 2002, we were going to get the title to a piece of land that we had bought but that’s when we found out that the pages from the registry were missing – and the government cancelled our right to the land. No government agency could tell me the truth about what happened, so the Defensoría Q’eqchi’ got involved and has helped us to bring a case before the court. In 2011 the constitutional court said that we were the legitimate owners of the land.
Many indigenous communities face barriers, such as language or access to the internet or mainstream media, in engaging with government and the court system in their countries. How were you able to make sure Q’eqchi voices were being heard?
We’ve been able to make the voice of the Q’eqchi people heard through the help and partnership with the organization Defensoría Q’eqchi.
For tactics, we had a document from the court that indicated we were the rightful owners of the land, and we held community meetings and workshops to explain to the people their rights to the land. The folks from the Indian Law Research Center supported us with this process.
How significant to you was the 2011 Constitutional Court ruling?
It was significant because we feel much more secure now. The mining company wanted to take away our land, and this was a statement that it wouldn’t be allowed. We live more calmly now after the decision. Now we know we own our land, so now people of all ages feel more secure.
How can people help?
People should continue in their own struggles and their own fights.
Tot has suffered greatly because of his activism. One of his sons was murdered, and another shot and wounded. Because of the risks Rodrigo faces, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has asked the government of Guatemala to protect him. Send him a message of support.