Guatemalan, Bolivian human rights defenders present at UN

Guatemalan rights defender Maria Corina Ramirez Hernandez is trying to protect the environment as much as the indigenous people. Photo: LWF/Stéphane Gallay

Trying to save land from farmers, mining companies, hydro schemes

(LWI) - The mountains, the water, the earth and all of life. Guatemalan rights defender Maria Corina Ramirez Hernandez is trying to defend them all. Each of these elements depend in some form on one another and all need to thrive if the environment and her indigenous community are to survive. She strives to protect the arable mountainous land and the water supply that is fed by the mountains as much as she defends the rights of indigenous women.

“If there’s no water, there’s no mountain and if there’s no mountain, there’s no life.” It is in the mountains that many Mayan communities cultivate the land in order to survive. The region is the main source of water, food and livelihoods for some 300,000 people.

Hernandez, a Mayan, is a member of the Guatemala Lutheran Church, a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and was in Geneva to present at the annual meeting of the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Right of Indigenous Peoples. With her was Guido Castro Endara, a lawyer representing indigenous people of the highlands of Bolivia, from the Bolivian Evangelical Lutheran Church, also an LWF church.

Throughout Guatemala, indigenous Mayans face aggression from companies that carry out deforestation, from the mining industry, from construction firms building hydro plants, and from farmers who steal land for grazing.

“Farmers have more rights because unfortunately indigenous people are always discriminated against,” she said. “Others feel that farmers are higher ranked. They try not to allow indigenous people to have the same rights and are fighting indigenous groups even though this is the recognised region of those indigenous groups.”

Her work is dangerous. She is often subject to threats and anonymous phone calls. During a particularly frightening period six years ago, police had promised perimeter protection around her house but she never got it.

No right to land or title deeds

Hernandez also represents “many women of different languages and origins”. Indigenous women simply do not have the right to own land or hold land deeds. “They are discriminated against because they are indigenous and because they are women. They can’t own land and they can’t have sustainable agriculture. The government will not allow them.

“Women are part of the earth. It is important they are respected and have the same rights as the land.”

She recounted a disturbing report of pregnant indigenous women being sent home from hospital after delivery without their babies, having been told the babies died but without seeing their corpses. Too afraid to give birth at hospital, women now do so elsewhere. However, children born outside a hospital are denied birth certificates.

The strength to carry out this work comes in large part from her church. Hernandez is studying to be a pastor and says it is often the moral support of her church family that counts when things are difficult. Strength also comes from a visual source. “My church has painted a picture for me, which has helped me not to think of just being threatened or frightened by what’s going on but to see the big picture of helping women and of being sustainable.”

She called upon the Lutheran World Federation to keep raising the issue of abuse and exploitation to the table at the UN. She claims the Guatemalan government presents inaccurate statistics on Mayan and other indigenous people.


Land rights in indigenous communities are an ongoing challenge in Guatemala, a country marked by social insecurity. As part of a national development plan, several megaprojects in extractive industries or infrastructure are being carried out on indigenous. Opposition to and protests against construction have been repressed and criminalized, often by military force, including killings of human rights activists. Three hydroelectric power plants were built on indigenous land without their consent and severely impacting on their natural resources.

LWF Central America together with the local member church advocates for human rights and climate justice. The LWF in Guatemala supports indigenous communities in land rights issues and adaptation to climate change, to achieve food security and manage local natural resources.