October 21, 2019
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Lolita Chavez: Defender of the ‘Many Trees’ people

 Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic, in February, 2017, in Guatemala City. (Photo: Nelton Rivera/EFE)

Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic, in February, 2017, in Guatemala City. (Photo: Nelton Rivera/EFE)

Guatemala City, Oct 24 (efe-epa).- As both a woman and a member of an indigenous community, Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic has experienced double discrimination first-hand and is determined to fight against it. She was among the three finalists for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2017 for her tireless efforts.

The Guatemalan activist's candidacy was promoted by the Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) group in the European Parliament - the institution that awards the Sakharov Prize - for her work to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people.

"My people are called K'iche. Ki means many; che means trees. In our original (understanding) we conceive of the community of trees as an active community," the activist says in a video posted online, in which she expresses her staunch opposition to World Bank reforestation programs: "They put a price tag on what, for us, is not a product. They say they can create a green economy, and this in turn becomes a product for them."

"They destroy the mountains and then commodify the mountains. They exploit everything and plant a predatory type of tree: pine, cypress (...) they’ve moved the water to other places. It’s really infuriating because we live in the mountains but we have no water," she said, criticizing the Guatemalan state for “kneeling before these predatory companies" while criminalizing those who defend their land.

"We don't want the World Bank in our territories. We say: 'Let them take their money and leave!'"

Victim of several attacks

Lolita was born on Sept. 15, 1972, Guatemala’s Independence Day.

Proud of her Maya-K’iche identity, aware of its history and committed to the cause of the native people and their land, Lolita knew her purpose in life from an early age.

Her mother, who organized her community against military repression during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war, served as a role model and inspiration and was a factor in Lolita’s decision to devote her life to the cause of indigenous people.

She has had brushes with death as a result of that struggle, even though the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in 2005 to protect her.

A teacher by profession, Lolita has been a victim of several attacks for her work as head of the K'iche People's Council in Defense of Life, Mother Nature, Land and Territory (CPK), founded in 2007.

One of those incidents left her traumatized. In 2012, while traveling in a bus, Lolita and several of her companions were attacked by men armed with machetes, knives and sticks. Four women were injured, and the activist has been scared of traveling alone ever since.

However, that has not stopped her from weaving a web of resistance through actions beginning at her home in the Quiche Department, from being a feminist stalwart in Guatemala's indigenous community to fighting for a development model, Buen Vivir (Good Living), that runs counter to the interests of mining, oil and hydropower companies.

In October 2012, she helped organize a good-faith consultation process, a right the community enjoys under international law. More than 27,000 people from indigenous communities in Quiche said "no" to the extraction of resources and exploitation of their territory, and to large-scale mining and hydroelectric projects in particular.

"The West does not understand our development model, which is about being and existing as opposed to having and wanting to be," she has repeatedly said at conferences worldwide, while also denouncing Guatemala as a "racist" nation where more power is vested in those with greater possessions, such as men, white people and Ladinos (Hispanicized people).

"We denounce multinational mining, hydroelectric, monoculture companies (...) we denounce them because they are pillagers, predators that come to violate all our rights," she said at a meeting with a group of Green European Parliamentarians in October 2017.

"Thank you because, with this (Sakharov Prize) nomination, you are inspiring us to continue our journey to defend our rights. Thank you because, with this nomination, you are also illuminating our path to a life with freedom and justice," she said in a Greens-EFA presentation video.

However, the most recent attack she suffered in June 2017 forced her to go into hiding – away from her own people, her family and two children – to protect herself. Toward the beginning of that month, the indigenous leader and other CPK members intercepted a wood-laden truck lacking a license for logging in protected areas and decided to escort it to the offices of the National Forest Institute. However, before they arrived, a group of 10 armed men threatened them and forced them to flee. Now afraid, she refused EFE’s request for an interview.

"We’ve already been through a war"

Nevertheless, Chavez lives by a motto that inspires her to look to the past to heal her wounds: "The wound needs to heal – touch it, don't forget it. When you forget, the reconciliation (necessary) for healing is missing."

An advocate of peace and dialogue - "we want nothing to do with weapons because we’ve already been through a war" -, Lolita vowed at a forum in Istanbul in 2012 to keep fighting for Mother Earth: "Our grandmothers’ bones are in this soil. So how dare they sell the land."

By Patricia Pernas

Translated by Shubhomoy Chatterjee



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