A Call for Solidarity with Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala

Guatemalan Lutheran church leader Rev. José Pilar Álvarez Cabrera (middle), Mr Omar Jéronimo (left) and Ms Claudia Samayoa Pineda, during the visit to Geneva. Photo: LWF/M. Haas
Guatemalan Lutheran church leader Rev. José Pilar Álvarez Cabrera (middle), Mr Omar Jéronimo (left) and Ms Claudia Samayoa Pineda, during the visit to Geneva. Photo: LWF/M. Haas

Lutheran Church Leader Rev. José Pilar Álvarez Speaks on the Struggle to Protect People and Natural Resources

(LWI) – Guatemalan Lutheran church leader says neither threats to personal life, trumped–up charges in court nor other forms of intimidation will deter the church from speaking out for the rights of rural communities, access to their land and other natural resources, and for defenders of human rights in the Latin American country.

In an interview with Lutheran World Information (LWI) Rev. José Pilar Álvarez Cabrera, president of the Guatemalan Lutheran Church (ILUGUA) talked about the church’s work, and why it is important for the global church family and governments to support defenders of human rights in a society that is losing the significant gains it had made against impunity.

Why is the Lutheran church involved in the country’s struggle for human rights?

The Guatemalan Lutheran Church is a member of the Ecumenical Christian Council of Guatemala, an alliance of Catholic, Episcopal (Anglicans), Evangelical and Reformed churches, which collaborate in several areas of work including advocacy on human rights at regional and international levels.

For the last ten years, ILUGUA has been supporting the Zacapa and Chiquimula communities who live around the Granadillas Mountain area in their struggles against deforestation and exploitation of the area, which is the main source of water, food and livelihoods for some 300,000 people. Despite these protests to safeguard natural resources, deforestation by outside companies has persisted, and we have learned that the intervention by the local authorities is not genuine. The Lutheran church and the ecumenical alliance agitate with the local communities in this struggle against companies who are waiting to exploit the forests and the rivers.

What kind of threats and intimidation do you face?

There are threats to individuals and communities in Chiquimula and Zacapa, and especially to the human rights defenders. People have died protecting the land and biodiversity of the Granadillas. The assassination of human rights defender Carlos Hernández Mendoza in March 2013 particularly stands out.

I personally have received assassination threats and have been publicly accused of crimes I have not committed. Recently we [ILUGUA] were accused of stealing a truck full of logs from a public place, yet no truck had been parked there in the first place; these are just some of the baseless accusations we receive, but we will not keep quiet.

How do the local authorities respond to such threats?

The Constitution provides legitimacy for our work, but the local authorities support the big companies who have the money to exploit our resources. The threats to human rights defenders in the country are an affront to the significant gains made in reforming the justice system. Efficiency has increased during the tenure of the current Attorney General Dr Paz y Paz. Having the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala is also important.

However, the Attorney General’s mandate has been challenged by the constitutional court, and she is being compelled to leave office in May 2014, seven months before her term expires. Yet all she has done is applied the constitution to prosecute those implicated in serious violations of human rights and genocide during the dark past of the armed conflict. She has applied the law to prosecute crimes related to armed gangs and drug dealers, and she supports the work of human rights defenders like us.

What do you see as the way forward?

It is important to sustain concerted advocacy to uphold the constitution and to protect citizens who are being denied their rights because of the commercial need to exploit our natural resources—cutting down forests, excavating minerals and so on.

Our recent (March 2014) ecumenical tour to Europe was one such effort. We met with church and government representatives in Germany, Norway and Sweden and international human rights organizations. We informed them about the serious setbacks we are experiencing in the promotion of human rights, and asked for their support through the EU and United Nations mechanisms.

In meetings at the Ecumenical Center with different global church leaders including Rev. Martin Junge, General Secretary of The Lutheran World Federation, we appealed for the solidarity and accompaniment of the global ecumenical family with Guatemala’s Christians and human rights defenders.

We need the global churches’ support to give us strength to continue providing pastoral care to communities that are fighting to protect their resources and their very own lives.

(Mr Omar Jéronimo, coordinator of the indigenous community organization Central Peasant Chorti New Day and Ms Claudia Samayoa Pineda, coordinator of the Unit for Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, accompanied Rev. José Pilar Álvarez Cabrera on the on the 21 March visit to the Ecumenical Center, as part of meetings in Europe from 5 to 24 March.)