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April 19, 2019

The year was 1970. Frustrated with government inaction on an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, yet inspired by the energy of the student-led anti-Vietnam War movement, Senator Gaylord Nelson pushed for the creation of the first Earth Day. Sparking demonstrations in streets across the country, this day brought people together based on the collective understanding that the fight against oil spills, air and water pollution, and deforestation were all linked.

Almost 50 years later, we see how the incredible momentum from that first Earth Day expanded into a global fight for environmental protection. We also know that in order for environmental activism and climate action to succeed, we must center the wisdom and leadership of frontline and Indigenous communities who have been caring for the Earth for millennia.

In Guatemala, we’ve seen firsthand how Indigenous communities are struggling for their basic human rights. We are working closely with our Guatemalan colleagues to support these communities to fight for their economic, social, cultural, and political rights.

That’s why, for this Earth Day, we’re putting the spotlight on Indigenous land rights defender Abelino Chub Caal and all the Indigenous peoples across the world fighting for their rights to their land. Indeed, defending indigenous land rights is defending endangered species is defending the forests is defending the oceans is defending the climate is defending the earth.

Why Abelino Chub Caal?

For years, Abelino has been a strong advocate in his Q’eqchi community for local development, sustainable agriculture, and the preservation of indigenous land. Specifically, his work with the Guillermo Toriello Foundation focuses on streamlining the Peace Accords that were created after the Guatemalan Civil War, which was largely caused by land conflicts between corrupt members of the military and Indigenous people. The agreement promised to address extreme inequality and lack of land for indigenous communities and received support from the U.S., European governments, and the World Bank.

Abelino and the Guillermo Toriello Foundation have fought so hard for the Peace Accords because the Guatemalan government is allowing foreign corporations to take over and roll out large-scale plantations at the expense of Indigenous communities. Because of his work, Abelino found himself caught in the corruption of the justice system and has been jailed for more than two years on baseless charges.

On April 22, 2019 – Earth Day – Abelino will finally stand trial in Guatemala City. If convicted, he could face up to 22 years in jail.

What you need to know about Abelino’s case

On February 4, 2017, Abelino Chub Caal was arrested in the town of San Pedro Carchá. He was detained with no explanation. Later he found out he was charged for encouraging an indigenous community to burn their land in retaliation against palm oil, banana and mining companies. While Abelino has mediated conflicts between agribusiness and indigenous communities, there is no substantiated evidence that justifies his arbitrary detention.

In Abelino’s Q’eqchi community, a company called CXI had bought land from a military commissioner and failed to inform the families who have been farming this land for generations. They were soon convicted without an investigation on their right to the land. In frustration, the families set fire to the land, and the company blamed Abelino , even though he was hundreds of miles away and had nothing to do with the families’ decision.

Abelino’s case is unfortunately not uncommon in Guatemala. Many large corporations seeking to produce palm oil for food and biofuels have found their way inside the justice system, corrupting local officials to push Indigenous peoples off their generational land.

On May 11, 2018, a hearing was finally set for Abelino. He had been held in prison far from his home, despite a call made by a prosecutor for his release. At this hearing, Judge Claudeth Domínguez formally charged Abelino with aggravated land grabbing, arson, and illicit association. The judge upheld this decision because she believed Abelino’s release would spark more violence and actions against corporations in his community.

As our friends at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission said, “this case is an example of a growing trend to treat human rights defense as a crime, charging defenders for actions they have no control over and which in any functional justice system would not be considered a crime.”

We stand in solidarity with Abelino and with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission and all those who are demanding his release.

You can join us! Here are some things you can do:

  • Take to Twitter starting now: Leading up to Monday, rights groups across the world will be tweeting with the hashtags #AbelinoInocente and #LibertadAbelino. Join the Twitterstorm and mention us @ActionAidUSA so we can retweet you!
  • Watch the livestream of the trial here:
  • Follow live updates via Telegram: