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May 12, 2016

By Janessa Robinson

Daniel Pascual is a 42-year-old indigenous rights defender from Guatemala’s K’iche’ community. An activist from an early age, Daniel is the current coordinator of the Comite de Unidad Campesina (CUC), an ActionAid partner organization. Growing up during Guatemala’s brutal civil war, he lost family members to the conflict as well as many close friends.

I caught up with him when he came to Washington D.C. to testify about the violence and intimidation of activists in his country.

You became a rights defender aged 13. What inspired you at such a young age?

Guatemala was going through a war that started­ all the way back in 1963 and it became fiercer at the end of 1970s. We had a major earthquake in 1976 and when CUC was born in 1978, my father got involved. On one hand, my involvement in CUC had to do with all the repression we used to live with in Guatemala. There was the genocide, the land was exploited. There were kidnappings. And anyone who protested, was made to disappear.

I was born in 1971. In 1982, my dad got involved into reaching out to local indigenous communities. I came along and I got involved through my dad, I was about 10 or 11 years old. Illiteracy was so common that while I could barely read and write myself, people asked me to explain what the different brochures and pamphlets from CUC said. That allowed me to start working with the community. And also learn my own indigenous language, which is K’iche’. My job was to kind of explain what was going on in the country with the war and repression and talk about poverty.

You face constant opposition, including finding yourself directly targeted by the government. How do you stay motivated in the face of this opposition?

The war ended in 1996 but we still see hunger, racism, discrimination, lack of education in those communities. So, we are faced with the need to keep us going. The government’s efforts have been to ignore the reality of issues and disqualify our work, or say it’s not valuable. The government is focused more on its image than finding solutions, but the strongest opposition we have actually seen comes from businesses.

In 2005, the U.S. signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This really opened the door for exploitation and since then, the state has given these industries more than 300 mining permits, more than 150 hydro-electric permits, and at least 20 licenses for oil exploitation. But we’re also seeing the exploitation of land through the emergence of large-scale farming that brings palm oil and sugarcane, which displaces people from their land. The most specific case of displacement that we are working with is in the Polochic Valley. In 2011, 800 families were displaced, and that led the human rights commission to provide protection to some of these communities. They must address the hunger issues, they must address their housing needs.

Water is also a big issue in southern Guatemala in an area that borders Mexico, where we have been having issues with these large plantations that grow palm oil and bananas. The biggest battle has been against a multi-national company that focuses mostly on African palm oil. They use two rivers to literally redirect all of the water from these rivers towards their plantations, so the communities that live downstream, they’re left without water. And the water that comes back, whatever water they return, is polluted.

What part of your work defending rights of indigenous and non-indigenous people are you most proud of?

My work with CUC on land recuperation and sustainable farming with local communities, getting back land that was taken away, and setting up projects that allow people to work the land in a way that they are able to feed themselves and their families. There is more work we do with CUC that makes me feel proud. We’re a diverse organization in the sense that men, women are represented, indigenous, non-indigenous groups, and we work to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

There are communities that exist in Guatemala, but they are not recognized. The constitution tries to address everyone as equal but that denies the existence of these specific groups with different needs, different cultures, and religions. And that allows society to be very racist.

That means when people come with their ethnic attire to look for work, they are denied work. They continue to call our spirituality witchcraft. We still have indigenous authorities within our communities. We still have the historic memory of who our ancestors are. The people who attack us, they claim we are nationalists and separatists, and that we want to continue practicing witchcraft. Whereas, they say the country needs to be just one and they claim that they are trying to unite us. Those are the largest political battles we are having right now.

We want our identities to be recognized. We want the country to be truly recognized as a multicultural country and recognize these different groups. That means we need to change the constitution.

Is there anything you would like to leave us with before you go?

The companies that are taking our resources are also violating human rights. They are now the ones who are persecuting activists, they are getting activists imprisoned and assassinated. Some of these companies are American companies.

We have widows and orphans of people who have been assassinated. There’s a case in northern Guatemala where all the species of fish were wiped out in the river because of pollution from a palm oil plantation. Activists have been imprisoned for demanding the protection of rivers and the courts are being used against us. We’re going to have a 12 day march where we are going to walk from the Mexico-Guatemala border all the way down to the capital of Guatemala to denounce the exploitation of water by the mining companies, hydro-electric companies, plantations, and the privatization of water in urban areas. We’re going to walk 260 kilometers.

But that’s not all. As we speak, I am being accused of defamation, perjury, and making false statements. This is done by corporations and former military groups. They say I accused them of being responsible for assassinations and attacks. So what’s really happening is an attack on the right to free expression and thought. What we need from people is to help us denounce those attacks. Often it starts here because the U.S. Congress is providing aid. There’s aid for development but they’re also training the military.