An Obligatory Discussion Around Development: Care of the Environment and Indigenous Peoples’ Self-determination

Salvador Ravinal Catú*

Republished from Cultural Survival, February 27, 2020, https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/obligatory-discussion-around-development-care-environment-and-indigenous-peoples-self

“Resistance ought to be our motto, for all of us, The Original Peoples of Central America.”

Colonial history has provided many and devastating testimonies regarding the reality in Central America; among those, the struggle and resistance by Indigenous people in countries with imperialistic models. Indigenous people have been covered in blood for being custodians of the environment, for defending their lands and for seeking their own development and happiness according to their worldview. In Guatemala, the Constitution of the Republic did not recognize the Mayan Peoples until 1996 encouraging even greater marginalization of them. The Guatemalan oligarchy has tried, through various methods, to oppress and destroy the Mayan Peoples, imposing a Western ideology through state policies, leaving minimal opportunity for them to develop out of their own specific identities and differences. In spite of this, for many centuries, the construction of tightly knit social community has been our mechanism for survival as Maya Peoples.

For Mayan communities, just as for other original peoples, there are many important elements to putting together this weaving, e.g. self-determination, identity, resistance. Each in its own way is a fundamental principle for growing our development. That said, one must ask the question: what is the collective vision in Guatemala regarding development and what does development mean for its original peoples. Remembering our ancestors, obliges us to think about this idea in relationship to advances in medicine, math, astronomy and architecture. However, the contemporary capitalist model has sold to countries like ours the idea that a community is developed only when it is economically developed — something that destroys the environment stripping Indigenous people of their resources and appropriating their territory.

The current oligarchy completely rejects Mayan culture and its world view. Demtrio Cojtí notes in the book Mayan Cultural Activism, “To lay the foundation for assimilation, the mixed-race colonizer proposes, cultivates, and maintains projects in society as if development and modernization are what Guatemalans need. Such development and modernization demand, as a pre-requisite, the death of Indigenous culture,because, according to the colonizer, it is the cause of under-development among Indigenous Peoples and the cause of backwardness in the country as a whole.” Additionally, the colonizer labels the indigenous as incapable and ignorant, disregarding their right to be different and their right to a decent life through conservation of the sacred mother earth and vital natural resources such as water. Water is the fountain for survival of all human beings and over time numerous indigenous community leaders have shed blood to defend it so that it would not be spilled out like a product to be bought and sold.


For Mayan communities the struggle comes out of our world view and therefore has led us to protect water. We consider it, not only the fountain of life, but also a living entity, with its own rights, something intrinsic to our spirituality. Regrettably, the right to protect and defend our practices and ideas regarding water is being privatized by governmental policies and laws that benefit the elitist economy. Water is a resource utilized by mining companies through re-directing the flow of rivers for hydroelectrics. And in other cases to promote “friendly” projects in which the actual underlying purpose is privatization for the appropriation of water. This is a seriously worrisome issue for communities.

Living in the highlands of Solalá Department are three recognized Mayan groups: the Kiche, the Kaqchikel and the Tz’utujil. They live around the sacred lake, Atitlán, one of the most beautiful places in the world and one of the most endangered and coveted by international, national and transnational businesses. This situation has created a huge conflict between the local Indigenous Peoples and said companies, who are depleting the resources in the south of the country. And they are looking for strategies and negotiating with the government via the Authority for a Sustainable Lake Atitlán Basin and Its Surroundings (AMSCLAE). Their plan? To introduce a pipeline some 40 meters deep that surrounds the lake to collect contaminated water and to transport it to the south for commercial purposes.

After many studies done by national and international environmentalists, we Indigenous Peoples of this territory have concluded that this project has as its objective to privatize water and sanitation services. The project could manage and hold in reserve water for use by hydroelectrics, agri-industrial irrigation of single crop agriculture, i.e. sugar, bananas, rubber plantations, and palm oil, which would be exploiting this resource under rule of law. The Mayan communities around the lake are aware of the contamination problem, but they know that Megacolector is neither the only solution, nor would it be the best, especially because the solution ought to be one that is within the principles of Mayan world view.


Last year the previous Guatemalan administration approved the go-ahead for the project which allowed for application for loans from institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. The loan is profitable for the government which is backing it since it would not constitute a problem for the government. Nevertheless, it violates Agreement 169 of the International Workers’ Organization which recognizes the self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, independent tribes to decide among themselves regarding their own economic development. Loan approval now rests with the Guatemalan Congress. San Pedro, Santiago Atitlán, San Juan, Cerro de Oro and San Lucas Tolimán have already organized to oppose it. Supported by social organizations and Mayan authorities they have educated themselves regarding the consequences of Megacolector, requesting that the government respect, not only Agreement 169 of the International Workers’ Organization, but other international treatises as well.


I believe it is of utmost urgency that the government of Guatemala respect the law and that they support us as Indigenous peoples, that they grant protection and liberty so that our Indigenous leaders can, in a serious way, participate in discussions about the destiny of Lake Atitlán, specifically in departmental (provincial/state), regional and national planning for development, prioritizing the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples, the territory and the environment. The term “development” is in crisis because the contemporary concept is limited to benefiting certain powerful groups, but we demand that development thrive in our communities based on good faith in the legitimacy of indigenous peoples. We do not want any more governmental policies that benefit individuals’ interests. We want the government to guarantee our right to our own well-being.


And so, I firmly believe that it is fundamental that the State take into consideration our world view, our way of life, the culture of our peoples, above all, in important topics such as decisions regarding the environment. We must be well-informed long in advance about the consequences of actions and decisions that are planned for implementation. That means based on the principle of free, informed and prior consent. Let’s unite in support of this cause, in defense of our own development, so that the elitist economy does not continue business for their own benefit which causes conflict for our Indigenous communities. I urge inhabitants to be aware and to unite in our will to make an agreement, as is our collective right, regarding water: to conserve it, respect it and take care of it.

*Salvador Ravinal Catú was born in 1995 in the Cerro de Oro community of Santiago Atitlán in the Department of Sololá, Guatemala. He is of the Mayan group Tz’utujl. Currently he is studying for his undergraduate degree in Political Science and International Relations at the Rafael Landívar campus in Quetzaltenango. He is known for being an active and tenacious young man, author of the article “Structural and Situational/Historical Analysis of the Internal Armed Conflict in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.”

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