Leira is a member of the Maya-K’iché indigenous people of Guatemala, she is a mother and a defender of human rights and Mother Earth. She lives on the south coast of the country, in an area surrounded by monocultures that has been created as a result of land-grabbing projects. She is a member of the national political leadership of the social movement Comité de desarrollo campesino (The Farmers’ Development Committee) CODECA and she is responsible for coordinating the struggle to attain workers’ rights.
She published a study on agricultural working conditions that highlighted the level of over-exploitation and semi-slavery that working families are subjected to on farms. After this, serious threats against the organization and its members began.
Vay is the head of the Itinerant School of Socio-Political Formation, Human Rights and the Collective Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She is also part of a working team that organises contributions made by community assemblies. Their aim is to promote a popular, plurinational constituent assembly in Guatemala; the final goal is to construct a multi-nation state and ensure good conditions for those peoples in the country’s regions.
She has been the victim of direct attacks and she currently lives in Bilbao under a programme that protects human rights defenders. She is here to work on denouncing the repression against CODECA within Guatemala, to publicise the struggles of the movement and to forge and alliances and make contact with other organizations. Speaking from Bilbao she has revealed she is not the only person to have been attacked, as several people from the movement have also been victims of repression.
> When did the threats begin to intensify?
The repression intensified when we began to publicly demand the nationalization of all privatized assets and services. This was in 2012, when we came to the conclusion in the community assemblies that we had to fight in order to be subjects of rights and that we had to position Mother Earth as a subject of rights and fight for structural changes in Guatemala.
> How have you changed since the foundation of your organisation?
We realized that when we first formed the organisation we were fighting for rights that centred on the areas of land and workers’ rights, but that we had achieved nothing, as although we did manage to get back some land for peasant families after the Peace Accords, it became clear that the agrarian problem was one of the main reasons for the conflict. A land market was established that responded neither to the interests of the vast majority nor to the poorest of the people. It was a market where large landowners won, and who then had the opportunity to sell their fertile land at very high prices.
The banking system also won, because when land was purchased the system provided a loan, the families bought the land and had to pay for their purchase over a period of 20, 30 and even 40 years. Indirectly this created new slaves.
> Could you describe what you mean by ‘new slaves’?
Yes, because the farmers were given land, but the most damaged areas that yielded the least, nor were they provided with technical support, nor were they aided with farming tools or marketing support. They were merely given land.
Families went into debt, and in order to earn money they began working on the large landowners’ farms or they migrated to the United States to pay their debts, because if they did not pay, they were evicted from their lands. It was obvious to us that the separate struggle for access to land and workers’ rights was not progressing, as there is a system behind it all that does not respond to our interests.
> The Earth is being treated as a commodity
We realized that in this struggle for land we were also treating Mother Earth as a commodity because we also wanted to have a right to the land, as if the land belonged to humanity. However we saw that we didn’t want to enter into the logic of the market, which is a mentality of “death”.
We came to the conclusion that in our struggle we need to position ourselves as subjects of law and position Mother Earth as a subject of law.
When we say we have a right to land we are really saying that land is a resource to be exploited. We need to change. Especially considering the current planetary situation. The earth is not a resource to be abused, but the source of humanity’s life, and our struggle must be to defend Mother Earth, to care for her and promote her regeneration. This is why, from 2012 onwards, our struggle begins to seek status as subjects of law and to defend Mother Earth as a subject of law.
> How did you do it?
We began the process of the Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly. The president at that time, Otto Pérez Molina, wanted to start a series of constitutional reforms that sought to further consolidate the neoliberal system and that meant development. We then started taking to the streets, to protest the reforms proposed.
> What was the response?
We were always a rural movement with little ability to attain media coverage. Few people listened to us until we made a report on the conditions of labour exploitation in the countryside, on farms, which showed how land grabbing of Guatemalan sugar mills was on the rise. When the report came out the CODECA was branded as an organization that was against development and private investment, and the government started a defamation campaign against us.
The president accused us of stealing electricity and created a special prosecution department called “Prosecution against the Theft of Electricity” that dedicated itself to prosecuting our colleagues. The matter has nothing to do with electricity, it is simply an argument for persecuting and criminalizing us. They have initiated lawsuits against more than 3,000 of our organization’s defenders. Only 3 cases have been finalised and 2 people have been acquitted. One colleague was convicted of allegedly stealing pliers from a member of this special prosecution department when what really happened was that he attacked her and she used the pliers to defend herself.
They have not stopped their direct attacks and the express kidnappings, and as they have seen that the CODECA protests have not halted, they have begun murdering people and that is why I am a refugee here.
> How do you fight against this sort of repression?
By explaining everywhere we can that we are not criminals, by trying to undo this stigma and by continuing our main struggle: to demand the construction of a multi-nation state in Guatemala, through a process of Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly for the good of the all the peoples and bringing together community resistance movements to demand the nationalization of all privatized assets and services.