Leiria Vay

Environmental protection. Indigenous Peoples’s Rights.
Comité de Desarrollo Campesino (CODECA)

She is a mother, Indigenous Maia KIché, Defender of Human Rights and of Mother Earth. He lives on the south coast of Guatemala, an area surrounded by monocultures that has been created as a result of the implementation of land grabbing projects. He is a member of the national political leadership of the social movement Comité de desarrollo campesino CODECA and is in charge of coordinating the fight for labor rights.

She published an investigation into agricultural working conditions that revealed the level of labor exploitation and semi-slavery of working families on agricultural estates. From that moment, the threats to the organization and its members began.

Vay is responsible for the itinerant School for socio-political training, Human Rights and Collective Rights of Indigenous Peoples and is also part of a work team that is systematizing contributions made from community assemblies with the aim of advance in a process of Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly in Guatemala, for the construction of the Plurinational State and the Good Living of the Peoples in and from the territories.

She has been the victim of direct attacks and is now in Bilbao in a protection program for women defenders. She is here to do denounce the repression that exists in Guatemala against CODECA, to make visible the struggles of the movement and to make relationships and alliances with other organizations. From Bilbao, she explains that it is not just her who is being attacked, but several people in the movement who are also victims of repression.

Interview with Leiria Vay

When did the most intense threats begin?

The repression intensified when we began to publicly call for the nationalization of all privatized goods and services. It was in 2012 when, from the community assemblies, we came to the conclusion that it was necessary to fight to be subjects of rights and to position Mother Earth as a subject of rights and to fight for structural changes in Guatemala.

What happened?

We realized that when we establlished ourselves as a community, we fought for land rights and labor rights, but that we had not achieved anything because, although we recovered some land for peasant families after the Peace Accords, it became evident that the agrarian problem was one of the main reasons for the conflict. A land market was established that did not respond to the interests of the vast majority and the poorest population but was a market where the big landowners who had the opportunity to sell their fertile land at very high prices elevated turned out to be the real winners.

The banking system also won because, when they bought land, they gave loans while the families acquired the land and stayed paying for the land for 20, 30 and even 40 years. Indirectly new slaves were generated.

New slaves?

Yes, because the peasants were given the most damaged and the least productive land, and they did not give them technical support, nor did they help them with tools for cultivation or provide support for commercialization. They were only given land.

The families got into debt and to get money they started working on the farms of the big landowners or migrated to the United States to be able to pay the debts, because if they didn’t pay, they were kicked out of their land.

We saw clearly that the separate struggle for access to land and labor rights was not progressing because there is a system behind it that does not respond to our interests.

Land is treated as a commodity.

We realized that in this struggle for the land we were also reifying mother earth because we too wanted to have a right to the land, as if the land belonged to humanity. We saw that we did not want to enter the logic of the market, which is a logic of “death”.

We came to the conclusion that our struggle must be to position ourselves as subjects of law and to position mother earth as subject of law.

When we say that we have a right to the land, we are saying that the land is a resource that we can exploit. It was necessary to change! And especially considering the current planetary situation. The earth is not a resource to be exploited but the source of life for humanity and our struggle must be to defend mother earth, to take care of it and to promote its regeneration. That is why, from 2012, our fight begins to be subjects of law and defend mother earth as a subject of law.

How did you do it?

We started the process of the Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly. The president at the time, Otto Pérez Molina wanted to start a series of reforms to the constitution that wanted to further consolidate the neoliberal system and it has meant development. Then we started taking to the streets saying no to the reforms.

And how was the response?

We were always a rural movement with little capacity to reach the media. Few people paid attention to us until we made a report on the labor exploitation conditions in the countryside, on the agricultural estates, which showed how land grabbing was growing in Guatemala, especially from the sugar workers.

When the report came out they started telling us that CODECA was an organization that was against development and private investment and the government started a smear campaign against us.

The president accused us of stealing electricity and created a special prosecutor’s office called “prosecutor against the theft of electrical noise” which has dedicated itself to persecuting our colleagues. It has nothing to do with electricity, it is simply the argument to persecute and criminalize us. They have initiated processes against more than 3000 defenders of our organization. Only 3 cases have ended and 2 have been acquitted. A colleague has been convicted for allegedly stealing pliers from a member of this special prosecutor’s office when what really happened was that he attacked her and she used the pliers to defend herself.

They have not stopped the direct attacks and the express kidnappings and since they see that the CODECA struggles do not stop, they have started with the murders and that is why I am here as a refugee.

How do you fight against this repression?

Explaining everywhere that we are not criminals trying to undo this stigma and continuing with our main struggle: demanding the construction of a Plurinational State in Guatemala, through a process of a Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly for the Good Living of the peoples and bringing together the Community resistance to demand the nationalization of all privatized goods and services.

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