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Lindsey Engelman

CCGAP Human Rights Accompanier

Lindsey Engelman comes from Austin Texas. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in
Legal Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Before coming to the GAP
program, Lindsey worked in a needle exchange program in Santa Cruz...


Lindsey's Friends & Family Letters

April 26th, 2007

La tierra es la vida: Land is Life

La tierra, the ground or Earth, provides life for the people of the Ixcan. Food is grown both on house plots and farm plots on the outskirts of town. Corn is harvested twice every year, providing families with enough tortilla to last their families for the entire year, and beans, squash, and a host of other foods are harvested to go along with it. During many seasons, a child can run out his front door and pick a banana and orange or climb to the top of a coconut tree to stave off his hunger until the next meal. Wood is collected to fuel the fires that cook the food, special branches are picked out to carve out special spoons to mix atol (a traditional drink) and dirt is dug up and repacked to serve as the foundation of a new home.

The streams and creaks stemming from the Ixcan’s major rivers, part of la tierra, twist and turn through the jungle hills and find their way to Cuarto Pueblo, providing the town with life and sustenance. The countless smaller creeks wrap themselves around houses and along the town's paths. In different corners and curves of the running water throughout town, women hunch over cement slabs washing their family's laundry, young children splash around in the pockets of the stream’s deeper waters, and large jugs of water are carried tens of times a day to their homes to provide the water to cook and clean.

The people of Cuarto Pueblo have worked for this land with the sweat of their brow, and the blood in their veins. Not only do they work day after day and year after year tilling and harvesting the land, investing in the future growth of its trees, but they have suffered for it through their lives. They came barely 40 years ago to this uninhabited land, forcing their way through the thick jungle forest filled with the unknown to create better lives for themselves. When the army came and massacred 400 of its members and burned down all they had worked for, many continued to live nomadically in the nearby jungles hiding and fleeing from the attacks of the army, but refusing to cross over to nearby Mexico, partly to keep one eye on their land. Still more returned to reclaim their rightful land after years of living as refugees in Mexico.

The people have fought hard for this land because in a place like Guatemala, land means everything: it is life and it is survival. It is not simply a place to live. Through the abundant water and relatively fertile land, the community survives despite its adversities and neglect by the government. There is no electricity or potable water. Education is limited, and health care is even scarcer. A family has few options in a time of crisis, as methods of income are limited at best. But the community survives and perseveres despite these problems. They do so because they own land and water.
If the water was to dry up or be contaminated, if the land was to be poisoned or drained of its nutrients, the community of Cuarto Pueblo could not exist. Accordingly, any attack on water or the land is an attack on the people themselves. And in the Ixcan as in many indigenous lands throughout Guatemala and the world, this attack has already begun. It is the latest war in Guatemala.

The Attack on the Ixcan

Guatemalan history has clearly demonstrated the calamitous results of megaprojects and natural resource exploitation, labeled "development", for its indigenous people. With little or no environmental regulations, megaprojects and resource exploitation have been detrimental to the land and the people who live there. Protests and organizing to protect communities have been consistently met with violent and often deadly repercussions.

In the late 1970s, when Guatemala's largest dam was built on the Chixoy river, 444 people were massacred when they protested the dam that would flood their communities. In the end, over 3,500 people were displaced and 6,000 were negatively affected by the dam. Adequate compensation for their relocation and reparations for the massacre have yet to be received by those affected. More recently, this past January several communities in the state of Alta Verapaz were forcibly removed from their land when a Canadian mining company renewed its interest in mining copper. Truckloads of soldiers and policeman arrived in caravans behind men in suits who read the legal document announcing the land eviction. The indigenous Q'eckchi watched as their homes were dismantled or burned to the ground.

Devastatingly, the people of the Ixcan are likely to be next.

Late last fall, I watched as a man drew a map of the Ixcan on a blackboard in front of a room full of other Guatemalan activists from across the country. He drew on "development" projects the government had planned for the region: hydroelectric dams, oil drilling, road construction and various plantations. Soon the map was filled with little symbols of things such as oil rigs and dams. It was hard to believe that all these projects could fit in the tiny region in which I was living. I could see fear begin to build in people's eyes and the anger rise in their voices. I fought back my own building tears as I thought, "Where are these people going to live?"

Specifically, three major projects are presently in the works in the Ixcan. First, there are plans to construct a 390 megawatt dam on the Xalala River, making it the second largest dam in Guatemala after the Chixoy dam mentioned above. The flooding that the dam will cause is predicted to displace 20 plus communities and countless more will be affected through the change in water flow and quality. Next, plans are being made to build a major highway between Belize and the westernmost part of Guatemala to transport goods, not people, which will cut directly through the region. Additional plans would put sugarcane and African-palm (used for biodiesel) plantations along the highway. Finally, a British oil company, Petrolatina, has oil exploration plans. Oil rigs will be placed directly in Cuarto Pueblo.

While the costs of this exploitation of natural resources or development are catastrophic, no real benefits exist for the people who live there. The power generated from the electric dam will serve only urban areas, in or outside the country. Oil will be exported to foreign countries, likely the U.S. Additionally, the highway will not provide the local people faster transportation from their communities to the municipality, nor will it get them to the capital or the closest hospital any faster. Instead, the majority of people will be left with nowhere to live or in harsher, unhealthy living environments.
Though plans for the projects are fairly concrete, a popular referendum (consulta popular) was held this week to put the popular opinion of the Ixcan regarding the dam and oil drilling on the books. Despite hardcore propaganda by the commonly listened to conservative radio station which has ties to the army and other elites, 91% of the voters, and almost all eligible voters voted, said "no". Though this "No" vote should ban these projects according to Guatemalan constitutional law and international law, the Guatemalan government is notorious for not following through with legal provisions meant to protect people. The Guatemalan federal government has already signed agreements and given licenses to international companies, including Petrolatina. The people will be left with the choice to leave the land they worked so hard to obtain or risk their lives in a struggle--of what ever kind--to keep it.

Our Hands in Their Blood: Then and Now

In my time in Guatemala, I have continually grappled with learning the extent of the role the U.S. has played in the suffering of the Guatemalan people, both historically and presently. It is widely known that the U.S. funded and designed the 1954 coup that overthrew the democratically elected President Arbenz, who was the first president to begin land reform, redistributing unused land owned by large plantation owners, often American, to the poor majority. Moreover, the U.S. provided military training and financial aid for the civil war that spun out of the coup and resulted in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, at the School of the Americas, it trained the high command of both military governments being prosecuted for the genocide, including Rios Montt.

The U.S. has also played a large role in the holdings of global corporations in Guatemala and the shaping of Guatemalan law regarding international interests in natural resources. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, U.S. corporations and government representatives have actively influenced Guatemalan law, including limiting the ability of people to organize around land or workers rights and reducing the amount of loyalties paid by international companies. From the Rockefellers to the Cheneys, U.S. players have been involved in the ownership and management of oil, electric and mining companies.

The U.S. continues to play an integral role in Guatemala's environmental exploitation and destruction in a myriad of ways, in addition to the continued military support distributed under the name of anti-drug and terrorism efforts. The U.S., along with other western countries, own oil, mining and electric companies throughout the country and are continually making deals to create more projects. The U.S. receives all of Guatemala's oil exports. Additionally, the U.S. expends much energy and resources pushing free trade policies that call for such projects. Namely, the North and Central Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) have prompted Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), which is a regional integration project to connect and power industry throughout Southern Mexico and Central America that put development projects such as dams and roads into fast drive.

The U.S. and other international companies are not innocent or naïve about the human rights abuses that routinely go along with these projects. Rather, they are actively involved in such abuses. In a rather visual example of this, 1,000 North American troops were deployed in the Guatemalan state, San Marcos, last January. It is understood that their presence was a warning of the repercussions that would follow strong protests to the many megaprojects that are now being built there. This brute demonstration has many believing that the next U.S. backed war is on its way.

Reflections from Home: Stark Contrasts and Hard Realities

With just a short few weeks in the States, the distance between my life at home and my life in Guatemala is already beginning to set in. My life here, and U.S. culture and lifestyle in general, seems to have little to do with the modest lifestyle of rural Guatemala. I have quickly adjusted to having an array of food and entertainment options at my disposal each day, constant access to the internet and news and no longer sit in amazement at the ease of getting in a car and driving down the smooth, paved roads. I find myself concerned with the more typical "crises" of my own society; I don't have a car, my clothes are out of style, and I am panicking at finding the first few grey hairs on my head. None of this was even an option or issue in my life just 2 weeks ago.

But, simultaneously, an hour does not pass where my mind does not drift back to Guatemala and I think of all I learned there. Though I rarely hear Guatemala mentioned if not in reference to my return, its image is conjured up in my mind by small references and signs that do not always make a direct connection for people here. I know my ritual morning coffee and banana were both likely grown in Guatemala, and wonder which of the many latino migrant workers I see each day from restaurant help to construction crews are from there. I fill up a tank of gas and question if the fuel I put in will ever be the same fuel stolen, for all intensive purposes, from under the ground of Cuarto Pueblo, a place I hold so dear to me belonging to good friends and some of the most courageous people I've ever met.

It is easy to miss the connection between our lives and Guatemala. We simply do not speak of it here, and we have the luxury of choosing if we want to know about it. But when in Guatemala, you cannot escape the intertwinement of the two countries. Additionally, we have the privilege of being removed from the damage our way of life has on the environment. The threat of global warming looms uncertainly in the future for us; no one is tearing the land from beneath us today.

Perhaps more than anything this is what I learned during my time in Guatemala: really seeing how our actions can affect another country, and the juxtaposition of how this looks and feels there versus here. Our country has been intimately involved in Guatemala's history and is directly implicated in the atrocities committed there over the last century and we continue to play a vital role in its present horrors. Blood has been spilled on our design and dollar before, and this shame in our history has by no means been left in the past.

But what does that mean for our lives here? What does it mean for us that, though we may not be the direct decision makers that decide to throw a coup or kick someone off their land, our lives are implicated because our society is based upon the exploitation of the same people?

I would be lying if I tried to pretend I had any clue of the answers to these questions. Big changes would have to happen to have a prompt or significant impact, and big changes are slow and scarce in coming. The fight for such radical changes seems overwhelming, and often pointless. It seems easier to just go on living the only way we know how here in the U.S., without the constant upward battle and just try to be happy. It is tempting to forget about places like Guatemala.

But I know I can no longer continue to pretend that my life, because of the resources and economics required to live my life as I know it, is not connected to or affect the rest of the peoples in the world and the environment. Even if the only actions I can take right now are to do those little things like ride my bike more often, use energy efficient appliances and politically advocate through emails and calls to senators regarding more environmentally conscious and globally humane policies, the little things are better than continuing to ignore my role in our world's intertwined existence.

I thank all of you for reading these letters and sharing them with others you know. I have tried hard over the past months to make the struggle in Guatemala seem more human and relevant. It will be a long time in coming to process my experience there, and to understand how to carry these lessons into the rest of my life. I look forward to speaking with you all, catching up and continuing the discussion started in these letters.

With much love,


January 24th, 2007

The past few months I have been spending most of my time at Francisco's house, which is always full of activity. His wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law, all of whom have young children, live with him, and at least one of them can be found standing in front of the fire at any given moment. Doing their continual chores, the women talk amongst themselves in their indigenous language, Mam, while my partner and I play outside with the handful of kids. They call me the nuera, or daughter-in-law, as I am promised to marry the youngest of the children, if not all. I have spent some of my happiest nights filled with laughter and stories with them.

Francisco himself is a hard person to catch. Sometimes it seems that he is the busiest man in town. Despite the considerable amount of time I have spent in his home, I am almost never able to catch him as he flitters in and out of the kitchen quickly, getting ready to attend to one of his many responsibilities, if I see him at all. He has a warmness that reminds me of my own father and I treasure the nights that I do catch him, and can see him act as such a loving father and grandfather, and when we can sit and chat for long stretches of time.

Lately, Francisco has been extra tired. In addition to his normal duties, he has made long trips to the pueblo in which he was born to visit his dying mother and across the border to Mexico with his wife in the arduous process of diagnosing her chronic, daily headaches that are so painful they blur her vision. More than tired, he is frustrated. They finally diagnosed her illness, but Francisco does not have the 80,000 pesos it would cost to buy the medicine to cure her.

For the second time this month after discussing his inability to find the loans for her treatment, he tells me certain parts of his past. "Antes, it wasn't like this," he begins to tell me as we sit down to eat. Before, things were different.

Before The Ixcán

Like many others who moved to the Ixcán in the early 1970s, Francisco was the perfect triumph-out of- adversity story we all latch onto for inspiration and hope. He was one of many children in his family. Having always struggled to make ends meet, the family's situation became far graver when Francisco's father died when he only was 6 years old. He remembers times when there was barely anything to eat, and hunger became a routine feeling. "We had to deal with hunger. Sometimes we only had tortillas to eat, sometimes not even that." Accordingly, Francisco started working on the banana plantations by the time he reached 7 years old.

He was born in Guatemala Huehuetenango, a department in the highlands where many of the Ixcan's eventual inhabitants would come from. The population of the highlands was made up of several of Guatemala's 22 indigenous groups, each with their own language and customs. A combination of lack of land and possibilities for paid work forced most highland campesinos to work seasonally on coffee and banana plantations on the southern coast, where conditions were horrendous. People suffered from unbearable heat, little pay and unsanitary living conditions, while under the ever watchful eye of a patron.

"How we suffered!" begin many elders who remember the time in the plantations. "You think the Ixcán is hot, well, at least there is shade! This is nothing," a woman tells me as we are sitting under a tin roof, sweat glimmering off of each of our faces, dripping down our backs. "And the patrons," she goes on, "they were watching you every minute. One could not take a rest if one wanted to."

Conditions in the Highlands got worse and worse, and there were less and less options for young people starting new families. Though Francisco always managed to get by, when he married his wife they had no land to buy and no money to buy it with. So when the church announced an opportunity to receive land in the Ixcán, Francisco jumped at the chance. Picking up and moving to the Ixcán would be no easy task, however. Despite that life in the highlands was growing increasingly more difficult, they were tied to the land through history and culture, and people would have to leave the comfort of their families and the pueblos they had known their whole lives. Nonetheless, Francisco left the highlands and started the long path to the Ixcán.

Before The Army Came

Early settlers literally carved their path to arrive in the Ixcán, cutting through the thick vegetation of the jungle with their machetes, carrying their few necessary items on their backs. Upon arrival in the Ixcán, all were met with sweltering heat, in contrast to the cool highlands, and swarming insects. Many people fell sick adjusting to the new terrain. "There were no roads," a woman tells me. "And there were no stores, either. If you wanted to buy salt, for example, you had to go all the way to Barillas (the closest town back in the highlands."

An additional burden was the language barrier with which people were often confronted. Francisco had grown up in a town where he did not need to speak anything but the most minimal Spanish as everyone spoke Mam. The necessity to learn Spanish came with the decision to move to the Ixcán, and Francisco and his wife had to grapple with the language amidst worlds of other changes. Many people could not adjust to life in the Ixcán and returned to their pueblos from which they came. Those who stayed demonstrated their strength and dedication, persevering the harsh circumstances to eventually reap the benefits.

The church had set up cooperatives in each founding town. (Incidentally, Cuarto Pueblo was the fourth of these towns, giving it its name.) Each family was, for the most part, donated a large plot of land to start out with. People were required to work together to clear community areas and build community buildings. Slowly but surely, the Ixcán became a more inhabitable place as a refuge was created from the ever plaguing mosquitoes and threat of snakes through the sweat and diligence of its new inhabitants.

The campesinos were encouraged to grow cardamom and coffee, both which sold at a "good price," particularly the former. Though roads were slow in coming, the priest in charge of the coop program carried the produce of all the various coop towns in a small plane to larger towns where the produce could be sold in addition to the Sunday market. Francisco had 50 cuerdas growing of each, and was able to sell his crops to invest in other endeavors.

In the main centro (downtown), there were stores, including one owned by Francisco, comedors (small, family restaurants) and a market was held there each Sunday. "You could get anything at the market!" Francisco tells me. "Vegetables, pigs, tamales or elote (sweet corn) – anything." Moreover, the Sunday market provided a chance for people to get together and socialize. Hundreds of people arrived, both from Cuarto Pueblo and nearby towns, to meet up on market day.

Francisco thrived in the Ixcán. After just a few years, he was able to buy three parcelas, and put a house on each one, he boasts to me. In addition to his store in the center, he had a small store in his neighborhood and from these profits and the profits and the profits from his crops he had hidden away Q25,000, (a much more significant amount of money at the time.) He learned and practiced dentistry, and even had a pharmacy for a while. In terms of in Guatemala, Francisco, like many others, was prospering.

The First Massacre

Then one day, Francisco was sitting at his home when he heard someone frantically yelling his name. He looked and saw his neighbor, who owned a store next to his in the centro, running with her two small children in tow. With tears running down her face she told him, "The army came and burned down our stores. They killed my husband and my son."

The next day Francisco and some other men from town went to see the damage. All the stores in the center had been burned down, along with the coop building. "There was nothing left, and all the money I had saved was gone, too." Fifteen men were murdered, including six coop leaders, a teacher and a health promoter, a clear attack on leadership in Cuarto Pueblo.

The army did not leave right away. For months they lived in the pueblo, torturing the people. They would go to the houses and kill people's livestock to feed themselves and rape women and girls while the men went to work on the parcelas. As he tells me this, Francisco's eyes rest on the floor momentarily, and then he looks up and tells me in his soft voice, "But what were we to do? We had to eat, so we had to keep going to the parcelas. Life had to continue." When the army finally left a few months later, the people of Cuarto Pueblo were relieved and hoped the worst was behind them. But the army's entry represented an end of an era of hope and prosperity, and a warning of what was to come.

The next year the army returned and massacred around 350 people on market Sunday. Like all other survivors of the massacre, Francisco lost the remainder of what he had as he and his family fled first into the jungle and then took refuge across the border in Mexico.

Cuarto Pueblo: The Return and Now

After spending nearly 12 years of being unable to live on their land, many people began to return to Cuarto Pueblo to reclaim it around 1994. Uninhabited for the whole of this time, and because almost all structures were burned to the ground, the jungle had once again taken over the area and the returned had to start all over again.

The people of Cuarto Pueblo also changed. Not everyone came back, of course, some returning to other parts of the country but most staying in Mexico, causing families to be split apart. The largest number of people had lived as refugees in Mexico. Many also lived nomadically in the jungle in small communities, literally fleeing and hiding as they were constantly being pursued by the army. Some joined the guerilla after the atrocity and others still became involved with the army in some shape or form. Once returned, the people had to deal with their marked differences in consciousness created through their varied experiences throughout the war. No longer strongly unified with a common past and shared vision of the future, conflict seeped into community life.

Perhaps most devastatingly, the market had fallen in the years spent in Mexico and the jungle. The price of coffee and particularly cardamom had fallen so drastically that most stopped growing it. There was no longer a coop plane or pilot to fly produce into the cities to be sold, and the large market in the Ixcán was then held in Playa Grande where a military base had been set up and subsequently became the center of Ixcán activity and its municipality. Additionally, people repeatedly insist that the land is not as fertile as it once was, and speculate that it is due from the effects of bombs, or blood, that ruined the soil.

Francisco has managed to make a life for himself and his family again, but no longer has means to make significant amounts of money, and he struggles to provide his family with its basic needs. His wife, meanwhile, will likely spend years in pain, waiting to receive a simple treatment that the family cannot afford.


Francisco sighs deeply and says, "Esta dura. It is hard, but that is life. The last tortillas are already on the table, and the women have finally sat down to eat mostly from the leftovers of their children, while the smallest of the kids are already falling asleep on the benches at their mothers' sides. The smoke from the burning out fire circles around the room before finding its way out in the space between the wooden board walls and the tin roof. "Eat well," Francisco tells us, before excusing himself from the room, off to do some end-of-the-day chore.

As my partner and I walk home, the details of Francisco's story race through my head. I try to picture Cuarto Pueblo as something other than that I know. I wonder what his life would be like if the massacre had not happened, if the resources he had built had not been destroyed or there was an opportunity to rebuild them in the return. Would he have been able to continue to prosper and be able to have taken care of his wife the way he wishes he could? Would his 16 year old son be crossing the border this week to meet his other brothers this week in the U.S.?

Sometimes it is easy to forget how the past connects to the present, and how our present actions will affect the future. Just this month, the ten year anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that ended Guatemala's civil war passed and the 25 year anniversary of the Cuarto Pueblo massacre will be celebrated this March. Though Guatemala's war and genocide have long been out of international attention, it is very recent history when you are here and its residue permeates almost every aspect of life. Guatemala is not alone in this, and some days it is overwhelming to think about the number of places and people that are dealing with the lasting effects of violence throughout the world.