By Jody Williams
At the end of October I helped lead a Nobel Women’s Initiative delegation in Guatemala. The purpose of the “Women, Land and Peace” trip was to meet with women, primarily but not solely Mayan, on the front lines of the struggle to defend their land from corporate takeover and environmental degradation in the name of development and progress.
Indigenous peoples throughout this hemisphere – from the Beaver Lake Cree fighting Canada’s tar sands to Native Americans fighting oil pipelines at Standing Rock to numerous tribes in South America defending land throughout the Amazon region - face similar challenges as they try to protect their lands and livelihood from corporate predatory practices. While long-standing treaties and/or laws that on paper would seem to guarantee their rights to determine how their traditional lands are used, they do not. Apart from globalized corporate greed, at the very root of their perilous work as defenders of human rights and of the land are generations of entrenched racism.
At one point on our trip, we were at an event where Guatemala’s national anthem was sung. As I listened to the words sung by fervent voices, I had an almost overwhelming desire to jump off the dais and take a knee in front of everyone there. The only thing that held me back was the knowledge that few if any in that auditorium knew who Colin Kaepernick is or the significance of kneeling during a national anthem.
A country’s anthem and flag are meant to be symbols of national pride and the unity of its people. Kaepernick and others who have decided to kneel during the anthem are underscoring the lack of unity in the U.S. and the reality of racism, injustice, and inequality for blacks, other people of color, and Native Americans.
While Guatemala’s anthem speaks of not being “trampled by the tormenter” or living as “slaves lick[ing] the yoke” under tyrants “spit[ting] upon your face,” those words exactly capture the type of racism, injustice, and inequality lived by Mayan and other indigenous people in Guatemala since the day the Spaniards began their invasion five centuries ago of the land that became Guatemala.
During the civil war in Guatemala that lasted over three decades and ended with a peace accord in 1996, more than 200,000 Mayan people were killed or “disappeared” by the military and associated paramilitary groups. In the process over 600 villages were destroyed. The peace accords were meant to end all of that, but while the overt armed conflicted ended, Guatemala remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world outside of those engaged in active war.
With “peace” came development and with “development” has come not dissimilar tactics as those used during the civil war. Companies – generally extractive industries, hydroelectric projects, and monocrop agriculture – illegally appropriate indigenous land and when the people resist, their nonviolent protests are criminalized and many community leaders end up in jail on trumped up charges. Others – like world-renowned Honduran indigenous activist Berta Cáceres - are assassinated, raped and often go into hiding when the number of threats against their lives escalate.
Recent photographs I’ve seen of Mayan people being driven from their villages in the name of progress look like they could be pictures taken during the civil war. Women and children scrambling to grab the little they have as they walk down paths that lead them away from their homes, with the meager crops they have sown burning behind them.
Mayan women, dressed in their intricately woven clothes, may smile from posters designed to lure tourists to the country, but the daily lives of Mayan communities don’t make many of them smile. While taking the knee against racism, injustice, and inequality would have made no sense in Guatemala, in the work of the Nobel Women's Initiative we stand with and spotlight the women human rights defenders who put their lives on the line day after day to protect their land, the environment, and their way of life.
Jody Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban antipersonnel landmines through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines who shared the prize with her that year. Her life of activism has been chronicled in her memoir, “My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl's Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize”