Update to the BTS Network: COVID-19’s Impacts on Partners’ work

The second wave of COVID-19 is sweeping the world. In the North, we expect impending vaccine shipments and the beginnings of massive vaccination campaigns. However, in Guatemala, the failed disbursement of governmental aid and continued government corruption has left the guarantee of vaccination for the most vulnerable in a precarious state and confidence in the government low

In this context, the pandemic has, and will, continue to have lasting impacts on our partners’ pursuits for justice. As we continue to accompany our partners through this difficult time, we wanted to provide an update on the impacts of the pandemic in Guatemala.

In the San Lucas Tolimán area where the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP) and the Highland Small Farmers Committee (CCDA) are based, COVID-19 cases have been steadily rising; given weak regulations and the reliance on tourism, numbers are not expected to improve. As the government uses the pandemic to cover up corruption schemes, food security has worsened for 3.7 million people and the government food aid program has yet to distribute 86.7% of its purchased provisions.

As a result, IMAP remains focused on strengthening their community by sowing seeds of self-reliance. Throughout the pandemic, IMAP has guided families through planting, tending, harvesting, and preparing their harvest for the table using ancestral knowledge, practices, and traditional food. IMAP has also been ensuring communities affected by the Hurricanes Eta and Iota can rebuild by making donations from their native seed bank. Lastly, they have been focusing on funding an Amaranth-Atol program, which purchases and processes crops from small amaranth farmers then sells it to families at a subsidized cost, giving families access to an affordable and healthy staple while supporting local small-scale farmers. 

In the face of the pandemic and hurricanes, The Peasant Farmers Committee of the Highlands (CCDA) has also continued supporting the interests of small farmers. Communities are trying to recuperate after the destruction of their productive land, subsistence crops, and the continual price increases for basic foodstuffs, all without meaningful government support. In response, the CCDA has been consistent in supporting communities by delivering goods to hundreds of families, particularly in Alta Verapaz. 

Additionally, the CCDA has been vocal in the protest movement which began November 21st. The movement demands fundamental change in the government and the resignation of various elected officials responsible for a proposed budget that misappropriated funds from nutrition programs (amongst many others). 

Although Guatemala is a major producer of food for export, the compounding crises experienced by small farmers make it increasingly difficult to feed their own families. The CCDA and IMAP continue to support communities’ independence through food sovereignty initiatives and advocacy in the face of COVID-19. 

In the Rabinal area, the pandemic has complicated and delayed the pursuit of justice for the Rabinal Legal Clinic. When the courts initially closed in March, it was difficult for the government to coordinate a virtual judicial process accessible to survivors, lawyers, and expert witnesses. As virtual and in-person trials continued, COVID-19 has complicated cases related to the internal armed conflict because many survivors and witnesses are now elders who are vulnerable to COVID-19. As key witnesses and survivors, pre-recorded testimony may be denied if they become sick or pass away prior to giving testimony before the judge. Cases are at risk of remaining in impunity because of this procedural decision. 

Justice delayed is justice denied. As highlighted by our partners at the Rabinal Legal Clinic, delays pertaining to COVID-19 only further draw out the already long-awaited and arduous processes for these survivors of genocide and sexual violence.

Classes at the New Hope Foundation (NHF) were suspended on March 17th, 2020 by Guatemala’s Ministry of Education. Students were required to return to their communities, many without access to the internet or devices to support distance-learning. In response, the NHF staff began delivering paper workbooks to students. Many students, especially at the career level, have successfully implemented experiential-learning projects in their communities. 

However, the impact of the pandemic on education is deep and long-lasting. According to UNESCO, enrollment in primary education was already falling in Guatemala: down from 96% in 2009 to 78% in 2019, which is even lower in rural areas and at the secondary level. The 2018 census revealed that 40% of children are forced to abandon their schooling for economic reasons and COVID-19 has only worsened this issue. The government’s lack of support for families and small farmers during the pandemic is compromising the education of students at the NHF and across Guatemala. Some students are forced to support their parents economically by working in the home or in the fields. This additional work means they have less time to devote to studying. Our partners at the NHF are dedicated to creating a strong support system for their students and are working with parents to ensure students’ studies are prioritized. 

In Xinka territory, the Xinka Parliament’s resistance to Pan American Silver’s Escobal mine has continued despite additional difficulties brought on by COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, the Xinka Parliament mobilized quickly to ensure communities had access to PPE such as hand sanitizer and face masks. As COVID-19’s economic effects rippled, the Parliament also distributed emergency foodstuffs to communities. Meanwhile, front-line land defenders and members of the resistance have faced increased threats and defamation. 

The global pandemic also necessitated additional health protocols to be implemented at the plantons in Mataquescuintla (Colis) and Casillas. The Mataquescuintla planton north of the mine protected members by ensuring  access to PPE. The Casillas planton west of the mine was temporarily suspended by the communities because adhering to public health and social distancing recommendations was more difficult in this location. Pan American Silver has taken advantage of this time to transport construction materials into the mine, violating the CC’s orders and COVID-19 regulations for extractive industry during the pandemic. Therefore, community members were forced to return to the encampments despite the health risks.

Pan American Silver, has taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple ways. In exchange for food baskets they gathered community members’ names, signatures, and DPI numbers. The Escobal mine has been legally suspended since 2017 when the Constitutional Court found there had not been a consultation process with the Xinka People. Kelvin Jimenez, the lawyer for the Xinka Parliament, is concerned that the company will later use these signatures as ‘proof’ of consultation and evidence that communities are in favour of the mine, blatantly violating the Constitutional Court’s order to free, prior and informed consultation with the Xinka people. 

As a network, we have offered accompaniment to our partners through various means, including an Urgent Action directed to the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala and the Guatemalan Government in April, Emergency COVID-19 Solidarity Fundraisers, and virtual accompaniment. We will continue to identify and support the unique needs of our partners through accompaniment and solidarity.

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