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Thanks, mom, says Guatemala indigenous leader up for rights prize

Henry Morales Arana

Agence France-Presse

Guatemala City | Sat, October 21, 2017 | 01:32 pm
Thanks, mom, says Guatemala indigenous leader up for rights prize

This handout picture released on October 19, 2017 by the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) shows Guatemalan Aura Lolita Chavez attending a press conference in Guatemala City on June 9, 2017. ( Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH)/AFP/Jose Rodriguez )

A Guatemalan indigenous leader and environmental activist who is among the finalists to receive a prestigious European human rights award says she owes her fighting spirit to her mom.

"With my mother's milk, I nursed on rebellion, on revolution, on redefining myself," said Aura Lolita Chavez, a 45-year-old Mayan who is among three finalists for the Sakharov Prize handed out by the European Parliament.

Chavez is a leader of the Council of Ki'che' Peoples, which fights to protect native lands, natural resources and human rights from the expansion of mining, logging, hydroelectric and agro-industry companies.

Her mother was a community organizer in the 1960-1996 civil war in Guatemala, during which successive rightwing governments and military regimes fought leftist rebels backed by the rural poor, including Mayan Indians. 

The latter accounted for the vast majority of the 200,000 people who died or went missing during the war.

For her trouble, Chavez, 45, has seen her life threatened a number of times.

Her organization was founded in 2007 to counter the effects of a free trade agreement between Central America and the United States.

In 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered that protective measures be taken for her. But Chavez says the Guatemalan government has done no such thing.

In June, Chavez left for Spain after gunmen shot at members of her group who were trying to prevent illegal logging in her native Quiche region, western Guatemala.     

Speaking from Spain, Chavez says she and her movement are harassed by mining, hydroelectric and logging companies and also endure conflicts with the army and paramilitary groups in Quiche.

Chavez was nominated for the Sakharov Prize on October 10, along with the opposition movement in Venezuela and jailed Swedish-Eritrean journalist and playwright Dawit Isaak.

Named after the dissident Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov, who died in 1989, the prize is awarded every year to honor individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression, often falling foul of their governments as a result. The winner will be announced on October 26.

Read also: Indonesian student wins youth debate on human rights in Bangkok

- Woman with a lot of energy - 

Chavez is married and has two children. Having to flee is hard for anyone but particularly so for an indigenous woman, the Guatemalan human rights prosecutor's office said in a report.

"For a Mayan woman, it is essential to stay in her birthplace," the report said.

People who know Chavez say she has earned glowing admiration within the indigenous advocacy movement.

"She is a woman with a lot of energy, with many initiatives, with a kind of charisma that few leaders have," said Udiel Miranda, a leader of the Council of Western Peoples, which includes the group that Chavez leads. 

Miranda said the fact that she is nominated for the Sakharov Prize at all is a statement to the international community that Guatemala is failing to defend the collective rights of the Mayan people by persecuting its leaders.

"Part of the strategy of neutralizing the movement is to neutralize its leaders. Several cases have been brought against her with the goal of silencing the movement and opposition to the exploitation of natural resources," Miranda added. 

During the war, Chavez took part in the insurgency in Quiche. 

Many of Guatemala's indigenous people, who make up at least 40 percent of the population -- some estimates put it at 60 percent -- live in abject poverty.

They are used to seeing soldiers around, and to the fear that triggers -- but Chavez wants that to stop. Chavez said she has seen soldiers torture people, massacre them, cause them to go missing, and rape women.

"I dream of the day when the army leaves Quiche," she said.

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