This month we feature an interview with the colleagues from Unión Verapacense de Organizaciones Campesinas (UVOC), in Guatemala. The organization was selected as 1 of the 6 winners of the Legal Empowerment and Community Lawyering Innovation Lab initiative for Latin America, organized by the Legal Empowerment Network, with the support of the Tinker Foundation.
We are a peasant and indigenous organization of social class struggle, with engagement and respect to Mayan Cosmovision and the balance between all people, inspired by the historical resistance of indigenous peoples and their ancestral right to the tenure, use and control of their territory.
The Unión Verapacense de Organizaciones Campesinas (UVOC) strengthens the resistance against neo-colonialism and the neoliberal capitalist system, and contributes to building a more humane, just and balanced world, respecting and including different peoples, cultures and languages.
We work in the defense and promotion of access to land, natural and spiritual resources, and its enjoyment by indigenous and peasant population in the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz, Izabal, Petén and Quiché, in the north of the country.
In particular, we address the issue of criminalization -that takes form of discrimination, persecutions, arrest warrants, eviction threats, expropiation of land, kidnappings and false accusations- of those defending the rights to mother earth.
In which way are you using legal empowerment to address such issues? Please include a brief example to describe your work.
We work strengthening human capacities and consolidating the organizing of peasant and indigenous communities through continued technical-legal training to better carry forward their struggles.
Moreover, we legally accompany leaders that are threatened by arrest warrants because of defending their rights, as well as their families. We investigate each of the cases to have elements for the defense in litigation and we present amparos in eviction cases, among other actions. For example, before the eviction attempt of the community of Primavera San Cristóbal, in Alta Verapaz, we took legal action and achieved to stop the expulsion of 279 Pocomchí families. After that, we continued to look for solutions to their problems, achieving the adjudication of 16 caballerías de tierras. Now we are working on the comprehensive rural development of the community.
Besides the capacity-building activities on legal issues and the accompaniment in legal processes, we also use other strategies such as political advocacy, popular communication, dialogue, and alliances with relevant actors.
When a lawyer intervenes looking for solutions to the problems of a community, the communities depend on what he/she says. Plenty of times, the answers that he/she can give are wrong or are too late.
In the wake of the criminalization of human rights defenders, the historical state policy of marginalization of indigenous and rural communities, the elimination of the institutions created by the peace agreements to solve the land issues, and the corruption of the judicial power, legal empowerment allows communities to know the laws and their rights, and to have the tools to defend themselves more and better from attacks to their lands, resources and ways of life.
Which are the greatest challenges that you face in your work, and what are you doing to overcome them?
Criminalization and the impossibility to access justice. Because of the work we do we receive death threats and arrest warrants, we are at risk of being victims of enforced disappearances, we are incarcerated, and there is no place that we can go to to make our voices heard, to demand the guarantee of our rights.
As an organization, we are constantly creating discussion and analysis spaces, and developing possible causes of action to solve these problems, such as protection protocols. However, it is a complicated situation because those that are punishing us are those who should be bringing the solution to these problems. We have to go through this with balance, paying attention to what we are defending but without demanding too much so that we can maintain what we have achieved.
How has your selection to being part of the Innovation Lab impacted the work that your organization does and the communities that you work with?
This is an opportunity to strengthen our work. Defenders from indigenous and rural communities don’t know international and national norms that support their claims. Also, there are not many lawyers that take the risk to defend communities with scarce economic resources. Creating a network of young legal promoters guarantees the transmission of legal knowledge to indigenous and rural communities, for the defense of their rights.
We believe that young people trained as legal promoters will continue training others within their communities. We also hope to create groups to discuss and analyze community problems that can support the search for solutions to such problems.
Continuing to strengthen initiatives like this one. Their support minimizes the suffering lived by human rights defenders.
Do you have any recommendations for a book, a quote, a resource or piece of art or music that keeps you or your team inspired and motivated?
As an organization we are always inspired by cosmovision. We believe that a strong fight to save our mother earth and remedy all of these injustices means to fight for the awareness raising of human beings.
You can learn more about UVOC on their social media.
If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below.
_Member Spotlights are short profile articles focusing on members of the Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network at #memberspotlight.