By Louisa Reynolds
Hidden in a volcanic crater and shrouded by a cloudy rainforest, Chicabal is a forest-ringed lagoon, located in the municipality of San Martín Sacatepéquez, in the highland department of Quetzaltenango, 206 kilometers (128 miles) from Guatemala City.
In 2009, the Association of Ecological Farmers, ASAECO, purchased the spot where the lagoon is located and began a rescue operation to ban vehicle access to the site, where many altars used by Mayan shamans can be found, but unsound agricultural practices by other farmers have led to severe deforestation there. Today, tourists can only visit Chicabal in seasons when their presence does not disturb spiritual worship by local indigenous communities.
Spiritual guides or Ajq’ijab believe that as the direct descendants of the ancient Mayans, they should have unrestricted access to all sites of spiritual importance (there are around 2,000, according to official figures) as well as the right to manage and protect them, as ASAECO has done with the Chicabal Lagoon. These sacred sites include well-known archaeological ruins such as Tikal, an ancient Mayan city, and other sites located in forests, ravines, mountains, lakes and lagoons around Guatemala.
In response to these concerns, in 2001, the Ministry for Culture and Sport, or MICUDE, and the Secretariat for Peace, or SEPAZ, began a series of talks with indigenous leaders in order to discuss the issue of access to sacred sites.
The MICUDE agreed to create a special unit for the protection of sacred sites and to introduce a legislation on the issue that was drafted in accordance with the country’s 1996 Peace Accords and the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. It was sent to Congress in 2008, the same year that former President Álvaro Colom´s 2008-12 government began.
Max Araujo, an expert on cultural legislation, said that under the proposed bill, all Mayan archaeological sites in Guatemalan territory would no longer be administered by MICUDE, but would be looked after by a National Council on Sacred Sites that would include indigenous representatives as well as conservation experts.
However, sites such as Tikal, Quiriguá and El Mirador, that have been declared national or UNESCO World Heritage Sites, must be jointly administered by the Council and MICUDE, which must adhere to international guidelines on the conservation of these monuments.
The bill states that it is forbidden to remove sacred objects from a site without the Council’s consent and establishes that those who destroy sacred sites can be prosecuted, which, depending on the seriousness of the offense, could mean fines or jail time. The Council can legally act a as a prosecutor in such cases. All scientific research must be conducted under the supervision of MICUDE and the Council.
Another clause states that mining and oil projects must avoid environmental damage to these sites and reforest any areas that suffer damage as a result of these projects. But it does not bar them from operating near the sites.
In Congress, the bill has already been approved by the Commission on Indigenous People and the Commission for Peace and the Deactivation of Landmines. However, four years after it was presented to Congress, it remains stalled largely due to the fact that access to spiritual sites located on privately owned lands remains a thorny issue, explains Araujo, as these lands would have to be expropriated and handed over to the Council and landowners would have to be adequately compensated.
Although former President Colom was ordained a Mayan shaman and official discourse frequently alluded to multiculturalism, none of the bills addressing the rights of the indigenous population, including a bill on rural development or that on sacred sites, were prioritized.
Talks to nowhere
In order to ease tensions between the government and indigenous and peasant organizations over a number of issues including land evictions, the detrimental impact of open pit mining and hydroelectric dams and the fact that the aforementioned bills remained stalled, in February 2010 the government set up the National System for Permanent Dialogue, which included a number of civil society organizations.
During these talks, the private sector repeatedly voiced its opposition to the Bill on Sacred Sites. “The initiative contains threats and a flagrant violation of the right to private property”, stated the Chamber of Industry.
On the other hand, indigenous leaders have insisted that not approving the bill would amount to a violation of the 1996 Peace Accords and ILO Convention 169 and would be clearly discriminatory as Mayans would be denied access to spaces for spiritual worship.
By 2011, the general elections loomed, no consensus had been reached and it became clear that these talks had been set up with the sole purpose of dragging out the issue indefinitely. Today, the bill on sacred sites is still gathering dust in the Congressional archives, and Congress is now almost equally divided between the right-wing Patriot Party and a fragile coalition of opposition parties, and so far none of its members have expressed an interest in placing the bill on the agenda.
With a new president in office, Patriot Party’s retired army Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, who denies that genocide was perpetrated against the indigenous population, indigenous organizations believe that this important legal instrument has suffered a serious setback and that they now face an uphill struggle to secure its approval.