GUATEMALA CITY – In the midst of increasing conflict between Guatemala’s indigenous people and transnational corporations, Mayan elder Don Alejandro Cirilo Perez Oxlaj was appointed Aug. 9 as Indigenous Peoples Ambassador for Guatemala by President Alvaro Colom.
“We don’t want any more war, any more death,” he said. “‘We will contribute for the good of the country, because we are all hungry, we are all sick and needy, there is a lot of inequality. The great wealth that we have in Guatemala is the indigenous people.”
Perez Oxlaj was appointed to his new post as part of the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day in Guatemala, where 60 percent of the inhabitants are indigenous, primarily Mayan.
“The Mayan cosmovision is not how many folkloric acts the government does,” said Colom, who has been a student of Perez Oxlaj since 1994. “The Mayan cosmovision lives in every second, in every day, with 20 life principles and a respect that is lived under a system of profound consensus.”
Perez Oxlaj, 80, is a 13th generation Quiche high priest and president of the Mayan Council of Elders, a body of 440 men and women who represent Guatemala’s 23 different ethnic groups. His Mayan name, Wakatel Utiw, means “Wandering Wolf,” and he has traveled throughout the world with his wife and interpreter, Elizabeth Araujo, speaking about Mayan prophecy and cosmovision.
His appointment comes at a time when Colom has come under increasing pressure by the country’s Mayan people to stop backing exploitation of their territories by transnationals, and make good on some of his pre-election promises to them.
Two days before the appointment, CONIC, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Farmworkers, organized a march into Guatemala City that asked for the financial assistance promised to 32,000 small farmers, a halt to mining exploitation, land evictions and the military occupation of San Juan Sacatepequez, where inhabitants have opposed the cement manufacturer Cementos Progreso.
The next day, Antonio Morales, a Guatemalan indigenous leader from the CUC, Committee of Campesino Unity, was attacked and hacked to death as he returned to his home in Colotenango, Guatemala. The CUC, CNOC and Maya Waqib Kej, three of Guatemala’s most important indigenous organizations, have actively opposed large scale mining projects, hydroelectric projects and the privatization of water, according to Free Speech Radio News.
In San Miguel Iztahuacan, San Marcos, 59 mayors of local villages and towns in the region have unified in opposition to Canadian mining company Montana Exploring, resulting in increased military presence in the region.
Expansion of biofuel production like sugar ethanol has met with opposition from indigenous farmers, whose territories have been deforested to plant biofuel products. In June, after 60 Keqchi farmers tried to take back their land, shots were fired from paramilitary helicopters, and one protester was hospitalized.
San Juan Sacatepequez remains a militiarized zone, after soldiers were called in on July 1 to break up protests against Cementos Progreso, arresting 43 villagers.
Rigoberta Menchu, a Nobel Prize-winning Quiche Mayan leader who ran unsucessfully against Colom, asked him in an open letter July 19 to engage in dialogue with indigenous protesters rather than imposing military control. She said the families of the 43 prisoners were going hungry, lawyers for the defendants were being harassed, and the martial law in the region was being applied to everyone except supporters of Cementos Progreso.
When Perez Oxlaj received an award from Colom in May for his environmental work, he asked him to halt exploitation of indigenous territory and listen “to the voices of indigenous people who have opposed oil exploitation and the construction of hydroelectric installations.”
“As an elder of the Mayan people, I ask that you listen to the clamor of our people. We are not rich, but we have dignity. We have said many times that we don’t want mining, and we are tired of you not listening to us.”
Guatemalan commentator Mario Antonio Sandoval of Prensa Libre said on a blog (http://democraciamulti
cultural.blogspot.com) that he hoped Don Cirilos appointment would lead to genuine change for all of Guatemala’s peoples and not “drown in the treacherous waters of bureaucracy.”
“I will follow the path of my ancestors, without violence,” Perez Oxlaj said about his new position. “Among the Maya, brave men use dialogue; cowardly men use weapons.”