Voiceless Speak Fund Recipient Promotes Human Rights on the West Coast

Concepcion at Contacto Ancestral

Concepcion at Contacto Ancestral

In April 2015, Concepción Santay Gomez was awarded funds from GHRC’s Voiceless Speak Program to support his project to educate university students and others about human rights issues related to the construction of mega-projects in Guatemala.

Santay Gomez is heavily involved in human rights work in his hometown of Cotzal, Guatemala, where he has advocated for the rights of the local indigenous Maya Ixil community. He is an active member of the Alcaldía Indígena (the group of ancestral indigenous authorities), which promotes Ixil culture and works to defend the region’s territories from mega-mining and hydroelectric projects. Santay Gomez is also a co-founder of Ixil University, a three-year educational program that teaches students about Ixil ways of knowing and indigenous rights.

Santay Gomez organized a speaking tour along the West Coast of the US to share information on his own community’s efforts to prevent mega-mining projects from being constructed in the El Quiche region of Guatemala. He discussed in depth the arrival of the Italian-owned hydroelectric dam Palo Viejo, which was authorized by the Guatemalan government in 2008, despite the fact that local residents were never consulted about the plan. When the dam was completed in 2012, thousands of acres of Ixil land had been seized and numerous neighborhood leaders had been persecuted for standing up against the project.

Throughout his 10-day tour Santay Gomez was able to visit four universities, including the University of Southern California and California State University-Northridge, and three community organizations dedicated to human rights and environmental justice. He also spoke on a Maya radio station, Contacto Ancestral. Santay Gomez was accompanied throughout the tour by Giovanni Batz, a PhD student in social anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Despite the repression experienced in his community, Santay Gomez and other Cotzal leaders continue to oppose the construction of mega-projects in their region.

Just a few months ago, in March 2015, Santay Gomez and other activists held a press conference to highlight the group’s success in bringing a land rights case before Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. Previously, Guatemala’s Supreme Court had ruled that ENEL — the company that owns the Palo Viejo dam — had complied with all legal requirements and was not violating the rights of Maya Ixil communities. The indigenous authorities of Cotzal then brought the case to the Constitutional Court, which voted to rule in favor of the communities. The court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to provide a copy of the project file to the Cabinet of Indigenous Peoples, with the goal of ensuring proper community consultation, as required under international law.

Since 1987, the Voiceless Speak Fund has provided direct assistance to Guatemalans interested in educating the public in the US about the human rights situation in Guatemala or organizing in their communities in the US to defend the rights of Guatemalans living here. We are currently accepting applications for the 2015-2016 cycle; click here for more information and to apply before the July 20 deadline.

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