The bus pulls into a dusty vacant lot off the road. A red tarp has been strung over a few rows of folding chairs. Although there’s still a morning chill, the sun will soon be fierce in the eastern Guatemalan village of Casillas. Small groups of locals wait nervously as 30 women file off the bus, among them four Nobel Peace Prize winners.
It’s an unusual day, even for a place that propelled itself to fame by standing up to the world’s largest silver mine. Amalia Lemus, an indigenous Xinca organizer with the Diocese Council for the Defense of Nature (CODIDENA), tells the crowd assembled later in the local basketball court, “It’s a privilege that the Nobel women are here with us.” Turning toward the table where the luminaries sit beneath a large banner with their names and faces, she adds, “We’ve never had a visit of this magnitude.”
That’s the idea. Women peace-prize laureates founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006 to bring the limelight to local women-led movements in places like this, where under-the-radar conflicts kill more people than formal wars. In late October, the Nobel laureates traveled through Honduras and Guatemala with a group of women activists and journalists to look at the vital but perilous intersection of women, land and peace. For eight days, we listened to the stories of women like Amalia who have dedicated their lives to stopping land grabs and destruction from mining companies, hydroelectric plants, monoculture plantations, and other megaprojects.
“Land will continue to be the most serious problem in Guatemala and the rest of Central America in the coming years, and it causes the most conflict throughout Latin America,” laureate Rigoberta Menchú explained. Menchú was awarded the peace prize in 1992, in the midst of war in Guatemala. The biggest difference between the violence of the past and the violence today, she said—20 years after the peace accords—is that today’s resistance is nonviolent.
The offensive against indigenous lands and territory, however, is not. Honduran and Guatemalan women describe assassinations, imprisonment, threats, and beatings from companies and the state forces they work with. Faced with a new wave of intense pressure from transnational corporations, they’ve joined, and in many cases led, the defense of their communities from some of the most powerful economic interests in world. After being declared “Open for Business” following the 2009 coup d’état, Honduras is now the most dangerous place in the world for environmental activists, with more than 120 land defenders assassinated since 2010. Community displacement and disruption, along with compromised justice systems, have given these two nations some of the highest homicide rates, and especially femicide rates, in the world. The wholesale granting of private mining concessions—307 at last count in Guatemala, and some 35 percent of Honduran national territory—sows conflict between corporations and local communities for generations to come.