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  • The Goldman Environmental Prize honors grassroots environmental leaders from around the world.

    The Goldman Environmental Prize honors grassroots environmental leaders from around the world. | Photo: EFE

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“When they make a leader disappear, 10 more rise up," said Rodrigo Tot.

When Rodrigo Tot talks about his land, his eyes light up.

The Indigenous leader of the Agua Caliente "Lote 9" community in El Estor, in Guatemala's eastern department of Izabal, has called the fertile farmlands his home for decades. But the resource-rich region is also coveted by corporate mining interests for the nickel and gold deposits that lie beneath.

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For his 43-year struggle against these mining corporations, Toto was named this year’s winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, one of six winners of the award that honors grassroots environmental leaders from around the world.

The Goldman Foundation praised Tot for his "intrepid leadership of his people and the defense of his ancestral land," despite having enduring multiple hardships in his struggle, such as the assassination of his son five years ago.

Tot’s fight began in 1974, when the government enacted a new law that required landholders to pay US$4,500 to receive property titles. And while in 1985 a provisional title was granted to Tot and 63 other Indigenous farmers in the community who were in the process of completing their payment, three years later, records of the community's ownership of the land mysteriously disappeared. In 2002, when the last payment was made, the government denied the community legal title to the land.

Instead, two years later, the government granted a mining license for a region covering 16 Maya communities including Agua Caliente, passing the land rights on to the mining corporation, Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel.

"That is why we defend it, because there are lots of natural resources," Tot told the Associated Press. "There are 10 springs that supply lots of communities. We are preserving the mountain because if it dies, there will no longer be any water."

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Mining companies have long used violence against poor and marginalized Indigenous communities who oppose their projects in Guatemala, with the government backing the mining companies in each of these cases, according to Calas, a Guatemalan environmental and social law non-profit group.

Living in one of the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders, Tot has received many threats against his life.

While the Inter-American Commission on Human rights ordered protective measures for him and his lawyer in 2012, the Guatemalan government has still not yet provided them.

"I will never forget the loss of my son, but I continue to fight," Tot said. "We are no longer in the 1980s, when they could make a leader disappear and everything was kept quiet. Not today. When they make a leader disappear, 10 more rise up."

Latin America is one of the most dangerous places in the world for environmental activism, exemplified through the high-profile murder of the Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Caceres last year, also a Goldman award winner. Another Goldman winner, Mexican Indigenous environmental activist Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, was murdered in January.

According to Front Line Defenders, 12 human rights defenders were killed in Guatemala in 2016, and according to Global Witness, 10 land and environmental defenders were killed in the Central American country in 2015.

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