Dispute over major tourist attraction and conservation area is tearing local communities apart
“There’s, like, 50 people on the way up, so take your photos,” said a young American man, shirtless, his face daubed with paint, as he came striding through the forest towards the look-out. The view was spectacular: lush tropical foliage clinging to the sheer rock-face of a canyon plunging several 100 feet to a series of stunning turquoisey pools where tourists could be spotted swimming.
This was Semuc Champey, a must-visit on the Central American backpacker circuit and increasingly one of Guatemala’s most well-known tourist destinations. “Hidden”, “unique” and “natural paradise” are all thrown around to describe it. Lonely Planet calls Semuc “arguably the loveliest spot in the country”, while CNN dubbed the River Cahabón, which flows under the pools, the world’s “third best river for travellers” after the Amazon and Zambezi.
But how many of the tens of 1000s of tourists who visit every year are aware of the years-long social conflict over Semuc? This includes violations of indigenous people’s land rights, severe division among indigenous communities, allegations of politically-motivated arrests and criminalisation of indigenous authorities, 1000s protesting, fighting with riot police, a recent appeal by the local mayor to the president to install the army in the region, and a general climate of fear, intimidation and suspicion.
Jorge Samayoa, from the Guatemalan Tourism Institute (Inguat), says tourists aren’t aware of the conflict and he is “extremely concerned” it could mean closing Semuc - for a second time. “We don’t have anything else like it and it’s one of our main tourist sites for nature,” he told the Guardian. “It’s part of the country’s image. We’re worried that at any moment a visitor - Guatemalan or international - could be directly affected, not only economically but physically.”
Semuc - or Semuq - Champey is in the Alta Verapaz department in north-central Guatemala. It was identified as a conservation target by a 1989 law and declared a “protected area” and “natural monument” in 2005, and is currently administered by the National Council on Protected Areas (Conap). For several months in 2016 - and for periods before that - it was taken over and run by some members of the four indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in the region, leading Inguat to recommend tourists to steer clear. That ended in July when, over two days, riot police and soldiers drove them out and recovered government control of the area, firing tear-gas, reportedly shooting in the air, and entering at least two of the communities in the surrounding hills.
“When the police began to throw the tear-gas, we - mothers, with babies - ran into the forest,” Doña Concepción, from the Chizubin community, told the Guardian. “We had to escape to protect ourselves. There were children with us crying. Some were intoxicated by the tear-gas. We had to flee because we didn’t have any other option.”
Police and Conap personnel reported stones being thrown at them and shots being fired. A short film released by Guatemala’s Procurador on Human Rights states that three policemen were injured and accuses the communities of responding violently to government attempts at dialogue.
Utz Che, a network of grassroots organisations based south of Guatemala City, disputes that version of events. “A media campaign against the communities says that it was they who were inciting the violence and they are usurping and invading Semuc Champey, when it was the security forces using excessive force and lethal weapons against unarmed community members,” reads a statement circulated to journalists. “The communities have always been in favour of dialogue, but local Conap personnel didn’t take them seriously. They want to make it clear that they’re not invaders and they’re on their own property.”
According to Utz Che, at least nine young people were injured and many elderly and children were affected by the tear-gas in July. One man from the Santa Maria Semuc Champey community told the Guardian the subsequent death of his uncle, Don Nicolas, was connected to being tear-gassed.