Persecuted Guatemalan pastor wins prestigious award for protecting his community

A community leader and actvist has been awarded for defending the rural region of Agua Caliente, Guatemala from corporate mining interests.Eduardo Robles Pacheco/ Flickr

A Guatemalan evangelical pastor and farmer was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday for defending his community's land.

Rodrigo Tot, 60 is an evangelical farmer, activist and leader of his indigenous Q'eqchi community in Agua Caliente, Guatemala. Goldman, a San-Francisco born foundation which awards grassroots activism for the environment praised Tot for his 'intrepid leadership of his people and defence of their ancestral land', according to AP.

Tot defended his community's rights to fertile farmlands, against hostile corporate mining interests that also wanted the land. In 1974 a new law demanded that landholders pay approximately $4,500 to receive official property titles for their land. An arrangement was made whereby the payments could be made over time in exchange for the title.

In 1988 however, record of the community's land ownership disappeared. In 2002 they made their last payment, but the government refused to grant the property title.

In 2004 the government granted a mining licence for a region including Agua Caliente. Tot has consistently fought the mining interests, saying that the local community's livelihood and sustenance is at risk.

'That is why we defend it, because there are lots of natural resources,' Tot said. '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.' The Q'eqchi community, descendants of the ancient Maya, rely on fishing and farming to survive.

Tot has now indefinitely delayed mining in the region: in 2011 Guatemala's constitutional court recognised the Q'eqchi's property rights and ordered the government to grant land titles to the people of Agua Caliente.

The victory has not come without cost. In 2012, one of Tot's sons was shot and killed in what Goldman called 'an assassination that was passed off as a robbery'. Another of his sons was seriously injured in the attack. In the last year, two previous Latin American recipients of the Goldman award were murdered.

Tot said: 'I will never forget the loss of my son, but I continue to fight.'

Tot said he was grateful for the award. 'I think this could be a stimulus for the work we do,' he said, calling it recognition for 'the struggle, because we are fighting hard for our land and our natural resources'.

The government has not enforced the court order yet, and so mining work continues. Tot continues to defend his community and advocate for its freedom.

He 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.'