Reverence for the Sacred Land: Part 2 – A Third Option?

This is the second part of Tobias Roberts’ article about responses to urban violence in Central America. Tobias is an MCC Service worker in Nebaj, Guatemala.  The full article was originally published in

It is popularly said that, “Where there are only two options, look for a third.”  I left San Salvador a year ago without a third option.  Intellectually and spiritually I identified with the de-rooted response to violence.  But corporally and as a part of community anguished by violence, I admit that the superficial, apathetic response, as a survival mechanism, had its place in my being as well.

It was here in the small villages of the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala that the third option began to become clearer.  Nebaj, the town I live in, hasn´t always been a peaceful place.  In the 1980´s, the Mayan Ixhil people of the region were victims of genocide perpetrated by the army during the internal armed conflict.  It is estimated that between 15,000 and 25,000 people were killed during the armed conflict in and around Nebaj.  But today, Nebaj is a comparatively peaceful place.  What has changed from then until now?

The indigenous mentality of connectedness to their land and their determination to defend that land as a sacred part of their community and collective lifestyle is the single most effective barrier to the propagation of violence in their communities.  That which is sacred, cannot co-exist with nor tolerate violence.

Nebaj, Guatemala

The most visible example of this mentality I witnessed early last year.  After struggling to resist the forced implementation of f mega-hydroelectric project on their ancestral lands by the Italian company ENEL, the indigenous communities of Cotzal (neighboring Nebaj) decided to close access to the construction site of the dam as a way to protest the lack of respect for their rights and lifestyle shown by the Italian company and the Guatemalan government.

The response of the government was to send in 700 military and police officials armed with semi-automatic weapons and helicopters to terrorize the local population and force them to open access to the construction site of the dam.  Faced with a situation of imminent violence, the community came together, formed a human wall to impede the military and police from further advancing onto their lands, and steadily and decidedly pushed it out of their community.

This mentality of connectedness to a land permeates indigenous culture and mindset.  Due to an increasing presence of multinational extractive corporations searching for resources to exploit, this mentality has given rise to a resolute determination to defend their lands and traditional lifestyle.

Even the most rural households, though illiterate and with very limited Spanish, can recite the International Labor Convention 169 which states: “The peoples concerned shall have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social and cultural development. In addition, they shall participate in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of plans and programmes for national and regional development which may affect them directly.”

“This Land is Us”

This “land defense” mentality is not so much a proclamation by the indigenous communities that “this land is ours”, but rather an affirmation that “this land is us”.  It is in this subtle defense where we find that third option to violence.  “This land is ours” would revert back to meager ownership and possession which is a conception of Western civilization and unknown to most pre-1492 Mayan Cultures.  The struggle between “mine” and “yours” inevitably opens the door to conflict and violence.  “This land is us”, however, changes the paradigm.  It makes sacred the land, the people on it, and the intricate web of relations that exist therein.  It is this web of relations that is worthy to defend because it is who we are.

I think that this mentality is what needs to be nurtured in the barrios and marginalized neighborhoods of San Salvador.  Instead of more police control or more “hard-hand” laws against delinquents; instead of an apathetic resignation to the reality of violence; instead of some un-rooted academic analysis of the causes of violence; these communities need to find ways to make sacred once again their streets and neighborhoods and parks.  They need to take back those areas in their communities that have been kidnapped by violence and reconstruct a sense of community belonging teeming with trust and friendship and mutual caring.

My mother-in-law, Marina, is an underprivileged single mother working in a sweatshop for miserable wages. She lives in an underprivileged community distressed by rampant violence. But on New Year´s Eve last year, she demonstrated how violent urban areas can find ways to once again revere their local communities.  Marina organized a party to celebrate the New Year with the local community. She raised funds to bring in a sound system and a DJ and at 10 PM on the 31st the party started.  Though most families had, as usual, locked themselves behind the razor wire surrounding their houses at 8:00 PM, the music and lights gradually drew their interest.

By midnight the streets which were usually given over to the gangs and drug dealers after 8:00 PM, were flooded with people of all ages dancing and laughing and celebrating the New Year.  Women were cooking tacos and pupusas on the street corners without any fear of extortion, because the gang members that regularly extorted them were in the middle of the party dancing with the rest of the community.  People, who usually shunned any and all contact with the “evil” gang members, were now sharing a plate of tacos and mutually enjoying the party.

It was a moment when the community became sacred again, when the fear associated with violence melted away and when the community collectively affirmed that this place is us—we are this place—and we will defend it from anything that threatens.  It was a moment that offers, I think, a new and urgently needed response to the violence affecting Central America.

And it was a moment when a community oppressed by violence recognized and brought to fruition the biblical promise that: “There should be no poor (or violence) among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” Deuteronomy 15:4

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One Response to Reverence for the Sacred Land: Part 2 – A Third Option?

  1. Marion Meyer says:

    Tobi, I can affirm that this works too. Ricardo and I saw it over and over again in La López Arellano, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. This used to be the most dangerous neighbourhood in Honduras when the Peace and Justice Project started working there. The goal was to work with the two gangs on the street. First they worked with the gangs separately on regaining the community’s trust – by picking up litter in the park, by cutting the grass there, and by cleaning their grafitti off of the walls. Then they worked with the two gangs together to come to a peace agreement (it took 2 years, but it happened), then they worked with the community on understanding that how they have treated young people creates space for them to join gangs and the drug culture. Five years after the work began, when the Honduras government passed draconian laws criminalizing youth, the whole community (including former gang members) staged a peace march in their community. It was amazing to see as gang members became reconciled with themselves, with the members of the oposing gang, and all the people in the community reconciled with the gangs. Everybody learned that every human being is one, and that we all have something to offer. This sounds simple, and of course it was much more complicated than it sounds, and the neighbourhood still struggles with poverty and the drug culture, but there are no more gangs there today and people feel safe to walk around.
    Posted by Marion Meyer, MCC Mexico Co-Representative.

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