Pushing the door to justice open

By Katherine Zavala, Thousand Currents Regional Director for Latin America 

It’s legit.

A national legal campaign that was led by Indigenous women marching into the Constitutional Court of Guatemala has again ruled in their favor.

Following its verdict last year, the Court has now made its own demand of Guatemala’s Congress:

“The Constitutional Court strongly encourages Guatemala’s Congress to deliver a national law that protects the collective intellectual property of indigenous weaving designs, recognized as creations of indigenous peoples.”

This cements the historic legislative decision last year and places el Movimiento Nacional de Tejedoras Mayas, or the National Movement of Mayan Weavers, one step closer to set binding legal precedence that could pave the way for Indigenous Peoples around the world to protect their collective rights to intellectual property for their work.

Indigenous women and legislators gather outside the Guatemalan Congress to present the collective intellectual property legislation earlier this year.

Angelina Aspuac, Advocacy Coordinator of AFEDES, who leads this strategy, explains,

“We started our legal process by demanding that the protection and recognition of women weavers as owners of our knowledge inherited from our grandmothers, as owners of our techniques and designs as they contain mathematics and universal elements, which are a reflection of the environment in which the spirit is balanced with the cosmos.”

What led to this moment?

In 2015, partner Asociación Femenina para el Desarrollo de Sacatepéquez / Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES) in Guatemala shared with Thousand Currents its plans to implement an experimental legislative strategy to protect Mayan weavings. AFEDES had completed a community assessment process to identify the challenges Indigenous women faced to continue their tradition art of weaving and to build self-determined lives.

The findings didn’t provide a simple list, but instead provoked a systemic analysis of racism and discrimination. They found that throughout government institutions and the legal system, profits were ultimately favored at the costs of Indigenous peoples’ lives. Angelina shares,

“Historically, racism and discrimination in Guatemala have relegated the role of women, not recognizing their demands. In this moment, however, this legal process has led to the establishment of a national movement led by women. This has helped to build awareness of how women have been exploited and more specifically, how the State has commercialized the face of Mayan women to promote tourism, without returns or even providing a support system to encourage and recognize our key role in sustaining our Indigenous culture.”

After a series of reflections, AFEDES decided to attempt a strategy they had never tried before: file a lawsuit. A lawsuit would be presented in the frame of collective intellectual property rights. Angelina explains,

“These laws limits [intellectual property] protection to the works of individual artists, guilds, and delegates the protection of cultural heritage to the State. This means that Indigenous Peoples are not recognized as owners of their creations, since they are considered simply as crafts.”

In 2016, AFEDES presented its lawsuit to the Constitutional Court. The Court asked AFEDES to bring forth its testimony at a public hearing on June 28th. This was an opportunity to mobilize and around 500 Mayan weavers traveled from the highlands to Guatemala City to support this case.

Indigenous women from across Guatemala gathered to hear the Constitutional Court testimony in June 2016.

Angelina explains the vitality of this movement,

This is one of the first cases where Indigenous women at the national level are the protagonists of our struggle. Now the state is forced to have a direct dialogue with us, to fulfill a historic debt to protect our weavings, our culture and our identity.

The Constitutional Court accepted the testimonies and agreed to further investigate the validity of the case and whether there were repercussions for the government. It wasn’t a complete victory, but was still a win. There was still hope for what the verdict could be.

On October 30 of this year – sixteen months after the public hearing – the verdict is confirmed.

And now the Guatemala Congress has to act. Every step forward in a legal case counts, says Angelina, 

“The recent ruling issued by the Constitutional Court, which exhorts the Congress to issue a special law that recognizes collective intellectual property rights, is only one legal step.

“Yet, it is a political conquest where women weavers can dignify themselves as weavers of a political fabric that passes through our hands and is reflected in the colorful güipiles. The tocoyal (hair adornment) of our goddess grandmother Ixchel is shining upon our faces full of hope, because our being and our voice is being respected.”

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