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GUATEMALA CITY – Rodrigo Tot, a 60-year-old farmer and activist, was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday for work in his Guatemala homeland, an honor that comes after two previous Latin American winners were murdered in the last year.
The diminutive, soft-spoken evangelical pastor was recognized for defending his indigenous Q'eqchi community's lands against a mining company and the government.
In a statement, Goldman praised Tot for "intrepid leadership of his people and defense of their ancestral land" and noted his fight has come at great personal cost: In 2012, one of his sons was shot to death in "an assassination that was passed off as a robbery."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Tot said he was grateful for the honor but remains the same leader and person as before.
"I think this could be a stimulus for the work we do," he said, adding that he considered the award all to be recognition for "the struggle, because we are fighting hard for our land and our natural resources."
Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions for environmental activists, with more than 450 of them murdered between 2010 and 2014, according to the London-based group Global Witness.
In March 2016, Goldman honoree Berta Caceres of Honduras was killed by armed men who invaded her home. And in January 2017, Mexican indigenous leader Isidro Baldenegro, another recipient of the prize, was slain in Mexico's northern state of Chihuahua.
Tot, leader of the Agua Caliente "Lote 9" community in El Estor in Guatemala's eastern department of Izabal, has fought for decades to try to make the government recognize locals' right to fertile farmlands that are also coveted by mining interests for nickel and gold deposits that lie beneath.
The struggle began in 1974 in response to a new law requiring landholders to pay about $4,500 to receive property titles. In 1985 a provisional title was granted to Tot and 63 other indigenous farmers in the community while they completed payment.
But three years later, records of the community's ownership of the land mysteriously disappeared. And when the last payment was made in 2002, the government refused to hand over the legal title.
In 2004, the Mines and Energy Ministry granted a mining license for a region covering 16 Maya communities including Agua Caliente, and those rights later passed to Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel.
"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."
He and the community have fought in the courts to block mining on their land, arguing it poses environmental risks to forests and streams.
"Tot indefinitely delayed mining in Agua Caliente," Goldman said in its statement.
Mining companies have been accused of using violence against those who oppose their projects in Guatemala, often in poor and marginalized indigenous communities. Other lawsuits allege abuses including rape and forcibly removing farmers from their terrain.
According to Calas, a Guatemalan environmental and social law nonprofit group, in every case where indigenous communities have opposed mining projects, the government has backed the companies.
Tot said he has received threats against his life. In 2012 the Inter-American Commission on Human rights ordered protective measures for him and his lawyer, something that the Guatemalan government has not provided.
"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."
Recounting his arrival in in the community at age 12 after his parents died, Tot said he learned to love the land while growing up there. As an 18-year-old during Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, he was conscripted into the Civilian Patrol, a paramilitary organization that aided the army in controlling the population.
Tot said he was forced to do so and didn't support the military. He said that "there were many disappearances" during the period, including the killing of the community's then-leader for his efforts to defend the land.
But Tot used the experience to learn how to organize resistance.
On March 18, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed to consider a lawsuit brought accusing Guatemala of violating the community's rights to land, natural resources, free determination and self-government by denying their title.
"We are not only asking to be legalized. We already paid. We have the receipts, the records and the right," Tot said. "We have to defend (the land) as far as can be."