Our last days in Guatemala brought us back to the capital city, but our education wasn’t over just yet. In recent Guatemalan history, there is a new type of struggle that is being fought. It turns out that Guatemala has much more than an amazing culture, food, people, landscapes and climate. Guatemala has many natural resources such as petroleum, nickel, lead, zinc, iron, gold, silver, and jade and as such, big companies want their share of it. To get an understanding of what is happening in these communities, we visited the community where a US-based mining company is illegally operating and mining with a suspended license in La Puya, Guatemala.
In 2000, a large company entered the community of La Puya to do some “soil testing”. Little did the community members know, but it was actually a mining company that was spending its days building a tunnel, searching for gold and cracking open arsenic laden rocks. When the members of the community became aware that this was a mining company and the effects that the industry was having on the community and the families, the community resisted and set up a barricade in resistance to prevent mining machinery from entering their community.
We spent a number of hours with Don Antonio Reyes. He is a representative of the resistance. An unassuming man, incredibly intelligent, very well spoken and knows his stories and timelines like it was all written In front of him in a book. He wasn’t reading from any notes however, he was telling us his stories as he was swinging back and forth on a hammock. We were all captivated by Don Antonio as he explained to us all that has happened to him, the resistance group and the community of La Puya, while trying to get the mining company to stop what they were doing because they had not consulted the community about the mining and they did not have the legal licence to extract the gold.
There were stories of incarceration (that were unjustified and then released), shootings (that were never investigated) and extreme intimidation involving the excessive presence of the police force. The police have been parking their vehicles at the entrance of the community every day and every night for the past 4 years. With the support of the Centre for Environmental Law and Social Action (CALAS), they are receiving help with their case before the courts, on the legal and environmental impacts. Although it has been a long process and sometimes may have seemed like a lost cause, there has been progress, with the help of CALAS and the attention of international communities.
On February 22, 2016, after four years of resistance, the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled to suspend the mining license. This is a great victory for La Puya and for communities’ right to prior consultation. The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on the grounds that the company had initiated operations without free, prior, and informed, consent of the affected communities, as is required under Guatemalan and international law, in particular ILO Convention 169. Community members from La Puya chanted “Long live La Puya!” and “Yes to Life, No to Mining!” upon hearing the ruling from the Supreme Court.
However, despite the mining company losing their mining license, they continued digging and breaking up the arsenic rocks. The community members can no longer grow rice and beans on the land because the soil is now contaminated.
While it’s extremely discouraging to see what the authorities and companies are doing in communities like La Puya, it was encouraging to see the strong force of solidarity from the members in resistance and how they come together to protect their lands and communities. The members of the resistance sleep at the barricade; have meals there and have even set up a temporary bathroom. They are very united in their cause and will continue to peacefully protest, not accepting that their land be taken over from the members of their community, their children and their children’s children. This story isn’t over yet.
Over all, my experience in Guatemala will be one that I will hold close to my heart forever. While it was extremely difficult to see the poverty, and the conditions that children are living in, knowing that rural families have to decide between feeding their children or sending them to school, and even seeing children selling goods in the streets to help their families with extra income, it was incredible to experience this first hand.
While movies and documentaries depict these situations, usually very accurately, there’s nothing like experiencing it for yourself. The poverty was difficult to see, but I must also admit that the people living in these circumstances seem to be happy. The children playing were having fun and there is a strong sense of community and a strong bond and love for one another.
This is one thing that I truly admired about the Guatemalan people and in fact, the most incredible experience I had in the 2 weeks I was there, was the night when over 200 people in the community joined together to literally pull a flatbed truck out of the school yard after it fell 10 feet onto the school grounds while dropping off construction supplies (the same school we were pulling dirt from). I was elated to help for over 3 hours, as we pulled the truck inch by inch up a hill with stairs and around the bathroom stalls. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before in my life and will truly not be able to explain with words. The community all came together to pull that truck out so the kids could make it to school on Monday morning. This was an amazing and emotional experience and I am so pleased to have had this opportunity.
I now want to know more on how we can stand in solidarity with the people of Guatemala as they struggle to live their daily lives. One easy way is to buy the organically and shade grown, fair trade Café Justicia. The sale of this coffee goes right back into the development of the community’s education and scholarship programs. You can contribute to this project by contacting Janet St. Jean at firstname.lastname@example.org to order your fair trade organic coffee.
Thanks very much to the Education in Action and the PSAC Social Justice Fund for this incredible experience. It’s been an experience like no other.
USGE RVP, RCMP/Justice/PPSC