Racism and the Race for Natural Resources

Here is a reflection from GSN accompanier Tanya.

Entering 2011, an election year for Guatemala, political and social actors are being targeted more frequently and, in the midst of the increasing levels of violence, the land issue rages on. Human rights defenders with environmental concerns are positioned as a threat to economic growth and even to national security. From outside, the conflict looks incomprehensible; a convoluted storm of random attacks, a game of monopoly in the dark. While various organizations are working to illuminate the past, history unravels to reveal the players and their interests.

I begin to understand where politicians find their support base and how they legitimise their leadership. I see their targets; land, economic power and, whether or not democratic, political justification. It becomes clear what tools are used to attain these goals. Bribery is made easy by high levels of poverty. Hiding atrocities of the past is made easy by a broken down justice system, high levels of racism, and low levels of education. Funding for political campaigns is made easy by alliances with land owners or large multinationals that are exploiting the natural resources in Guatemala. The violence that continues to wrack the country is, simultaneously, a tool to gain control in the black market economy and an excuse to blame opponents. The media is used to repeat the same lies over and over at high volume and frequency to reinvent the past, and religion is used to place the responsibility with those entities of other realms. What is not easy for these players in the game for power is the sheer numbers of people that have made themselves heard and are willing to take action to be heard again: the will to survive poverty and genocide; the demands for justice, transparency, autonomy; and for the realization of national and international laws defending the rights and territory of the indigenous population. A troublesome obstacle is the evidence.

The Press invariably focuses on the welfare of non-indigenous Guatemalans and the business interests of the rich and powerful.

The hydroelectric company Xacbal, located in Quiche, has announced a seventh ‘terrorist attack’ on the towers supporting their power cables transporting electricity to the west of the country. Despite extensive efforts the authorities have not been able to apprehend the suspects. In the latest press coverage the emphasis is on investors and the impact that the sabotage has on business. The company says prices of electricity will rise in May and June, the electricity service in Quiche and Huehuetenango will suffer, and that investment in Guatemala is at risk. The government is clear that economic interests are the priority and have employed the armed forces in an attempt to secure the area and deter any further problems for investment.

The media blur these accusations with the idea of resistance groups with pacifist tactics, criminal activity with organized extortionists, and outside actors provoking the communities to act against the companies. There was reportedly propaganda pertaining to a ‘terrorist group’ circulating in the town of Nebaj, the municipality where said towers are located. The group called ‘Ejercito de la Selva, Comandancia 19’, was a prime suspect until a man was identified in February for extortions against the company Xacbal. According to Abraham Valenzuela, Minister of Defence, there was no clear evidence that there was any guerrilla activity in the region. Who attempted to invent the spectre of a guerrilla movement in Ixil? Who requires the justification to increase repressive tactics against the pacifist forms of community resistance?

The Ministerio Publico (Public Prosecutors office) finally came to the region at the end of February 2011, according to their investigations the ´criminal master mind’ Amilcar Castolo Rodríguez Motta carried out the attacks for extortion money that was not delivered by the hydroelectric Xacbal office. The suspect, who has thus far avoided capture, owns land above and below that of the hydroelectric dam. He is also known to have held contracts with the company during the construction of the dam. With serious business interests at stake, a lack of a coherent investigation process, impunity, and corruption, racist and neo-liberal government policies, it is too easy for the dominant discourses in the media to smear the peaceful forms of community resistance.

The environmental damage caused by mega-projects such as dams and mines compound the existing problems of poverty and struggles for justice post-genocide. In the case of Xacbal local communities are not provided with electricity from the dam, although it has been producing power for at least six years. However, the communities in the area celebrate one year of electricity in 2011 provided by a smaller cooperative project upstream from Xacbal. Legitimizing the remilitarization of the Ixil region is damaging whether the blame is cast on the communities or on criminal organizations. The inherent racism of the army and the authorities leads to repression in either case, further damaging the fragile confidence that may have grown since the armed conflict.

Communities have used various techniques to express their lack of consent for the operations of mega-projects. In Cotzal, in Ixil, Quiche, the community uses road blocks to freeze work on the hydro-electric project Palo Viejo, owned by the Italian company ENEL. While non-violent direct actions such as road blocks are employed by various pressure groups in Guatemala to negotiate with the government, the authorities often try to remove these illegal demonstrations by force. The eviction of a more permanent encampment took place recently in Quiche when 500 soldiers and 300 riot police were deployed to remove a protest camp in San Felipe Chemla, Cotzal. It remains to be seen how the communities can find a way to assert their legal rights that are currently being negated and to find a discourse that legitimizes the struggle.

The municipality of Cunen held a ‘Consulta Comunitaria’ in October 2009 when men, women, and children from 72 communities voted on the large scale exploitation of natural resources: 18,924 ‘no’ votes against 0 ‘yes’ votes. Direct democracy in action, however the government is not obliged to enforce their decision. Since 2005 there have been 57 consultas held in various Departments, mostly in the west of the country, on the topic of mining projects. The communities have also used the forum to reject hydroelectric dams on rivers, and petroleum exploitation.

Problematically, even when the Inter American Court decreed that work should cease at the Marlin mine in San Marcos (owned by Montana Exploradora, subsidiary of Goldcorp Inc., Canadian Mining Company), until the safety of the communities affected could be further assessed, neither the company nor the government took any measures to do so. Oppression doesn’t stop with ignoring the people’s voice, in February, activist Ramiro Chon was assassinated in Petén. He worked to improve community health services, in defence of natural resources and indigenous territory and he was raising awareness about the dangers of pollution. One of many victims of a tactic sometimes dubbed as ‘social cleansing’ by observers.

The dominant discourse of the media is blaming the Ixil communities for deterring investment and rising electricity charges, because the companies are aggravated by the interference to their operations. This demonizing of the communities gives strength to the government strategy to criminalize community groups and human rights workers. Another example is the campaign of violent evictions of hundreds of families by government forces carried out at the end of March in Polochic, Alta Verapaz. A state of siege in this department has led to widespread Human Rights violations.

For the majority of the rural population in Guatemala there is no legitimate government that they can identify with – the State has very little to do with life in the communities. The PNR (reconciliation commission) promises compensation in the way of houses that, due to shortfalls in funding, remain incomplete decades after the atrocities took place. The services reliance that we know at home, on schools, basic health care, roads, and electricity, doesn’t exist in the highlands where people live on the maize they grow supplemented, where they can, by working for big landowners often for as little as 3 euros a day and usually a long way from home. The rural population therefore lacks of reliance on the State apparatus and furthermore is often positioned as a threat to wellbeing and internal security (eg the breeding ground of terrorism, narcotrafficking, and violent gangs). The lack of a legitimate justice system, and high levels of impunity, allow intense measures of oppression in rural areas to be justified in the public discourse as necessary. They are a means to combat the frequent extortions and violent deaths that have been escalating primarily in urban settings.

Another tool in the struggle for political and economic power is the use of orchestrated dramas to discredit nonviolent community resistance. Peaceful forms of resistance such as road blocks are a powerful threat to the legitimacy and the stability of capital interests. Invisible dynamics that involve high scale black market business investments make it very difficult for there to be any semblance of an informed public debate, those experiencing the issues directly are rarely granted a platform.

What is not concealed is the drive for investment, and this seems to outweigh any responsibility that the State might otherwise be developing for campesinos as ‘citizens’. The indigenous people are expected to welcome the bribery of unaccountable but ‘socially responsible’ corporations, with track records of major environmental damage and broken promises.

According to Carlos Daniel de Leon, of the agency for commerce and investment; the government wants to regulate the consultas, and although they have neglected to facilitate them so far, there is currently a commission working to derive a formula that might reign in opposition to the projects. It is declared that the consultas do not demonstrate consensus, nor the opinion of those most directly involved. The government wants to bring in new regulations on the consultas – nullifying all those that have already taken place. According to a collective of Mayan organizations that came to the National Palace in protest on the day of the announcement, the proposed regulations would violate the tenet of article 66 of the constitution, criminalising further the campesino movement. The proposal would also nullify more than 50 consultas that have already taken place.

We have seen more active dissent recently in March, mostly from the people of Huehuetenango and San Marcos region, who blockaded the major highway in the west and held a demonstration in the capital city. Meanwhile a legal team is working on tackling the unconstitutionality of the new regulations. The protests in the capital that started with numbers of a few hundred have grown in the month of April to gatherings of over 3,000 people.

The forthcoming elections are driving a multitude of social groups into action. The party currently in government, UNE, built their following on the promise of building peace and they use social projects such as rural development schemes to gain support. The major opposition, Partido Patriota, is a newer project led by Otto Perez Molina. Molina was a general in the army during the early eighties. A young and enthusiastic anti-communist he is accused of participating in Operation Ixil. According to the CEH (commission for historical clarification), Operation Ixil was a strategy concocted to eliminate the ‘threat’ posed by the Ixil people – an ethnic group predisposed to revolution, who were ungovernable, and who supported the EGP (guerrilla army of the poor), who had established various bases in Northern Quiche.

Between 1980 and 1983 approximately 90 villages and communities were completely or partially destroyed, representing 70-90% of the Ixil communities. For his part in the massacres, Molina is also accused of crimes against humanity. During the election campaign of 2007 he declared that the area has been in his heart since those days when he worked with civil patrols (PACS) to defend the country. He has returned to bring the opportunity for development that has been waiting so long to arrive.

There is evidence that plans for over 30 hydroelectric projects exist for the southern Quiche region, to be connected in one power circuit of 500 km. The government campaign to silence community dissent and make way for big business violates many laws that the government itself claims to recognize including indigenous rights and land rights set down by international human rights law, the constitutional law of Guatemala, and the municipal code. The communities deny responsibility for any destruction of property, claiming their protest is of a peaceful nature. They are pleading for solidarity in their struggle to protect their civil rights and indigenous rights. The current government maintains a face eager to comply with human rights law and publicly supports social and economic human rights. However, we may see a surge of more brutal methods justified by the need for ‘security’ if there is a change of government in 2011.

References and Further reading:

Convenio 169 de la OIT Declaration of the United Nations on the rights of indegenous peoplesMay Ratified 3rd 1996

Comision de Esclarecimiento Historico (CEH) guatemala Memoria del silencio. Capitulo 11. Violaciones de los derechos humanosy los hechos de violencia. Guatemala 1,999.

UDEFEGUA Buscando el Futuro: situacion de los defensoras y defensores de derechos humanos viviendo en el ambito rural de Guatemala September 2010


Categories: Indigenous peoples, Land


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