On March 3rd, this year, La Comunidad en Resistencia celebrated its first anniversary of non-violent resistance to the attempt to start mining for gold between the municipalities of San Pedro Ayampuc and San José Del Golfo, on the road between the latter town and the village of El Carrizal. This area is situated some 20-25km from Guatemala City.
This mining project is owned by the U.S. engineering firm of Kappes, Cassiday and Associates (KCA), who purchased it from the Canadian company Radius Gold. This particular project has received sufficient licenses to explore and extract minerals in an area of some 20 square kilometres. It should be noted here that the water requirements alone in this ‘dry corridor’, some 40,000 gallons per day, will affect a far wider area as the water table is exploited, as indeed will the water contamination leaching back into the soil from tailings etc. The extraction licenses were approved by the then Government’s National Director of Mines shortly before the change of Government at the end of 2011. This person is now the General Manager of KCA’s Guatemala subsidiary, EXMINGUA. This is how politics and business function all over.
After Radius Gold acquired the land, testing by experts was carried out for almost ten years, all without the knowledge of local communities. However, a newspaper article in 2010 alerted the communities and the size of the operation produced outrage. Following the discovery, communities attempted to get information from various Government agencies but the truth was impossible to find because of deception and lies.
In the meantime, an awareness raising campaign was developed, utilising knowledge of the consequences of gold mining on the lives of affected communities. A major source of information related to the experiences of the Marlin Mine project in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, in the Department of San Marcos. The realities of their experiences feeding into an overall programme of education across the affected communities in San Pedro Ayampuc and San José Del Golfo.
Community members were in no doubt as to the affect this project would have on their communities. In San Miguel Ixtahuacán, these affects are well documented, including those on health, individuals, land, animals, environment, housing etc as you can read here.
On the 2nd March, 2012, the communities had had enough of the mining vehicles and the blockade began – the blockade at what became known as ”La Puya”. The importance of the awareness raising programme was so important here as the communities acted as one.
There are many reasons why La Puya has lasted as long as it has. First and foremost, I believe, is the commitment to non-violence. It presents serious difficulties for any State response, militarized or otherwise, as the State firstly wishes to exercise its monopolisation of power. We are currently seeing this daily in the Tribunal being carried out in the case of Efraín Ríos Montt and Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. In fact, the history of Guatemala is a history of exploitation, repression and violence against the poor and marginalized, and those who stand with them. A history of the brutal monopolisation of power.
When the State did act against La Puya, they were met with a response that was not featured in the Police Manual – people lying down in front of them and offering themselves to whatever lay ahead, “if any blood flows here, it will be ours”. The ability of the communities to respond to the various threats poised has been remarkable and greatly aided by modern technologies, including mobile phones, digital cameras etc, as well as by technologies much more ancient, such as church bells.
The non-violence commitment provides a response to any State attack but also any attempt by the company. EXMINGUA set up what can only be described as a publicity stunt. People wearing EXMINGUA t-shirts and hard hats tried to force their way through under the pretence of being local people in favour of the mine. It turns out that these people were hired on the streets of Guatemala City. Despite several days of abuse and threats, witnessed passively, if not approvingly, by the police, the community was not provoked and maintained its position.
The provocation also includes the shooting of community leader Yolanda Oquelí as she left her shift in La Puya. She survives but is in constant pain. Nothing has been done to trace the attackers – neither factual nor intellectual. Other threats and attacks have elicited a similar response from the Government – nothing. Meanwhile, the non-violent commitment is strong.
It is what the non-violence commitment means to the community themselves, and the atmosphere of La Puya, that is very striking. It provides an atmosphere that is peaceful and welcoming – so much so that it is a place for children to play, where young and old can come together, and where everyone knows why they are there and what they are fighting for – their dignity as human beings.
The commitment to non-violence has another facet. Across Guatemala, the tool of choice, and necessity, is the machete and it is quite common to see men wearing them when in the countryside. This is not allowed in La Puya and wearers are politely asked to leave.
The colourful banners, many of them from solidarity groups, lend a slightly festive air and the peace and quiet is periodically broken by buses, pickups and motorbikes travelling the road between El Carrizal and San José Del Golfo – in effect driving through the camp. A great majority of them honk their horns in support. The structures have a semi-permanent feel to them – there is a cooking area, sleeping area, and a ‘women only’ area, and are firmly constructed, as are the toilets. There is also a raised platform which acts as a stage. All the structures are augmented as the situation demands.
La Puya is manned 24 hours a day, on a six day, 24 hours shift rotation. Each member of each group knows what duties are to be carried out in their shift. This is possible because the majority of people here work on the land and they spend their day-off at the camp. When working the land, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Tuesday or Saturday. Those who can’t do this because of, for example, the needs of the ‘working week’, provide food, goods, money etc to keep the camp functioning. Of course, they will always drop by to socialise and support their communities when the time allows.
In the morning, a woman arrives with a big bowl of masa (corn dough) and goes straight to the cooking area, cleans down the cooking surfaces, lights the fire, and makes tortillas. When the masa is used up, she washes the bowl out and leaves. She does this every six days.
There is this rhythm of the everyday that is striking. People arrive knowing what they have to do and people leave knowing they have done their part. This is about people’s lives and how they live with each other and, for a great many of them, how they live and practise their faith.
It is also about gender voice where women have an equal contribution to make and how decisions are made. It is clearly evident that without the contribution of the women in the communities, it is difficult to see how La Puya could still be functioning. This gender equity, if you like, was not unanimous at the start and needed some work. First of all from the perspective of the men, challenging them within a context of traditional gender roles. Secondly, and most importantly, from the perspectives of the women, there is a process of taking them out of themselves, allowing them to discover their true worth. An important learning is that the women do not have to ask permission of the men nor to ask themselves how they should act. The fruits of this work are there for all to see.
The usual liberal response can be seen in things like ‘they are against development, against jobs, against progress’ etc. Talk to the community and they will tell you that they are not against development. They will also tell you that they are against losing their lands, livelihoods, communities, and their environment. They understand that this is the consequence of gold mining ‘development’. As for jobs, what are 100 jobs, most probably poorly paid, against the livelihoods of thousands? It is a no-brainer in many ways. As for gold itself, is there a world shortage that needs to be replenished? Let’s just dig it up, destroy the environment and communities, and stick it back under the ground in bank vaults. This is development?
Howard Zinn, the historian had this to say about progress:
“But there has to be some proportionate response which involves figuring out how to make progress without killing people. How to make progress without poisoning people. How to make progress without polluting the air and the water, without endangering the planet and ruining it for our children and grandchildren. There must be a way of doing that and still, yes, making progress.”1
This is what the communities understand to their core.
Of utmost importance to the resistance is the fact that it is led, managed, and worked by the communities themselves. Any direct involvement of solidarity organizations would provide the State with the opportunity to talk of outside interference and manipulation on the part of either Guatemalan ‘communists’ or foreign ‘terrorists’ – or vice versa. La Puya welcomes support though is careful to ensure that the community themselves make their own decisions and maintain responsibility.
What is without doubt is the aptness of the name of La Comunidad en Resistencia. ‘Puya’ is the word for the needle/thorn of the trees that grow in the area. They are certainly being thorns in the side of the State and those who want to make a profit on the environment and those communities that depend on it. In many ways, that is all of us.
What do they want? Quite simply, they want to be left alone to get on with their lives without the threat of destruction. In order for them to be able to do this, the Government (of the people) should cancel the licences and, being the Government, of course they can do this.
You can find out more about the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report for the proposed mine
Other sources include the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) and La Cuerda magazine.