Land defenders in Guatemala are celebrating. In a country not known for its respect for human rights and due process of law, indigenous community activists have scored a recent victory whose impact will surely ripple through the nation.
It all started two years ago when some residents of San Jose del Golfo, a rural community in south-central Guatemala, happened to be walking down the community’s main road when they noticed some unusual activity on a neighboring hill. They alerted friends and family in the community and set out to investigate.
They soon discovered that a Canadian mining company, Radius Gold Inc., had purchased some land in the area and started building the mine without a legal permit, community consultation or an assessment of the environmental risks of the mine on surrounding communities. It appears that the company thought they could simply get away with it. When the concerned residents tried to find out what was going on from local government authorities, there were told that was no mining planned.
Radius Gold later sold the mine to US engineering firm Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA).
When heavy machinery suddenly started rolling in on March 2, 2012, the communities decided it was time to act. Their initial attempt to halt the entrance of the machinery that day was unsuccessful. But the event rallied many more residents. Together they were able to set up an effective, round-the-clock blockade on the road. The Communities in Resistance, known as La Puya, succeeded in preventing the machinery from leaving or entering the area, despite repeated attempts.
Then at 1 a.m. on May 8, 2012, 25 trucks loaded with heavy machinery, and escorted by 40 police cars, attempted to push their way through the blockade. La Puya volunteers reacted quickly. Within minutes, over 2,000 residents rushed to the scene to stop what had the appearance of a full-fledged invasion. Despite the heavily armed troops of policemen dressed in riot gear, the residents held their ground and succeeded in stopping the trucks from entering by lying down on the road. In the following months, the mining company stepped up their efforts to get their mine going. They flooded the community with inflammatory and offensive fliers, slandering the women who were involved in the blockade. (From the beginning, women took positions on the front lines of the resistance.) They attempted to buy off some residents with the promise of jobs. And they stepped up their harassment of the blockade leaders with threats of violence.
At one point, one of the community leaders, Yolanda Oqueli, was shot by a gunman who escaped on a motorcycle. The doctors have not yet been able to dislodge the bullet. In response, the community stepped up its vigilance at the mine, managing to halt the entrance of most of the machinery despite numerous attempts by the company to force their way onto the land, at times accompanied by heavily armed police troops. Construction of the mine came to a halt.
Finally on February 26th, 2013, after almost two years of resistance and protracted negotiations with the communities, the contractor operating the machinery for the mining company pulled out all of the machinery and trucks… and left. A huge cheer reverberated throughout the communities.
« There’s a lot of excitement in the community, a lot of happiness,” said Juana.* “It’s a huge step forward. »
One of the leaders in the group, Marta*, termed the event « historic… a real triumph for the communities.”
The community’s residents are not leaving anything to chance, however. The 24-hour vigilance is continuing until they hear definitively that the mining company has officially given up its plans for developing the mine.
Even as they await that final resolve, this constitutes a significant victory for rural communities in Guatemala whose lands are being eyed by foreign investors and developers. In the past, particularly given the country’s history of death squads and land grabs, such resistance by farmers and rural folk standing up for their basic rights would have been dealt with summarily and ruthlessly.
The story is not over, and there still remains much to do. But for the communities surrounding the mine, there is a palpable sense of pride that they have been able to stand up against seemingly invincible forces.
« It is also setting a national precedent for other communities in Guatemala that are facing similar threats from mining interests,” said Marta. “And it shows that it can be done; that [nonviolence] can succeed. »
*(real names have been changed to protect the community leaders’ safety)