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Caitlin Lynch

CCGAP Human Rights Accompanier

Caitlin on a mountaintop.

 

Here is Caitlin's latest letter.

Saludos a todos!

I hope this email finds you all well. Once again, I write to you from Guatemala, entering my 5th month as an accompanier. And as always, it is hard to believe such time has passed. As I mentioned in my last email, I will be writing about mining and natural resource extraction specific to the communities we work with. As I sat down to write this email, I found myself wondering where do I begin? Do I begin telling my own story of understanding? Do I begin in 1997 with the Mining Law that facilitated and encouraged foreign investment in Guatemala? Or do I begin over 500 years ago with the arrival of the structural injustices imposed by the Spanish colonizers? Many of the people we work with would start with the latter. But what I realized in my questioning is that the story of mining and natural resource extraction by elite foreigners is not a new or unique story. It is the story of the oppression of many in the name of the capital gain of a few. A story that is all too familiar around the world. One that has different names, in different locations, but always the same objective: for the elite few to maintain their position of power and wealth by extracting natural resources with the use of local human resources at the lowest cost possible, inevitably leaving behind war, violence, and division. But also leaving, perhaps an unseen consequence, a culture of resistance. These are the communities we work with.

In the region of San Marcos, we work with an association of communities affected by the Marlin Mine, an open-pit gold and silver mine owned by the Canadian company, Goldcorp Inc. Thanks to the Mining Law, foreign companies are only required to pay 1% of their earnings to the State of Guatemala (reduced from 7%), are allowed 100% foreign ownership of such projects, and not required to pay taxes on imported equipment. With this law as well as the political situation in which few labor or environmental regulatory laws are enforced (as well as a near police state and structural racism), foreign mining companies have been flocking here since 1997 to steal a piece of this incredibly wealth country. And as many Guatemalans know, this is not a poor country. There is oil, gold, silver, zinc, rivers, fertile lands, ports, incredible biodiversity and range of ecosystems. But the people are poor, or rather, have been made and kept poor, with the continual removal of the lands riches by the elite class and by foreigners, the Marlin Mine being a perfect example of this.

So what does the Guatemalan government have to gain if they give all their riches away to foreign companies? The truth is that the Guatemala state has never existed to support its people and maintain basic social services and still continues to deny these services to the majority. The Guatemalan “state,” or rather, those who have and execute power, represent a small elite class since independence in 1821, and since then have been allying themselves with multinational corporate interests. I don’t want to divert too much on this subject, but the main idea is that projects like the Marlin Mine do benefit individuals in Guatemalan government and elite, mostly through their business connections.

So what about the affected communities? Since the Marlin Mine began operations in December 2005, representatives of the company have spoken of a great deal about the developments the mine will bring to neighboring communities, mainly employment, and local funds to build new schools, a paved road, a hospital and other services. All of these prospects appear very enticing to the local population who currently lack these services due to a history of oppression, isolation and disinvestment by the government of Guatemala. But after reading reports, hearing first-hand testimonies and spending time in this region, it is becoming clear that these are not the only “developments” that the company is bringing.

So how are the communities around the mine affected? In only 5 years communities are starting to see a number of negative impacts, such as: the loss of land and forced sale of lands, the contamination of water with heavy metals, the drying of natural wells, the increase of community conflicts, unexplained violence and murders, structural damage to homes, unauthorized trespassing, increased alcoholism, disease and birth defects, deforestation and other environmental damages as well as the complete disregard for and violation of mayan cosmological beliefs.

It is important to mention here the severity of these damages, especially for those of us more familiar with life in the United States or in the Global North. For most families here, losing their land does not mean simply packing up and finding another apartment. It means not having food, not having a home, not having land. It means loss of life. People have worked their entire lives in extreme working conditions, saving money from various jobs, to be able to afford the plots of land they have and to build their modest homes made by hand of adobe bricks or concrete block. The water that is used comes from natural springs or wells, and the government has not provided any plumbing system. Water is used for drinking, bathing, washing, for crops and livestock. Even those who have jobs at the mine or elsewhere structure their lives around the farming cycle, specifically the corn cycle. The corn that is harvested just once a year must last all year until the next harvest. In an interview with one man who was being pressured to sell his land, he responded by saying “Where else can I go? I have nowhere else. My life is here.” These are by no means small losses.

There are many community members who have become concerned with the severity of these damages and the threat of more and are speaking-out about the situation. People have formed local solidarity groups, but even holding an informal meeting in ones home can make them a target and in some cases, they are criminalized. Some have charges put against them (often exaggerated or for issues unrelated to the mine), either by the company directly, employees or sympathizers. Many of these legal processes are incredibly time consuming and costly and rarely resolved since many local authorities and judges have been paid to keep silent. It is worth remembering the very similar strategy used during the internal armed conflict, during which social activists, organizers and community leaders were seen as a threat to the state and eliminated by death or disappearance. One cannot help but see the parallels of community persecution. In fact, a number of people I have spoken with refer to this period as the “new violence” or the “next colonization.”

So what can the communities do? A number of communities have organized themselves to share their stories, experiences, ideas and strategies about the problems caused by the mine. One tool that an increasing number of communities are using is the Community Consultation process. This is a right outlined by the International Organization of Workers Convention 169, ratified by the Guatemalan government in 1996 in the context of the Peace Accords which officially ended the armed conflict. This convention stipulates that before any project or law that could affect an indigenous group, that group must be consulted, and their right to self-determination must be respected. Furthermore, the state holds this obligation to consult with the affected communities before the approval or development of any such project.

However, the government has done little to comply with the obligation to support this process of community consultation. In fact, up until December 2009, the decisions of the consultations were not considered legally binding. Upwards of 40 communities have held community consultations throughout the country, yet none of these were taken seriously until this recent decision by the Constitutional Court which determined that consultations must be held prior to development of the project and are binding. This decision also implies that in the communities that have had consultations, the mining or extractive operations are in violation of this law, since the vote of the people was not taken into account prior. A recent petition was sent a number of Mayan communities and organizations demanding the immediate suspension of mining activities in two particularly conflictive areas (the Marlin Mine and the cement plant in San Juan Sacatepéquez) until community consultations are held and the results considered. The letter, addressed to the president Alvaro Colom this April, allowed 30 days for a response (news coverage of this petition). Unfortunately, this time period has passed without response from the office of the president. Various groups are working on the follow-up strategy.

The specific groups we accompany dedicate their work to educating and bringing awareness to communities about the affects of the mine, their legal rights, and the community consultation process. Something that has struck me as I accompany community visits, talk with local leaders, or just help out in the office, is that the focus of the work is entirely on education and giving people the tools to make their own decisions. Utmost respect is given to the intelligence of each community member as well as their right to make up their own mind. People are not told how to vote in the consultation, nor are scare tactics used to pressure people into taking a certain position.

Last month I had the opportunity to hear a number of first-and testimonies of people directly affected by the mine. I began to realize that this fight I not about getting a piece of the pie, or more political or economic power. It is about defending, preserving and maintaining life, a way of life that has been marginalized, devalued and oppressed for hundreds of years. Part of the mayan cosmological view is that “the earth is not ours, we are of the earth.” This idea plays a big part in the resistance of the communities who see the method of mineral extraction as a violation of their spiritual beliefs of coexistence and respect for the earth. The overall goal of most individuals we talk to continues to be the complete and permanent suspension of the mine. “They are cutting the veins of the heart of the earth,” one woman repeated as she told us her story. This struggle is not a choice. It is survival.

Most people I have met and heard from will not have their experiences or stories heard. These are lives that no newspaper will publish, that no history book will tell, that no children will memorize the names and dates of, which no Goldcorp report will show. I have had the unique and incredible opportunity to hear first-hand from these individuals directly damaged by the negative impacts of foreign investment and development. And hear their methods and ideas to change their realities. These are real lives affected by real forces of power, money and privilege, not just statistics or ideas.

I have been thinking a lot about what to do with the information I have received here and the responsibility that comes with it. And while becoming aware of structural injustices and how they play out internationally is vital to fighting these injustices, I believe one of the biggest gestures we can make, as those privileged with information is to see and hear the voices of resistance, wherever we are. I would like to end by reminding you all of the stories and voices that are not heard, but that are always present, especially in this culture of silence, shame and fear. And I ask each of us to seek out those voices, learn to hear them and listen to them.

Thank you all for reading along with my process and for your openness.

A few numbers to consider:

  • 982 – US dollar value per ounce of gold from the mine in 2009
  • 275,000 - number of ounces extracted by the mine in 2009
  • 66 – number of gallons of water used by the mine per hour
  • 2.1 – number of years an average rural family would take to use that same amount of water
  • 8 – number of wells in the neighboring community that have dried since 2005
  • 120 – number of structurally damaged homes in neighboring community (2008)
  • 8 – number of pending arrest warrants against neighboring community members in resistance
  • 100 - percentage of those who are women
  • 36 – total number of community consultations held in Guatemala to date
  • 99 – overall percentage of votes against mining and extractive industries in those 36 consultations
  • 79 – percent of local population living in extreme poverty around the mine (2008)
  • 800 – number of jobs at the mine employing local residents (according to the company)
  • 1.2 – percentage of total local population that number includes
  • 325 – average monthly wage of these employees (US$)
  • 50 - Literacy rate of neighboring communities

Much love to you all,
Caitlin

"Underdevelopment is not a step towards development, but the historic consequence from foreign development." --Eduardo Galeano

http://upsidedownworld.org/main/

Here is Caitlin's first friends and family letter, written in March 2010.

Hello everyone! I hope this email finds you all well. First I would like to apologize for the delay since my last email. It turns out we will be writing emails every other month, not every month as I previously thought, though I will try to send updates as often as possible. I am now writing to you after returning from my second trip, or salida, to the region I work in with my partner. Before I left, I know that many of you had questions about what my work is like on a day to day basis. Although I would like to be able to describe for you an average day, the truth is, there is no average day. Each day that we spend in the region is unlike the previous. Meetings are called, meetings are canceled, and plans change at the drop of a hat and we do our best to respond. The region I have been assigned to covers two departments, or states, on the western side of the country, Huehuetenango and San Marcos which will remain my region throughout my time with the project. Within these departments, we visit a number of communities and organizations each month, over a period of 2 to 3 weeks. Due to this geographical distribution, our region involves a lot of traveling, which makes for a busy but never boring trip.

The organizations and communities we visit range from large cities with hospitals, supermarkets, fast-food, hot water and internet cafes, to small towns, or aldeas, without a market and an hour hike from the nearest dirt road. The issues that these communities are working on can be generally fit into the categories of natural resource exploitation and war crimes from the internal armed conflict, although more of our contacts are focused on the former.

Although I am happy to now be relaxing in our house in the capital, and fully enjoying the amenities such as hot showers, internet, electricity all day, ipods and markets with every fruit you could imagine, I am still reeling from the experiences I have in the region. One particular community we visit takes my breath away each time I go. I wish I was more of a poet to describe it to you but I will do my best.

This community suffered a massacre carried out by the army in the early 1980s, like many others in the region, under the regime of the brutal de facto president and general Efraín Rios Montt. Rios Montt was known for his incredible ruthless attempts to stop the so-called resistance movements in the country, by implementing the “scorched earth” policy which justified the persecution and destruction of any and all communities considered sympathizers with the guerrilla movement. Under his regime of less than 2 years, hundreds communities were completely destroyed, many of these in the department of Huehuetenango. Rios Montt is currently one of the few military leaders and intellectual authors in Guatemala who has been charged with crimes against humanity in an international court. Unfortunately, due to his current position in the Guatemalan Congress, he enjoys immunity as an elected official, like many others. But the movement to prosecute him legally continues.

In the community we visit, the massacre left 49 men and women and 37 children murdered. All of the homes and structures were burned to the ground, some with people trapped inside. Now over 28 years later, the site of the community is a silent smooth grassy hillside with one tree left standing, overlooking the breathtaking Cuchumatanes mountain range. A little more than 3 years ago, with the help of international connections made by a survivor, this community is rebuilding itself, house by house. Where only grass survived, now houses are springing up. It is a slow often arduous process, but surviving family members are beginning to move back to the place where they once lived. Most families still live in the area, although some have moved to larger cities, others as far as the US , but many still have the intention of one day returning. Our work in this community mostly involves spending mealtimes with the surviving families, as well as being witness to the process of rebuilding. While sitting around the fire of slow toasting fresh tortillas and sipping on coffee, we chat with the families about their health, their jobs, their families, current events and the rebuilding process. Sometimes people recount to us specific memories of the violence that was inflicted upon them, but mostly we talk about things like the corn harvest and when the rain will come. People here speak ch’uj in the home and only those who have gone to some school or worked outside of the community learn Spanish, which are often the men. I have found this very challenging, not only because I am still building on my own Spanish abilities, but because I find myself interacting more with the men than the women and children of our contacts. This last trip I managed to learn a few words in ch’uj, which are currently limited to thank you, corn, and cat, but I hope to learn more in order to engage with everyone in the community, including the women.

As I stand on the site, it is hard to imagine that such inhumane and arbitrary violence was inflicted upon the people here by the state itself, a state which has a long history of distrust among the people. The community is nestled into the hillside of the stunning Cuchumatanes, the mountain range that cuts through the region, the highest peak reaching 12,500ft. The community we visit rests at 8,200ft, with mountains rising around us on all side. Some days we wake up to find ourselves actually in a cloud with cold damp whiteness covering everything. Other days we find ourselves looking out over a sea of clouds, mountains popping up like islands. And on clear days we can see each little fold in the mountains that seem to go on endlessly, diving down to the river that lies in the valley. It is incredibly quiet and still, a refreshing contrast to our home in the concrete encased capital. As we sit in our champa, the four walled adobe structure where we sleep, even the smallest noise is audible: dry corn stalks rustling, pigs grunting, donkeys stepping down the hillside, the rushing of the small creek where we bath, marimba music drifting by, the chopping of wood, families calling to one another. But strikingly absent is the sound of cars, planes, or the rush of background noise of any kind. During the day, the sun is strong, and burns our unaccustomed skin easily, but once night falls and the fireflies hover over the creek, the chill comes quickly we are eager to get into our sleeping bags to keep warm. After a few days here, visiting all our contacts, we hike our way out of the valley and hop on the bus to the next community.

The remaining communities we visit are organizing themselves around the issue of natural resource exploitation. The use and abuse of natural resources has long been a part of Guatemala ’s history and has been the basis for much of the oppression and constructed inequalities in the country. It has taken on a new face in the past few years, with the help of international trade agreements and loans to promote development projects that assist the facilitation of goods. More recently, the issue has become more pressing as community after community is recognizing the negative impacts of this type of “development.” This has lead to the organization of communities who are now raising their voices to object to these negative impacts and demand their state grated rights to self-determination. The region where we work has a number of incredibly active groups, with the overall goals of defending their rights granted to them as Guatemalans and as indigenous groups and of participating in the decision making process of issues that affect the land. Much of work that the groups do is to educate and share experiences among communities affected by large development projects, particularly mines and hydroelectric dams. In order to give this issue the attention and detail that it warrants, I will dedicate my next email to this subject.
Just a few more things:
• I would like to thank those of you who attended the speaking tour that NISGUA just finished up with in the US . I hope you found it inspiring and informative.
• Currently NISGUA is accepting applications for human rights accompaniers. The application deadline is April 2nd. You can find more information here: http://nisgua.org/get_involved/join_gap/human_rights_accompanier/
And of course if you have any questions, please feel free to ask me!
And finally I would like to express my gratitude to you all for reading my emails, for your calls, your emails, your packages, your thoughts. They are truly invaluable. And of course for the continuing support from my sponsoring community, Copper Country GAP, without which, this work would not be possible. For more information on this group, or if you would like to help support the work, please see: http://www.ccgap.org/ Also, check me out in their Nov-Dec newsletter.
Much love and respect,
Caitlin

"Underdevelopment is not a step towards development, but the historic consequence from foreign development." --Eduardo Galeano

http://upsidedownworld.org/main/



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