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April 12, 2013

Mayans against Canadian mines

The Canadian Charger

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Lolita Chávez, a spokesman for the Council of the Quiché People of Guatemala, recently visited several Canadian cities and is now touring the United States to publicize the plight of the Mayans at the hands of the mining companies and the Guatemalan government.

The government is headed by President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general who served under military dictator Efrain Rios Mott in the early 1980’s  At that time, Pérez was in charge of pacification in the Quiché District, and in that activity he has been accused of torture and genocide.  Currently Rios Mott is on trial for genocide.

The Mayan people of Guatemala are subjected to killings, rapes, and other brutalities for trying to protect their lands against unwanted development projects, and the Canadian government and Canadian mining companies are deeply involved in this wrong-doing.  That was the message that Lolita Chávez recently brought to Gatineau.

Some Mayans, who have been co-opted by the companies, favor development projects, creating conflict within local communities, but the ongoing efforts at proceeding with development depend, she argued, on the use of force by governments at local and national levels and by hired thugs.

“The majority of the mining companies are registered in Canada,” she noted.  As well, Canadian officials attempt to influence Guatemala at local and national levels.  It lobbies executive, legislative, and judicial officials.  “Goldcorp invited a group of Canadian MP’s to tour the country, visit its projects, and meet government officials.”  She said that they asked the government officials to make mining laws more friendly to the interests of the corporations.  However, the proposed changes are stalled in Congress because of Mayan opposition.  Chávez complained that during their time in Guatemala they met secretly with judges.

Her activism has put her own well-being in danger, she said.  “I was strangled, pursued legally, stigmatized, and subjected to threats.”  While in some communities mining opponents blocked work, in her community opposition was expressed only by referendum.  So far threats against her life have not been carried out. However, others have not been so lucky. Last year one of her colleagues who received threats was killed.  Activists have also been threatened with jail.  Beyond violence, “There are no limits to the criminalization, persecution, and remilitarization against the people engaged in defense of their territory.” 

In 2012, the army put another community, Santa Cruz Barillas, under siege when it objected to a hydroelectric development.  Last October there was a violent attack by the army against Totoniacapan, resulting in the death of six people.  Many women were raped.  As recently as March 17, thugs kidnapped four activists in Santa Rosa, as they were coming home from another community referendum.  Two escaped and one was released.  The fourth man’s corpse was found.

She related that Peace Brigades International (PBI) play a role in her people’s struggles.  PBI is an international non-violent organization which goes into areas where people are being oppressed and stands with and accompanies people, to discourage violence against them.

The treatment of the Mayans is of course unconscionable.  However their commitment to “Mother Earth” and what we in the West would see as a primitive culture may not hold in the long run.  Much the same conflict between traditional ways and “progress” continues to take place in Canada.  It was at the root of the Native opposition to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in the 1970’s.  Justice Thomas Berger headed the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline review which studied the issue and heard from the stakeholders, including the Aboriginals.  His conclusion: postpone any consideration of development for ten years.  By now there has been a shift in Aboriginal thinking in Canada.  While the traditional perspective still persists, another tendency is gaining strength among Aboriginals: They are demanding to be included in “progress”, wanting a fair share.

The implication for Guatemala: By all means put an end to the human rights abuses.  Honor the local referendums against development.  Come back again in ten years to see if people continue to have the same traditional approach.  In the conflict between traditional ways and modernity, modernity almost always prevails in the long run.

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