I’m busy working on pieces about further community and activist contacts I had with the School of Americas Watch delegation to Guatemala. In the meantime, please check out this article from The Nation about “investor rights” and mining – it has great info about the impact of NAFTA/CAFTA on community struggles against transnational mining projects. Please click on the link below:
Monthly Archives: February 2014
What is the value of memory? When a community suffers a terrible collective trauma, is it best (or even possible) to simply try to forget the the trauma, or does healing come through working for justice and remembrance? This week, as part of the School of Americas Watch (SOAW) delegation to Guatemala, I was able to learn about one community’s struggle to reconstruct their village and gain state recognition of the pain and loss they suffered as a result of a massacre by the military in 1981.
Cocop is a village of sixty indigenous Mayan families located in the Ixil area of the Quiché Department of Guatemala. The Ixil region was one of the areas most ravaged by Guatemala’s civil war – between 70-90% of Ixil villages were destroyed, and thousands of civilians killed. Last year, the Ixil community received international attention during the trial of former president General Rios Montt, who was convicted of committing genocide against them. The verdict was overturned one week later due to a legal technicality.
Cocop did not escape the horrific violence that affected thousands in the Ixil area. On April 16, 1981, the military entered the village and murdered 68 residents, burned their homes, and destroyed their crops. Among those killed were 38 children. Terrified for their lives, the surviving members of Cocop hurriedly buried their loved ones’ remains in mass graves, then fled to the mountains. The survivors were eventually only able to return when the commander of the local military base gave them “permission” to do so. However, they found that they had lost much of their land, and were kept under close control by the military.
The official military version of events was reported in Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre shortly afterwards. Per the article, the military had engaged in a battle with armed guerrillas in Cocop. A CIA telegram sent on April 17 reported receiving a report of a large number of people killed in Cocop who, per sources, were “subversives” who “attacked” the military.
Now, more than 30 years later, Cocop residents continue to fight for dignity and justice for their community. Guatemalan NGO Centro de Analisis Forense Y Ciencias Aplicadas (CAFCA) has worked closely with community leaders on projects of exhumation, burial of the recovered remains in accord with local cultural practices, preservation of historical memory, and fighting for reparations that are their right under Guatemalan law. As was stated by one CAFCA member, “exhumation is an act of justice”. When community members can identify and honor their deceased family members, speak aloud about the crimes committed against them, and pursue reparations from the government, they can begin to heal and reconstruct their community.
Don Jacinto de Paz, a community leader, along with several other Cocop community members, showed us the site where mass graves were located. With the help of CAFCA, the community was able to exhume some of their family members’ remains and then bury them in a new cemetery. The community has also worked very hard to gain the reparations owed to them as indicated in Guatemalan law, but have seen little progress in their struggle. One community member, a widow, became emotional as she spoke about the state’s failure to recognize the village’s suffering as a result of the massacre, the results of which are still felt today.
Several delegation members shared their deep shame that the U.S. government had financially and politically supported the Guatemalan government and military through much of the civil war, especially during the years of the repression in the Ixil area. Mention was also made of the role of the School of Americas in training Rios Montt, among other perpetrators of gross human rights violations during the civil war.
We left Cocop with plans to provide support for them in their struggle for justice. I’m left with many thoughts about the concept of “transitional justice”. I work with survivors of torture, and have learned through that experience about the power of memory and truth-telling in healing and reconciliation. The people of Cocop have taught me yet more about the importance of honoring the past in order to prepare for the future.
As I prepare to participate in a human rights and solidarity delegation to Guatemala with School of Americas Watch, I’ve been doing much research on mining and its impact on indigenous peoples. International mining projects have increased dramatically in Guatemala over the last decade, as well as community movements opposed to them on human rights, cultural, and environmental grounds. These movements have often been met with political repression and violence.
Background: In 1997, one year after the signing of the Peace Accords ending Guatemala’s civil war, the government made changes to the mining law in an effort to attract foreign investment. Under the new law, rather than being required to pay 6% of royalties to the Guatemalan government as per the previous law, corporations now were obligated to pay a mere 1%. International companies were allowed to own up to 100% of the concession, and were required to pay no import taxes for machinery and equipment for mining.
These measures, along with a sharp increase in the value of precious metals, low operating costs, and inadequate enforcement of labor and environmental laws by the Guatemalan government have made mining extremely lucrative for foreign corporations.
Impacts of mining on local communities
Residents living in the area of the Marlin Mine, operated by Canadian corporation Goldcorp, have reported an increase in livestock deaths, miscarriages, and skin disorders. Their homes have cracked from the force of the explosions. There is risk of cyanide exposure, heavy metals contamination, and substantial water loss to the community, and numerous other negative effects detailed here.
Due to the non-sustainable nature of mining, there are concerns that the effects of current projects can last generations, resulting in health problems, contamination of land used for farming, and resulting economic hardship. In addition, Mayan community leaders have spoken about the conflict between violent, commercial exploitation of the land and indigenous beliefs which call for a respect and reverence for the earth.
When I discuss this issues with other Americans, often the response is “Wait – aren’t people in these communities impoverished? Don’t the mines bring work and local investment?” The reality is, while international corporations have reaped enormous profits from mining, local communities have seen scant financial benefit. In a study conducted by Tufts University , researchers concluded that “when juxtaposed against the long-term and uncertain environmental risk, the economic benefits of the mine to Guatemala and especially to local communities are meager and short-lived.”
Communities have mobilized in response to the expansion of mining companies. More than 65 community consultations have been held in Guatemala since 2005; most of them have voted “no” to mining projects on their lands. Local activists have engaged in non-violent protests, including blocking the entry of mining companies into their communities, meetings with government officials, and marches to mine sites. These actions have often been met with intimidation and violence by mining security and the Guatemalan government. Protestors have been threatened, injured and killed. A group of 13 Mayan Q’eqchi’ are suing Canadian corporation HudBay for 2009 incidents in which women were raped, one man murdered and another left paralyzed by mine security guards.
In a disturbing trend that has reached into other areas of political protest in Guatemala, activists have been “criminalized” by the state – arrested and then forced to fight spurious criminal charges. In 2013, Yolanda Oqueli, a leader of Frente Norte del Área Metropolitana (FRENAM), was shot as a result of her non-violent activism protesting El Tambor mine at La Puya. She and seven other community members will be in court today to face unfounded charges that include threats, coercion and kidnapping.
In a follow-up post, I’ll take about some of the solidarity opportunities available in the area of mining and human rights in Guatemala. For now, I highly recommend this article for further information, as well as the Rights Action website. Lastly, the 2005 documentary “Sikapa No Se Vende” by Alvaro Revenga, reports on the community resistance to the Marlin Mine. It is available in its entirety on YouTube. Here is Part I:
The construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam, discussed in my previous post, has often been cited as “development at its worst”. Financed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the project led to the displacement, torture and death of thousands of Maya Achi area residents.Nearly 32 years after a series of army- and paramilitary-led massacres, the survivors saw an advance in their long struggle for justice, via a directive in the new U.S. appropriations bill aimed at the World Bank and the IADB.
Per the U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Bill signed into law on January 17:
“The Secretary of the Treasury shall direct the United States executive directors of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to report….. on the steps being taken by such institutions to support implementation of the April 2010 Reparation Plan for Damages Suffered by the Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in Guatemala.” p. 1240, Section F.
In short, Congress is directing the U.S. directors of the World Bank and IADB to make regular reports on the progress of the implementation of the 201o Reparation Plan. Although technically the U.S. can’t obligate the World Bank to act, it holds considerable weight as one its largest donors.
Background: The Chixoy reparations plan was the product of years of activism by the Maya Achi survivors, as well as partner solidarity groups. In 2005, after more than ten years of struggle, the government of Guatemala formally accepted responsibility for the harm caused by the project and a $145,000 reparations plan was brokered by the Organization of the American States. Nearly four years later, the current president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina (a former army general with his own history of human rights violations), has refused to take substantive steps to implement the Reparation Plan. The World Bank and IADB have not taken responsibility.
Please view this compelling video, “No Reparations, No Peace” about the struggle of the Chixoy survivors to attain justice:
In a future post, I plan to discuss the recent passage of the 2014 Consolidation and Appropriations Act in U.S. Congress and the provisions that relate to reparations for survivors of the World Bank-funded Chixoy Dam. This legislation is a long-awaited step towards providing compensation to the Maya Achi communities that suffered displacement, forced disappearance and massacres of entire villages as a result of the development project.
Here, I’d like to talk about survivor and activist Jesus Tecú Osorio. I was honored to meet Jesus more than 10 years ago, when he was on a speaking tour in the U.S. Jesus was just 10 years old on March 19, 1982 when he witnessed the brutal massacre of 177 of his fellow village members, including his 2-year-old brother, in Rio Negro, Rabinal. Jesus, whose parents had been murdered in a previous massacre, was then abducted by a paramilitary who had participated in the killings and forced to live with him as his domestic servant.
Why were the villagers of Rio Negro targeted? At the time of the massacres, Guatemala was in the throes of a genocidal civil war. Using an anticommunist, national security doctrine as justification, the military killed thousands of Mayan civilians, accusing them of providing support to guerrilla groups. In this climate of political repression, civilian dissent and opposition to the government could be deadly. Testimony by the survivors of Rio Negro, research and reporting by truth commissions, as well as international solidarity efforts, strongly suggest that the population’s resistance to the construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam was a key factor in the massacres. The Chixoy dam was a project of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), and has often been cited as an example of disastrous international development policies.
When I met him years later, Jesus was engaged in his life’s work: the struggle for justice for the survivors of the Rio Negro massacres. His efforts have included the long fight to bring the material perpetrators of the massacre to trial, a fight for reparations from the World Bank, and the establishment of local initiatives to rebuild the community, fight for legal rights, and heal from psychological trauma.
Jesus Tecu Osorio has won several human rights awards, including the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1996 and the 2010 Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award for international human rights defenders.
The following is a video produced by Jesus Tecú Osorio in 2000 and published by WITNESS, “A Right to Justice”.