By Amanda Kistler
As we arrive in La Puya, an enormous banner spans the breadth of the roadway: “The extraction of our natural resources only means progress for the foreigners. NO TO MINING.” Past the banner at the entrance to the “El Tambor” project, owned by U.S.-based Kappes, Cassidy and Associates, more than 50 people are gathered in a cluster of brightly colored plastic chairs and stand to greet us. More banners and signs of solidarity surround the encampment. “We are all La Puya.” “Water is worth more than gold.” “All mines contaminate.” A thin gauzy sheet has been strung up between trees and hangs over the road to block the worst of the unrelenting sun. On the other side of the road, a makeshift kitchen has been erected between wooden poles holding up a laminate roof. The folks gathered, members of the communities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, have been braving the elements – natural and otherwise – since the beginning of March, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order maintain a peaceful blockade to the only entrance to the mine.
After a brief round of introductions, community members begin telling us what brought them here. The first rumblings of the Tambor project – licensed under the title “Progreso VII Derivado” – was in 2000. In 2007, they reported, a tunnel was dug without permission. Despite repeated requests, the government did not disclose the existence of the mining license until well after it was granted. It goes without saying that the communities were not included in the EIA process, as required by law. “They treat us like we are mentally ill,” relates one community member. The license for Progreso IIV Derivado covers 20km2 (spanning 7 communities) for 25 years, and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has publicly declared that Tambor is one of five mining projects of national priority. There are another 14 licenses pending in the area.
San José and San Pedro are located in the Dry Corridor of Guatemala – an area so named because of its limited amount of annual rainfall. Currently, residents receive potable water only a couple hours a day every 4-8 days. “Already we have so little water. What will we do when the mine starts using enormous amounts of water, thousands of liters a day, and dries up our wells?” one young woman asks us rhetorically. “We both live off and make a living selling what produce from the land,” says one gentleman at La Puya. “And okay, maybe the mine brings 70 jobs to our communities like the flyers promise. But what happens when the mine leaves and we no longer have usable land? We will be even poorer and have nowhere to go. This is not development.”
In addition to the issue of water scarcity is the concern about contamination. Their fears are not unfounded; in the communities around the now-closed Goldcorp San Martin mine in Honduras, 18 local streams dried up after mining operations began and evidence of acid mine drainage has gone effectively ignored by both Goldcorp and the Honduran government. “It is not that we are against development,” one community leader emphasizes. “We want development. Of course we do, but we can’t sacrifice our environment for a couple of short-term jobs.”
The first three articles of the Guatemalan Constitution establish that the purpose of the State is to protect the rights to life, family, physical integrity, peace and the common good. The communities argue that mining violates these rights, which is why they invoke another – the right to non-violent protest. In exercising this right, they have committed to peacefully block the construction of the mine – even if they must do it with their own bodies. “We’ve seen what happened at the Marlin mine. We learned that the only way to effectively stop a project and protect our futures is through civil disobedience. If the law will not protect our rights, we have to do that ourselves,” Tono tells us.
“Our resistance began on March 2, 2012,” a man in a broad cowboy hat proudly shares. “A woman saw a truck carrying machinery, and frustrated, she pulled her car in front of it so that the truck couldn’t pass. As neighbors saw what she had done, they hurried to join her in the road. That was the beginning of our road block, and we have been there every day and night since then.” The communities have been careful to ensure the roadblock not impede the right of “free locomotion,” as this has been used to justify the often violent eviction of other protest roadblocks.
Meanwhile, the assembled crowd tells us, they are concerned about the increasingly aggressive tactics employed to try and break the blockade. “They want us in prison or they want us dead,” one grandmother states matter-of-factly. “We don’t know if they will come back with flyers or bullets,” another young man contributes.
“They no longer try to talk with us, but instead look for another way to deal with us.” We are told, for example, at 1am on May 8th, about twenty-five trucks carrying machinery arrived at La Puya with the purpose of entering the mine. The trucks were accompanied by some 100 policemen in full anti-riot gear. People reported that the police trucks blocked the local roads, supposedly in an attempt to prevent others from reaching La Puya. However, community members, upon hearing the alert, scrambled through the mountain to arrive, en masse, at the blockade site. After a tense standoff, the company vehicles and their police escort left the 1,500 assembled protesters.
But the repression didn’t end there. Days after the standoff, on June 13th, Yolanda Oquelí, a prominent and well-respected community leader who had received threats in the months previous, was attacked by two armed men on a motorcycle after leaving the blockade site. They fired three times, and one of the bullets lodged in her back, near her spine. She survived the attack, but doctors were unable to remove the bullet. “We aren’t saying it was the company. We aren’t saying it was state or military forces. What we’re saying is that Yolanda was shot because of the conflict that this mining project has provoked in the community,” explains one of the protest leaders. “Because we’re committed to non-violence, we know that any blood that is shed will be our own.”
Nonetheless, in October, the blockade at La Puya entered its seventh month. No machinery has made it past the blockade during that time. In the meantime, in August, Radius Gold, a junior Canadian mining company with majority shares in the Tambor project sold off all its shares to American engineering firm Kappes, Cassidy and Associates – a move that many interpret as a reaction to unfavorable local conditions and a testament to the effectiveness of the mobilization at La Puya. As community leaders continue to receive threats and be the targets of intimidation, they say that the greatest measure of security comes from the watchful eyes of the international community. We invite you to join us as we continue to follow the peaceful protest of the communities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc.