Women lead struggle against mining and machismo in Guatemala

Yolanda Oqueli stands in between the Guatemalan National Police and the entrance of the mine as the mining firm KCA arrives with machinery for the El Tambor mine on May 23, 2014. (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission)

Yolanda Oquelí stands in between the Guatemalan National Police and the entrance of the mine as the mining firm KCA arrives with machinery for the El Tambor mine on May 23, 2014. (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission)

In late December 2014, the social movement turned political party, Western Peoples Council, released a list of all mining concessions across Guatemala. According to their data, which was obtained through the Ministry of Energy and Mining, and the National Council of Protected Areas, there are 990 permits for the exploration or exploitation of mineral resources in the country, 115 of which are for metallic resources such as gold, silver and copper.

Twenty of those permits are for projects in the small community of San José del Golfo, which sits about an hour to the north of Guatemala City. The first of these projects to begin operations is the El Tambor gold mine, owned by the U.S. mining firm Kappes, Cassiday and Associates, or KCA, which is based in Reno, Nev. It doesn’t have to be too quiet to hear the operations at the El Tambor mine; during the day one can hear the churning of machinery in the distance. And at night the lights from the mine illuminate the horizon.

Fighting for life

On March 2, 2012, Yolanda Oquelí was driving her car between San Jose del Golfo and another community nearby when she observed the mining firm’s trucks turning down the road. She made a quick decision, and pulled her car in front of the trucks and blocked their access to the site. It was in this moment that the barricade they called “La Puya,” named after the thorns of the bushes in the hills around the mine, was born. Since 2012, the community has maintained a 24-hour presence at the entrance of the mine. Every day between 16 and 20 community members take turns at the barricade.

As in other resistance movements against mining in Guatemala, the community was never informed of the project prior to the issuing of permits. The community is concerned that the mining project will not only lead to the destruction of their land, but their water as well.

“There is no country without water,” said Cristobal Diaz. “There is no life either when there is no water. That is our struggle. We are defending life.”

These concerns are supported by the fact that the official environmental impact report that was performed by government officials and the mining company was proven to be fraudulent by an independent study. The Guatemalan government and mining firm have argued that the mine represents development for the country. But community members have challenged this.

“It only represents development for the mining company,” said Felisa Muralles. “For us it means pollution of our water, and destruction of our environment.”

Dedication to nonviolence

The community has dedicated themselves to resisting the construction of the mine nonviolently. Due to their nonviolent discipline, a state of emergency has not been declared, the military has not been deployed, and no one has been killed.

Though the community has only received a few trainings in nonviolence, they are quick to point out that their reasoning for using nonviolent tactics is based off their understanding of the efficacy of nonviolence in other historical struggles.

“We have learned from other resistance movements,” said Muralles, adding, that have seen “people killed and the military deployed to their communities. We chose to resist nonviolently because we do not want to see anyone in our communities killed.”

In December 2012, community members put their lives on the line to block contractors who had arrived with mining machinery. The contractors were supported by hundreds of Guatemalan National Police who deployed tear gas on the community members. But the members of La Puya held their ground, and ensured the machinery did not arrive at the mine.

Community activists link arms to block the arrival of machinery to the mine. (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission)

Community activists link arms to block the arrival of machinery to the mine on May 23, 2014. (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission)

The resistance was able to delay the mining project for nearly two years, but in May 2014 the Guatemalan government deployed nearly a thousand highly trained elite police officers to evict the community members from their barricade. Clouds of tear gas hung over the barricade, and rubber bullets were fired, as the police moved against those participating in the blockade. Behind the police were contractors for KCA, who successfully moved mining equipment to the site of the mine.

The government of Guatemala was responding to a threat of a lawsuit issued by the mining firm over the blockage of the project. KCA had argued that the community resistance was an infringement on their rights of investment at the location of the mine.

The resistance returned to their barricade shortly after the eviction.

The police have also maintained a constant presence at the entrance of the mine since the eviction, which has paradoxically provided security for the community members from attacks and intimidation from supporters of the mine. This hasn’t always been the case. In June 2012, Yolanda Oquelí was shot in the back as she stood at the barricade. She still carries the bullet in her body today. There has yet to be an investigation.

Battling machismo

Women are at the forefront of the La Puya resistance. They are the ones who have stood face-to-face with police when they arrived to evict the community.

It feels like coming home from the moment one arrives at the barricade. The women are quick to offer every visitor a hearty plate of beans and rice, or a bowl of chicken soup, with tortillas.

The resistance has led to a change in the position of women within the community. The machismo that once permeated this farming community is beginning to be dismantled. “Before there was a lot of machismo,” Muralles said. “But once the men saw that this was a noble cause, they began to change their position. We are all a family that is struggling for radical change.”

Guatemalan National Police use tear gas and batons against the community activists to clear a route for the machinery for the El Tamblor Mine. (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission)

Guatemalan National Police use tear gas and batons against the community activists to clear a route for the machinery for the El Tambor mine. (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission)

According to both the men and women of the resistance, there has been a significant change in the relationships between them. “We now have our dignity,” Muralles said. “Before we were hesitant to speak out, but today we can speak up. And now the men listen.”

The presence of women at the front during confrontations with police is also a tactic that the movement uses because police in Guatemala cannot hit a woman without it backfiring. The women have faced intimidation and smear campaigns by supporters of the mine who have called the women “prostitutes,” and leaked nude photos of one woman on social media. Yet the women of La Puya have waved off these attempts to discredit the movement.

Learning in movement

For the members of the resistance, the process of struggling against the mine has been a means of learning about their country and the world.

“Before we were ignorant,” Muralles said. “But now we have learned about the reality of the world. About what mining means for our community — sickness, destruction of the environment, etc. We are learning in movement.”

Locally, community members have received support from activists in the city as well as other social movements. This support comes in the form of donations of food, coffee and water, as well as solidarity from the other social movements across Guatemala.

Because of their unique story, the community resistance of La Puya has also received international attention and support. On one of my visits to the barricade there was a group from Spain visiting. In the past, groups from Argentina, Mexico and other countries have joined the community. It has represented an important means of sharing their struggle, and the struggles to defend territory across Guatemala, with the world.

One way that the movement has brought in new supporters to the resistance has been through regular celebrations held at the barricade. On a monthly basis, the community welcomes supporters from across Guatemala and abroad to their community to observe important holidays, such as Christmas, or celebrations of life where they hold Mayan ceremonies. “We welcome people here because we want people from other places to know our struggle,” Muralles said during the festivities marking Christmas.

This connection to the world has led the communities to see their struggle against mining as part of a global struggle. “Their struggles [in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America] are similar or the same as ours,” Muralles said. “We are trying to connect with them to struggle together.”

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