Guatemala’s Neglected Story: Continued Disregard for Indigenous Autonomy

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•Indigenous peoples are still violently suppressed when they voice any opposition to foreign multi-national investment operations
•Gaining strength, the country’s Indigenous movement is a much needed tool for securing equal rights
•The Guatemalan indigenous movement would be well advised to learn from movements in Bolivia and Ecuador

While the hemisphere is riveted by the posthumous accusation by lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg predicting his own demise at the hands of Guatemalan President Àlvaro Colom, there is another story in Guatemala that is not being told. At Goldcorp’s annual stockholders meeting on May 22, the Canadian giant mining corporation was confronted by community leaders who had traveled to the country from Honduras and Guatemala. The purpose of the visit was to complain about the detrimental environmental effects of Canadian mining projects in their respective countries. Goldcorp’s president and CEO, Charles Jeannes, displayed remarkable candor in addressing the issue: “Mining is very impactful. We dig big holes in the ground and we bring a lot of people and trucks and business into an area, in some cases, like in Guatemala that didn’t have it before.” His statement stopped just short of admitting to the mining project’s negative health effects. The Guatemalan Delegation of the Indigenous was alone at Goldcorp’s annual meeting, finding no support from the Colom administration. Despite being largely dependent on indigenous groups for his support, Colom has shown time and again his lack of interest for their welfare.

Indigenous leaders are also bereft of any support regarding the proposed Xalalá Dam, a project that promises to bring in massive amounts of revenue resulting from the electrical power produced, but is being challenged by indigenous leaders due to the negative consequences which they charge that the facility will bring to their communities. Because of their treatment as second-class citizens and a chronic lack of political representation, indigenous leaders have found that they must single-mindedly push for their inclusion in emerging political scenarios in order to achieve equality and to pressure the government to acknowledge their rights.

Continued Repression and Impunity
In 1996, the Guatemalan government and the combined guerrilla forces functioning under the moniker, Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (UNRG), signed the Peace Accords that brought an end to more than 30 years of a bloody civil war. Guatemala’s internal conflict resulted in the death of close to 200,000 people, many of whom were indigenous campesinos caught in the crossfire of the warring factions’ violent ideologies. Many more were kidnapped, tortured and never heard from again. Claims that indigenous communities were easily manipulated and recruited by leftist guerrillas were used as excuses for the systematic ethnic cleansing by rightist death squads in what the Guatemalan Commission of Historical Clarification (set up by the UN as part of the Accord of Oslo ) deemed to be genocide. Those who participated in creating the infrastructure which indirectly led to the indiscriminate killings in indigenous communities did not only include Guatemalan authorities, but also foreign entities with roles to play in the country, such as the World Bank and the Inter–American Development Bank. In the 1980s, civilian paramilitaries, sanctioned by the government, cleared the way for the construction of the World Bank-financed Chixoy Dam by eradicating the indigenous opposition it had attracted. This has become known as the Rio Negro massacre, a tragedy that left hundreds dead.

The civil war’s legacy of impunity lives on. The August 2008 assassination of Antonio Morales, a Guatemalan indigenous leader who was at the forefront of the fight against the intrusive roles of big lending-agency projects such as dams and open pit mines, underscores the adverse reality in which indigenous populations continue to live. The police and various security forces continue to repress the protestors, as was the case in March 2007, when they sprayed tear gas at those who were peacefully protesting Goldcorp’s Marlin mine. Goldcorp (just one of a number of multi-national corporations investing in Guatemala) continued to pursue its campaign of intimidation by lodging a complaint against Italian biologist Flaviano Bianchini after his study found that the Marlin mine was polluting surrounding water sources with heavy metals resulting from the extractive processes. He subsequently left the country due to threats against his life.

Today, indigenous leaders and local activists are routinely faced with threats of assassination and cases of intimidation that are met with inadequate investigations or total indifference by the authorities. Death squads have re-emerged, which are hired to survey indigenous lands scheduled for exploiting by foreign enterprises. The 1996 Peace Accords set the international community at ease by declaring an end to the civil war that had decimated the Central American country for over three decades, but it became obvious that such optimism was unwarranted and that the treaty did not bring an end to the violence.

Development…For Some
When the Guatemalan government and the leftist UNRG turned in their guns for pens and briefcases, each agreed to sign the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Initially hailed as a much needed accord, indigenous leaders soon found the document to be little more than waste-paper. While the document acknowledged the exclusion of indigenous peoples from many policies enacted by previous governments, it did little to include them in future policy-making. The agreement stated that the government would consider “mandatory mechanisms for consultation” when a project would directly affect indigenous communities, and would also consider “institutional forms of individual and collective participation in the decision making process […] that ensure a permanent dialogue between organs of the state and the Indigenous peoples.” It goes on to say that it would “adopt or promote” efforts to seek the approval of indigenous communities “prior to the implementation of any project for the exploitation of natural resources which might affect” them. Supporting the newly agreed-upon document was the International Labor Organization (ILO) Covenant169, adopted in 1989 by the United Nations’ affiliated body, which similarly stipulates a need for consultation with indigenous communities. Nevertheless, the legitimacy of indigenous autonomy has been repeatedly challenged by foreign corporations and by the Guatemalan government.

At the turn of the 21st century, the harmful effects of corporate mining projects’ were already well-known among the communities living near them. When a license for exploration for the Canadian corporate project, the Marlin Mine, was proposed in 1999 in the municipalities of San Marcos and Huehuetenango in Guatemala, indigenous leaders decided to vocally and physically oppose the venture. Often, the processes of mineral extraction require the use of dangerous chemicals such as mercury, or as in the case of the water sources surrounding the Marlin mine, arsenic, which is a chemical that can cause bladder, lung, skin, kidney, nose, liver and prostate cancer when ingested. The ensuing protests and road blocks were met with harsh police retaliation. Indigenous leaders, abiding by the aforementioned agreement regarding indigenous rights and the ILO Covenant 169, staged a community vote, called a consulta, on whether or not they would allow the construction of the Marlin mine to proceed. In 2005, a community vote was held. Nearly 100 percent of the indigenous communities that participated vehemently opposed development of the mine.

The Canadian company, then known as Glamis Gold, challenged the legitimacy of the indigenous council’s conclusion, and claiming the consulta was not law abiding, continued to survey the area. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the indigenous argument that required Glamis to consult with the affected indigenous communities. However, it also ruled that the decisions reached by the indigenous community had no legal standing because the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines retained jurisdiction over mining operations. Unfortunately, due to their inherent weakness and the Guatemalan government’s pre-disposition to support foreign investors at almost any cost, the country’s courts have not forced foreign companies to take into account the victims of its mega projects.

On January 11, 2005, then President Oscar Berger, reacted to an eruption of protests against the Marlin mine by stating, “We have to protect investors.” He subsequently deployed the military claiming the government must maintain law and order. As a result, one protestor was killed by military gunfire and others were injured. As of May 14, 2009, reports that Goldcorp (previously Glamis Gold) holds exploration licenses in 14 villages in Guatemala, 13 of which have revealed their opposition to mining through community referendums. Nevertheless, Marlin mine continues to operate.

At about the same time, a similar battle is being waged in the region spanning the Chixoy River in Ixcán. Residents there have challenged the proposed Xalalá Dam due to fears that it will displace nearly 2,300 indigenous people, worsen poverty and damage the environment. Much like the solidarity exemplified by the opposition to the Marlin mine, the Ixcán people expressed their disapproval of this form charging the company with corporate imperialism. An April 2007 referendum in the area found that 91% of the community rejected the dam.

The Dam Progress
Currently, the Xalalá project is on hold. The dam’s construction has been discontinued due to investment-related factors. Intense opposition in the affected areas, now having caught international attention, has scared away a number of private investors. Nearly all of the communities scheduled to be affected disapprove of the dam, and the ones that approve have either been tricked or intimidated. Even though no private company will quickly take up a project with such ample opposition, the Guatemalan government continues to pursue it, calling the referendum by the Ixcán people “not binding.” Furthermore, due to the current global financial crisis, many private investors have pulled out of “risky” projects such as the Xalalá Dam. The government, after announcing that no private investors had come forward to bid for the project, declared that it would seek other avenues to begin construction of the dam, such as funding from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Despite having apologized for the Rio Negro massacre, the Guatemalan government continues to advance the construction of the proposed Xalalá dam, a project that unfortunately features a number of similarities to the Chixoy project. As evident in the Chixoy project, where the selection of the site for the dam was considered a massive state failure due to geological miscalculations, it became obvious that the development promised by the government (the official website for the Xalalá project states that one of its goals is to better the quality of life for Guatemalans) will not benefit the indigenous communities in the region. In Chixoy, the dam project already has displaced 3,500 Mayan community members and affected 6,000 other families who lost their land and means of livelihood. The argument that few will benefit at the expense of many apparently matters little to Guatemala City: The proposed dam is scheduled to bring in millions of dollars in taxes and salary revenue and is expected to produce 886 GWh per year.

The Indigenous Movement
Such disregard for the welfare of a population sector that accounts for a majority of Guatemala’s nationals (although officially the number is said to be 40 percent, other sources put the percentage of the indigenous at close to 60 percent) has motivated a determined call to action by the indigenous. In Guatemala, hostility and racism towards indigenous groups is manifested by political exclusion. The unvoiced consensus among the powerful Europeanized minority remains that although the indigenous population is substantial, its political representation should remain marginalized. President Àlvaro Colom’s blatant disregard for the 2007 community referendums, valid under international law, highlights the Central American state’s need for a more powerful indigenous presence in government.

In 1993, with the help of a failed self-coup by former President Jorge Serrano Elias, the Permanent Maya Assembly, representing an early indigenous political movement, asserted its presence and its push for permanence in the Guatemalan political arena by submitting a list with three names for the vice-presidency. Although this move gained national attention at the time, the assembly failed to generate any major breakthroughs. The indigenous movement lay semi-dormant for a number of years, until the recent election of Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader in Latin America, raised expectations among Guatemala’s underrepresented community. This prompted a 2006 statement by Rigoberta Menchú Mum, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner and an indigenous leader, to announce that she would pursue the presidency in the 2007 election.

Menchú’s presidential bid that year proved to be a fiasco, as she gained only about 3 percent of the vote. The meager figure can be attributed to the fact she was an ineffective campaigner, but also that indigenous people are still “largely outside the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural mainstream due to limited educational opportunities, widespread poverty, lack of awareness of their rights, and pervasive discrimination.” Another impediment was her inability to connect with indigenous communities. However, Menchú later returned to the political scene by announcing that she was collaborating in the creation of a new political party in Guatemala, WINAQ (meaning “people,” or “humanity” in Quichua), in an effort to gain the executive seat in 2012. After gathering the 17,000 affiliates needed to register as a legitimate political party, WINAQ was established in 2008, and its representatives stated that it had close to 40,000 members. According to Barbara Schieber, contributor to Guatemala Times, this was “one of the most important steps ever achieved by a Mayan political leader in Guatemala.”

WINAQ has made it a point not to claim that it is an exclusively indigenous party, which, if it had done so, would perhaps alienate much of the rest of the population. Gregorio Canil, spokesman for WINAQ, states that the party is constructed as a “political tool for the expression of the needs of the four villages in Guatemala: Maya, Ladino, Garifuna and Xinca.” Indigenous leaders know that they must garner support from all sectors of the population in order to have a chance at victory, but they also understand that the time has come for an undeniable indigenous political presence.

Ecuador and Bolivia
The cohesion of Guatemala’s indigenous remains tragically weak when compared to that of Ecuador and Bolivia, where significant progress for the cause of native peoples has been registered. Evo Morales came into power with the ability of his party Movimiento al Socialismo’s to create a base around a common mission (the protection of coca cultivation in this instance). This made use of the political power of the indigenous and poor of Bolivia, a group that makes up a large percentage of the population. In Ecuador, the Pachakutik movement used its numbers to push for a presidential candidate and a multicultural state. Despite having lost some of its momentum, the Pachakutik movement is still a vivid example of the potential that these types of parties have, as exemplified by their ability to dethrone presidents, gather 40 percent support for their presidential candidate in 1996, and force the government to acknowledge, as in Ecuador, a multicultural state.

The Colom administration has continued in the footsteps of past administrations and would-be dictatorships by failing to live up to the guidelines established by various laws and customs on indigenous rights. Colom, the first left-leaning figure to hold the presidency since the ousting of Jacobo Arbenz’ in 1954, has shown the government his true colors when it comes to indigenous issues, with his spasmodic shift from progressive leader to one prepared to accommodate the status quo. If this is the “left-leaning” party of Guatemala, it is extremely important that the indigenous base pushes to further entrench its foothold in Guatemalan society. Without proper representation, its mission will devolve into being more about finances than about the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous.

Indigenous movements such as Menchú’s WINAQ should learn from the political movement that brought Evo Morales to power, or the Pachakutik movement in Ecuador. In Guatemala, indigenous groups already have shown their collective potential in the fight against Goldcorp and the Guatemalan government, but must now move to take the fight to the political arena. Without harnessing this, WINAQ and its like-minded political movements in other countries will retain their relatively low percentages of support. The question now is whether Guatemala’s leadership will look upon the welfare of its own citizens with as much unflinching allegiance as it does to foreign capital.

COHA would like to thank Rose Conklin on her helpful edit of the Quichua word “Winaq”