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Day 4 in Guatemala - communities on the front line
After meeting the community in Peronia, we received a message that there were some people in the village of San Rafael who had been receiving threats because they were challenging the policy of a mining company who they felt were trampling over their rights. We arrived to a small village in a very beautiful area with lots of trees and green fields, surrounded by mountains... the kind of place that should be a haven of tranquility.
We went to the house of Oscar, who has been the target for a series of threats and he explained to us what had been happening.
He started by setting out how we, as humans, resist or challlenge something that is unknown to us or that has not been explained properly. It is our nature, he explained.
Recently a mining company has been given a licence to mine for gold, lead, silver and zinc in the area, and already the company has started the preliminary work. The official mining will not start for another year but already some miners have started to move into the area, and their presence and the increase in demand for accommodation is forcing up prices for locals and causing tensions.
The big concern for Oscar and Roberto, two of the leaders of the newly set up Committee for the Defence of Life, is that the company has never publicly explained what they plan to do, what processes they plan to use to extract the minerals and as a result it is difficult for the people to assess what the risks are for the community.
The company maintains that it is operating within the law - it has made an application, been granted a licence and is therefore entirely operating within the law. One of the conditions for being granted the mining licence is, however, that the company has to carry out an environmental impact study - which the company did.
The company published a 900 page environmental impact study on the basis of which it was granted the licence. But part of the process should have been a consultation with the local community who have to respond within 20 days. The study was in fact published in the capital and available for only three days for examination, and none of the locals were made aware of it.
The locals were expected within this very short space of time to comment on a 900 page complex, technical document. Eventually the committee became aware of the document and commissioned three experts to analyse the report. The report itself was so dense and technical that it took these experts three months to analyse it properly. They found 10 substantive errors on the basis of which they felt that the licence should never have been granted and on the basis of which all further work on the project should be halted until such time as the community have been properly consulted.
Oscar and Roberto have said that if the consultation is properly carried out with full disclosure and after which the majority of the community are in favour of the mining project going ahead then they will abide by that decision. No such consultation has taken place as of yet, however, despite claims to the contrary by the company. Tahoe, the company involved, has not only said that the consultation took place but that it was favourable to the project. According to the local community no such consultation has taken place.
In the meantime Oscar, Roberto and the other members of the Commitee have been subjected to a campaign of slander, vilification and smears. They have been accused of terrorism, kidnapping and of usurping public functions. Both Oscar and Roberto have been followed and the intimidations have reached such a height that Oscar is concerned for the safety of his family.
He had been taking part in a peaceful protest near where the preliminary work for the mine is being done and when we went home there were 40 policemen around his house. He was charged with driving under the influence of both alcohol and drugs, and with causing a public disturbance. The same policemen had been standing only a few yards away during the demo and could have arrested him then if they had needed to. He was released after 45 minutes.
Oscar has received a series of threats and messages from third parties too, warning him not to meddle with these people as they are dangerous. Recently, he has also received more explicit threats, warning him that if he does not give up this work, he will regret it.
Just the day before we arrived he received six calls from the same number in one hour. The company, Tahoe, says they are environmentally-friendly and water-friendly but the local community say that the local river is already full of industrial polution from the preliminary work.
According to Oscar, the company writes one thing, says another thing and does something entirely different.
In one of the latest developments, Oscar's wife has lost her local teaching job and has been transferred to a school much farther away. The officials concerned have stated publicly that this was because of her outspoken support for her husband.
The committee simply want the public consultation to take place in an open and transparent way. As one man said - they think because they are rich and powerful that they can deceive us all.
While the struggle in San Rafael is now in full swing, 15 miles away in San Juan Bosco, the community have just found out that again, without any reference to them, a mining licence has been granted for their area. They have already seen the impact of mining in other areas and have heard of the threats against members of the Committee.
We are invited to attend a meeting in San Rafael and when we get there, there are more that 50 people of all ages, all of whom are demanding information and to know what is going on.
Mary (Lawlor) speaks about the role of the community and that of human rights defenders and the importance of holding together and supporting each other as a community. It is very clear that the local leaders are very much aware of the threats against Oscar and Roberto and are worried about what might be coming their way.
They are very welcoming and tell us what it means for them to have any degree of international support. After the meeting we drive in torrential rain down the bumpy, unpaved road, back to the safety of the city.
The words "on the front line" take on a very literal meaning after the meeting tonight.