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Last week Front Line Defenders Head of Communications, Jim Loughran, travelled to Guatemala for a meeting of national and international organisations meeting to discuss the deteriorating security situation for human rights defenders in the country. The following is the second of two blogs consisting of his diary entries over the course of the week.
Read part one here
Last week Front Line Defenders Head of Communications, Jim Loughran, travelled to Guatemala for a meeting of national and international organisations meeting to discuss the deteriorating security situation for human rights defenders in the country. The following is the first of two blogs consisting of his diary entries over the course of the week.
Read part two here
Once again Yuri Melini, Rafael Maldonado and their colleagues in the Centro de Acción Legal, Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS) are the subjects of a smear campaign in the Guatemalan media orchestrated by former members of the military and their supporters who seem to view any attempt to highlight the environmental impact of mining, logging or large scale agricultural monoculture projects as being part of an international communist conspiracy.
I have met Yuri Melini and Rafael Maldonado on several occasions and last year I travelled to Guatemala to see their work at first hand. CALAS works to highlight the impact on local communities of mining, logging and agriculture projects, which devastate the land, pollute the water and destroy the environment, in which communities have lived and worked for generations. Projects which are developed in the interests of the ruthless ambition of large international corporations and their local partners.
Seeing these articles suggests that to question the legitimacy of such projects is to become some kind of criminal who should be dealt with.
Today was a 5am start as we flew up to Flores in the Petén region of Guatemala to visit the national park and see exactly why the protection of the environment is such a vital issue here and why it has inspired such total dedication from Yuri (Melini).
It's one of those windy-up planes with propellers and there is a short intake of breath when we see it on the runway. "The Adventures of Biggles" come to mind!
It's a short, one hour flight and we fly in over pristine forest, huge lakes and finally reach what looks like a miniature version of Venice, the island town of Flores.
It is much hotter here than in Guatemala City and by the time we reach the hotel for breakfast we are already in a lather. Sitting on the terrace of the hotel, looking out over the lake it is hard to believe that this semi-paradise is also a place where human rights defenders have been attacked and killed and where, according to one source, many people don't need to work because they have made their money trading in stolen archaeological artefacts.
We drive up to the access point into the park and there, because we are with Yuri (Melini) we are ushered through as guests of the Director.
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.
On Sunday we went to a very poor area called Peronia where the conditions are dreadful - tiny one room dwellings, intermittent electricity, often scarcity of water and poor sewerage. Yet amid this desolation, human rights defenders had successfully closed down a sand mine which had been operating there.
The mine had covered the whole area in a fine dust, children were getting sick, clothes could not be washed, the loud noise from the machines was there day and night, the food had to be always wrapped. The sand polluted the river and thus the town water supply.
They decided to fight "but to fight money is a very difficult thing to do". The threats started and tear gas was used but the thinking was...
... "we might run out of water; we might run out of forest; we might run out of life".
It was the women who were more active in the beginning - Christi de Rivera described how she took her children aged 4 and 6 and sat down with a few others on the road, blocking the trucks, despite the fact that she was afraid that something might happen to her and her children.
This evening I am writing from my hotel in Guatemala City, where my mission partner Annalisa Mauro, of the International Land Coalition, and I have just been making our own dinner.