Resistance When Land and Life Are in Peril: Guatemalan Human Rights Defender Speaks in Canada

Lolita Chávez says it is love of life that motivates her to risk her own as an outspoken Maya K'iche' activist against racism, mining, and hydroelectric project developments in the highlands of Guatemala. As a result of her leadership in Guatemala's Indigenous movement, she is a frequent target of threats, accusations and attempts to label her as working against the national interest, as some sort of enemy of the state.

In Guatemala, as in many other parts of Latin America today, Lolita's story is all too common. Indigenous people, farmers, environmentalists and journalists who speak out against mining projects and policies are paying a steep price.

As Ottawa-based organizations with working relationships across the Americas, we observe that such activists are increasingly targets of smear campaigns aimed at slandering them as delinquents, saboteurs or terrorists. They are also frequently subject to unfounded accusations and dilated legal processes, from which they are often released without charge, but nonetheless made to endure months, even years of burdensome stress.

In the worst cases, they are targets of further violence and even assassination. Recent reports from Peace Brigades International, Amnesty International, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders support this perception.

At the root of various cases, in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, we see aggressive industry and state promotion of the interests of Canadian mining companies.

In Guatemala, Goldcorp played a direct role in accusations against eight women living near its Marlin mine in the department of San Marcos. One of the women cut the power supply to the mine because of her frustration over the electrical post having been erected on her property without adequate information and after her complaints were repeatedly ignored. For four years, these rural, indigenous women lived with warrants out for their arrest. As Goldcorp grew to become one of the largest gold producers in the world, with the Marlin mine as one of its top profit makers, these women lived in turmoil until a Guatemalan women's movement successfully fought to have the charges dropped in 2012.

During the past year, we have also observed attempts to criminalize activists trying to hold a consultation process about Tahoe Resources' proposed silver mine in the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores, south of Guatemala City. Tahoe Resources is a company closely related to Goldcorp. Now, instead of one municipal-wide consultation, local activists are undertaking twenty-six community-level plebiscites over the mine. This is a creative response to a difficult situation, but requires a much greater expenditure of energy and resources.

It is precisely this, the process of isolating, wearing down and requiring inordinate outlay of time, energy, money and legal supports from activists and their allies that is central to the strategy of stigmatization and criminalization of dissent. It affects the individuals involved, has serious ramifications for their families and friends, and raises the stakes for others who might otherwise support their cause. This is also true when international solidarity organizations start to get named in smear campaigns that accuse them of manipulating social and environmental justice movements. We have seen this happening in Guatemala, in Canada and in other countries.

This time last year, Canadian authorities began blaming U.S. charitable foundations for manipulating indigenous and environmental organizations opposed to the Northern Gateway Pipeline. This is just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to increased surveillance of such organizations by CSIS and the RCMP. At the same time we see efforts by Canadian authorities to paint activities to protect community wellbeing, fight for climate justice, and preserve water supplies as being contrary to Canadian values and against the national interest. It’s a slippery slope and one we're worried about.

Seeing this trend taking place in Canada and in Guatemala, we look forward to Lolita's visit to Ottawa next week as an opportunity to discuss the criminalization of peaceful dissent in defence of land and life.

Lolita has frequently heard family members and neighbours tell her to be quiet because they fear reprisals. But neither this, nor demonization from local authorities and businesspeople, has curbed her activism or her resolve. On the contrary, she has made a conscious decision to continue to defend her people's right to dignity and a healthy environment. In the process of building solidarity with Guatemala, we look forward to taking courage and inspiration from her struggle.

We are proud to be among the organizers and sponsors of 'Defending Dissent When Life and Land are in Peril,' a performance and panel discussion on Tuesday March 5, from 7-9pm at the Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly St Ottawa. For more information see the event page here.
 
The Americas Policy Group of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation
The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group
MiningWatch Canada
Peace Brigades International – Canada
Projet Accompagnement Québec-Guatemala

This oped first published on rabble.ca here.