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Lessons in Resistance From La Puya, Guatemala

Last week our delegation from School of Americas Watch headed north out of Guatemala City, to San José del Golfo, for a visit to the encampment calling itself “La Puya”. Its the dry season in Guate now, and we wound our way down into ever hotter and drier terrain, with bare brown fields and leafless palo verde trees with giant orange flowers. Not long after the pavement ended and the road turned to dust, we saw the sign — “Comunidad en Resistencia”.

The space looked thrown together. A few improvised dwellings, cook shacks, and tarpaulins propped up for shade lined both sides of the road at the turn-off to a proposed  gold mine.  And yet they’ve been here, holding back a transnational mining corporation, the police, and the Guatemalan government, for nearly two years. Their story, as told to us by Antonio Reyes and other leaders, has lessons that may serve us well up north.

Beginning in 2000, the locals started noticing foreigners in the fields around San Jose de Golfo.and neighboring San Pedro Ayampuc. With all the transparency one can expect from the resource extraction industry, these workers said they were testing the soil, towards the end of improving agriculture. In fact they were prospectors from Radius Gold, a Canadian corporation. In the following years the company began buying up land from some locals, under the pretext of establishing a pineapple plantation.  By 2010, the company had begun to establish small exploratory pits, and the community started to realize what was up. On March 2, 2012, they blocked the entrance road to the area of the mine, preventing the heavy equipment from entering. They have been there ever since, standing guard in rotating 24 hr shifts.

At first the company decided to simply wait them out. They thought for sure everyone would go back to their villages for Holy Week, Semana Santa being a very big deal in Guatemala.  But the community brought their Easter celebrations and worship to the site of the blockade. On May 8, 2012, at 1:00 a.m., four hundred armed special forces confronted the 12 or 15 community members who were blocking the mine entrance by lying down in the road. They refused to move, and a phone tree went into affect.  Within a half an hour, “a miracle happened”… 2000 companeros and companeras came walking down from the fields, evading police roadblocks, to join the protest. The special forces went away.

It has not been easy, or all victories.  On June 2013, community organizer Yolanda Oqueli Veliz was shot by unidentified assailants.  This attack has not been investigated, and her assailants are still at large.  A bullet is still lodged too close to her spine to remove. The army has also brought suspected gang members with them from outside the community to La Puya, and pointed out other community leaders, to intimidate  Yet close to two years on, they’re still standing strong, and the mine has not gone into operation.

Sitting in plastic lawn chairs in the dusty road, listening to Don Antonio and others tell this story in matter-of-fact tones while eating their delicious chicken, tortillas, and elote, the question of “what can we do?” naturally comes to the fore.  Its nearly a cliche, such a reaction from we gringos newly arrived on the scene for all of half an hour, but one no less sincere and urgent for being so. Well, as my first Spanish teacher told me, after listening to me butcher the subjunctive and conditional tenses on the topic of Guatemalan history and Uncle Sam, “Go home and change your country” !

Starting with the long view, lets finally close the School of the Americas (SOA), better known as LaEscuela de las Asesinos, and renamed the WHISC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), but unchanged and unrepentant since the last time we nearly shut it down. The long list of brutal dictators and war criminals (including the current President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina) among its alumni should be reason enough, even apart from the torture and interrogation manuals once discovered in the curriculum.  (We may have to wait for the next Republican president to do so, as that tends to be the season when Democratic congresspersons rediscover their microscopic moral compasses, but I digress.) As Antonio told us, it may well be that some of the 400 special security forces who came in the night to La Puya may well have been educated at the SOA.  We won’t know anytime soon, as it is now Obama administration policy to keep the names of the students secret.  But the number of attendees from Guatemala has roughly doubled in recent years, so its not too far-fetched a possibility.

Next, let’s pressure the mine’s owners, (now Kappes, Cassiday and Associates of Reno, NV in addition to Radius Gold), to get the hell out of there. Hailing from Reno, land of the faltering snowpack, perhaps the idea that water is worth more than gold will not sound so foreign. And sadly, the situation at LaPuya is not unique: in Las Barillas, and Saquimo Setana, and across Guatemala, there are many other communities in resistance, and they too are facing harassment, false imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial killings over mining and other types of proposed resource extraction.  Calls to your senators, representatives, and the state department really can help, and are tiny yelps of solidarity.

Yet listening to the smiling, quietly confident community organizers of La Puya  made me wonder not only, “what can we do?”, but “why can’t we do this”.   Where are our communities in resistance? A few years ago, in my other life as an field biologist, I was the end recipient of some few pennies that natural gas companies had tossed to the state of Pennsylvania, in return for fragmenting the forests, pumping a proprietary mix of toxins into the aquifers, recycling the resulting radioactive wastewater into municipal sewage plants and streams, and so on. My supposed role, as, in theory, one of the good guys, was to survey state lands for rare plants in the way of the advancing frackers. All this in the wan hope that perhaps the petro-commonwealth of PA would set such areas aside for protection. I don’t know exactly how things turned out for the areas I surveyed. The abundance of orange survey flags already running through bogs, cove forests, and vernal pools did not bode well. I know I regretted taking the money. And I know that from the supposedly public forests of central PA,  to the Williamsport parking lots full of Halliburton´s F350 pickups, to the local Ruby Tuesday’s where I squeezed amongst the roustabouts up from Texas, eating my burger and surreptitiously leafing through plant manuals, I didn’t see nearly the evidence of resistance that I would have liked. Now fracking is threatening my native NY. The anti-fracking movement has been much stronger there than in PA. But it is likely to be more seriously tested soon, as the unofficial moratorium effected by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s supposed presidential ambitions can’t last forever.

I am sure I’m not the only U.S. activist to have felt such frustration and sense of  powerlessnes. For myself at least, when home in the states, hope for meaningful resistance to the ever- accelerating destruction of the planet can be hard to come by.  Listening  to endlessly equivocating NPR’s nuanced horseshit, and wondering whether Obama will eventually deign to throw what passes as a U.S. environmental movement a bone or two…one might be forgiven such frustration. They are so big, we are so small, or so we´re made to believe…

So yes, we may be forgiven such thoughts, but are not excused by them –it is important to consider that just maybe that is the exactly the bullshit that gold mine owners and gas companies would love for us to believe.  (Or as the great James Baldwin once said, “Despair is a luxury only white people can afford”.) Because of course there are already similar fights taking place all over the place, outside mainstream news or dismissed as quixotic or too radical. There are “La Puyas” in Pine Ridge South Dakota, where the Oglala Sioux are fighting the Keystone pipeline, on Algonguin land in Quebec and all over Canada with the First Nations´ Idle No More movement, among the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, as those who pick our tomatos defeat Taco Bell and other companies and earn a fairer wage, among the brave kids filling the jails with Not One More Deportation, and beyond.

So here are some lessons mentioned by our battle-tested companeros and companeros at La Puya, for US activists of all stripes.

“No religious or political distinctions. Everybody drinks water”.

“Women in front, men behind. Men are too violent, and easier for the police to provoke.”   Of course some of this advice may not translate cross-culturally, as I’m sure the US environmental movement never runs into such problems……

Don’t let yourself be divided and conquered.  After the community had rebuffed several attempts to forcibly remove them, the President invited two of them to dinner.  They refused.  All of them would go, they said, or none.  In the end they brought ten people to the meeting, while many more protested outside it. The meeting didn’t amount to much, but now they are trading letters with the President “like novios“…

Don’t negotiate away your principles.  The President had invited the head of the mining company to their meeting — folks from La Puya refused to     meet until they left.  What did they have to talk about — contaminating half the water?  Contaminating all of it half as much?  (There is naturally occurring arsenic in the area’s bedrock, leaving the water potable but near the top of the safe range for arsenic – they can’t risk releasing any more.)   I´d like to see someone try to sell La Puya’s leaders bullshit market-based solutions such as “carbon credits”.  And I´d like to see those who argue that its “just a small mine” drink from the outflow or grow crops from the tailings.

I know there’s a limit to such comparisons. Guatemala is still emerging from more then 30 years of armed conflict, and certainly the people at La Puya continue to take greater risks, and confront higher stakes, than most (but not all) activists in El Norte, as the case of brave Yoli Veliz attests. But I told one of La Puya’s about my frustration over the weak broth that characterizes much mainstream US activism, and she smiled and answered, “We’ll teach you step by step”

Less than a week after we visited La Puya, they won another victory.  The company providing the heavy equipment for mining operations decided to pull out! The mine is still a possibility, but community members are standing strong. Let’s seize their lessons and example, and unite with/ forge our own communities in resistence at home. Everybody drinks water.

Richard Ring (richardmring@gmail.com) is a field biologist, writer and activist from upstate New York. For more information on how to assist La Puya and other communities in resistance in Guatemala, please visit (and donate) at thehttp://www.guatemalasolidarityproject.org/  ,www.soaw.org, or the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission (http://www.ghrc-usa.org/).

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