Gold mines can be fought in many ways—with consumer action, with legal challenges, with protests. For more than two years, the people living near the El Tambor mine in Guatemala did it by forming a human roadblock.
Their marathon-like protest began on March 1, 2012. According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), an NGO, that was the day that local resident Estela Reyes parked her car in the road leading to the mine and refused to move. Reyes and other community members didn’t want the mine, still getting started, to open. Studies showed that the mine would suck the arid region dry, consuming as much water daily as a local family used in a year. It would harm the air quality, damage flora and fauna, and potentially leave behind a toxic legacy for generations. There also had been no meaningful consultation with the community.
That was only the beginning. The next day, other local residents joined Reyes, blocking the entrance to the mine. Gradually, community members from the towns of San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, started to maintain the blockade in shifts. Tents were set up along the dirt road, banners were hung, and organizers hosted speeches, press conferences, and concerts. Despite repeated attempts by anti-riot police to evict them, the mine blockade (which came to be known as “La Puya,” meaning “a thorn in the side”) held firm. The mine was unable to receive needed machinery—until two weeks ago.
On the morning of May 23, about 300 elite Guatemalan police officers showed up at the protestors’ encampment. As the protestors sang and read from Bibles, the officers sprayed tear gas canisters. More than 20 people were injured and the protestors were evicted. The mine owners managed to deliver machinery that the mine will need to open. But the community is determined to fight on.
Oscar Morales and the El Escobal Mine
Many communities around the world have protested mines. But the amazing story of La Puya brings into sharp relief an important question: what could be so bad about a mine that people would be willing to create a human blockade and throw themselves in front of riot police?
I got some insight into that question at an event last week in Washington, DC hosted by the GHRC and a few other groups. Oscar Morales, a Guatemalan activist, was on hand to talk about his own community’s struggle against a different mine: the El Escobal silver mine in southeast Guatemala. The El Escobal mine opened last year and is already one of the largest silver mines in the world.
One point that quickly became clear at the event is that more than one community in Guatemala is battling against mining interests. (Besides community resistance to the El Tambor gold mine and the El Escobal silver mine, there’s been strong community opposition to the Marlin gold mine west of Guatemala City.) Moreover, the struggle against these mines is very much wrapped up in Guatemala’s tragic history: the long struggle of indigenous people to preserve their autonomy; the gap in wealth between rich and poor in Guatemala; the historic distrust that many Latin Americans feel for the United States; and Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended only in 1996 and led to the death of about 200,000 people.
The fierceness of community opposition to these mines (all owned by companies based in the United States and Canada) has a lot to do with this past. Mining disputes are another arena in which Guatemalans are fighting some of the same battles they have fought for generations. But the strong opposition also reflects something else—a desire to resist exploitation while breaking out of old patterns. Most mine opponents are deeply committed to the idea of nonviolence and are troubled when police and mining companies resort to violence.
That violence has been getting worse. Last year, security personnel at the El Escobal mine shot and wounded six people protesting outside the mine’s gates. Afterwards, the Guatemalan government declared a state of emergency in the region, sending in 4,000 troops. In April, a father and teenage daughter who were active in campaigning against the mine were shot. (The girl was killed and her father seriously injured.) In the face of this violence, anti-mining groups have cultivated a philosophy of nonviolent resistance. The group opposing the El Escobal mine, led by Morales, calls itself “Committee in Defense of Life and Peace.”
But if Guatemala’s history helps explain the passion of the protestors, as well their tactics, another factor became clear to me from listening to Morales speak. The community leader began his slide presentation by showing a photo of just how close the El Escobal mine is to the center of his town, San Rafael Las Flores—just two kilometers. He also showed photos of how the mine’s pools of toxic waste are mere meters from farms and houses.
Morales’s message was simple: his community opposes the mine because it is ruining their home. Indeed, community members have protested the mine by holding signs saying: “En San Rafael Las Flores y mi casa, la mina no pasa.” (In San Rafael las Flores and my home, the mine doesn’t pass.”) Morales is himself a dairy farmer and cheese-maker whose family has lived in San Rafael since 1860.
Although Morales’s opposition to the mine is very personal and very local, he needs international help. Global forces are wrecking his home, but global forces can help save it. The jewelry industry and jewelry consumers should help him by refusing to buy precious metals from mines that operate without community consent.
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