Day 8: La Puya, Site of Communities in Resistance to Mining Project

Since March 2012, the people of San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc have successfully managed to maintain their peaceful nonviolent protest, in the form of a human roadblock at the mine’s entrance, despite constant attacks and lies from the federal government, the state municipality, and the American company, Kappes Cassiday & Associates. The struggle began in November of 2011 when the Guatemalan government handed over 20 sq. km. to the mining company without prior community consultation. Angered by the complete disregard for the people living in the area, local environmental leaders demanded more information concerning the effects of the mining. The information eventually discovered revealed contradictory accounts concerning the effect the mining would have on the communities. Located alongside the dry corridor where water access is already limited to once every other week in some communities, the mine would not only drink up this scarce resource, but also most likely pollute what natural streams and rivers that would remain. Though these arguments come from the Environmental Impact Statement, Kappes Cassiday has found it much easier to ignore these truths.

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Tono, a leading community activist, shares the story of the resistance with us.

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“We are all San Jose del Golfo”

 The result of the government and Kappes Cassidy’s actions has been an eleven-month gridlock. Without access to the road on which the human roadblock now operates, Kappes Cassiday has been unable to begin construction of the mine. As the company’s money drains away, their frustration grows leading to increasingly dangerous confrontations. The first attack was made on May 8th, 2012 when 400 riot police pulled in at 1:00 a.m. with twenty-seven pieces of heavy machinery in an attempt to break the roadblock. The last and most recent attack came on December 7, when an estimated 1000 riot police came in from all over Guatemala to break the roadblock. As the women and children lay face down on the ground however, the police were unable to pass. The months in between these confrontations have been filled with smear campaigns, harassment, and even an assassination attempt on Yolanda Oqueli Veliz, a leader of the roadblock. The stress of the confrontations has divided families and pitted friends and neighbors against each other. We witnessed this tension when a local woman threatened Yolanda just after hearing Tono Reyes purposely acknowledge the existence of spies amongst the roadblock participants during our meeting. The altercation occurred as she was driving in to meet us. As she spoke with tears in her eyes, she played with her son who was probably too young at the time of her attempted assassination to ever know his mother was even hurt.

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Hearing from community leader Yolanda Oquelí

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Many different groups have created banners for resistance to show their support for the communities

Seeing the effects of Kappes Cassidy’s mining operation on a personal level was extremely moving. Over the course of the past three and a half years, I’ve taken numerous classes that discussed themes like neoliberalism and subalternity. These are terms are so broad and so loaded that they sometimes seem superfluous to me.  However, actually seeing the effects on a micro level provided a unique and valuable perspective that I am sure will stay with me for quite a while.

Our group made this banner to show our support for the communities in resistance: "Together in solidarity."

Our group made this banner to show our support for the communities in resistance: “Together in solidarity.”

Day 7: Nueva Esperanza

By Anna Aspenson

I wish Nueva Esperanza offered summer courses in Achí, the Maya language native to this part of Guatemala.  The welcoming and enthusiastic director, students, and staff make you want to stay and learn.  Nueva Esperanza, an indigenous school just outside of Rabinal, is an awe-inspiring addition to Baja Verapaz.  They make historical memory and cultural preservation a key part of their mission.  This is crucial in order for the children to learn about the unbelievable injustices their communities have faced and to keep their culture and language alive despite these obstacles.  The school also trains them to be community leaders through group discussion and analysis.

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The students performed an elaborate Maya Achí dance for us.


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However, what I will remember most is painting rocks with them for their path while teaching each other English and Achí words and joking with a very giggly group of girls.  Nueva Esperanza is vastly different than schools in United States many ways.  Yet going there felt somewhat like visiting your old middle school (but a lot less awkward).

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Later in the day we talked about the director and how he seemed so in touch with the students and what they were learning.  He seemed more like a teacher than the authoritarian principals we are used to. I think all US schools would benefit from a school environment of inclusivity and collaborative learning.  All of the students were from poor indigenous families but their backgrounds and communities were very diverse.  Nueva Esperanza allows them to learn from each other through conversation.  American schools, especially at younger ages, try to ignore student’s differences.  Curriculums bombard children with information, instead of encouraging them to think about it.  It gives me hope that even a very poor community can include critical thinking and community involvement in their school.  How the kids learn and collaborate will eventually grow into inter-neighborhood collaboration and leadership so that they can develop and thrive.


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Day 6: Rabinal

By Sammi LeMaster

Children are amazing. They’re untainted, innocent, and naïve, and sometimes they can bring light out of what seem to be the most depressing situations.

For instance, when visiting the model village of Pacux, the young girls were extremely amused by my blonde hair and blue eyes. At first, a few of them muttered to each other and pointed at me, saying I looked like a Barbie doll. Then more joined in, until the entire group of kids was chanting “Bar-bie! Bar-bie!” at me. I have never blushed so hard in my entire life, but I was filled with warmth and excitement.

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While the children were adorable, their living conditions were not. Pacux was a model village created for communities to be displaced to. Unlike a refugee camp, Pacux was not created to accommodate already displaced people, but instead was created so the government had a place to displace communities to. It was created during the armed conflict for the good of the government and army, not for the good of the civilians.

Not only were these people forced off of their land, which was their source of food, water, firewood, and more, but they were then thrown into a crammed space of poorly made houses. Back in Río Negro, where most of the inhabitants used to live, the houses were very spaced apart. These communities that had lived on large plots of land for centuries, were now put in houses that were squished together with the distinct purpose of taking up as little space as possible. Not only that, but because they had no land around their houses, they had no way to grow the food or other products that they were accustomed to. They now had to buy firewood to keep their homes warm and find jobs in the city to support their families instead of living off of the land, as they used to.

Even worse, when displaced, the community was promised free electricity. Initially, the houses would link together so they collectively would pay a small amount for all of the electricity. After the electrical company realized the community was sharing electricity to lower costs, they installed meters in every house. They claimed that the inhabitants had stolen a large amount of electricity and had to pay for all of that “stolen electricity,” even though they had initially told them electricity would be free. Luckily, due to outside pressures, the company dropped its claim to force the community to pay, but the inhabitants still have to pay fees for what they use today.
While this may not seem like much: paying for electricity, water, food, this is a big and negative change for people that have been living very well off of their land for centuries and do not make much at the jobs they work at in the city.

However, to these children, this wasn’t a place of suffering. This was their home: their personal playground and safe place. Even in dark places, they find light.

Day 5: On the Road

By Amanda Sweet

Discoteca Pavel. That’s all I can say about our hours spent inside of that 13 person van.

There was more than a variety of music when it came to the soundtrack to our trips. The songs would go from opera to techno to Spanish rap. The different sounds, and the cultures and ideas that they represented, could not have been more perfect. Although they didn’t seem to fit together at first, they made the car rides interesting…just like our trip. Every participant was different; we each had our own backgrounds, histories, preconceived notions, expectations, and hopes. But this is what made us a great delegation. Because we all saw things from different perspectives, we were able to open each other’s eyes to ideas that they never considered before. Meeting with the communities was another example of the benefits that diversity provides.

Day 4: Río Negro

This morning we got an early start to the day, and had a wonderful breakfast of scrambled eggs and black beans prepared by the women of Río Negro.  Over breakfast we discussed our journey for the day: a three-kilometer hike to the top of a very well known mountain in the Río Negro community.  Though the weather was beautiful and our guides were overwhelmingly amicable, it was tough to stay in high spirits.  This hike was not an attempt to prove our athleticism, or to take in the beautiful landscapes of the Guatemalan mountainside; this hike was an emotional journey through the historical memory of the massacres of Pak’oxom.  We walked in the footsteps of 177 women and children who were forcibly taken from their homes and marched to the very peak of this mountain. March 13, 1982 – the day soldiers showed up in the community – marked exactly one month after the 55 men and 19 women of Río Negro had been summoned to a nearby village massacred there. Those remaining in the community were just beginning to piece together that their loved ones would not be returning.


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Our guides on the day of the hike, childhood survivors of the Pak’oxom massacre, stopped us along the way to tell the story of their mothers, siblings and neighbors.  Each time we stopped chills ran down our spines as the sun burnt our skin; it was impossible not to become emotionally involved in the horrific details of this all too real story Our minds racing with questions and confusion as our hearts cried with sadness, a few hours passed and we had reached the top.  This very point was where the 177 women and children believed they were going to find food and water; all 177 dehydrated and the children cried from hunger. Our guide told us of the separation of young teenage girls and the rest of the group.  We could see the tears filling in his eyes as he verbalized the horrific events of that very evening, just over 30 years ago. These teenage girls were taken down to a nearby stream and viciously raped until they died, while the older women were slaughtered with machetes.  The children screamed with fear, yet the soldiers and Civil Patrols had no hesitation when taking their lives.  Our group sat in silence when the story came to an end and we realized we were standing above the site of a mass grave, a site where so many innocent lives were so violently taken. 

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Looking up from this gravesite, it was then when I realized we were on top of the world.  Rolling mountain tops went on for miles, as a recently dammed river sat silent.  It was tough to balance the devastation of the story with the incredible actuality of our location.  This was one of the most emotionally confusing experiences I think many of us had ever encountered.  We were somewhere amazing, surrounded by wonderful perseverant people in one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet it was impossible to be happy.  It was impossible to forget that these families were so tragically torn apart.

Day 3: Chixoy Dam

By Nellie Mitchell

Today we left Guatemala City and headed towards Río Negro, the remote community where we’d spend the next couple of days. Throughout the drive we passed through various ecosystems, seeing for the first time the vast diversity of Guatemala as we climbed through breathtaking mountains.

Of the many images of the day, including the bizarrely comforting cracker-barrel style restaurant where we stopped for lunch, the first sight of the Chixoy Dam stands out above all else. As we drove down a winding dirt road, the naturalistic beauty of the Guatemalan countryside was abruptly interrupted by the monstrous hydroelectric dam looming ahead. To get to the dam, we had to pass through a gated checkpoint with armed guards. The next step was to drive up the dam. As our van zig-zagged up the structure and those afraid of heights held their breath, the history of the place suddenly felt so real.

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Chixoy Dam

Río Negro used to be a vibrant area, with several communities farming off the land and fishing from the Chixoy River. However, in the late 1970s a national company initiated a project to build a hydroelectric dam on the river. Like almost all other development projects in Guatemala, the communities was not consulted. Peaceful protection of their ancestral land was met with violent oppression, including five massacres in the region. The community of Río Negro fell victim to a fatal combination: deep racism indigenous people, the height of the internal armed conflict during which the government adopted a Scorched Earth policy to wipe out rural villages, and the unyielding power of economic development and wealth. In Río Negro, as in many other rural indigenous communities, the government used the justification of counterinsurgency against guerrilla fighters but then indiscriminately killed women and children and destroyed entire villages.

Today, the area is not at all what it used to be. On the one side of the dam, the river seems  meek and polluted. On the other side is a deep reservoir, with the water unnaturally still and the farmable land flooded far below the surface. Though a handful of families have returned to Río Negro to rebuild the community, they still struggle against many of these same forces in gaining recognition, reparations, and the resources they need.  The boat ride through the reservoir to the community is hauntingly beautiful, with a tragic and destructive history lingering in the quiet landscape.

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The reservoir created by the dam.

And then we all piled into this boat.

We all piled into this boat. For the communities, their boats are a source of great pride and essential to their livelihood as they provide mobility and an opportunity to fish.

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Breathtaking views from Río Negro.

Day 2: San Antonio Las Trojes, San Juan Sacatepéquez

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Overlooking the community from the church’s bell tower.

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Community leaders express gratitude for being able to tell their side of the story of their peaceful non-violent resistance to the cement company.

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This was the third AU group to visit San Juan Sacatepequez.

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“The community should be consulted, ILO 169″ and “We want instituions, not the brigade.” These signs refer to the cement company’s failure to consult affected communities and a military base that was recently established just outside of the community.

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We enjoyed a delicious stew prepared by women of the community.

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