by Nancy Sabas
With the permission of the author, we are republishing a blog essay by Nancy Sabas on Indigenous Mam Mayan women resisting mining operations in their community of San Miguel Ixtahuacán in the highlands of Guatemala. The essay originally appeared on the Latin American Advocacy Blog in June 2015 and is republished here with additional reference notes for readers.
Was it you who sent the miners?
They violate the womb of Mother Earth
They take the gold, destroying the hills.
One gram of blood is worth more than a thousand kilos of gold.
What about my people?
And you, my God, where are you hiding?
Fear paralyzes us
My people are sold and they do not realize it.
-Portion of a song written by the Parish of San Miguel Ixtahuacán.
A few weeks ago, I organized a learning tour for North American participants to discuss the mining industry in Guatemala, On the tour, we visited the department of San Marcos and surrounding communities that deal with this problem.
Mining operations in Guatemala are not a recent issue. In 1998, two years after the signing of the peace agreement following a harsh civil war, the Foreign Investment Law removed the restrictions on trade with Guatemala, which attracted transnational companies to enter the country. Among the various companies, Goldcorp, a Canadian extractive company with high interest in exploiting gold, stands out.
After a license granted by the Guatemalan government, the Marlin mine, operated by Montana Exploradora, a subsidiary of Goldcorp, began its operations in the community of San Miguel in western Guatemala. This was done without prior community consultation, even though it is an obligatory requirement of various international and national laws.¹ In 2009, Goldcorp stopped appearing in the Canadian Jantzi Social Index for ethical investment due to the controversial use of cyanide in their operations.² Currently the Marlin mine is considered the most lucrative mine that Goldcorp owns worldwide.
During our trip, we visited the community and interviewed community members to hear their side of the story. I met Crisanta Pérez, a Mayan Mam woman with 6 children who lives with determination, loyal to her philosophy of caring for Mother Earth and defending her territory. Crisanta resists and denounces Goldcorp’s environmental and community violations. Despite facing intimidation, 14 arrest warrants and criminalization for her work in defense of her territory and human rights, Crisanta stands firm. When we asked her how the resistance movement in San Miguel was born, she explained, ”There are many men who work as miners in the company. Our community is divided in opinions, and although some of the men disagree with the mining operations in the community, they do not take a position because they are working there. It is for this reason that the resistance movement in San Miguel against mining started from the women.¨
As an indigenous woman, Crisanta faces various levels of oppression. However, she resists the roles imposed by a patriarchal hegemonic system, and has become a public figure, with a voice, empowered with knowledge about her rights and equipped to assertively demand the vindication of environmentally sustainable traditional practices, in line with the Mayan worldview. In addition, Crisanta tirelessly denounces the massive exploitation of resources.
¨Transnational companies are destroying the most valuable thing we have, Mother Earth,¨ Crisanta explained during our visit.
With her focus from the periphery, Crisanta defies the ruling capitalist logic that sacrifices the sacred elements (Mother Earth) and whose goal is the strict accumulation of wealth. The position of inequality that Crisanta has, along with other Mam women, enables her to integrate a more holistic perspective in line with her worldview and allows her to critique the mining operations from a Maya Mam light. These women, based on their condition of oppression, have the ability to see with clarity from the base. This viewpoint enables them to understand the world from their ancestral worldview, as well as the reality of the mestizo (the Guatemalan State), and the dominant white (Goldcorp). This understanding contrasts the power groups’ viewpoint who understand and legitimize their knowledge as the only valid form of knowing. The women have become privileged epistemic subjects, for not being ¨contaminated¨ with only one way of knowledge that comes from an advantageous social position.
A member of the Catholic parish, an indigenous Mam woman facing towards the Marlin mine. Photo credit: Matthew Kok. Used with permission of author.
The case of mining in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, its environmental impact and the criminalization of women activists, can be understood from an ecofeminist perspective. As Vandana Shiva, in her book Stolen Harvest states: ¨For more than two centuries, patriarchal, eurocentric, and anthropocentric scientific discourse has treated women, other cultures, and other species as objects. Experts have been treated as the only legitimate knowers. For more than two decades, feminist movements, Third World and indigenous people’s movements, and ecological and animal-rights movements have questioned this objectification and denial of subjecthood.¨ The Guatemalan state and the mining company, driven by their focus on production, consumption and accumulation of wealth fail to respect the sovereignty and spirituality of indigenous peoples. The Mayan worldview is trampled by a mercantilist system that does not recognize the land as sacred, positioning man/production over woman /nature.
Crisanta and the anti-mining resistance group of San Miguel are reluctant to embrace the imposition of a clearly western and patriarchal “development” that despises life in the periphery and legitimizes abuse from its position of power. On the contrary, the women demand ¨the good life,¨ which according to their worldview and ancestral knowledge, consists in the search for harmony and balance with Mother Earth and all forms of existence. This philosophy of living naturally disapproves all forms of accumulation and exploitation that would alter the harmonious coexistence and quality of life of other beings.
In 2008, the Pastoral Commission of Peace and Ecology (COPAE) of San Marcos along with other organizations doing independent studies presented their detections of arsenic, aluminum, copper, manganese, and other metals in some water sources near the Marlin mine. The poor management of the mine waste and their presence in natural sources of water is a good explanation for the increase in gastrointestinal and skin diseases among the neighbors of the nearby communities.
During my visit, as we were interviewing members of the Parish of the San Miguel community, we talked about how racism was politically used to justify these atrocities. A parishioner tearfully explained, abuse is legitimized under the premise that ¨the Indians are dirty and unhygienic.¨ The hierarchy of race or gender is illogical and cannot be interpreted if it does not fall within a base structure with political interest. This is a clear example, where the discrediting and discrimination of a population is aligned with neoliberalist interest.
¨On the threshold of the third millennium, liberation strategies must ensure that human freedom is not achieved at the expense of other species, that freedom of one race or gender is not based on the increasing subjugation of other races and genders. In each of these struggles for freedom, the challenge is to include the other.¨ –Vandana Shiva
For me, Crisanta´s resistance is a miracle born from an oppressed community. The same system that abused and excluded Mam women, now is the same that caused the conditions for them to become creators of new knowledge outside of a dominant perspective. The heart and unbreakable spirit of these women defending their territory and returning to their ancestral knowledge, translates their struggles against the violation of the land to their female bodies and vice versa. They are women who cling to their indigenous philosophy of the ¨Good Life,¨ seeking harmony and sustainable living between people and nature peacefully. Under that view, Crisanta and the women of San Miguel Ixtahuacán rethink, deconstruct and reconstruct themselves.
Send a letter to your congressmen to ensure that ensure that Canadian oil, mining and gas companies live up to international human rights, labour and environmental standards:
1. S. James Anaya, “Preliminary Note on the Application of the Principle of Consultation with Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala and the Case of the Marlin Mine, ” UN Human Rights Council Report A/HRC/15/37/App. 8 (July 8, 2010), http://unsr.jamesanaya.org/special-reports/preliminary-note-on-the-application-of-the-principle-of-consultation-with-indigenous-peoples-in-guatemala-and-the-case-of-the-marlin-mine-2010
2. Jantzi Research Client Alert (2008), https://goldcorpoutofguatemala.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/jantziresearch-alert-080430-goldcorp-final.pdf
3. Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, (Boston: South End Press, 2000).
Nancy Sabas, originally from Honduras, currently lives in Guatemala as a exchange coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee. She has a degree in Business Management and is a current student in a feminist studies certification course provided by Ixchel women´s collective in Guatemala City.