Sunday, December 18, 2011

Postcards from the edge: Communities in resistance to mining

The mountains are shrouded in mist, and a very light touch of moisture in the air. You can't even quite call it a drizzle, just heavy damp mist, that barely kisses one's cheeks with dampness. I am high in the mountains of the department of San Marcos, in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, in the aldea of Maquivil, at the headquarters of one of the key groups involved in the resistance of mining.. the Asociación para el Desarollo Integral de S. Miguel Ixtahuacán, known as ADISMI (Association for the Integral Development of SMI). Right now I am watching the director of the group, wrapped up in several layers of clothing, his head covered in a stocking cap (it is cold inside the offices, as the building is made of concrete blocks, with all the charm of a high school gym), trying to get his computer and printer talking to each other. Now he seems to have succeeded on the third or fourth try, and then we are going to talk a bit about community radio and the work of the group.

I came up here with my friends Dania and Matt, who are touring the country showing a film that Matt made about some peasant farmers in Brazil, part of the landless movement (Movimiento de Trabajadores Sin Terreno, or MST), who set off on bicycles to find non-transgenic seeds -- a journey of 10,000 km through Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.  I decided to help them find places to screen it as they wanted to show it in rural communities, so I worked through my network of community radio people. There is a radio station here, and I had met two of the sweetest young men imaginable at the Encounter of Community Radios back in August who were from the radio station here -- Noe and Oswaldo. They are also as cute as can be, and I have to stop myself from just squeezing their faces and pinching their cheeks when I see them, they are just that adorable. Oswaldo (who is on the left) is 19 but looks about 14; Noe (on the right) is 31 but looks about 20.  We have stayed in touch via Facebook, and they have been asking me (mostly Noe; Oswaldo, for reasons I will explain later, has been offline for a while) when I was going to come to San Miguel (I will abbreviate it as SMI for now).  I had wanted to come here because of the mine: this is the municipality where the Canadian mining company Goldcorp runs an infamous (in Guatemala, and in anti-mining circles) mine called the Mina Marlin, through a subsidiary known as Montana -- their slogan is "Montana exploradora de Guatemala" (explorer of Guatemala).

Walking to the screening
The mining operations have continued in the face of community opposition and legal orders to cease. Before the presidential campaign started in earnest, the radio airwaves were full of ads touting the benefits of mining and the benevolence of the mining company. I have commented upon these ads earlier, I think, so I won't repeat that fully here. One of the more recent ads has a series of voices, each proclaiming the person's occupation. "I am a doctor." "I am  a teacher." And after each has announced him or herself, then the voices repeat again, "And I am a miner." "And I am a miner." "And I am a miner." The idea being that all of the jobs and social projects in the mining region are paid for by the mine.  It's a bit nauseating, if one knows the truth about what the mining operations have brought to these communities: contamination of the water, sicknesses, loss of traditional subsistence agriculture.

So, I have long wanted to come up here, but wasn't sure how I would manage it in terms of time, as my days are running out and the amount of unfinished work seems to be increasing. When Dania asked me to help arrange screenings, I contacted Noe and he told me that I needed to write directly to the organization, ADISMI, that sponsored the radio station, and within a few days I received a positive response. It took a little bit of juggling about the dates, as I had put out feelers to other people and it seemed at one point that everyone wanted the same days for the screenings. Although I could not go to all the screenings, I decided to select a few -- mostly in areas that I had wanted to visit but hadn't, and so Friday night found me driving like a bit of a maniac to get to San Marcos, where the Radio Universitaria FM (a community radio station run by the students at the Universidad de San Carlos) sponsored a screening in the Parque Central, the main plaza of the town. My plan was to arrive after the screening, as I had already seen the film, and hang out for the night and then accompany them to SMI.
Anti-mining activists Noe and Javier
So, here we are.... in the belly of the beast, as it were.  The mining company has bought off so many people and threatened so many others that the community has become quite divided. As Noe told us today in the car, parents against children, neighbors against neighbors, husband against wife, and community against community.  We arrived mid-afternoon (everyone told us 1-1/2 hours from San Marcos but it took 2) and met with Javier, the coordinator of the organization. We thought we were screening the film once yesterday at 5, but he told us there were two screenings planned, one for Saturday and one for Sunday.  And the screening was not at ADISMI's headquarters but off in a private home in a community. So we set off, squeezing 5 people and a screen into a compact car (we left my pick up in San Marcos and traveled up here in one car). We had to go about 20 minutes away from the center, in a very rural community.

 We couldn't easily find the house, as Javier made several phone calls and got out to ask directions more than once. Finally we, or rather he, figured out where we were supposed to and we loaded the equipment and ourselves out of the car and walked down a dirt path, past fields of something that looks like a cabbage but is called col de brusela (Brussels cabbage) -- but it's a large head like a cabbage, not small individual heads like Brussels sprouts.

We arrived at a homestead where a few shy children and a few young men were outside, and then the man who had arranged the screening came out to greet us. They explained that they were hosting a posada (Christmas singing) and we would show the film after the posada. We squeezed into a low-roofed adobe house, where there were about 35 or 40 women, children and young men pressed onto some makeshift benches (slabs of wood balanced on other pieces of wood), and then the older men standing around the edges of the room. We made our way to one of two beds that were in the corners, and put our stuff down to wait for the posada to finish. There was a marimba ensemble -- marimba and upright bass, and the singers -- mostly adolescent girls and a few boys -- sang one or two songs, with the women and children and a few of the men present joining in, and then we set up the screen and projector, gave a little explanation of who we were and what we were doing, and then showed the film.

The sound quality is uneven on the dubbed version and some parts are hard to hear (even I, who had seen it once before, had a hard time with a few parts), and since there were a lot of women with babies or young children, it became clear that we would have to cut out some parts. The children laughed a lot at the beginning -- there is a rapid-motion sequence in which the key protagonist of the film, a peasant farmer named Ignacio, builds a bicycle from spare parts in his house, and the children thought that was very funny. However, after about 40 minutes they were getting restless, and some of the mothers made movements as though to leave, so Matt fast forwarded to the end, and then we opened up for discussion.

 There was a pretty good discussion, mostly in Mam, about the problems with genetically modified and hybrid seeds. One woman in particular really seemed to "get" the message of the film and was very forceful in the discussion, and there was a man who spoke at the end who was also very powerful. He made an analogy to cultural rights (he didn't use that term), saying that indigenous languages, which he saw as in danger, were also seeds,, and that it was important to cultivate and preserve them as well. He also spoke about the mine, but I cannot remember exactly how he phrased it, the way he made a link between the mine and resistance to mining, as seeds.
Javier (l) and Noe (r), activists with ADISMI

At the end, Dania spoke in a very impassioned way, her eyes tearing up and her voice breaking, about the importance of the fight of indigenous communities to preserve their knowledge, agriculture, way of life, not just for themselves but for the entire country and all of humanity. She spoke as a Guatemalan who has lived for the last 12 years in the U.S., and someone who grew up in a family that identified as Ladino... but who is proud of her Maya roots (although those were largely obscured and never acknowledged). She received a rousing applause when she finished. And then we thanked everyone there (I went around and made individual thanks to as many people as I could, shaking hands or placing my hand on the person's arm or shoulder, in the manner that I have observed in highland communities), and packed up and made our way in the dark back to the car, and headed back to ADISMI's headquarters where the three of us were spending the night.

No comments:

Post a Comment