Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Community Consultation in Good Faith -- Part 1

My computer is balanced on a rickety table from a rural school in the community of La Puerta, one of the 33 communities that comprise the municipality of Chinique de las Flores in El Quiché. At the table to my right, a woman is recording names in a book, as residents one by one pass to sign their names, formalizing their decision to reject mining. The process of community consultations has been going on in Guatemala for several years, as more and more transnational companies seek to exploit the mineral resources.  The right to a community consultation (called "consulta en buena fé" -- consultation in good faith) is established in international conventions such as the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) that spells out the rights of indigenous people. In Guatemala as in other countries, for the most part both the elected government and the national and transnational companies have not called consultations and they have roundly ignored the results of the processes.

It just so happened that my visit coincided with the community consultation in Chinique, the municipality where I lived for a year, and so when I was planning this trip. I decided that I wanted to observe the consultation.  Somehow I received a "friend" invitation on Facebook from "Consulta Comunitaria de Chinique", and readily accepted without knowing exactly who it was; I figured at least I'd be able to get information about the consultation.  After I had found out about the consultation from Facebook, I also got an email from my friend Catarino telling me about the consultation. But I hadn't made any specific plans for the day. It wasn't until yesterday when I was reading an article in the newspaper that I realized that the consultation would take place in each of the communities. That is, they weren't going to bring 10,000 people to the center of the town, which would be logistically difficult and very time consuming and costly for people. Even in rural communities like the one where I am, people have to walk a distance to get to the school building. I hadn't figured out where I would go; I sort of assumed I'd show up in the Salon Muncipal and stay there. So then I started to think about what I would do. Catarino was going to Tapesquillo 3 where he teaches. I thought about going with him. Then I called my friend Adelma, who works at the health center, and asked her. She said that I should go to the Salon and talked to someone named Bener; that she and others were going to meet and get their assignments. I stopped at Catarino's house to drop my suitcase and then went into town. Adelma wasn't ready but I just parked my car and went to the Salon and waited a moment, assessing what was going on. There were several obviously non-Guatemalan people wearing credentials of some sort -- international observers, I assumed. A few had cameras. I walked inside, greeting people, and waited until someone said hello and asked me to sit down. I explained that I had communicated via Facebook with some of the people organizing the consultation and wanted to know if I could observe or help in any way. The young man asked if I had come by way of Casimiro. I said no, that I had spoken to Adelma and she had told me to come to the Salon and ask for Bener. The man smiled and said that he was Bener. I mentioned that I had a car and would be happy to take other people if they needed to transport observers. He and the others who were registering the observers consulted for a moment and then said I should go to La Puerta.

La Puerta is a fairly isolated community -- well, no more isolated than the Tapesquillos, actually. It is off the highway that runs between Chinique and Chiché. I had been there three times, but never all the way into the heart of the community. I said I sort of knew how to get there, so Bener told me there were people who needed to get there and I could take photographs. They took my name, nationality and institution, and then gave me a tag (I will upload the photo here on the blog) so I had an official credential, and we took off. As we left, we passed people on the highway who were on their way to consultations in other communities... I had a kind of momentous sense of what this day signified. There has been a banner across the entrance to the town against mining, since I arrived last January, but the actual formal consultation process was today.  There were a lot of women, disproportionately so. That is, in general the consultations have involved more women than men, in proportion to their percentage of the population, probably due to migration (either within the country or international). Older women, younger women, children,  women with babies on their backs and many of them with strips of straw that they were braiding.

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