So, there are basically two kinds of consultas that take place, and now I've seen both of them. The kind of consulta that was carried out in Chinique was "raised hand", and the the consulta that I witnessed in San Carlos Sija was by ballot. There are obviously arguments in favor of both. The "raised hand" consulta involves gathering everyone in a particular community in an assembly. Once everyone is there (or once the organizers decide that they have critical mass), they are lined up by age and gender (at least that was how it was done in Chinique). Adult men in a few rows, adult women in a few rows, adolescent girls, adolescent boys, and then children. Then someone read out what was being considered, or read and explained what the matter was at hand. This was done in both Spanish and K'iche', as Chinique is largely indigenous; I'm not sure how the assembly in the town center was carried out, as the Ladino population is concentrated there, although there are indigenous residents. This took a while; there seemed to be a fair amount of explaining and not just reading. Then the person convening the meeting asked if people wanted to approve mining or not. I believe that he first asked for a voice vote. Most people shouted out "no" loudly. Then a show of hands. He asked people to stay with their hands raised while the teachers from the school circulated and counted and wrote down the count -- this many women, that many men, and so forth. Then one by one people filed past the tables and signed the libro de actas, or put their thumbprint and had one of the teachers print their name (there might have been some loose sheets of paper to speed up the process, so there could be more than one line).
My friend J.L. is a big proponent of the ballot method, which is how the consultas have been carried out in Quetzaltenango, for the most part. In his view, it has several advantages. The first is that since the count goes on all day (the polling stations are open from early morning until late afternoon -- in Sija it was 8 until 4, although a few stayed open later than 4. So people can vote at their convenience. With the assembly, which is set at a fixed time, if you can't make the meeting (if you leave early to go to your fields, for example) then you can't vote. So turnout can be potentially higher. People can vote at any one of the polling stations -- they don't have to vote in their community. So if someone happens to be going to the town center to the market or for an errand, he or she can vote there. Also, according to J.L., the raised hand voting lends itself to peer pressure. The argument is that people won't vote how they really feel because the vote is public, not secret, and therefore someone who might have a minority position (in favor of mining, say) is likely to suppress it because he or she doesn't want to be seen by his or her neighbors as going against what the rest of the community wants. The companies and the government argue that the raised hand consultas are manipulated by the people opposed to mining and that they give a distorted result. So, voting by ballot allows each person to vote in private, and theoretically they are then less subject to peer pressure. However, it is more individualized and less collective. There never is a time when everyone is all together.
With the raised hand voting, each community is able to tabulate its count fairly quickly -- what takes the longest is having everyone present sign the "acts" so that it is all official. With paper ballots, the count at each polling station starts after the station has closed -- in Sija, some of the more remote and rural communities closed well before 4 p.m., as the local officials had determined that most of those who were likely to vote had already voted.
The atmosphere at the polling stations we visited was, for the most part, somewhat festive. in one or two places there were loudspeakers and music -- the idea was to create the atmosphere of a "civic party" (according to the guidelines for observation). There were observers sent to each station -- some of the observers came from neighboring departments like Totonicapán -- and each observer was supposed to fill out a 3-4 page questionnaire. A lot of people came in family groups -- there were mothers with a couple of young children in town, and the children all voted as well. We watched at the polling station in the town center as some six and seven year olds laboriously wrote out their names on the sign in sheet, and then carefully took their ballots and went to a desk or table nearby and marked the ballot, carefully folded it and deposited it in the large plastic bags that were affixed to each polling table. There were adolescent girls who came in arm-in-arm, and teenaged couples holding onto each other for dear life. All of the stations were very orderly and people seemed in a good mood throughout.
J.L. said that the organizers were a bit concerned about the turnout and the outcome because Sija is one of the municipalities where the indigenous population is in the minority. Most of the inhabitants are Ladino, and so folks weren't sure how they would vote. Also, in one or two of the communities farthest from the municipal center, there had been some organizing by the pro-mining forces, and apparently some confrontations (although nothing violent).
When we returned to the town hall, and then went for lunch, there wasn't enough time to go to additional communities so we just waited for the votes to be tallied. The leaders from each community -- usually a delegation of four or five -- came in with all of the documentation. They had the paper ballots; the sign in sheets; and the libro de actas. There was a tally sheet for each community, and the tally sheet broke down the votes by age category (children 7-12, adolescents 13-18, adults with voting papers, and adults without voting papers). This was not restricted to people who had voter registration cards, but the adult voters were separated by those who had voter registration cards and those who didn't. The largest number of adult voters were those without registration cards -- whether that means that they actually were not registered, or whether they simp,y didn't bring their voter ID with them, I don't know.
So the community leaders came bearing bags of ballots and papers and then the large leather-bound libros de actas, and then had to line up and wait while the people who were doing the official vote tally checked everything over, and entered the totals from each community onto a series of spreadsheets -- both printed ones, and on a few computers. It took a while for each community's results to be checked and recorded. One of the first communities had a discrepancy in the count, as they hadn't sorted the ballots out but had put them all together (apparently each set of sign in sheets -- for a particular age group -- was supposed to go together with the corresponding ballots). So the organizers separated the ballots out into piles that corresponded to the number of names in each category - except that it didn't seem that there was the right number of ballots. They counted and re-counted and finally it all tallied up. That was the only group that took that long.
As I noted in my earlier blog entry, when we left in the early evening the results weren't in -- not even by 11 p.m. which was when J.L. had called over to Sija to see if they had results yet. But the final count was 99.25% against and .75% in favor of mining - a pretty resounding no, I'd say. There is another consultation this week, in San Francisco el Alto, a town in Totonicapán. It will be on Tuesday the 30th. I've been invited but am not going to be able to attend as I have promised to be in Chinique on that day -- some friends in the U.S. have built a house for the woman's mother, and the family has planned a lunch and ceremony to inaugurate the new house. I am also supposed to talk to some other relatives on the man's side, who were victims of an extortion. I don't really know any of the details, but I guess that is what I am supposed to be finding out.
The consultations have great symbolic value; what legal weight they have remains to be seen. The country seems to be split in a number of ways: on the one hand there are the communities and the social movements that oppose these neoliberal policies, and then there's the government and the transnationals, which seem to operate by a different set of rules.