Saturday, August 3, 2013

Arsenic and old lace: the resistance continues

We spent a few days in San Miguel, conferring with different people from the resistance. They were planning a large concentration (rally) for Sunday July 27, and I decided that I would return to participate and document. The rally was designed to call attention to the failure of the company to make good on the ruling handed down by the IACHR (Interamerican Commission for Human Rights), and the tripartite agreement regarding the remedial measures. Anselmo, one of the leaders of FREDEMI, came over on the night before we left to discuss this, and also to let us know that there was another event that same day, right after the rally. This was the launch of what is called a "comité cívico" or civic committee. 

Dinner and conversation with Aniseto
A civic committee is something more than a neighborhood committee but not quite a political party; a civic committee can run candidates for political offices, usually on the municipal level (I am not sure that a civic committee can run candidates for national offices like congress or president). One of the strategies of the resistance right now is to try and take control of local governments, since it is at the level of local government that the company has been successful in creating obstacles, disaccord, and conflicts. So, the resistance has already taken over the COCODE in Siete Platos. Some resistance leaders have been elected to positions in other COCODES and other local organisms; for example, Doña Crisanta, one of the very committed and forceful female resistance leaders in the community of Ágel, which pretty much overlooks the mine, has been elected as vice-president of her COCODE and also president of the local water committee. 

Aniseto ran for mayor in the last elections in 2011, but there was very little time for him to organize the campaign and very little money to pay for advertising or any kind of campaign literature.  Since campaigns in Guatemala are dominated by large monied interests, this puts any kind of grassroots or oppositional candidate at a disadvantage.  So, they did a very quick campaign the last time around, succeeded in getting Aniseto on the ballot but he didn't get a lot of votes. They are hoping that this time around will be different, and they seem to think that there is actually a chance that he could take the mayoralty.  

So, this was the conversation regarding the launch of the committee, and then updating on the state of the resistance. Also during this time, we had a visit from Don Chico (Francisco), a leader from San José Ixcaniche, who came to tell us about the meeting that had taken place in his community and hear about the meeting of the residents of Siete Platos. He came accompanied by his sister-in-law, and the conversation turned to the health impacts of the water contamination.  

According to C., the main contaminant, or one of the main contaminants, is arsenic. So he launched into a teaching session about arsenic poisoning -- all of the various health effects grouped together under the label of arsenicosis. They include lesions on the hands, feet, other body parts, other skin inflammations, hardening of the skin on hands and feet, hair loss, and then various kinds of cancers including skin, bladder and liver cancer. Don Chico said that he knew two young boys who had suffered some of these effects, including hair loss and lesions on the hands.  It was a chilling discussion, because according to C., even the company's own studies have demonstrated high levels of arsenic in the water.

Another mission was to cautiously explore the possibility of starting up a new community radio project in the area. About two years ago, a community radio station was set up with money that someone raised through a Kickstarter campaign, but it hasn't been functioning for some time now, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post. And so we have been talking for some time via email about how to find a group that can undertake the project, as a radio station would be a tremendous asset for the resistance. So, it seems that there is a strong possibility... but more about that later. 

The final mission of this trip was to work with one of the women on an application for a fund sponsored by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. I saw an announcement for the fund, called the Voiceless Speak Fund, some weeks ago. I know people in the community in New Bedford who have won this award -- it is a maximum of $5,000 based on a proposal for a project that will work to inform the U.S. public (as the primary but not necessarily the sole audience) about either human rights abuses in Guatemala or the situation of Guatemalans living in the U.S.  It hadn't occurred to me until this summer that it might be possible for someone in Guatemala to apply, so I floated the idea by C. to see if we might help Doña Crisanta, who has not only been an outspoken community leader but has come under attack from the company and supporters of mining -- and has also been marginalized, to a degree, by men in the resistance movement. She, of course, had to be interested in pursuing this. So, we had a meeting with her, and also with another activist who is the more-or-less-official documentarian of the resistance (he also happens to be a relative of hers -- I think either they are cousins or she is his aunt). One idea was that he could make a documentary about her, so they would both benefit, but he seemed lukewarm about the idea.  So, we left the possibility to simmer...

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