Saturday, August 3, 2013

San Miguel: The politics of remediation

Last Monday, the sun rose and lit up the courtyard of the parish where we were staying, and I made us coffee as we plotted out the days we would spend, or tried to. Around 8 a small group of men from the community of Siete Platos came to meet with Carlos, to talk about the meeting that would take place later that morning with the mayor and representatives of the company.  The meeting was to discuss the medidas cautelares -- the remedial measure -- which were the cause of the two-week highway blockade. A bit more background here: the residents of 5 communities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán that are very close to the actual mining operations, and 13 communities of Sipacapa, a neighboring municipality, had brought a lawsuit in the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights, charging that the ground water was contaminated (there is a study conducted by the company that confirms this) and asking for, basically reparations. You broke it, you fix it. You contaminated our drinking and cooking water, therefore, you (the company) had better do something to provide us with a source of fresh water.  The company -- are we surprised? -- has been dragging its feet on complying with the ruling, which I believe was handed down in 2011, and that was why the residents of one of the five SMI communities, Siete Platos, had occupied the highway, to try and force the company to do what it was legally obligated to do. The ruling calling for a tripartite discussion between residents, the company and the Instituto de Fomento Municipal (the Municipal Development Agency) a national governmental agency that is supposed to oversee water and sanitation projects throughout the country, along with representatives of the Mayor's office.
Courtyard of the parish hall

There was apparently some concern about whether any outsiders would be allowed to attend the meeting. One of the key leaders of the resistance, Aniseto, is from a different community, Maquivíl, and the people who support the company and mining were opposed to having him at the meeting. Carlos was unsure whether there would be some controversy regarding his presence. The meeting was interrupted, however, by someone announcing that the meeting had already started at the municipal building and so we rushed out to walk across the square and join the meeting.  We walked around to the back where a large meeting room was already filled.  The company representatives, engineers, representatives of INFOM and the Mayor's office sat behind a table in the front of the room, and the rest of us -- nearly all men, dressed for the most part in dark pants and jackets although a few wore jeans - crowded onto plastic chairs that reached the door. There were about 70 or 80 people present (I did a count at one point but there were a small number of people entering and leaving throughout so hard to get a complete fix and I didn't want to call even more attention to myself as the one foreigner and one of four or five women present by standing up to get a better view of the front rows. I was struck by the appearance of a sea of black when I walked in -- I think the mayor's secretary, Carlos and I were the only people who did not have straight black hair.  

There are no photos of the meeting. At the beginning, the mayor announced something about the community having asked for no recording of the meeting, and so although I had a camera, I didn't take it out.  However, later, people asked me if I had photographs of the meeting, and I explained that I had thought that I wasn't supposed to take any.  So the only photo I have is of the small group of community leaders who came for the pre-meeting, walking in front of the muni.

One of the things that struck me was the difference in body type and physical demeanor between those who sat on the other side of  of the table and those of us who sat in front as supplicants. The men on the other side wore more expensive clothing (even the engineer who wore jeans and a baseball cap), they were on average heavier, their faces more relaxed looking (and better fed) and several of them sat back in their chairs, legs spread, while the men from Siete Platos were smaller and leaner, their faces lined with work and exposure, and most of those who were seated were leaning in to hear what was being said.  

The mayor opened the meeting saying that there had been problems and conflicts between neighbors, that the municipality was there to make sure that everyone came together. That it was in no one's interest for there to be conflict. That the issue wasn't with the municipality but with the central government. He called for everyone to listen to each other, to not interrupt, that everyone had a right to express their views, and no one should shout anyone else down because they disagreed. Then he opened it up and one after another, men stood up and talked about the issues. It was hard to understand the relative size of the two groups, but it seemed the majority were opposed to mining and wanted the company to take responsibility for ensuring potable water, and a minority (but very vocal) tried to discredit the others as being opposed to progress and controlled by outside agitators. Several times, the people who supported mining (and therefore didn't want to make the company responsible), made accusations against Aniseto, one of the leaders of FREDEMI (the Front for the Defense of San Miguel), saying that they didn't want anyone from outside, from other communities, coming in and bringing bad ideas ("malas ideas"). We don't go to other communities and spread bad ideas, but these people want to destroy our community. And that if Aniseto came to Siete Platos, they would take measures against him. They may have made more direct threats against him. Probably a good thing he didn't come to the meeting.

Perhaps the most recurrent word in the entire discussion was "development". Both sides said they were in favor of development. Or, the people who supported the mine, and who criticized the blockade, accused the others of being against development. They said that the highway blockade hadn't produced anything (although in my view, the fact that the meeting was taking place at all was proof that the blockade had had some result). Those who had organized the highway blockade said that they, too, supported development, or they were not against development, but that they needed clean water. The company and government representatives kept emphasizing that it wouldn't be possible to bring water to the communities without the residents lending a hand.

Another issue that arose in the meeting was the question of the COCODE, the Community Development Council. The previous COCODEs (people usually refer to the COCODE in plural when they are talking about the members of the COCODE) had mostly been in favor of the mine, and the community had recently held new elections and removed the COCODEs and replaced them with COCODEs who supported the resistance. The Mayor called into question the legality of the election, and told the community members that they would need to bring an "acta" -- the official minutes of the meeting where the election had taken place, together with not only signatures of all those present but also their DPI number (document of personal identification), since, as he noted, anyone could write a signature.   

There were well over a dozen people from the community who spoke, mostly from the resistance but also from the other side. The company representatives and those from INFOM also spoke. One of the key points was how the work would proceed, and who would pay for what. The company kept repeating that the community had to contribute unskilled labor for the work. The community leaders asked about payment for permission to put the pipes that would carry the water from the springs, and who would pay for the rights to use springs that were on private land. The company representative read out from the agreement to ask, "And where does it say we have to pay for that?" One of the community leaders from the resistance seemed to agree that the community would have to contribute unpaid labor for the installations.

After a long discussion, the mayor tried to bring things to a close by saying that the community should put together a commission (basically a task force) with 10 people, five from the resistance and five from the other side, supervised by the auxiliary mayors (the community-based traditional leadership) and that INFOM and the company would visit the community to look into the situation and evaluate the needs of the community.  The mayor and officials then announced they had to leave and go visit another community, San José Ixcaniche, where there was another meeting of this sort. They took off while all of us stood in line to sign the book of minutes to record our presence. Both my attorney friend and I signed as observers (his presence was noted several times, both by the mayor and some community leaders; some people from the community had wanted him to speak but he strategically - and correctly, I think - decided to stay silent so as not to give further credence to the discourse of outside agitators and manipulation). 
Chemical lake, from cleaning the ore

After the meeting ended, my attorney friend met with people to evaluate the meeting and plan for the visit the following week. He then got a call from one of the leaders from Ixcaniche and we set off to try and find out where that meeting was taking place. We headed down a treacherously steep and windy road that took us past the mine; as we drove, we saw several vehicles with small orange flags brandished aloft: mine security. 
Throughout my two visits to SMI, I constantly saw these mine security vehicles on the highways and even in the town center of SMI. Why were they patrolling so much, I asked, because although I had seen them on my previous visits, there hadn't been as many of them, and only in the area directly around the mine. "Because they think they own everything around here," was the reply. As we drove down, my friend commented that all the NGOs and development agencies in the area belonged to the company, that there was very little in the area that was truly independent except for the resistance, but that the resistance was taking over some local governments and other structures like water committees and reforestation committees.

We passed through San José Ixcaniche but the person who was supposed to be waiting for us to lead us to the meeting was nowhere to be seen. I saw a lot of cars parked along the highway in front of the school and my suspicion was that this was where the meeting was taking place, but since C. didn't seem to want to stop and go in without someone from the community, we continued along the road, and stopped in front of a house where he said one of the leaders who had not been able to attend the meeting lived, don Miguel Angel.

I waited in the car while C. went into the house first, and then emerged to wave me inside. He explained that don Miguel Angel was also a traditional healer using natural herbs, and that this his house and also his office. We were gestured to sit down on a small bench which was there for the use of patients, and talked for a while about the meeting and the strategy for the next stage. His wife and two small daughters hovered around while we talked and C. went over what had happened in the meeting.

As we left, C. pointed out the painting on the school building next door, a kind of wavy blue line. That stood for M, Montana, the name of the mining company (Montana Exploradora de Guatemala). They hadn't purchased the school, but had paid for the paint job and some repairs, and so wanted no good deed to remain unacknowledged, apparently. Montana's radio and other ads tout their service to the community, their commitment to providing health and education as well as highways for these poor rural areas of the San Marcos highlands.

As one of the leaders had pointed out at the meeting, the highways were really meant to serve the company, and not the community. What the community needed was water, not more roads. 
Company-sponsored NGO
As we drove back into town, we noted that the other meeting had apparently ended (Later, someone from that meeting came to give us a report on what had happened -- more of the same). Walking around town in search of a luncheonette that was open (comedor translates as restaurant, eatery, canteen, lunchroom;  however, a comedor is less formal or elegant than a restaurante; canteen has a more precise cognate in Spanish, cantina, which is a place that might serve food but whose main attraction is alcohol; and luncheonette is probably not quite right as comedores typically serve breakfast, lunch and dinner), we passed several large hotels that were in various stages of completion, that seemed somewhat excessive for a town of this size. 

Apparently someone or ones was banking on there being an economic boom of some sort, although it was hard to imagine a thriving tourist industry since people don't exactly flock to see open-pit gold mining and arsenic-contaminated lakes.  But the development discourse was apparently contagious. At least to the people with enough money to invest in construction of three-story buildings.

However, at the same time, there was evidence of the resistance movement in graffiti painted on walls throughout the town, and along the highways (the latter was much harder to photograph as the roads are -- like in most of the rural areas throughout Guatemala -- narrow, steep and winding, with few places to pull over safely, lacking guard rails, and so forth, so it's not very practical or life-enhancing to try and take photographs along the road, even less so if one is the driver of a vehicle, and so one needs to have a companion in the car with a camera.  

This graffiti is not directly about mining; it says "Totonicapán, your struggle is our struggle." This refers to the massacre on October 4 of 2012, of people who were participating in a peaceful protest along the highway. The protest was called by the traditional leaders of the 48 cantones (rural communities) of Totonicapán, although the actual protest took place along the highway in Sololá, at a place called the Summit of Alaska (cumbre de Alaska), and the military opened fire on those who had blocked the highway, killing at least 6 people. 

Here's one of the few roadside graffiti that I was able to capture without sacrificing life, limb or the well-being of my vehicle (which is critical to the maintenance of the former two). It reads "mine death" (translated literally) --in other words, 
"mining equals death", or "death to the mine". I'll go with the former, as it is perhaps an unconscious nod to the famous slogan of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), "Silence=death". 

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