Sunday, January 12, 2014

Resistence in Barillas

Starting in 2006, the community of Santa Cruz Barillas became aware that a foreign transnational, Hidro Santa Cruz, had purchased some land on the outskirts of town, in an area called Posa Verde. There are three waterfalls there, and apparently the project was to build dams, under the banner of development for this very isolated rural area. The nearest town that shows up on a map is about three hours away over a road that is only paved for the first hour or so; after that it is straight gravel and dirt, deeply rutted and hard to navigate during the rainy season. The first time I went to Barillas I drove my own car and while we didn't have any trouble getting to Barillas, there was one very muddy ascent on the way back, and we almost didn't make it.  This time I decided to avoid that problem and came by public transportation, and my friend Lorenzo, who accompanied me from Santa Eulalia, managed to get us into the front seat of the mini-van that took us most of the way from Santa (as the town is locally called), so we were relatively comfortable as we had more space. The ayudantes who accompany all drivers, whether of larger buses or smaller mini-vans, are pretty shameless and ruthless about cramming people into the back, and buses often travel fairly long distances with 7 or 8 people crushed into the area around the door and hanging out the door. Concern for passenger comfort is not even an operative concept here, and concern for passenger safety is on about the same plane. The prevailing ethos seems to be, if you are unfortunate enough to live out in this God-forsaken miserable little rural area that is so pathetic that no one around you even has a car to give you a ride, you should be eternally grateful that we are bothering to stop and pick you up, and if the thought of riding on the steps of the bus with your backpack out the door and your face at the level of other passengers' crotches isn't appealing to you, then you are welcome to stay on the side of the road and wait until a more suitable conveyance appears, which it most assuredly will not.

The resistance heated up in late April/early May of last year, when residents destroyed some equipment belonging to the company, and the company retaliated by killing a community leader, Andres Francisco Miguel, on May 1, and wounded another person, and three days later, after the townspeople had occupied the town square and destroyed more installations of the company, the government sent in the army and declared martial law in the town. The army barged into people's homes, searching and turning things upside down in their search. When residents asked why their homes were being searched, often they were given no answer, or if they insisted, saying, "you can't just enter our homes and search without any cause, the soldiers said,"Because of martial law, the normal rules don't apply." Over a dozen people were arrested, and there were arrest orders for many more. An international campaign, largely promoted through Facebook, helped pressure the government to eventually withdraw troops but tensions remain high in the town and throughout the region. The government, army and police said that the crackdown was against delinquents, terrorists and drug traffickers -- in other words, anyone who opposed the hydro-electric company and defended the community's rights was in effect a terrorist. This sounds eerily familiar to how the "terrorist" label has been deployed in the U.S.  The imprisoned activists were viewed by the community as political prisoners and there was a lot of agitation for their release (which was eventually achieved). In December, there were several days of protests when the Mayor of Barillas said he was going to sign an agreement that would give the company a green light to resume operations, after closed-door negotiations, and the mayor was forced to back down in the face of widespread opposition.

My first visit, in late December, was just a day trip. My friend from Santa Eulalia, which is nearby, offered to take me there, but he couldn't spend much time because of his many other responsibilities, so we agreed that we would go there and back the same day. Also, because of the tense situation (my visit was just a few weeks after the stand off with the mayor), the people in the resistance movement are justly cautious about extending trust to anyone. And so it seemed prudent to go with someone who had ties in the town (my friend's mother and sister live in Barillas, and he knew several leaders of the resistance; there is some coordination of resistance efforts in Santa Eulalia, Barillas, and the several other towns that would be effected by the hydroelectric project -- all of which, by the way, have expressed their opposition to the projects through the community consultations in good faith).

In April, some residents decided that they had had enough. Even though there was no longer martial law, there were police and army stationed around the town, and people were frustrated that the situation didn't seem to be changing. There were some "mesas de diálogo" (dialogue tables, literally) with the national government and leaders of the resistance, but they didn't seem to go anywhere. As some members of the resistance told me, "The government just does what they want." There was supposed to be a stoppage of the company's activities but residents of the area nearby said that the company guards fired shots in the middle of the night, and that army and police were patrolling around the area. What particularly galled residents was that the access road that was being used by the company and being patrolled by the army and police was a road that was built by the residents themselves. The company didn't make the road, and neither did the municipality. The residents had gathered the money themselves and done all the work to make a road that led into this beautiful area where there is a sacred river, Q'am B'alam, and three sacred waterfalls. 

So, on April 7, residents came to the entrance to the road and blocked access. They set up an encampment, which has, for the last four months, have maintained a 24-hour presence at the site.  As I was planning to visit Barillas for a second time -- my friend in Santa (as Santa Eulalia is called locally) told me about the encampment, and that was where I ended up spending most of the day and a half I was in Barillas.

 I had originally wanted to come to Santa Eulalia earlier, after my brief visit to el Quiché, since Quiché is sort of in the north (well, it's north of the capital) and therefore a bit closer to to Santa Eulalia. However, when I called Lorenzo to check on dates, he told me he was going to be away for a few days, and therefore I shifted gears, and left Quiché on Thursday, August 1, to head down to the Boca Costa (the "mouth of the coast"), spent Friday and Saturday with the folks from Nojibal, and then on Sunday left for Huehuetenango (the department where Santa Eulalia is located). I realize that all of these postings are out of chronological order. I start writing something, and then don't finish it, and by the time I get back to it, I've gone to three other places and therefore have a lot to catch up on. 

I arrived in Santa Eulalia a bit exhausted, as there was one ascent that my car just didn't want to make. Santa Eulalia is at 2500 or so meters above sea level, and as the road climbs up from Huehuetenango through Chiantla, there are some steep and rugged ascents through the Cuchumatan mountains. There are so many places of intense beauty in Guatemala, and it is hard to describe what makes the Cuchumatanes different from the mountains in Quiché, but they are. The mountains are more rounded, greener, and there are vistas where you can see deep valleys of green surrounded by softly peaked hills. After the road winds up out of Chiantla (which offers thrilling views of about 50 miles or more to the south), it hits a kind of plateau or mesa, with outcroppings of rock dotting the landscape, along with lots of sheep, and some plants that I haven't seen in too many other places -- specifically some spiky plants and some red flowers that look a bit like what are called "Indian paintbrush" in the states. 

Then the road descends for a while (there is a long stretch where there are not really any towns, although one really never goes that far in Guatemala without seeing some a few houses scattered along the roadside or in the distance), and than climbs very dramatically through some rocky gorges which are a bit dizzying to drive along, as the road is narrow, hugging to the slope, and the gorges are quite deep, and there aren't exactly a lot of guard rails.  My car was fine on the very steep ascents... and then got foiled by the rain. There is one slope, which is not very steep, but it was wet, as it had been raining, and my car just wouldn't go up it. This happened the last time, and I still can't quite figure out why. I've driven in the rain before, and on roads that are steeper or that have sharper curves or both. But I couldn't get up this slope. There was not a lot of pedestrian or car traffic.  I waited and eventually  some people came along who were going in the same direction and I gave them a ride in the back so I would have enough weight.

Although I had been to Barillas once before, and had met some of the key leaders of the resistance movement, Lorenzo thought that given the recent events (the murder of Daniel Pedro Mateo in April, and the kidnapping of another leader, Mynor López, in May) that people were going to be very wary, and so he offered to accompany me so that he could do the introductions once again. The last time we went my car almost didn't make it up a particularly muddy slope and so we decided to take the microbus.  We set out early, taking one bus to the community of Pett, and then switching there for a microbus to Barillas.

After breakfast, we met several people in town, I checked into a hotel that was run by a town resident who supports the resistance

I'm writing this now in January, since I never finished the blog, and I now don't remember who took me to the resistencia pacífica. I know Lorenzo had to get back to Santa Eulalia, but I think we went to visit a local radio station, and then someone drove us to the resistencia (the occupation, basically).  We were let off where the bus stops, and then we walked past homes and stores and down a dirt path. The encampment looks like the others I have seen -- over time, they have constructed a rough structure, half of which has a roof made of panels of corrugated metal sheeting ("lámina") and the other half is covered with large sheets of heavy plastic. There are some roughly-made wooden platforms for sleeping and storing supplies, built-in benches along one side, and a kitchen area at the other end. The entire structure is about maybe 50 feet long. Groups of residents from the many communities (neighborhoods, sectors, aldeas, cantons, caserios) that comprise Barillas take turns doing shifts. Generally, I was told, for reasons of safety, only the adult men spend the night, keeping watch, and women and children come during the day. 

It was pretty quiet while I was there, although people came and went during the day. I went to see where people had destroyed equipment belonging to the company some months back, and with one of the young girls, I walked to one of the waterfalls. The waterfalls are sacred sites, and part of the controversy, as I understand it, was not only that the hydroelectric project was being installed against the community's express wishes, but that it would affect sacred sites. There is a succession of three waterfalls -- I only saw two of them; the third was a farther hike than anyone wanted to undertake with me on the two days that I visited the resistance.

I will try to reconstruct more of my memories of this.. but I want to at least get this off my "draft" list....

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