In central Guatemala, between the municipalities of San Josè del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, there’s a woody area. The local campesinos call it La Puya (Lance’s Point) because of the sharp thorns covering the tree branches.
Ten years ago, the Canadian company Radius Gold bought most of the land in the area with the intent of building a gold mine, just 350 meters (about 1,150 feet) from the closest village. Since then, the project has caused many uprisings within local communities who blame the government for supporting the project at the expense of residents’ well-being.
On March 2, 2012, a group of people from neighboring communities blocked the road that led to the site, preventing trucks and mining equipment from entering La Puya. The site has remained blocked ever since, as activists and volunteers from fifteen different villages have worked together, organizing rotating shifts of 24 hours to prevent anything and anyone from accessing the area. A sign at the entrance of the site, right where the road turns to dust, reads “Community in Resistance.”
During a short visit to London, Yolanda Oqueli, a leader of La Puya’s anti-mining resistance, tells me about the history of the movement and her struggle against the construction of the mine. As we walk through St James Park, she describes what La Puya looked like before Radius Gold acquired the land.
“The Canadian company bought the land in La Puya almost ten years ago,” says Oqueli. “They paid a pittance for it, convincing the owner that the land would be used to grow coffee. But three years ago they came to the site bringing mining equipment and we realized what they were really up to. That was the beginning of our movement.”
All I know is that our life is priceless”
Since the beginning, the movement has been particularly concerned about the damages that the mine would have on the environment and on the neighboring communities. In the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted to the Guatemalan government, Radius Gold itself stated that the project would have terrible consequences for the surrounding environment, especially water sources.
Despite being only 18 km (11 miles) from Guatemala City, the communities in the semi-arid La Puya region have a very limited water supply, and many people only have access to fresh water a few days of the week. The mining company expects to use about 155 cubic meters of water per day — the equivalent of what is used by one family in a year in La Puya.
Despite the emphasis on the lack of water sources in the EIA, the Guatemalan government signed the license without objection. The company’s assessment also recognized that its operations would affect air quality, as well as flora, fauna and top soil, but none of this seems to matter.
“The government protects its own interests, not ours,” says Oqueli. “They talk about progress, but all I know is that our life is priceless.”
For a peaceful movement, add more women
Yolanda Oqueli was the first woman to join the movement in 2011. Like many members of her community, Oqueli grew up in San Josè del Golfo. She was working in a shop there when she met her husband, an agricultural engineer who first introduced her to the issue. He used to come home from meetings with community members in La Puya and tell her the latest updates. Finally, she decided to go with him.
“It was in 2011 that I started taking part in the meetings,” says Oqueli, with a hint of pride. “Back then, I was the only woman out of a group of six or eight men. But I knew that if I had the chance to talk to other women living in the area they would have understood how dangerous the mining project was for their communities and for their children.”
The idea of involving more women in the movement was strategic. “We looked at other protests, even at the national level, where both men and women were taking action,” says Oqueli. “We realized that men are more likely to respond to violence with violence, while women are better at keeping a cool head. We wanted our movement to be peaceful and so we needed more women.”
Cultural beliefs and traditions made this process more complicated.
“In the beginning, the majority of women I spoke to told me that their place was at home taking care of the children,” she continues. “But slowly, some of them became more and more interested in the issue.”
Three years later, the movement is almost entirely supported by women, with Yolanda as their leader.
But in a country where femicide is dramatically on the rise, doing what Yolanda Oqueli does can cause problems. Last year, 759 women were murdered in Guatemala, a 7 percent increase from the year before. Though sexual assault is a pervasive issue, the legal system is too corrupt to bring the majority of perpetrators to justice.
See also: A femicide ‘red alert’ in Nicaragua
“As women, we don’t only have to fight against the mining company, but also against machismo and defamation,” says Oqueli. “In Guatemala, there is a lot of discrimination against women. We can’t talk, we can’t take action. My community was no exception. When I started attending the meetings, men were hostile, some of them even refused to listen to what I had to say. But things changed and now we are the ones who lead the movement.”
She adds: “The government is even worse. They don’t know how to respond to our arguments and they accuse us of being badly informed. They even told us that we are poor because we like being poor, because we stop the progress.”
The situation has only gotten worse — and more dangerous — since Oqueli began her activism. In June 2012, while driving home, Oqueli was shot by two men on a motorbike. She survived, but the men were never caught.
“I was shot at 6 in the afternoon,” says Oqueli. “That same day I remember seeing fliers all around La Puya. They said that I was a prostitute and a bad mother because of my commitment to the movement.”
After Oqueli was shot, Radius Gold called the project a “problematic asset” and sold its majority interest to the U.S.-based partner Kappes, Cassiday and Associates (KCA), which is now the mine’s sole owner. The movement has tried to prove that the company is the one responsible for the attacks, but without legal support it has been hard to get access to solid evidence.
“It is quite common for mining companies in Guatemala to hire former members of the army to patrol the sites,” says Oqueli. “In a number of cases they got really violent against the local population, especially women. In [the town of] San Rafael las Flores they broke into people’s houses, sacking the properties and raping women and girls.”
Although no measures have been taken to stop the abuses, the resistance continues.
The movement is now asking for a referendum to vote against the mine, but the government has not cooperated. After a series of inconclusive meetings, La Puya’s communities in May asked Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina to set up a meeting with Robert Moran, an American hydrologist and geochemist.
“Robert was supposed to discuss the Environmental Assessment with the president,” says Oqueli. “But at the last minute the government informed us that the meeting was cancelled. They got scared because they knew that we had enough arguments to bring them down.”
Instead of seeking a dialogue, on May 23 the government ordered police to evict the protesters. More than 300 police officers arrived at the blockade site, where protesting women sang and prayed for the police to retreat. Police fired tear gas canisters against the protestors, resulting in numerous civilian injuries, but the movement managed to keep control of the site.
“What happened on the 23rd was a fault step for the government,” says Oqueli. “We got enormous support from all over the country and the media finally showed some interest in the issue.”
“At this point the government was so scared of being in the international spotlight that they suddenly dropped all the legal cases against me,” she continues. “Before the 23rd, they were trying to accuse me of using a machete against a police officer. A week later, they said that it was impossible because, as a woman, I do not have enough strength to hold a machete. And they dropped the case.”
After three years, the movement has finally gained a moment in the spotlight as their cause has gained the attention of international media, particularly in Europe. Though the battle is far from over, the international support has brought new energy to the protestors.
“It is still very hard, despite the latest victories, but I am sure that the mining project won’t carry on,” says Oqueli. “We love or land and our communities and we won’t stop fighting for them.”
What is the next step?
“Suing the Guatemalan government. After all, we are the women that no one can stop.”