By Rob Mercatante
La Puya started, as many great movements do, with a single act of civil disobedience.
A woman, concerned by the sudden arrival of a gold mining operation in her community, decided to park her car sidewise across a dusty, rural road, stopping a convoy of massive mining machinery in its tracks. Others quickly joined her, taking a stand in defense of their water supply, farmland, health and environment.
This impromptu roadside gathering of community members became, essentially, a human roadblock, preventing tractors, dump trucks and other equipment from entering the Tambor mine site. Over time, the roadblock grew into the resistance movement known as “La Puya.”
On March 2 of this year, La Puya – against all odds – celebrated its second anniversary.
The celebration kicked off with a massive procession from the town of San Jose del Golfo to La Puya. Nearly a thousand people participated: families, religious leaders, school groups, a marching band, and human rights activists. They carried banners asking important questions such as: “What would YOU do without clean air and pure water?”
At La Puya, the crowds gathered around a makeshift stage to hear invited speakers. Angelica Choc, human rights defender and widow of assassinated activist Adolfo Ich, praised the women of La Puya for being “an inspiration for communities throughout the country.”
Yuri Melini, director of the environmental group CALAS, reminded the families of La Puya that they have “the right to be informed and consulted about any mining project that affects them. He finished by sending a clear message to the government and the transnational corporations: “When the communities say ‘no’ to mining, ‘NO’ means ‘NO’!”
The power of this message became clear when P&F Contractors, a Guatemalan company that rents out dump trucks, excavators, and other heavy machinery, decided to withdraw their equipment from the Tambor mine site, stating that Exmingua (and parent company Kappes, Cassiday & Associates) hadn’t paid them since October 2013.
On February 26 and 27, just days before the second anniversary celebration, the company arrived to withdraw the machinery. The entire operation was carried out without incident, and the atmosphere in La Puya became more festive as the hours passed and the long parade of massive mining equipment was permanently removed from the mine. Nothing remains on the mining company land – another victory for the families at La Puya.
At the event, GHRC shared a letter of solidarity that had been signed by 25 national and international human rights organizations and over 2,000 individuals from 50 countries. Without a doubt, there is something special about la Puya, and the communities’ struggle has touched people around the world. Here is part of what makes La Puya so groundbreaking, stereotype-shattering, and even revolutionary:
Embracing nonviolence. Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world. Extreme poverty, organized crime, corrupt state forces, and the legacy of 36 years of a brutal counter-insurgency have fostered widespread acceptance of violence. The men and women of La Puya, however, have made a daily commitment to the ideals of peaceful, nonviolent resistance. For every insult, threat and attack they have received, they have responded with song, prayer and compassion. They have even prepared meals for the riot police who tried – unsuccessfully – to forcefully evict them.
The power of the poor. In Guatemala a small, but powerful economic elite run the country. The justice system bends in their favor, and the transnational corporations they represent often run roughshod over the law. Yet this group of housewives, family farmers, and school children has effectively put a halt to the mineral extraction plans of at least three mining companies (Radius Gold – Canada; Kappes, Cassiday & Associates – USA; and Servicios Mineros de Centroamerica – Guatemala.).
Ethnic equality. In a country with a majority of indigenous Maya population, racism, discrimination and exclusion are unfortunately widespread. La Puya has broken with that norm, welcoming indigenous and ladinos alike. One of the towns that form part of the resistance is San José Nacahuil, a Maya Kaqchikel community. Miriam Pixtún, from Nacahuil, is one of the most active leaders within La Puya.
Women at the forefront. Like racism, sexism is all-too-prevalent in Guatemalan culture and daily life. In La Puya, however, women like Yolanda Oquelí play essential leadership roles. In fact, the entire strategy of non-violent resistance rests squarely on the capable shoulders of the women. Recognizing that men are often quicker to anger, it is the women who place themselves on the front line when threats and attacks have occurred. While aggressors have mocked the men for “hiding behind the skirts” of the women, the truth is that the courageous women of La Puya have shown themselves to be best equipped to handle the onslaught of violence, and to respond without anger.
All for one, and one for all. Until recently the struggles of individual communities against large mining interests, the construction of hydroelectric dams, or the spread of single-crop plantations have been fairly isolated and unconnected. La Puya, however, has become a point of reference and a model to follow for other communities within Guatemala and throughout the region. Members of La Puya are constantly travelling to other communities in resistance, such as Barillas, San Rafael las Flores, Chuarrancho, and Xalapán to share their knowledge, experiences, motivation, and practices of peaceful resistance with others.
While there is much to celebrate, the struggle at the Puya isn’t over. The leadership of La Puya has been accused of “illegal detention, threats, and coercion.” Just days after the anniversary celebration, a judge decided not to drop these trumped-up charges against three members of La Puya; instead, he set a trial date for March 18. Another 10 leaders, including Yolanda Oquelí have been dragged into the process and have their hearing on April 2.
Meanwhile, the U.S. parent company, Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, has shown no sign of withdrawing.
The men, women and children at La Puya aren’t giving up, though. They’re at La Puya now. And they’ll be there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and have vowed to maintain their peaceful struggle as long as it takes.