This is a press release by Process of Liberation of Mother Earth, originally published in Liberacion de la Madre Tierra. The Nasa people of Cauca had been pushed to the mountains by the invaders in the 16th century. For the past 17 years, they have shifted to direct action to get back their land. Although their pursuit had been disrupted in the past, they have now stayed in their original land despite state attempts to remove them. Both right leaning and left leaning governments have attempted to remove them from their rights to their land. DGR extends our solidarity to the Nasa people of Cauca valley in their struggle for land reclamation.
Now that the 48 hours have passed, we send this letter to the world to tell about our struggle and the danger that awaits us, and what we are going to do in face of the danger. The great chief sent word, that we are invaders and gives us 48 hours to abandon our struggle and the land where we fight, or the full weight of the law of the Colombian state will fall on us.
First we tell you about our struggle. This last September 2nd, 17 years have passed since we returned to direct action to fight for the land, a struggle that has roots in 1538, when our people decided to declare war to the invaders. The invaders took over our land and pushed us into the mountains, the invaders made of dispossession a way of life, the how of their civilization, and today they have in their possession the most fertile lands and they have documents that prove they own and they are an organized power that moves the strings of politics and economy and justice and the media in Colombia to keep the documents up to date and to exploit Mother Earth more and more until skinning her and sucking her blood and digging into her entrails and this is called progress, development.
For us, families of the Nasa people of northern Cauca, the land is Uma Kiwe, our mother. Everything that is in it has life, all of it is life, all beings are our brothers and sisters and all beings are worth the same. The invader indoctrinated us to teach us that we humans are outside our Mother and that we are superior to her, but deep in our hearts, nasa üus, we know that people are Uma Kiwe just like the condor and the butterfly and the corn and the stone are Uma Kiwe. The invader indoctrinated us to teach us that the moor is a resource that produces money, that by cutting down the jungle we can increase bank accounts, that by digging into Uma Kiwe’s entrails with large tubes we can access a life of well-being. That is the word of the invader and he calls it the goal, the life plan.
The lands of the Cauca river valley, where we now live, from where we fight, is the house and home of hundreds of animals, plants, rocks, waters, spirits, in a way of life that in Spanish they called tropical dry forest. The invader destroyed everything, that house and home no longer exist, he has damaged the face of Mother Earth. In their eagerness to impose their civilization, those who have the documents of these lands, planted the entire valley of the Cauca River with sugarcane and there are 400 thousand hectares where the cane is planted up to the riverbank. In other regions of Colombia, the invader displaced communities with war and planted oil palm on thousands and thousands of hectares, and in other regions they have displaced communities to build dams or to extract gold or petroleum.
And once, in a region called Antioquia, the Cauca River rebelled and damaged the machines and equipment of the dam and it overflowed and the people who had already been displaced by the hydroelectric project had to move again because once again their lands were flooded. For these facts there are no guilty parties, the invaders of the Cauca River, the displacers of those communities and those who committed the massacres to impose development, have not yet received the full weight of the law of the Colombian state. And so, every corner of this country they call Colombia, the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America, is made up of patches of development projects installed where the war displaced entire communities, where the forests, moors, savannahs, mountains, jungles and plains were or are being razed so that a few people can enjoy the honeys of development.
We, the indigenous families of the Nasa people who walk the struggle platform of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC -by its acronym in Spanish), our organization, we don’t believe in that development and we don’t believe in that civilization that imposes death through laws and legal actions to generate coins. They indoctrinated us to believe in their civilization and told us that humans are superior to other beings, but we see that among humans there are levels, some humans who are superior than others, the superiors take all the wealth and the inferiors have to live cornered in the corners that development leaves us available, but they tell us that if we try hard or sell ourselves we can rise to the level of the superiors. We don’t like that way of life, we don’t accept it.
That is why 17 years ago, on September 2, 2005, we came down from the mountains to make a struggle that we continue today and that we have called the liberation of Mother Earth. Because we say that people will not be free while Uma Kiwe is enslaved, that all animals and beings in life are slaves until we get our mother to recover her freedom. At that time, September 2005, we had a tactical error, as one liberator said, and we negotiated an agreement with the Uribe government, an error that cost us a nine-year delay. But then we came back to enter the sugarcane agribusiness farms in December 2014, which means that we are almost eight years old, and in these eight years the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America has not managed to evict us from the farms despite more than 400 attempts, and we are not going to leave, and we have been advancing by entering in these lands, so much that we already have 24 farms in process of liberation, already eight thousand hectares.
When we enter the farms we cut the cane and instead of the cane the food we sow grows, the forest also grow because Uma Kiwe has to rest, chickens, ducks, cows and little pigs grow, wild animals return… We are returning the skin and the face to Mother Earth. That is our dream, or if you prefer, our life plan. And there is still a long way to go, sometimes the word of the invader arrives and confuses us, but as a community we are talking and clarifying things. And other times the media from agribusiness or power in Colombia arrive and brand us as terrorists, lazy, that we slow down development, and tell us that we are invaders, as the current government of Petro and Francia says, and now they have planted the lie that we are stealing the land from our neighbors of the Afro-descendant communities who live cornered on the banks of the cane fields: what we can tell you with complete certainty is that the documents of the 24 farms that are in process of liberation, they are listed in the name of Incauca, the largest owner, and other landowners, or their land is leased to Incauca or other mills that process cane for sugar or agrofuels.
And also the judicial apparatus of Colombian democracy says that because we are terrorists they are going to capture us at checkpoints or with arrest warrants and they are going to take us to jail. And the paramilitaries, organized by the sugar cane agribusiness say that since the Colombian state has not managed to kill us, they are going to do it and they have already arrived at the farms in process of liberation to shoot us with short and long range weapons, but our range is longer because we already know how they are organized and how they work. And the agro-industrialists -Incauca, Asocaña, Procaña- have been sending us negotiation or association proposals for seven years and we have answered NO because a struggle is not negotiated and NO because for them being partners means that we put the labor as cheap as possible and that they provide the capital, NO gentlemen, we are not here to change bosses, we fight so that there are no more bosses.
And now that a new government and a new congress have arrived to strengthen the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America, the congress tells us that we can send proposals for the agrarian reform law “because the liberation of Mother Earth is a concrete agrarian reform”; we haven’t responded yet, but we know how to restore the balance of Uma Kiwe, our Mother Earth, and it goes far beyond an agrarian reform. And the latest thing that has happened is that the new government of President Petro and Vice President Francia tell us that we are invaders and that we have 48 hours to leave these lands where we fight, we sow, we graze, we watch the forest grow and the wild animals return, well, in this land where we live, and that’s how we started this letter.
At the end of 48 hours, this September 2, the state attacked with the army and esmad (Mobile Anti-riot Squadron (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios or ESMAD), there was no half hour of dialogue, as the new government had promised, the tank came in shooting gas. Later the army fired its long-range weapons against us, the communities that are liberating Mother Earth, there was no dialogue either. 17 years ago, on September 2, 2005, it was Uribe who ordered the esmad and the army to fire their weapons at us. This new government is from the left, the Uribe government was from the right. After eight hours of trying to evict us from one of the farms in process of liberation, the esmad and the army of the oldest democracy… they failed to evict us, here we continue, from here we launch this letter to the world.
We, the process of liberation of Mother Earth in northern Cauca, send word to the great chief that we are NOT going to evict, that here in these lands we are staying because this is our home to live and fight II. We say II because before we have already written that this is our home to live and fight I. At that time, 2018, the paramilitaries gave us a deadline to leave this land, but the paramilitaries gave us a slightly longer, more rational deadline, because they gave us two months, and when the two months were up we told them NO, that we couldn’t leave because this is our house to live and fight. That’s why we say II, because despite everything we don’t lose our smile. And you have to know that neither Uribe, nor Santos, nor Duque ever told us “they have 48 hours.” And we also tell you that we are not leaving because here in these lands in process of liberation, 12 compañerxs have fallen since 2005, murdered by the private company of Incauca, Asocaña and Procaña, and by the Colombian state. Here we already take root. We continue here until the government completes the process of delivering the documents to our indigenous authorities, either through agrarian reform or by the fastest way, and if it doesn´t happen, for the years of the years, we will continue here.
We also sent word to the great chief that we are going to enter in other farms because our struggle doesn’t stop. Yesterday we were in a great action to accompany a community that is liberating a farm because the esmad has been bothering them with gas every day for several days, despite the fact that they promised us that the esmad was going to end, then to transform and then that it was going to change it’s clothes, and it’s true because they wear a sports uniform for a soccer game while here they continue to shoot gas at us. We will continue our actions to root ourselves more with this land , so that our word has sustenance, because otherwise it would be like a decree or a campaign promise, which is written and signed but not fulfilled.
To the communities that in other regions of Colombia are fighting directly for the land, we invite to not leave the farms. We invite more families, more communities in the northern Cauca and in Colombia and in the world to enter in more farms and take possession and build life and community as we are already doing in these lands, the same way as many struggles that have been branded as invaders by the great chiefs of the country, because no fight has been won with little kisses on the cheek.
We also send word to our compañerxs who are now in the power of the Colombian state not to get tangled up along the way. Because they have walked alongside our struggles but now we see that they are forgetting where they come from, something that can happen to anyone who reaches a peak, who doesn´t see that after the top comes the descent. That is why we also sent word that we will enter to another farm where we will carry out rituals and plant food to share with them and we will pray for them so that when they finish their time in the state they continue to be the same people who one day arrived there with the votes of millions of people who saw in them some kind of hope.
So far this letter ends, but our word goes on. We write our word on the farms where we are liberating, that is our first word. The documents, the letters, the videos, the radio…, the second word, that helps us to tell the world what we do, the danger that awaits us and how we will continue walking in the face of danger. Thanks to the struggles and peoples of the world who listen to us and stand in solidarity with us. As we have already said in “this is our house to live and fight I”, the best way to support us is to strengthen your fight: it will be very difficult for capitalism to evict or bring down with the full weight of the law thousands and thousands of battles throughout the world.
More than 50 indigenous and Afro-descendant representatives of the Black and Indigenous Liberation Movement (BILM) call on the States of the Americas to address climate change from a differentiated, non-discriminatory justice perspective that addresses historical reparations for the impacts of colonialism.(more…)
Editor’s note: This is what environmental justice looks like. Not NGOs dictating what lands will be set aside for 30×30, which is just greenwashing colonialism. It is the people whose land it is making those decisions and the governments enforcing them.
An Indigenous community in southwest Colombia established a protected reserve in the face of illegal logging, mining and coca cultivation being carried out by criminal groups.
The Eperãra Siapidaarã peoples are especially interested in protecting the extremely poisonous golden dart frog, which they historically used in their darts while hunting.
Despite establishing the reserve, the community has more work to do to fend off violent non-state armed groups.
One of the most poisonous animals on earth, the golden dart frog carries enough toxins in its body to kill 10 people. If it enters the blood stream, the toxin paralyzes the nervous system and, in only a few minutes, stops the heart from beating.
The golden dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is found only in southwest Colombia, where mountains and rainforest meet the mangroves of the Pacific coast. For centuries, the Indigenous communities there harvested the toxin for their hunting darts. But in recent years, as criminal activity has spread through the area, some communities have begun to worry that the frog might disappear.
“The advancing agricultural frontier, mining and the expansion of illicit coca crops impinge on the life of the frog because it’s endemic to that one area,” said Luis Ortega, director of the environmental group Fundación Ecohabitats. “All the time, there’s less and less habitat for them.”
For some Indigenous peoples in the area, such as the Eperãra Siapidaarã of Timbiqui, the golden dart frog is more than a hunting tool. It’s also a central figure in their culture, and the reason their ancestors were able to survive after being relocated to the coast during Spanish colonization.
During that time, the frog’s poison helped save the community by giving it an easy way to hunt. Now, it was the community’s turn to help save the frog.
The best way to do this, the Eperãra Siapidaarã decided, was to establish a natural reserve that they would protect and maintain themselves.
“We have the working spirit to defend this territory,” community leader Carlos Quiro told Mongabay.
Quiro and the Eperãra Siapidaarã had already worked with the Colombian government on land titling issues in their territory as well as to help preserve mangroves and other local ecosystems. But these measures weren’t stopping the habitat destruction.
Non-state armed groups, including paramilitaries and guerrillas, have been deforesting the Chocó Biogeographical Region for decades. In recent years, they have pushed into Eperãra Siapidaarã territory to plant coca for drug production, sometimes leading to violent land disputes between rival groups.
In 2009, Colombia recognized the Eperãra Siapidaarã as one of the Indigenous peoples at risk of extinction due to the country’s ongoing armed conflict.
There are also three legal gold and silver mining operations upstream from Eperãra Siapidaarã territory, which satellite data suggest have advanced well beyond their concessions, according to Fundación Ecohabitats. Some residents noticed that the fish pulled from local rivers were becoming smaller and scarcer than in previous years, likely as a result of the pollution.
The makings of a reserve
In 2017, community leaders started meeting with Fundación Ecohabitats, the Cauca department government and the Ministry of Interior about developing a protected area for the golden dart frog. It would not require demarcating new land, they proposed, but instead absorb more than half of the community’s existing territory.
With funding from the Rainforest Trust, meetings were held for the next two years to discuss where the community wanted to establish the reserve and what conservation initiatives they should prioritize. In addition to protecting the golden dart frog’s habitat, residents were interested in stewarding the area’s many watersheds and developing a land use plan that would allow them to continue harvesting forest resources for their cultural, medicinal and spiritual practices.
Younger members of the community were trained in geographic information systems to assist with mapping the boundaries of the new reserve and carrying out patrols, while others studied tourism and business in hopes of turning their artisanal forestry practices into a sustainable source of income.
In September 2019, after years of work, the community officially announced the establishment of the 11,641-hectare (28,765-acre) K´õk´õi Eujã Traditional Natural Reserve — Territory of the Golden Dart Frog.
So far, it hasn’t stopped non-state armed groups from engaging in violent confrontations over control of coca production near Eperãra Siapidaarã territory. It also can’t do anything to prevent pollution from the illegal mining operations upstream. But with the newly established reserve, residents say they feel they have more of a fighting chance.
“There are areas abundant with plants for medicinal use,” Quiro said, “and there is also another area, another mountain range, where there are many trees that are useful for families, so we are benefiting from that. They are very important to the Eperãra Siapidaarã.”
The reserve contains 41 plant species and 11 bird species endemic to Colombia, according to the community’s preliminary research. It is also home to dozens of rare and threatened species, including the night scented orchid (Epidendrum nocturnum) and Licania velata.
The community is still training its rangers in data collection that will help it better understand how these different species are faring in the reserve. Right now, there isn’t hard data on the golden dart frog population or whether it has improved since the reserve was founded. Empirical evidence suggests that it has rebounded, community members say, but they want to know for certain.
One of the Eperãra Siapidaarã’s next goals is to collaborate with biologists and the local government on scientific research projects that will strengthen their understanding of the forest ecosystem, and then to use that work to make better decisions as a community.
In October and November, for example, the golden dart frog begins reproducing. Quiro said he wants to learn more about that process and what can be done to ensure it isn’t interrupted.
“It interests me a lot,” he said. “To understand that experience and, equally important, to share it with the younger generations.”
The Indigenous Environmental Network condemns the actions of Canada as it inflicts settler violence against the Wet’suwet’en peoples, hypocritically breaking both Wet’suwet’en and Canadian law to push TC Energy’s illegal Coastal Gaslink pipeline through unceded territories.
By entering sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory with RCMP, dogs and assault rifles we are witnessing state-sanctioned violence on behalf of an Oil company, and such barbarous acts of violence inflicted upon Indigenous peoples cannot be defended. These attacks by RCMP are nothing less than Human Rights violations as defined by the United Nations, and acts of extreme detriment to the inherent sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en. The Wet’suwet’en have asserted self-governance over their territories since time immemorial, and it is their inherent right to defend their lands, resources and bodies from foreign aggressors. They have signed no treaties nor have they relinquished title to their lands. They are not part of so-called Canada and have not consented to bearing the burden of the world’s dependence on an extractive industry such as oil.
We will continue to support the Wet’suwet’en in their struggle and call on others to join us in supporting our relatives. From disrupting business as usual to divesting from banks funding the theft of Indigenous lands, there are steps we can all take to stand with our relatives. These barbarous acts of violent aggression must cease and the inherent right to self determination must be upheld.
How You Can Help:
Over the past two days heavily militarized RCMP tactical team have descending on Coyote Camp with snipers, assault rifles, and K9 units,
In total, eleven people were arrested at Coyote Camp, including Gidimt’en Checkpoint spokesperson, Sleydo’, and Dinï’ze Woos’ daughter, Jocey. Four more were arrested at 44km later that day, including Sleydo’s husband, Cody.
Solidarity actions began immediately. Now is the time. Plan, organize or join an action where you are.
Issue a solidarity statement from your organization or group and tag us.
The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs represent a governance system that predates colonization and the Indian Act which was created in an attempt to outlaw Indigenous peoples from their lands.
The Wet’suwet’en have continued to exercise their unbroken, unextinguished, and unceded right to govern and occupy their lands by continuing and empowering the clan-based governance system to this day. Under Wet’suwet’en law, clans have a responsibility and right to control access to their territories.
The validity of the Wet’suwet’en house and clan system was verified in the Delgamuukw and Red Top Decisions that uphold the authority of the hereditary system on Wet’suwet’en traditional territories.
At this very moment a standoff is unfolding, the outcome of which will determine the future of Northern “BC” for generations to come. Will the entire region be overtaken by the fracking industry, or will Indigenous people asserting their sovereignty be successful in repelling the assault on their homelands?
The future is unwritten. What comes next will be greatly influenced by actions taken in the coming days and weeks. This is a long-term struggle, but it is at a critical moment. That is why we say: The Time is Now. If you are a person of conscience and you understand the magnitude of what is at stake, ask yourself how you might best support the grassroots Wet’suwet’en.
In the midst of a long conflict and recent protest over a nickel mine in El Estor, in eastern Guatemala, police have carried out more than 40 raids and 60 arrests, and the government has declared a 30-day state of emergency.
Indigenous Mayan opponents to the mine say they were never properly consulted about the mine and its impacts on their lands, livelihoods and lake, and protested on the town’s main road, refusing passage to mining vehicles.
Four police were shot during the police crackdown on protests by what the government blames as armed protestors, although mine opponents say the assailants were not involved in the protest.
There are concerns mining operations will pose environmental damages to Guatemala’s largest lake, home to diverse fish, bird, reptile and mammal species, including the endangered Guatemalan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra).
EL ESTOR, Guatemala — Germán Chub was still sleeping when police and military personnel showed up outside his home. It was the fourth day of a month-long state of siege, akin to martial law, in El Estor, eastern Guatemala, in the wake of the latest flashpoint in a decades-long, multifaceted conflict over a nickel mine.
Chub’s wife went out the door a few minutes before six o’clock in the morning on Oct. 27, on her way to grind the maize she would make into tortillas for the day. Police waiting in the street informed her they were there to search the house and entered with personnel from the country’s Office of the Public Prosecutor. Chub was forced to get up and get into his wheelchair.
“It scared me,” Chub told Mongabay. “They just said they were there for a raid and that they had been sent.”
It was not the first time Chub had experienced fallout from the mining conflict. During protests against the Fenix nickel mine in 2009 over land rights, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down by Mynor Padilla, the mine’s head of security, who also shot dead anti-mining activist Adolfo Ich Chamán. Mongabay first spoke to Chub in 2015 during the trial and again in 2017 when Padilla was initially acquitted. After appeals, Padilla eventually took a plea deal and was convicted this past January.
The Fenix nickel mine has been tied to conflict and violence for more than half a century, when it was formerly owned by EXMIBAL, a subsidiary of Canadian miner Inco. Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ residents were never consulted, and their exclusion from a court-ordered consultation process prompted protests, a crackdown and violence that left four police officers with gunshot wounds in October this year. The ensuing state of siege and raids targeting community leaders, outspoken mine opponents and local journalists — all Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ — have sparked alarm and condemnation in Guatemala and beyond.
“I do not even have the words to express myself about what they are doing,” Chub said. “Everything they are doing in El Estor is unjust.”
Police raided the homes of two journalists and at least nine community authorities, fishers’ guild leaders and protesters during the last week of October. In early November, Mongabay visited several families in El Estor whose homes were raided and spoke with other leaders in hiding. Hundreds of police officers, soldiers and marines were in the area, patrolling and stationed at different points around town, including fanned out along a stretch of road between El Estor and the mining complex 6 kilometers (4 miles) to the west.
The Fenix project is now owned by the Solway Investment Group, a private mining and metals corporation based in Switzerland, after decades of Canadian ownership. When it acquired the Fenix mine in 2011, Solway was based in another tax haven, Cyprus, and widely acknowledged to be a Russian company.
Protests and condemnation related to the state of siege continue to target both the Swiss and Russian embassies in Guatemala. Solway’s press office told Mongabay in a written statement that the company is fully owned by European Union citizens and that there is no Russian capital or investment in the company. Russian is one of the company’s working languages because Solway operated several projects in that country in the past, according to the company. Many high-level employees at the Fenix project in Guatemala are Russian.
The project includes mountaintop mining and ferronickel processing facilities near the shore of Lake Izabal, the country’s biggest lake. The lake, waterways and lands in the region are at the heart of sustained opposition to the mine. Indigenous communities in the region primarily live from subsistence agriculture and fishing, and want to ensure the environment can sustain those livelihoods for future generations.
“That’s why we were supporting the resistance. People want to look out for their children, their grandchildren,” Chub said.
Battles over proper consultation
The municipality of El Estor is home to some 82,500 people, more than 90% of them Q’echi’, according to the most recent national census. In 2019, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of El Estor’s small-scale fishers’ guild and other local plaintiffs, and determined that Indigenous communities in the mine’s area of influence were never properly consulted about the project. The court issued an injunction, ordering the suspension of the mining license held by Solway subsidiary CGN, pending consultation.
In a 2020 ruling, the Constitutional Court reiterated the suspension order and laid out guidelines for a consultation process to be carried out by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Free, prior and informed consultation is required under the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which Guatemala ratified in 1996.
The defendant in the case was the Ministry of Energy and Mines, not the company, the Solway Investment Group’s press office noted. “The company received the order to suspend the license on February 4, 2021, and ceased its operating activities at the Fenix mine as of February 5, 2021,” according to the press office.
However, the ferronickel processing plant kept running. Operated by another subsidiary of Solway, Pronico, rather than CGN, the subsidiary whose license was suspended, the plant is now processing ore from other mining operations in the region. Mine opponents say the distinction between the subsidiaries is spurious and argue the suspension should apply to the plant because it is located within the mining license area.
The continuation of mining operations, long after the court rulings, has stoked discontent, as has the government’s management of the pre-consultation process. The Constitutional Court ruling addressed how formally recognized entities ostensibly representing local populations do not necessarily represent or speak for Indigenous peoples. Many Q’eqchi’ residents say that is the case with the pre-consultation dialogue, which includes a formally recognized Indigenous council that mine opponents have argued for years is coopted by mining interests.
“They just self-elect themselves. They were not going to look out for the interests of the people,” said Luis Adolfo Ich, a primary school teacher and community leader whose home was raided on Oct. 27, along with that of his mother, Angélica Choc. Ich is the son of Adolfo Ich Chamán, the community leader killed by the Fenix mine security personnel on Sept. 27, 2009, the same day Chub was shot. Padilla, the former head of security, was also convicted on Jan. 6, 2021, for killing Ich Chamán.
“The state really does not respect the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Ich said in a telephone interview from another part of the country, where he and some other community leaders had fled out of fear for their safety. “A decision was made to organize another ancestral council,” he said.
On Jan. 30, traditional local authorities, elders, midwives, fishermen, community leaders and other Q’eqchi’ residents from around the municipality gathered in El Estor at an assembly to form a new Q’eqchi’ ancestral authorities council. They elected representatives, including Ich, from several dozen communities. Ever since, they have been unsuccessfully attempting to get the Guatemalan government to recognize the council for inclusion in the pre-consultation process.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines held the first pre-consultation dialogue meeting Sept. 28 in Puerto Barrios, 120 km (75 mi) from El Estor. Thirty-eight representatives from 13 national and local government institutions, universities, the CGN mining company, and the controversial Indigenous council participated. The Q’eqchi’ ancestral council was excluded and called a protest that began Oct. 4 on the main road into El Estor, refusing passage to vehicles related to mining activities, and in particular trucks hauling ore out and bringing in coal needed to fuel the processing facilities. The protesters stood their ground for two and a half weeks, demanding inclusion in the pre-consultation process and the suspension of the mine’s processing plant operations.
Police and company officials attempted to persuade the protesters to clear the road and allow coal trucks to pass, but were turned away. On Oct. 22, police moved in, using force and tear gas to disperse people and clear the road. Police officers later escorted coal trucks heading to the Fenix mine complex, running alongside them to ensure their passage.
Dozens of raids and a monthlong crackdown
During the crackdown, four police officers were shot in the leg. They are recovering at home, a national police spokesperson told Mongabay. Q’eqchi’ mine opponents told Mongabay that some protesters threw rocks at police but that any armed assailants who shot at police were not involved in any way in the protest. The Guatemalan government issued a public statement Oct. 24, accusing the protesters of shooting police officers “after 17 days of illegal blockades by a small group of people who it is assumed do not live in the area.”
Cristián Xol was one of the El Estor residents there, including on the day in question. “I participated but it was a really peaceful protest,” said the 25-year-old. When police cracked down, the situation became chaotic and there were shots fired, but not by protesters at the action led by Q’eqchi’ community leaders, he said.
At least two of the several pro-mine Facebook accounts sharing local news insinuated Xol may have shot police, in a post that included three unrelated photographs: one of Xol, one of someone else with a gun, and one of guns. Police had a screenshot of the Facebook post in hand when they raided Xol’s home looking for guns, he said.
Finding weapons was also the key aim of a previous search warrant covering nine other properties. “Find firearms, homemade weapons, vehicles reported stolen and objects of unlawful origin,” reads an instruction emphasized in bold, underlined, and upper case on the final page of the warrant.
The raid on the Xol family home occurred a week after the government’s declaration of a 30-day state of siege in the municipality of El Estor. However, news of the Oct. 23 decree did not surface until the following morning. Under the dictatorship-era Public Order Law, Guatemala has five kinds of states of emergency — prevention, alarm, calamity, siege, and war — under which some constitutional rights and freedoms can be suspended and military involvement warranted.
By law, the military is now in charge of civilian authorities in El Estor for the duration of the state of siege, though spokespersons for the Ministry of Defense and National Civilian Police both told Mongabay that in reality it is a very coordinated, interinstitutional effort. Freedoms of assembly and movement are restricted and a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. is in place. The constitutional rights to legal detention and legal interrogation are suspended.
“This is a textbook intervention,” said Iduvina Hernández, executive director of the Association for the Study of Security in Democracy. “It is a pattern of systematic actions to halt the progress of the Q’eqchi’ resistance in El Estor.”
Roughly 600 police officers and 300 military personnel are currently in El Estor, according to the spokespersons for the two institutions. So far, police have carried out more than 40 raids and more than 60 arrests, according to the police spokesperson.
Some El Estor residents say they’re relieved the government declared a state of siege. “When there is a state of siege, one can sleep a little easier. There are many gang members that break into houses to steal,” a woman told Mongabay early one morning shortly after the curfew lifted while she fished from the edge of a lakeshore block the military was using as a staging area. She requested anonymity, citing potential retaliation from local criminals.
“The mine has brought quite a lot of development to the town,” she said, holding the line she had baited with pieces of tortilla to catch small fish for consumption. She also sells cosmetic products and said the wives of mine and plant workers are good clients, adding that workers spend their wages at local businesses. “Blockades affect the population,” she said of the recent protests. “They are people who do not want to work.”
While Mongabay was in El Estor, a few dozen people had traveled to Guatemala City to rally in favor of mining and the state of siege. At least one protest sign was already requesting the government to extend the state of siege for another 30 days. “The residents of El Estor collected more than 1,300 signatures on open letters of gratitude to the police, the Ministry of the Interior, and the President of Guatemala,” according to Solway’s press office, which added that neither it nor its subsidiaries had requested the police presence or state of siege.
National and international human rights organizations, on the other hand, have condemned the police crackdown on protests, the state of siege, raids, and attacks on local press. “The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the use of excessive force against protesters and members of Maya Q’eqchi’ communities as well as acts of repression against journalists and media outlets recorded in recent days in the municipality of El Estor,” the IACHR wrote Nov. 4 in a Spanish-language statement.
Local press targeted
The local Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a community radio station was a target on Oct. 24, day one of the state of siege. It broadcasts almost exclusively in the Q’eqchi’ language and is a means of news, communication and coordination for communities throughout El Estor, some of which do not have cellphone reception or even electricity. In some Q’eqchi’ areas, many people, especially women and elders, speak little or no Spanish.
“Companies have a hatred for the radio,” said Robin Macloni, executive director of Defensoría Q’eqchi’, a nonprofit local rights group linked to the volunteer-run radio it helped get off the ground in 2017. In practice, though, “the radio is the hands of ancestral authorities,” Macloni said. During the October protests, Q’eqchi’ council members used the radio to let people know which communities had turns maintaining the protest camp on which days, as they were taking rotating shifts around the clock.
When police cracked down on the protests, Defensoría Q’eqchi’ and Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a knew they would be targeted. On the morning of Oct. 24, they read the state of siege decree on air, announced they would have to suspend broadcasting, and removed all the transmission equipment from the building, Macloni said. Police did not raid the station as no one was present at the property.
Two days later, police raided the homes of local journalists Juan Bautista Xol and Carlos Ernesto Choc. As local correspondents for Prensa Comunitaria, an independent community-based digital publication, they had been covering the protests and crackdowns, later becoming targets of police violence in the mix. Since the raids, their relatives have reported being followed, questioned and surveilled by uniformed police officers as well as unmarked gray pickup trucks with tinted windows.
“Human rights defenders and especially journalists [like Choc] who have denounced this situation … are at high risk,” Francisco Vivar, a lawyer with the Center for Human Rights Legal Action, said in early November outside the local prosecutor’s office in El Estor, where he was accompanying Choc.
Choc had fled El Estor for safety but had to sign a registry at the prosecutor’s office every month as part of his bail conditions. Four years ago, Choc had reported on El Estor small-scale fishers’ guild protests against the mine and was later criminalized alongside several fishermen. This included guild president Cristóbal Pop, whose home was also raided during the state of siege, and former guild vice president Eduardo Bin, who was arrested during the state of siege on an old, expired arrest warrant. He was later released.
Fears for Guatemala’s largest lake
Fishermen have noted changes and fish stock depletion for years in Lake Izabal. In 2017, a red patch of discolored water appeared in the lake, and the fishers’ guild blamed the mine, filed a formal complaint, and organized protests. With a surface area of 590 square kilometers (228 square miles), Lake Izabal sustains local livelihoods but also important ecosystems and protected areas home to diverse fish, bird, reptile and mammal species, including the endangered Guatemalan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra). The lake itself, which drains into the Caribbean, is also home to a population of manatees (Trichechus manatus), the symbol of the town of El Estor.
Government studies have shown that “90% of the water pollution is generated not by the company’s operations but by the local communities residing along the Polochic River [that feeds into Lake Izabal]. The company’s contribution to the water pollution is minimal,” Solway wrote in a 2017 public statement. The company does not discharge any type of waste water and “carries out the most extensive environmental monitoring of water quality in Lake Izabal in the region,” the company’s press office told Mongabay.
Many Q’eqchi’ fishermen and community members do not trust the company or government. A private Guatemalan university, Universidad del Valle, was conducting research in the area when Solway acquired the Fenix project. The following year, in 2012, three biology students were killed on mining company property while monitoring crocodiles and taking water samples as part of a university-company exchange program. In 2019, a court convicted a CGN mining company biologist of culpable homicide and found CGN civilly responsible. The sentence was overturned in September 2021 and the legal battle continues.
The deaths fed local perceptions of mining pollution and a cover-up. “In the future we will see the consequences,” Luis Adolfo Ich said of all the mining and oil palm industry operations around the lake. “The struggle of the ancestral authorities and the guild is to protect the lake from pollution.”
Fishers’ guild protests in El Estor in May 2017 blocked the road leading to the Fenix mine, and riot police cracked down on May 27, firing tear gas and some live rounds. Local Q’eqchi’ fisherman Carlos Maaz was shot in the chest and killed, one of the latest in a long list of people killed in connection with the mine.
In 1965, a military dictatorship granted mining rights to EXMIBAL, a 50:50 joint venture between the Guatemalan government and Canada’s International Nickel Company (INCO). EXMIBAL’s operations took place during the 1960-1996 armed conflict between leftist guerrillas and the state. The military committed the first large-scale massacre of civilians in 1978 in Panzós, 26 miles west of El Estor, where Q’eqchi’ villagers were protesting for rights to their traditional lands, a massive swathe of which had been given to EXMIBAL.
Mining company personnel shot some El Estor community residents while they were on their way to the Panzós protest, according to a United Nations-backed truth commission into crimes against humanity during the armed conflict. A congressman and another member of an ad-hoc committee investigating EXMIBAL’s acquisitions were assassinated in 1970 and 1971.
Over time, EXMIBAL became CGN and Guatemala’s 50% stake decreased to 1%. In the 2000s, there were waves of evictions and crackdowns while the project was owned by Skye Resources and then Hudbay Minerals, both Canadian companies that tried to get the project up and running. Solway acquired the Fenix project in 2011 and restarted production in 2014.
“The story remains unchanged. It is the same,” said Olga Che, treasurer of El Estor’s small-scale fishers’ guild, a member of the new Q’eqchi’ authorities council, and a prominent figure at the recent protests. “The history of the armed conflict remains unchanged.”
In 1980, when Che was 2 years old, the military showed up and took away her father, who was never seen again. He was a very active member of the Catholic church at a time when the military government was targeting church figures openly sympathetic to human rights and land rights struggles. Che’s father is one of an estimated 45,000 people who disappeared during the armed conflict.
“We do not know if he is alive, if he is dead, or if they threw him somewhere. Who knows,” Che told Mongabay.
When soldiers and police showed up outside Che’s mother’s house on Oct. 26, lining the block, she was reminded of the incident in 1980 when the military took her husband. She has been unwell ever since the raid, said Che, whose own home was also raided while she and her husband and kids were at her mother’s place. Police dug holes in the dirt floor of the home.
A police officer threatened Che’s 11-year-old daughter with a beating and another grabbed her 8-year-old son by the arms, telling them to “tell the truth” about weapons on the property, Che said. Police also stole and ate tamales from the kitchen, according to the family. Che also said she and her husband were coerced into signing the written record drawn up at the end of the raid without getting a chance to read it.
Those claims are false, according to the national police spokesperson, who said that personnel from the prosecutor’s office were on site along with police during raids. Had something like that occurred, residents should have filed a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office or the police’s inspectorate-general, the spokesperson told Mongabay, adding that “anything like that would not have been tolerated.”
While Che discussed the raid, 182 km (113 mi) away in another department, the Ministry of Energy and Mines wrapped up the third and final meeting of the pre-consultation process concerning the Fenix mine. None of the meetings took place in El Estor, and two of the three were held during the ongoing state of siege. The actual consultation process, consisting of an informational phase and then “intercultural dialogue,” is set to begin during the state of siege and wrap up in December.
“If they do not listen to us we have the right to protest,” Che said. “I was there to defend our mountains and to defend our lake.”
Editor’s note: Sandra Cuffe has voluntarily contributed to and written for Prensa Comunitaria, including reporting fishers’ guild protests and the killing of Carlos Maaz in May 2017. She has sent photos and videos of other events.
Banner image: A group of riot police advance at the outset of a crackdown on a May 27, 2017, fishers guild protest over Lake Izabal pollution they associate with the mine. Image courtesy of Sandra Cuffe.