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Defending the people, and Lake Izabal

By Chris Hufstader
Eloyda Mejia, coordinadora de la Asociacion Amigos del Lago Izabal (ASALI), relata sobre la singularidad del Lago Izabal y las potencialidades para el desarrollo sostenible de la region.

Lake Izabal is a silver disc ringed by dark mountains; it reflects the sky and clouds. It is out on this lake, and drifting through the back reaches of the creeks feeding into it, where Eloyda Mejía is most struck by the beauty of the Izabal region. Under the green trees and hyacinth flowers, birds fly among the branches arching over the water, and monkeys move slowly among the tree tops. Mejía looks around, and says "When they talk about the tremendous amounts of minerals they propose to take out of here, how can you believe it won't affect this place?"

It is hard to reconcile the beauty of the lake with the violence along its shores. Mejía's work to defend the environment, and propose sustainable ways of living and working, has angered some who would prefer to rely on industrial mining for economic development in the region. A local citizen's organization has written a threatening letter to the Interior Ministry in Guatemala City, saying her work to educate community leaders about the risks of mining is unacceptable. She continues working, with international observers with her at all times to protect her.

A commitment to the lake and its people

Mejía first came here 10 years ago. She and her three children settled in the lakeside town of El Estor, promoting ecotourism and waging a series of campaigns to protect Lake Izabal from oil and mining projects that she says threaten the natural resources of the region—and won—t do much to benefit the local farming and fishing communities.

In 2002, Mejía and a handful of teachers, fisherman, environmentalists, a local physician and other citizens took on Shell Oil, which had a concession to drill right through the bottom of the lake. The small band of opponents founded the Association of Friends of Lake Izabal (ASALI) and succeeded in blocking the licenses for this project. ASALI then turned its attention to nickel mines along the sides of the lake.

There has been industrial mining in Izabal since the 1950s, but it has been in fits and starts as the prices of commodities have spiked and crashed over the years. But mining is now booming everywhere, so the Canadian company Skye Resources, which bought the mine in 2004, is now preparing to work a 100-square-mile concession it acquired in 2005. The area is home to 30 indigenous Q'eq'chi communities. None were properly consulted about the concession. This constitutes a violation of Guatemala's 1996 Peace Accords and international laws that protect indigenous people. The company is now engaged in talks with communities to convince them to go along with the plan to mine.

Skye Resources is now operating at a loss as it seeks financing so it can start mining in 2009. The company estimates it could get as much as 673,000 tons of nickel out of the mine. As part of its effort to clear people out of the concession area, the company and police forcefully evicted a number of Q'eq'chi communities in January of 2007, burning their humble shelters to the ground.

Land and rights

"We need a strong defense of the environment here," Mejía says at her home in El Estor. She has just finished a meal of traditionally prepared fish from Lake Izabal, and dines with visitors and two members of Peace Brigades International, who accompany her to ensure her safety.

ASALI is working in 29 communities to teach their leaders about mining: how much water is used, the chemicals, the transportation, and the rights of indigenous communities to be consulted. "We want every community leader to attend one of these workshops, and share their ideas and problems and work on them together," Mejía says. With help from Oxfam America, ASALI also arranges for these leaders to visit other mining areas in Honduras and in Guatemala's western highlands to see the effects of mining on indigenous people. "This is so they can see the consequences and talk to affected people," she says.

With the laws around land rights so unclear in Guatemala, indigenous people lack the required title and other official documents they need to defend their territory. Mejía says this needs to be addressed. "Through our contacts we have put the issue of land on the national agenda; it's been discussed in congress, so people are aware of the problems of land in mining concession areas."

Much of Mejía's motivation comes from her commitment to the people, all those who fish and grow corn on the fields near the lake. "When you come here and see the needs of the poor communities, you can see that people are not asking for much in life. But when you see the injustices and the way things are taken from them, it is so unfair that they are so poor and have so few opportunities despite the richness and national treasure here," she says. "This leads you to fall in love with this place. It makes you want to do something to contribute to changes here—and to denounce the injustice."

It is just this commitment that puts her at risk. Her Peace Brigade guardians are with her and several of her colleagues from ASALI, all of whom are working under threat. Mejía says they are not radicals."We want people to understand that there is another healthy and just way to develop this area, through rational use of the national treasures we have here."

"If at some time we no longer exist, we hope that we have sowed some seeds of awareness, solidarity, and respect to the environment. In this threatening climate for our work, our vulnerability makes us do what little we can—with all our hearts."