Rodolfo Pocop: an indigenous perspective on mining in Guatemala

By Oxfam America

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The indigenous people of Guatemala have endured 500 years of violence, racism, and discrimination. Most recently, they bore the brunt of a 36-year armed conflict in which 100,000 Guatemalans died and 50,000 disappeared.

Rodolfo Pocop, the National Coordinator for the National Indigenous and Peasant Council (CONIC), says that despite this violent history, the indigenous people of Guatemala are well-organized, and mobilizing to protect their culture and defend their rights and ancestral lands.He feels their next big challenge is surviving in the "Free Trade" economy in the Americas. The number one concern: international mining projects, which Pocop saysis a significant threat to Mayan lands and culture. In a talk with Oxfam America staff in Guatemala, Pocop explains indigenous concerns about mining and indigenous lands and rights.

Indigenous perspective on past and future

"Our ancestors taught us to love mother earth and live in harmony with all natural beings. All our political, economic, and social institutions are part of this heritage. This is the base on which we construct the future. The valleys, the plains, the mountains, the deserts, the oceans, the rivers, the condor, the eagle, the hummingbird, the puma, the jaguar—they are all witness to our collective systems of living, based on sustainability of humans and the environment.

We were kicked off our original lands by the colonizers, and then by our governments. We were divided in order to guarantee political control and pushed onto inhospitable lands. We are now trying to manage these lands by the conservation of biodiversity and natural resources. This started in 1492 and continued through the 19th century. In 1954, the best, most productive indigenous lands were passed to private hands, like the banana companies. Big areas now grow cotton and sugar cane; the best lands are for coffee production. In 1954, our culture and our collective ways of living were destroyed, and collective property was abolished.

[From 1960] until 1996, there was an armed conflict. Part of the reason for this was the concentration of wealth in the hands of no more than 30 families. They had all the economic and political power and social control over the country. Seventy percent of the population, the indigenous people, did not even have basic legal rights. We did not get any benefits from the government, we were just used as cheap labor, almost slaves or indentured servants. During the 36 years of armed conflict, 83 percent of the victims were among the indigenous Mayan people.

In Guatemala we have a republican constitution, almost a literal copy of the US Constitution. Only in articles 66 to 70 are indigenous people mentioned. We are seen as resources and folklore. Our fundamental rights are not recognized.

Discrimination is structural, it comes from the government, and it is replicated in the educational system. It teaches more about other cultures than our own. And for that reason, when we speak our own language and wear our traditional clothing, they say that we are inferior to those who are not Mayan. They assume that other peoples' culture is superior to that which is here.

If the state structure discriminates against indigenous people, then this is converted into exclusion from development. These last four years we have seen an example of this exclusion : 85 percent of the national budget was spent in the urban areas; 15 percent was for rural areas. But not even this amount reached the countryside due to high levels of corruption and misuse of funds.

The social fabric of indigenous communities has been torn. If we have survived for 500 years, it is not just chance. It is because our grandmothers and grandfathers have taught us to survive by growing crops without chemical fertilizer, and to live together, in solidarity, in harmony between humans, nature, Mother Earth, the birds, and animals."

Concerns about mining

"Before the first conquerors came, the Maya worked with gold, and silver, and other metals. They used these resources, but for personal and domestic usage. It was not for export. Now the extraction of metals comes with a cost. It is breaking the harmony between families and nature.

We are concerned about mining, and the way it is done, with open pits. Cyanide is highly toxic for humans.

We also can't understand why these companies don't respect something very important and fundamental to our survival: our own perspective and spirituality. Ours is not any old religion. Our spirituality is precisely the harmony between humans, Mother Earth, space, and nature. When we see the respect to Mother Earth is lost, we feel our roots are touched. And that is what is taken from us. It is like an extermination of our cultural identity, a moral extermination of our historical memory, of our grandmothers and grandfathers and what they have contributed to the development of humanity. This is the harmony of the Maya.

A whole system of life and culture is being destroyed. Scientific data and analysis show one impact, on nature, but to us it is deeper. We feel like this kind of mining represents a destruction of life and culture. So we are denouncing this new system of development, because it is passing over our right to be consulted, which is protected by the International Labor Organization Convention No. 169.

The benefit of mining to Guatemala is about one percent of the earnings generated, and only about half of one percent is for the municipality. So after all the millions and millions are taken out, half of one percent is nothing. And after they are done, they will leave our lands and they will be no longer useful for agriculture.

In the case of the Marlin mine, they project 109,000 ounces of gold and silver. With this comes the destruction of 10,000 hectares of land. There will be a lot of Mayan communities unable to survive into the future.

Our struggle going forward as indigenous people directly affected by mining is based on three principles: we will keep struggling so that our cultural rights as indigenous peoples are recognized; under no conditions will we negotiate with the government or companies the principles of lands and territories—we have a territory, and this should be respected; and we have the freedom of self determination about our lands and territories and their resources."

Clash of world views

"We do not have a formal mining code that reflects our world view. Our ministry of energy and mines does not recognize that we have a right to be consulted each time they want to take a product out of our territory. Our government does not take into consideration the priorities of the indigenous people. It does not know about rural poverty and realities and does not understand indigenous peoples.

A high level commission is now developing a mining law. The government is trying to please every sector—using a sort of double discourse. When they speak to us, they say "Oh, you indigenous people, we love you and admire you" and they are going to give us all these things. And when the transnational companies come, they do the same thing. It is selling Guatemala, and keeping a good relationship with everyone while doing it.

The issue is not for them to give us something; the issue is for them to recognize our ancestral rights."