"We are united"

By Chris Hufstader

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Community meetings in La Paz begin with a prayer. After the villagers assemble in a thatch-roofed shelter, open on the ends with benches along the walls, the indigenous farmers stand up, make the sign of the cross, and start praying aloud&mdsah;each individual in his or her own prayer. There is a chaos of murmured invocations: Middle-aged women in bright skirts and blouses clasp their hands in front of them, shaking them up and down, eyes closed. Men in T-shirts, jeans, and rubber boots look toward the sky, their arms outstretched, palms up, talking to God. Speaking in their Q'eq'chi language, they frequently use the word mattiox—thanks—in their prayers. They look peaceful. Suddenly their prayers end at exactly the same moment.

La Paz is a small collection of rustic shelters, on the side of the road 20 minutes from Lake Izabal in eastern Guatemala. It blends into the intense green hills, dotted with small corn fields and criss-crossed by footpaths. It is the scene of a struggle between indigenous farmers and an international corporation intent on exploring for minerals on the land the Q'eq'chi use for growing corn and beans.

Freddie Mo Qub, a young leader of the community, explains the situation: A mining company called Skye Resources has a license from the government of Guatemala to explore for minerals in the area. Property rights are not clear, and the company insists it has the right to charge them rent to farm on the 3,300 acres where they have lived and worked for many of years. Eventually, they are told, they will have to leave.

The people of La Paz have designated Mo Qub, 30, to learn about the plans for the mine, determine what dangers they face, and help them develop a strategy for the way forward. He has been participating in workshops run by the Association of Friends of Lake Izabal, or ASALI as it is known in Spanish. ASALI has also taken him to visit mine sites in the western highlands of Guatemala, as well as in Honduras.

ASALI's director Eloyda Mejía is at the meeting. She says the workshops, which are done with help from Oxfam America, are designed to help the indigenous people in the area learn about their rights, and the ways that modern mines operate. When Mejía addresses the meeting, she says, "we want you to learn, see for yourselves, and make your own decisions about mining."

Mo Qub says the ASALI workshops are an invaluable source of information. La Paz is now connected to different areas of the country where indigenous people are experiencing similar problems. "If it weren't for these workshops, we would not have any clear information about the effects of mining in our communities," he says.

He has seen that mining communities in Guatemala do not benefit much from the revenues from the minerals taken from their lands. While they may be relocated and lose their fields and water sources, they may or may not get a decent job at a mine site, which usually hires skilled workers.

Mo Qub says after seeing the effects of mining on other indigenous people in Guatemala, Las Paz is not in favor of the Skye Resources project. "Everyone wants the mine to leave," he says about La Paz. "The same way it came is the way it can go. Mines use a lot of water, they pollute the water, and will damage the agricultural potential here."

100 percent Guatemalan

For the Q'eq'chi people, the situation is curious, and a bit infuriating. They pay to work land that has been theirs for many generations, and are being pushed to leave it altogether. "We are 100 percent Guatemalans," Mo Qub says. "How is it possible that a foreign company can accuse us of illegally occupying this land? The words they say to us are offensive, and deeply anger us."

The meeting ends with a prayer, just as it started. The farmers may pray individually, but afterwards a woman says they are working together to defend their small part of the world, where they have lived for centuries. "We are united," she says. "We know our children will have no place to go if we don't fight for our land now." Like many others, she is not eager to share her name with strangers.

As if to show they will remain here, several of the men sharpen their machetes, and start clearing the grass and weeds away from the entrance of the meeting place. They slice the grass with long graceful slashes. The machetes make a metallic ringing sound as the grass jumps away from the blades, which blur as they arc off to the side and back again.