Defending the environment comes at a cost

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Teresa Muñoz tending one of her two cows at her home in San Jose La Sierra, Guatemala. Photo: James Rodriguez/Oxfam America

One visionary woman pays a heavy price for her opposition to a silver mine, but remains firm.

It can’t be a good feeling to hear that the police want to arrest you for a crime you never committed—and to know it is because you are speaking out in ways that make those in power uncomfortable.

I try to imagine what this feeling must be like when I visited Teresa Muñoz at her home, up on the side of a mountain in southern Guatemala. It’s a modest concrete house surrounded by trees, a quiet, secluded place at the end of a rocky dirt track.

It was all the trees that made it possible for Muñoz to observe the soldiers searching for her one day in May, 2013. Everyone she knows had warned her about the warrant for her arrest. “I didn't believe it,” she tells me on a quiet September day. “But I finally went up the hillside across from my house to look, and I saw that the house was full of soldiers with their guns drawn.

“‘Oh no, it's true,’ I said to myself.”

Muñoz is an outspoken opponent of a silver mine near her home, which she and others in the area say was established without proper consent from the local community. The mine wants to expand and could eventually take up about 1,200 square kilometers in area (480 square miles), and local farmers are against it. They live in an area well known for its coffee, vegetable, and dairy production, and are concerned these small businesses will go away, along with their farms.

After she and others protested the operation of the mine in 2013, the government sent in the army and indicted Muñoz and 16 others for kidnapping, attempted murder, attempted arson, and a few other violent crimes they never committed.

Even today, Muñoz can’t believe what happened to her: She had to flee on foot through the mountains, and got help from Oxfam’s partner CALAS, a human rights organization, in Guatemala City. She hid out for seven months.

Not backing down

Muñoz has had some time to get over her sense of disbelief, and deal with the reality facing her during those months. Although the charges against her were dropped, she still laments the climate of impunity in her country. “Even if you act peacefully you know they will call you a criminal,” she tells me while we have lunch. “It’s humiliating and repressive.”

Muñoz set up a table in the woods near her house. We have chicken soup, with tortillas Muñoz warmed up in the ashes of a fire burning in an old automobile wheel rim. It’s such a quiet, cool place, in the shade of the trees, I can understand how hard it must have been to acknowledge the presence of state-sponsored repression in such a beautiful place.

Teres Muñoz: “I know have to defend what I love, and what I love is nature and life.” Photo: James Rodriguez/Oxfam America
She tells us that the opponents of the silver mine are not backing down. And that she has bounced back from her terrible year: Since the charges against her have been dropped, and the army has left her village, Muñoz is back on the campaign trail. She recently visited Nevada, and met people in communities affected by silver mining there. She also went to Washington, where she met with US State Department officials, and staff from the office of Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada). She urged them to withhold aid to Guatemala security forces unless they make commitments to upholding basic human rights.  

In addition to helping Muñoz speak out about her experience, Oxfam is supporting the work of CALAS and other organizations in Guatemala that are assisting people like Muñoz who are being unfairly vilified in the media and persecuted for their work to protect their communities and the environment. It’s part of our program helping communities in 30 countries affected by oil, gas, and mining projects protect their rights and the environment.

“We have to fight for the truth,” Muñoz tells me at her home. “I know I have to defend what I love, and what I love is life and nature. So I will keep doing everything I can.”

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