- For defenders
- How can I help?
It was too raw to tell you about Yolanda Oqueli before now and though it's very late, and we're leaving at 4am in the morning, I must try now.
Yolanda is a woman human rights defender in San Jose de Gulfo who is a community leader resisting the Exmigua mine. From everything we've heard, from all sides, mining of minerals such as gold and silver, sand and alloys is a huge issue in Guatemala. Generally the community affected is not consulted. No objective information or public proccess of consultation takes place to allay fears about damage to the environment; whether the rivers will be polluted; whether the forests will be felled and thus their water supply compromised; and also, what will happen after the mining licence expires and the environment needs to be repaired and rebuilt.
Yoly (as she wrote her name) has a history of intimidation because of her work. Her lawyer (pro bono) has lodged roughly 10 complaints through the legal process. She has been tear-gassed; graffiti had been written on her walls and threats against her and her children have been significant. Despite this, the Government to date has been mute.
Today was a 5am start as we flew up to Flores in the Petén region of Guatemala to visit the national park and see exactly why the protection of the environment is such a vital issue here and why it has inspired such total dedication from Yuri (Melini).
It's one of those windy-up planes with propellers and there is a short intake of breath when we see it on the runway. "The Adventures of Biggles" come to mind!
It's a short, one hour flight and we fly in over pristine forest, huge lakes and finally reach what looks like a miniature version of Venice, the island town of Flores.
It is much hotter here than in Guatemala City and by the time we reach the hotel for breakfast we are already in a lather. Sitting on the terrace of the hotel, looking out over the lake it is hard to believe that this semi-paradise is also a place where human rights defenders have been attacked and killed and where, according to one source, many people don't need to work because they have made their money trading in stolen archaeological artefacts.
We drive up to the access point into the park and there, because we are with Yuri (Melini) we are ushered through as guests of the Director.
After meeting the community in Peronia, we received a message that there were some people in the village of San Rafael who had been receiving threats because they were challenging the policy of a mining company who they felt were trampling over their rights. We arrived to a small village in a very beautiful area with lots of trees and green fields, surrounded by mountains... the kind of place that should be a haven of tranquility.
We went to the house of Oscar, who has been the target for a series of threats and he explained to us what had been happening.
He started by setting out how we, as humans, resist or challlenge something that is unknown to us or that has not been explained properly. It is our nature, he explained.
Recently a mining company has been given a licence to mine for gold, lead, silver and zinc in the area, and already the company has started the preliminary work.
On Sunday we went to a very poor area called Peronia where the conditions are dreadful - tiny one room dwellings, intermittent electricity, often scarcity of water and poor sewerage. Yet amid this desolation, human rights defenders had successfully closed down a sand mine which had been operating there.
The mine had covered the whole area in a fine dust, children were getting sick, clothes could not be washed, the loud noise from the machines was there day and night, the food had to be always wrapped. The sand polluted the river and thus the town water supply.
They decided to fight "but to fight money is a very difficult thing to do". The threats started and tear gas was used but the thinking was...
... "we might run out of water; we might run out of forest; we might run out of life".
It was the women who were more active in the beginning - Christi de Rivera described how she took her children aged 4 and 6 and sat down with a few others on the road, blocking the trucks, despite the fact that she was afraid that something might happen to her and her children.
Yesterday we went to Peronia, one of the new shanty towns that have sprung up around Guatemala City to accomodate the more than 1 million people who travel into the city everyday to work. Slums where a family can pay 30 Euro for one room with limited water and sanitation. The community here in Peronia have been badly affected by a sand quarry which has essentially removed one of the local mountains.
In 2008 Yuri (Melini) received a call from a local priest, Fr. Elias stating that the community were under pressure because of their resistence to the quarry. Children were getting sick because of the constant dust, sore throat complaints were on the rise, the food was always covered in dust and the lorries were up and down the street all the time. In addition, the woods, where people had been able to send their children to play and which were a resource for the whole community, were simply being eliminated.
Yuri helped them with legal and communications advice and moral support.
It seems a lot more than 24 hours since we arrived in Guatemala - of course it had taken 21 hours door to door, which distorts things.
Anyway, after a good night's sleep later and lots of tea, I was raring to go. So lovely to meet Yuri Melini again - the man is a ball of energy.
First we went to his office and from there to Guatemalan TV where both he and I were being interviewed. The interviewer, Karina de Rottmann, has been given an armoured car and bodyguard as she and her husband (who owns the station) are at risk because of their outspoken defence of the rights of the people in Guatemala, especially when it comes to unpopular issues like extractive mining.
Tomorrow morning we are going to visit a community, to see the impact of the mining industry on their lives.
The afternoon saw us in the attorney general's office where we discussed human rights defenders and the responsibility of the office to bring those who attack human rights defenders to justice.
You will be astonished by the positive effects of jetlag - most unusually for me, I was up at 5am this morning writing this blog which then festered for sometime in my draft email folder due to the dodgy internet connection. I suspect that the jet lag will have its revenge later in the day however.
Yesterday's first call was a visit to the office of the environmental organisation CALAS. A small, pretty house in a nice suburb with wrought iron gates, bougainvillea plants on the walls and an armed guard holding an AK 47 standing in the doorway. This security is provided by the state for the organisation, though Yuri Melini's personal protection detail has in fact been reduced by half in recent times.
We arrived at 21.30 last night after 18 hours on the road. I have a feeling that our intrepid photographer Kieran has a stash of compromising photos of me asleep during the 7 hour stop-over in Atlanta, book in one hand, coffee in the other, sound asleep and drooling... not a pretty sight!
On the way in from the airport, the protagonist of our up-coming documentary Yuri Melini, Director of CALAS, gave us a potted history of Guatemala. While the country became independent in 1821, there was no noble war of independence like in Bolivia but a political deal in which the Spanish Governor simply became the President and the colonial elite, who governed every aspect of the political and economic life of the country remained in situ.
Tomorrow morning Mary Lawlor founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders and I are heading off to Guatemala to make a documentary about the situation of human rights defenders told through the eyes of one man - environmentalist Yuri Melini .