by Alexandra Pedersen, Photos by James Rodríguez, Upside Down World, Thursday, 30 January 2014 10:35
It was another cold summer’s night in the Guatemalan highlands when my colleague, Rev. Emilie Smith, received a devastating phone call. “Yoli has been shot!” said a voice on the other end. Frantically, we gathered all the information we could: Was she alive? Where is she now? By the time I went to bed—not that I could sleep—I knew human rights defender Yolanda (Yoli) Oquelí Veliz was stable and safe, at least for the time being.
I first met Yoli at a community blockade known as La Puya in May 2012. Named after a thorny tree that grows in the area, La Puya translates to “a thorn in the side,” a name somewhat emblematic of the movement’s mission. La Puya is a space of non-violent resistance about thirty minutes outside Guatemala City. When Canadian mining company Radius Gold Inc. acquired an exploitation license from the Guatemalan government in early 2012, the company began moving large equipment into community territory. By March 2, locals from the municipalities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc assembled a roadblock at the mine’s entrance. La Puya’s participants are protesting what they say is the company’s lack of transparency, as well as patterns of impunity and corruption within the Guatemalan government. The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA has expressed worry over Radius’ environmental impact assessment as the company “recognized that air quality would be affected, as well as flora, fauna, top soil, and the available quantity of water.” Communities in this area have access to water once, sometimes twice a week, making water a primary concern for locals.
Radius’ attempt to establish the El Tambor Mine was met with powerful peaceful resistance by members of La Puya. Two months after Yoli’s June 2012 shooting, Radius sold what it called a “problematic asset” to a Nevada-based company Kappes Cassidy and Associates (KCA). Riot police then occupied La Puya at the demand of the Guatemalan government and in response to pressure from KCA. Despite the overwhelming temptation to react with violence, La Puya has not thrown one stick, not one stone. “We may be meek, but we are not stupid,” Yoli says. “We know our rights and we are going to fight for them.”
Although El Tambor Mine is no longer Canadian, what happened to Yoli is emblematic of the experience with some Canadian companies in Guatemala. Canada has the leading number of mining companies in the world, controlling more than 8,000 exploitation and exploration projects in 120 countries worldwide. However, the Canadian government prefers that mining companies adopt voluntary policies rather than accept formal regulations and legal liability. Mining companies are left to police themselves regarding respect for human and environmental rights. Between 1999 and 2009, Canadian corporations owned 33 percent of the global extractive companies involved in mining conflicts, trailed by Australia