During Guatemala’s thirty year long civil war, the population suffered a massive genocide, whereby an estimated 200 000 people were killed, most of whom were a part of the Mayan Indigenous population. The civil war ended in the 1990’s, but the struggle did not. The country continues to exist under a repressive government.
This February, I was fortunate enough to join a delegation of students traveling to Guatemala. We went with Service Learning and Breaking the Silence (BTS), a solidarity network based out of the Maritimes. The purpose of the trip was to learn about, and bear witness to the human rights violations that have occurred in Guatemala, and the ongoing repression that Guatemalans face. During the trip, we were also called upon to consider Canada’s relation to the Guatemalan state, and how we can hold our own government accountable.
I would like to use two cases of injustice to illustrate the ongoing challenges that Guatemalans face: the Rio Negro Massacres, and exploitative mining practices. While in Guatemala, the group spent the first days in Rabinal, hearing from a survivor about the Rio Negro Massacres. We got to visit Pacux, where many survivors have resettled, and built monuments to commemorate their lost loved ones.
These massacres were a part of a larger politics of extermination by the Guatemalan government. In particular, the Rio Negro Massacres were over the building of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam, which was funded by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Residents of Rio Negro resisted the project, and were labelled as guerrillas because they stood up for their rights. What followed was a series of assaults on the town, which essentially wiped out the population. Today, the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam stands tall, but at a great cost; thousands of Indigenous people were senselessly murdered.
My delegation travelled to Rio Negro by bus and boat. Once there, we hiked an hour and a half to the Rio Negro Massacre site, where 170 women and children were brutally murdered. This was only one of a series of assaults that whose intentions were to exterminate the Indigenous population in the town for the construction of the dam. Today, survivors are returning to Rio Negro to rebuild. They have reclaimed the land, and are bringing life back to the region. Survivors of the Rio Negro Massacres have been fighting for recognition since the genocide, and they continue to resist efforts to extinguish their culture. The Guatemalan government has failed to pay adequate reparations to survivors, and they have failed to recognize the genocide as such. Genocide trials, spearheaded by survivors, are still ongoing.
Following the civil war, Peace Accords were signed, which essentially opened the country up to foreign investment. Today, there are four major mining corporations in Guatemala, all of which are Canadian. Due to the nature of these mega-projects, they have been harmful to the land and peoples surrounding them. Beyond this, a number of the corporations have committed atrocious human rights abuses.
In particular, I would like to touch on nickel mine in Guatemala, located near the town of El Estor. The Indigenous population living near the mine were forcibly removed to make room for the mine. As a result of conflict caused by this relocation, there have been a number of murders, assaults, and other human rights violations. Including: two academics who were assassinated, seven men who were killed, eleven women who were raped during evictions, and a community leader who was killed during protests in 2009. The company responsible for these actions is Hud Bay Minerals.
The company has had three lawsuits filed against them. However, Canadian courts are not required to hear these cases if they find that Guatemalan court would be more appropriate, or if the Canadian mining company does not owe a duty of care to the Guatemalan people. Fortunately, all three cases were accepted by Canadian courts in 2013 and are still in progress.
To complicate things even further, Hud Bay was previously owned by INCO – also a Canadian company. INCO became involved in Guatemala at the beginning of the civil war, in the 1960s. The Canadian Department of External Affairs was supportive of this venture. INCO planned to mine near the town of El Estor, however there were two significant challenges: law prohibited open pit mining and guerrillas in the area.
INCO worked around these challenges by having a lawyer rewrite the policies, so that open pit mining was made legal. They also gained permission from the military government to mine in the area, so long as stability was ensured. Colonel Carolos Arana Osorio was responsible for relocating the Indigenous people who were living where the mine was to be. Osorio then began what has been called by some a “reign of terror”. Between three and six thousand people were killed in the relocation.
During this time, Canada continued to support the creation of the mine, and the Canadian ambassador to Guatemala even toured the region. Also during this time, the mine was widely protested by the Indigenous population, as well as concerned Guatemalans. In particular, the topic was publicly protested by a group of professors at the University of San Carlos, who were silenced, and two professors were assassinated. These types of brutal acts of repression continued with Canadian support until 1982, when the mine was shut down because of the declining price of nickel.
I am telling these stories to bring readers attention to the importance of holding our government accountable. Recently, the government has implemented an office for the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. This was a fought for position, which will hopefully improve the conditions under which Canadian corporations operate. However, it is crucial that as Canadians, we continue to keep a watchful eye on the office, and we hold our government accountable for their actions.