The Common Good
March 2014

The Thorn Tree Resistance

by Emilie Teresa Smith | March 2014

Gold and silver mines in Guatemala are wreaking havoc on local communities. But the people, using nonviolent Christian action, are fighting back.

Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be refined ... They put their hand to the flinty rock, and overturn mountains by the roots. They cut out channels in the rocks, and their eyes see every precious thing ... But where shall wisdom be found? —Job 28:1, 9-12

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THE DIRT ROAD twists down into a gully at La Puya, Guatemala, and up the other side, slipping between the knee-high fields of holy corn. The river doesn’t run anymore at the bottom, but the butterflies gather in remembrance of the water of times past. Hundreds of them rest and then flutter suddenly up as a woman goes by to gather fresh basil or chipilin from the little herb and vegetable garden that grows in tires and the ground all along the blocked access road leading into the proposed gold-mine site.

La Puya is the curve in the road where a thorn tree used to stand, throwing fine sharp needles down on unsuspecting passersby. Now it is a well-ordered encampment of neighbors from the twin municipalities of San Pedro Ayampúc and San José del Golfo, 10 miles northwest of Guatemala City.

These women and men are here in a startling act of markedly Christian peaceable resistance. They have been at the gates around the clock and around the calendar since March 2, 2012, when a lone woman pulled her car across the access road to the mine, blocking some incoming machinery. Then a bus bumping down the main road stopped, and the passengers piled off when they saw what was happening.

Then more people came, and dozens stayed. They settled in for a long night that became a long season of resistance. Local communities had had enough of the obfuscation, lies, and manipulation from Radius Gold, a mining company based in Vancouver, Canada.

This particular conflict, and others like it in Guatemala, are rooted in actions by mining companies that started about 15 years ago, after the official conclusion of Guatemala’s vicious 36-year-long civil war—and after the national mining laws were completely rewritten to entice a rush of foreign investment. Ever since, the Guatemalan countryside has been open for business.

In 2000, Radius secured an exploration license for the area between San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampúc. With no consultation with the local population—furtively checking in only with the notoriously corrupt mayor of San José del Golfo and other select authorities—and with a shoddy environmental impact assessment, Radius, with its partner company Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates (KCA), plowed forward with the mining project, contravening at that point both Guatemalan law and international agreements that Guatemala has signed on to.

More than 100 licenses to explore and exploit have been issued (mostly to Canadian mining companies), while the country itself has no functioning environmental or social protection structures in place. The rewritten mining legislation of 1997 gives foreign companies every advantage, including full rein to use the country’s fragile water (without cost), and to leave behind a pitiful 1 percent in royalties of the riches they dig out of the earth.

These companies have been met with local resistance on every occasion, most notably at the massive open pit Marlin Mine, run by Canada’s Goldcorp, in San Marcos, the Fenix nickel mine project in El Estor, the El Escobal silver mine, and the Tambor gold and silver mine at La Puya.

What is remarkable about La Puya is the powerful presence of intentional nonviolent action in resistance. Community members, one after another, tell us their stories and offer their deep analysis of what is happening in the region.

The men and women at La Puya explain what they know from daily lived experience: Mining companies do not exist for the betterment of humanity, least of all for the poor. Maybe a few local people will get jobs, for a little while. Some of the already rich in Guatemala probably stand to get richer. But mining is about one thing alone—making money for a relative few. It is not even about bringing essential metals for necessary daily use.

The costs are huge in environmental damage and detriments to human, animal, and plant health. The people of La Puya know the value of land, which produces corn, the very foundation of life, and water, which sustains all beings. They are no fools, though the companies seem to think so. The land, say the miners, was fairly bought. But no one asked the people here if they were in favor of the mine. They knew nothing about it, they say, until the big machinery started to move in.

ON A RAINY evening other visitors and I sit close to the fire. Rain gathered on the immense awnings suddenly pours down in a thick stream. We have been very careful with the precious water that we use in the camp. A local woman, Doña Juanita, says water only comes to her house twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and then only for a couple of hours. I wonder out loud if the foreign mining companies will face such restrictions—only allowed to use so much water, Tuesdays and Saturdays. We all laugh, an aching, troubled laugh.

“But God is here with us, here he has come and made his dwelling place,” the people tell us, again and again. The community that has grown at La Puya is diverse in faith, politics, and ethnicity. Women play an important, visible role. Especially when the attacks come—and they have come, by the dozen.

The first attack was on May 8, 2012. Company trucks and police vehicles blasted through the town in the early hours of the morning, planning to break up the blockade. The 20 or so community members on the blockade that night roused the alarm. Cell phones were used, as were church bells in all the surrounding villages. People came by the thousands and stood before the trucks, singing the national anthem and then a string of hymns. The police backed down.

A few weeks later, on June 13, gunmen shot at community leader Yolanda Oquelí four times, just after she had left the blockade. She managed to duck under the door of her car, but one bullet cut into her and lodged itself immovably, perilously close to her spine. For months she was in recovery. Then she returned to the barricade. (Two months after the attempted assassination of Oqueli, Radius Gold sold its interests in the mine to its partner KCA, saying it was selling off a “problematic” asset.)

Throughout 2012, the company attempted to divide the communities surrounding the proposed mine site, offering training in pastry making and sewing to local women and handing out bags of free groceries to anyone who came to a company information meeting. In November of that year, a few provocateurs carried out daily attacks against the community in resistance, screaming obscenities at the singing women and children and the few men who were able to stand the assaults without violent reactions. The provocateurs, it was later learned, were paid between 50 and 100 quetzales a day ($6 to $12) and were egged on by former military lieutenant Pablo Silas Orozco (who now faces charges of defamation and intent to instigate violence). Exhausted finally by the blockaders’ lack of response—except to pray and to sing—the provocateurs gave up and went home.

Finally, on Dec. 7, 2012, the government ordered a major action. Around 1,000 heavily armed riot police marched down upon what has become known as the “Thorn Tree resistance.” The police quickly and roughly arrested four men. At El Carrizo, one of the adjoining villages in full-on rebellion, a large group of police was hemmed in front and behind by supporters of the blockade and was completely neutralized. The mass of the police back at the La Puya blockade moved in, batons smashing on shields, sending off tear gas canisters. The women—led by Doña Berta, a 70-something holding her icon of the Virgin Mary, Holy Mother of the Prince of Peace—lay down on the road and refused to budge. They sang and they prayed. A Catholic lay leader, Bible in hand, strode up and down the line of police, admonishing them to engage in correct Christian behavior.

And then the miracle happened. The police—who were being screamed at by Eddy Juarez, the vice-minister of the interior, to break through and take down the blockade—refused to act. It is the biggest (and least talked about) act of disobedience by the security forces of Guatemala, traditionally silent enforcers of the oligarchy’s every bloody whim. They stood, refusing to stamp over the mothers and grandmothers.

After several hours of confrontation, international and national human rights observers talked them down. In a shaky show, as if to say “we’re still in charge,” the police left 15 officers on duty, ostensibly to guard the machinery down the road. The protesters gave the police coffee and tortillas; the police even came to warm themselves at night by the community fire. A few weeks later, with no fanfare at all, they quietly went away.

The men, women, and children of the Christian resistance at La Puya shared with us their stories. Every last one of them expressed how, as they struggled to respond to hatred by refusing to hate in return, they experienced the very presence of the one who came to us to teach a new way of being in the world.

These hundreds of corn farmers and housewives of the villages of San Pedro Ayampúc and San José del Golfo are prophetic witnesses. In the face of the lies, violence, and manipulation from the mining companies and their cronies in Guatemala and North America, they have stood up and named what really matters—not power, not riches, not prestige, but life and God’s good creation.

On my last evening in La Puya, the sun sets over the hills; a strange, sweet light fills the air and colors everything pink and orange. Dogs bark; women come rushing late from the market; students run from school down to the soccer field.

Out along the dusty road, the shifts are changing again on the resistance blockade. The outgoing group heads home, tired and relieved, and the new group readies itself uneasily for another long night. It’s 5 p.m., and dark will soon filter through the trees.

Hardly anyone remembers where the original thorn tree stood—that was in the days of the grandparents. In my mind’s eye I will forever see the grin on a long-toothed old man, Don Petronilo, when he said, quietly, “We are the sharp thorns now!” 

Emilie Teresa Smith, an Argentine-Canadian Anglican priest and theologian, serves St. Barnabas’ church in New Westminster, British Columbia. Co-president of the Oscar Romero International Network in Solidarity with the Peoples of Latin America, she has walked with the Guatemalan people for 30 years.

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