Laura (in blue) with international  co-accompaniers in Guatemala.

Laura (in blue) with international co-accompaniers in Guatemala.

Dear friends,

I hope that this note finds you well! I apologize for taking so long to send out my first update. To be honest, I have tried to write this update countless times, but I’m finally determined to get everything down, so here it goes!
To start, I am doing well! It feels really good to be back in Guatemala and I feel very fortunate to have been able to return so soon. I started work in November, and I spent my first month and a bit in San Lucas Tolimán where I lived during my internship, and I took a short trip to Honduras and El Salvador.
It was very special for me to be able to spend time in San Lucas again, particularly in the community where I lived (Pampojila). It was interesting to see how some things had changed in only six months but after a few days it felt like I had never left. I am very grateful for the wonderful friends I have there and how open they are with letting me into their lives. It was good for my soul to spend time catching up with everyone and spending my days doing mundane things like making tortillas, watching soap operas and running errands with friends. While Pampojila will always be a beautiful place to me, it was also a time for me to remember some of the harder things that come with living in rural Guatemala. In a week three people passed away, from various illnesses, all of whom were quite young. I have been to far more funerals in my 8-or-so months of living in Guatemala than I have in my whole life in Canada, and it is a reminder of yet another cost of inequality. While so much attention is directed to physical violence it is often forgotten that the structural violence of hunger, malnutrition and lack of access to health care leaves far more victims both in Guatemala and around the world. In light of these losses, Pampojila felt a little sad, but I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of their sadness.
That being said there was a lot of beautiful things going on around me too. The coffee harvest began a bit earlier this year, so I had the chance to go pick coffee, which is something I enjoy a lot. It is nice to spend the day in good company enjoying the beauty of being outside. It feels good to spend the day doing something physical, that feels productive and I love the picnic lunches in the coffee orchard. I also was able to spend All Saints’ Day (on November 1st) in Pampojila, which was very special for me. On this day, everyone makes chuchitos (boiled corn dough with meat and tomato sauce wrapped in a banana leaf) and kites and goes to the cemetery to visit their loved ones who have passed away. You eat a picnic lunch at the graves (leaving some food for the person you are visiting) and spend time with your family. I was able to spend All Saints’ Day in Pampojila last year, and to me it is a very beautiful day. I appreciate that people take the time to visit their dead, and are able to remember them while still celebrating life. The cemetery is beautiful, with all of the graves freshly painted and decorated and with kites filling the sky. At night, hordes of young men take to the streets for the limosna, or a Guatemalan version of trick or treating. The group goes from house to house and bully the people inside into giving them treats. You usually throw candies, sweet bread, and boiled güisquiles (a vegetable) at the crowd, but I’ve been warned that if you give out güisquiles you risk having them thrown back at you. We waited on the rooftop for the crowd and delighted in throwing candies at the hysterical crowd of sugar-high teenage boys.
Other than my time in Pampojila, my friend Betsy and I went on a two-week trip to El Salvador and Honduras. We both worked as English teachers for migrant workers this past summer, in Leamington, Ontario, and our trip was inspired by our desire to see some of the places where our students are from. In El Salvador, we were able to visit the museum of the Salvadorean Revolution, in Perquín, which is a beautiful memorial to the history and struggles of the residents of Perquín during the armed conflict. In Honduras, we visited San Lorenzo, on the Pacific coast, Comayagua in central Honduras, and San Pedro Sula and la Ceiba on the Atlantic coast. It was interesting to see a very different part of Central America and it was lovely seeing our former students at home.
Back in Guatemala, I was also lucky enough to meet up with more of my former students from Leamington. I was thrilled to be able to meet their wives and children and spend some time with them, even though they all made me promise not to make them speak English! That being said, many of their wives told me about how when they called home, their husbands would show off by speaking to them in English. At least my English classes have been useful in impressing my student’s wives!
Come November, my visiting time was over and I began my training as a human rights accompanier with ACOGUATE. I was excited to finally get working, after so much time anticipating it I was finally going to get started! My training went well, and at the end it was decided that I will be based in the capital and will also do some work to support the coordination along with my work as an accompanier. Since I’ve started I have been very busy, but I am enjoying the work I have and I am learning a lot already. A lot has been happening in Guatemala since I arrived, and I feel lucky to be here in interesting times.
The organization I am volunteering for is called ACOGUATE, which stands for the Coordination of International Accompaniment in Guatemala. It is made up of 11 committees from North America and Europe, who help manage the project and who send volunteers to work as human rights accompaniers. The work we do is to provide physical accompaniment to organizations or people who are receiving threats for their engagement in non-violent and non-partisan work to promote human rights and social justice. This means we visit people in their homes, attend meetings and public events and have a presence in certain communities, in the hopes of deterring aggressors from acting on their threats and to collect information on the work of activists  and the threats they are receiving to share with our networks. The organizations we accompany generally fall into one of two categories, those who are working to bring the perpetrators (both intellectual and material) of crimes committed during the armed conflict to justice, and those who are working in resistance to mega-projects, particularly mines and hydroelectric dams. The project is divided between the capital based team (which I am now a part of) and 4 regional teams. If you would like to read more about ACOGUATE you can check out the English webpage of NISGUA (a US-based member of the coordination) or the Spanish-language blog of ACOGUATE .
I am living in a house in the capital with my coworkers, in a quiet neighbourhood. To be honest, it took me a couple of weeks to adjust to being here. I have never lived in such a big city before, and I must admit that I felt a bit of culture shock coming from Pampojila to here. The only Guatemala I have known is rural Guatemala, and life in the city is very different. There are some things here that make life more comfortable (having a hot shower, being able to go for runs and access to more exciting groceries) but on the other hand there is less of a sense of community, a lot of cement and it is not as safe. While I am getting used to things and happy to be here, I can’t say that I would want to live here long term and often feel homesick for Pampojila.
As for my home environment, I am enjoying living and working with people from eight different countries. As the only Canadian in the project right now it is interesting to learn about the cultures and backgrounds of my coworkers. I feel like I am learning a lot about Sweden!
I have been agonizing over what news from Guatemala to share with you, without overwhelming you with a 20-page update. I’ve decided to share with you a coles-notes version and I will attach more information for people interested in learning more.
Perhaps the most important thing that has happened since I arrived occurred on October 4th, when the army opened fire on unarmed protesters blockading a highway in Totonicapan, killing 9 people. This event is considered to be a case of extra judicial killings and the first massacre since the peace accords were signed in 1996. The protesters were indigenous K’iche community members who were protesting recent rises in the cost of electricity, controversial educational reforms and proposed changes to the Constitution that have not included consultation of affected communities. The government initially denied that the soldiers were armed, but later had to admit otherwise when forensic and photographic evidence indicated otherwise. While at first the government tried to brush off the killings, with the diplomatic chancellor stating, “It pains me to admit that at some latitudes eight deaths is a big deal, and though it may sound bad to say it, our country has twice that many deaths every day. Because of this, I don’t think it is such an urgent matter.” Guatemalans thought otherwise, and amidst the public outrage the government was forced to reassess its position. Eventually the diplomatic chancellor apologized for his comments, 8 members of the army suspected to be responsible for the killings have been arrested and the government has promised to no longer use the military to break up protests. If you are interested in reading more about the events at Totonicapan, Wyanne Sandler from Breaking the Silence wrote an excellent summary of the events and fallout. I have attached her summary to this email.
It is also important to mention the high tensions around mining projects in the country, most of which are run by Canadian companies. Just outside of the capital, in San Pedro Ayampuc and San José del Golfo, residents have been maintaining a 24-hour blockade to prevent the Tambor gold mine (previously owned by the Canadian Radius Gold until it was sold in August of this year to KCA, an American company) from operating. In June of 2012, Yolanda Oquelí, a leader in the resistance against the mine was shot and barely survived the attack. In recent weeks groups of alleged supporters of the mine have been sent to provoke the peaceful protesters and members of the media publishing materials sympathetic to the protesters have been threatened. If you would like to read more about the Tambor mine, here is a recent article: .
Another case that you may have read about in the Canadian media, is that of Hudbay Minerals. Last week a group of 5 plaintiffs from the community of El Estor, Izabal,  travelled to Canada to give evidence for the three civil cases they are putting forward against the Canadian mining company Hudbay Minerals. Hudbay is being charged with the gang rape of eleven women, the murder of Adolfo Ich and the shooting and paralyzing of German Chub. It is alleged that these crimes were carried out by the company’s security guards and the victims were targeted for their resistance to the nickel mine. They have chosen to pursue justice in Canada as they argue that the intellectual authors of the crimes reside in Canada and due to a weak legal system and corruption, it is unlikely that such a case would go forward in Guatemala. If you would like to learn more about the cases here are some good resources: ,  and the CBC’s coverage of their visit .
The cases around mining are of great interest to me, as it is a very direct example of how Canada is involved in human rights abuses in Guatemala. I am sad to say that our current government and the Canadian embassy in Guatemala unflinchingly support Canadian mining interests and are not willing to address concerns over the environmental damage, social conflicts and human rights abuses that Canadian companies are implicated in. This is impacting the reputation of Canada in Guatemala and around the world. I would like to believe that Canadians interests are not simply those of Canadian companies, but also the values that our country purports to hold. I encourage you to learn more about Canadian mining companies around the world and I hope to talk more about mining in Guatemala in my future updates. If you are interested in reading more about mining, Ottawa-based Mining Watch ( ) is an excellent resource on the impacts of mining projects both in Canada and around the world.
Well, this has turned in to quite a lengthy update, thank you to those who have stuck it through to the end! I promise to write more frequent, shorter updates from now on, so expect to be hearing from me before Christmas!
I hope that this message finds you well!