Montreal Gazette

By Catherine Solyom, THE GAZETTE March 22, 2013

MONTREAL — With her broad, patient smile, her work-worn hands folded over a traditional, woven skirt, Lolita Chavez is hardly a menacing figure.

Yet in Guatemala, Chavez has been branded a threat to national security and a terrorist for speaking out against the development of Canadian-owned mines against the people’s will.

In Montreal Friday as part of a cross-country tour to draw attention to ongoing conflicts around mines — called “Plan Nord, Plans Sud” in Quebec — Chavez spoke to a crowded auditorium at UQÀM about her experience and Canadians’ responsibility in the “new invasion” of her country.

First came the Spanish conquest, then the civil war in Guatemala that claimed some 200,000 lives, now come the Canadians, Chavez told the crowd of students, academics and activists.

“Canadian companies are the main protagonists in this invasion that brings only death and destruction,” said Chavez, the spokesperson for 87 indigenous K’iche’ (Mayan) communities in Santa Cruz del Quiché, about 145 kilometres north west of Guatemala City. “And when we say we don’t want it, they say we are ignorant, or brutes, or we don’t understand the benefits. But we have a right to say no.”

Saying no has been dangerous for Chavez and others trying to stop mining development by transnational corporations, first and foremost, Vancouver based Goldcorp. A 2005 referendum showed widespread opposition by local communities to the opening of Goldcorp’s Marlin gold mine, out of fears the mine would contaminate the water and soil in the agricultural region. The company and the government ignored the results, Chavez said, and the mine is still in operation, expecting to produce 200,000 ounces of gold this year.

Since community-led consultations on mining began in Quiché in 2010, the number of attacks on community leaders by government forces allied with the mining companies has increased, Chavez said. In 2011, there were eight attacks recorded. In 2012, there were 67, including threats, beatings and kidnappings.

Chavez recounted an incident in July last year when armed men called out for her by name after a local assembly.

“They didn’t find me, but they beat the other women there. One of them lost her teeth. Why? Because we dared speak against the government and the mining companies.”

She now has a full-time body guard, courtesy of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Others haven’t been so lucky. Arrest warrants were issued against eight women who were accused of cutting the electricity to the Marlin mine. (A hydroelectric tower was on one of the women’s land.) Only after two years in court did a judge rule against Goldcorp, Chavez said, rescinding the arrest warrants and ordering the company to remove the tower.

Goldcorp could not be reached for comment Friday.

Last Sunday, four indigenous community leaders were attacked and kidnapped after participating in a local referendum on the Escobal silver mine in San Rafael Las Flores, that Tahoe Resources — 40 per cent owned by Goldcorp — wants to develop.

Two of the men escaped, but the vehicle of one of the other men was found Monday morning riddled with bullet holes, and with it, the body of Exaltación Marcos Ucelo.

Edie Hofmeister, a spokesperson for Tahoe Resources, said the company was not involved in any such attack and condemns all violence and criminal activity in the area. Two security guards at the mine were killed in January by heavily armed trespassers, she said.

In Canada for the week, Chavez now wants to appeal to all those who would invest in the lucrative gold stocks.

“Maybe you want to generate revenue for your pensions, invest more to earn more. We respect that,” Chavez told the audience. “But with all our hearts we say this kind of investment is generating death and destruction. Stop investing in mining because they are killing us.”

Chavez’s other strategy involves facing violence with love. At a recent gathering, she said, soldiers were sent in to intimidate and repress the activists. But instead of taking arms up themselves, the indigenous people sang and danced, and offered the soldiers food.

“Canadians need to hear both sides of the story,” Chavez said. “Am I a terrorist?”

© Copyright (c) THE GAZETTE