Thursday, November 20, 2014

Human rights defenders from Barillas convicted despite irregularities in proceedings

An excerpt from a press release issued by the Guatemalan Unit for the 
Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA):

"On Thursday, November 13, the trial court judge in Villa Nueva sent Oscar Morales, a leader in the resistance movement in San Rafael las Flores, to trial for allegedly threatening the manager of the mining company, Minera San Rafael, S.A., subsidiary of Canadian company Tahoe Resources. During the evidentiary hearing, the judge revealed his partiality when he indicted the human rights defender without a proper investigation. The judge is now sending the case to trial without a clear investigation and despite the fact that the Public Prosecutor's office has stated that they do not have enough evidence to accuse the defendant. In sending the case to trial, it has become clear that the judge is prioritizing private interests that are represented by lawyers of the third-party plaintiff. The trial against Oscar Morales opens on December 29.

On November 14, Saúl Aurelio Méndez and Rogelio Velásquez, water rights defenders from Barillas, Huehuetenango, were convicted by a Sentencing Tribunal in Huehuetenango for conspiracy to commit murder. The two human rights defenders were illegally detained on May 2, 2012 during a state of siege imposed by the government of Guatemala. After a lengthy process, they were released and declared innocent. However, while en-route with their lawyer for the final hearing on this case, they were arrested by the police outside the Guatemala City court house for the murder and femicide of two people who were lynched in Barillas in 2010.

Both the legal process itself and the verdict against the human rights defenders were plagued with irregularities. The verdict was reached without proving the individual responsibility of the accused, violating one of the core guarantees of the judicial system that states that individuals cannot be brought to trial for the actions of others. Both cases demonstrate how private interests trump justice, leading to the political persecution of social leaders and human rights defenders."

Link to original press release in Spanish can be found here.

Other statements from Guatemala:

"They accuse me of something I did not commit. My intention has always been to defend the rights of nature." (Saúl Aurelio Méndez Muñoz)

"I am someone of few material resources. I have fought for the rights of Mother Nature and for defending natural resources, I am now in prison." (Antonio Rogelio Velásquez)

"Together with their communities, [Saúl and Rogelio] expressed their opposition to the construction of the hydroelectric Hidro Santa Cruz. This struggle has meant repression and criminalization for them, their families and their communities by the Guatemalan state who, far from working for the wellbeing of the citizens of the country, protect the interests of transnational companies such as Ecoener Hidralia and its extractive projects in northern Huehuetenango. All of this threatens the lives of communities and the natural resources of the Guatemalan people." (Statement from the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango)

"It is clear that the case of Rogelio and Saúl corresponds to a strategy of terror that seeks to weaken community resistance and paralyze social movements in defense of territory. This [goal] wasn't achieved because those of us who defend life and territory remain united.” (Statement from the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango)

Link to original statements in Spanish can be found here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"We are a peaceful people" - Mataquescuintla celebrates 2nd anniversary of municipal referendum against mining

"Second Anniversary, Municipal Consultation as requested by Residents."
Photo: CPR Urbana

“Authorities will come and go, but it’s the responsibility of the people to uphold this decision,” says Moisés Divas to a large crowd gathered in the central park in the municipality of Mataquescuintla, Jalapa, located less than six miles from Tahoe Resources' Escobal silver mine. Two years ago, 98% of the population voted “NO” to the presence of metallic mining on their territory. Last week, hundreds gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of the consultation and to make sure the decision sticks.

"The referendum was a moment when the people could make their voices heard," says Enrique López, member of the city council. "The type of development that is being imposed in this territory is not long-term development for our people." A community-based mapping project undertaken recently in the departments of Santa Rosa, Jalapa and Jutiapa demonstrates Tahoe's grip in the region – highlighting a territory almost completely covered by mining licenses. In addition to the already-operating Escobal mine, Mataquescuintla is impacted by six other metallic exploration licenses.

Residents of Mataquescuintla locate their home on a community map to learn
which mining license might impact their lives and livelihoods.

On November 11, 2012, more than 60% of registered voters in Mataquescuintla voted in a community referendum and 98% of participants – more than 10,000 people - voted to ban the presence of mining on their territories. Together, they joined other municipalities in the area in voicing their loud opposition to the presence of mining companies such as Tahoe Resources, who began commercial production of its silver mine in the area in January 2014.

A month before starting production, Guatemala's highest court ruled in support of Mataquescuintla's municipal referendum, striking down the lawsuit filed to challenge its constitutionality. The groundbreaking decision recognized the responsibility that municipal authorities have to convene such votes and to make decisions according to their results, affirming their value as “adequate means by which peoples may exercise their right to give their opinion and be consulted on topics of interest.”

The decision is particularly important given the government and company's unwillingness to recognize consultations as a legitimate form of decision making that reflects community support or opposition to large-scale projects on their territory. Despite this seemingly dismissive stance, various consultations in Tahoe's area of influence were challenged in Guatemalan courts. Additionally, in the municipality of San Rafael las Flores where the Escobal project is located, efforts to organize a municipal consultation were thwarted by a massive campaign to criminalize leaders demanding a vote. During the anniversary celebration, Moisés Divas reflected on this contradiction stating, “If they don't care about the consultations, if they don't think they are powerful, why do they put so much effort into blocking them?”

While Tahoe Resources publicly promotes that it holds widespread community support for its operations, municipalities surrounding the mine continue in opposition. For example, the municipality of Mataquescuintla has refused to allow Tahoe access to the electrical power station located inside their municipal jurisdiction. Instead operations at Escobal continue to be powered by temporary generators.

Mataquescuintla is not the only neighboring municipality that soundly rejects the company's presence. Four additional nearby municipalities have voted against the mine in municipal referenda, while more than half of the communities in the municipality of San Rafael las Flores - right where the Escobal mine is located - have also declared themselves in opposition.

Maria Antonia Solares from San Juan Bosco stands in front of the
 map highlighting the Tahoe license that covers her community.

Maria Antonia Solares from the nearby community of San Juan Bosco in the municipality of San Rafael las Flores was present at the celebration in Mataquescuintla. Residents of her community are also facing impacts from the Escobal mine and the real possibility of Tahoe expansion into their backyard with the already granted Juan Bosco exploration license.

"It's important to be here, to learn from one another," says Solares. "Even though this is not my home, I am motivated by seeing other people defend their territory in the same way we are in San Juan Bosco."