Welcome to Guatemala

Gillian Laura Locascio

Few for Change Co-Director Gillian Locascio returned from Panama last spring after spending over a year working for a community health organization in the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé (or Ngäbe-Buglé, as it is sometimes spelled). In this post, she reflects on the protests that she witnessed while in Panama (featured in a recent post about the Barro Blanco dam) and why she has decided to serve as a human right accompanier in Guatemala. --

February 5, 2012. Panama.

The roads had been closed for five days.

In Bocas province, cars were stranded along the roadside without gas.

In Panama City, supermarkets were running out of food.

In Chiriqui, trucks lined the highway, filled with rotting vegetables.

The protesters were demanding the presence of President Martinelli for dialogue regarding proposed mining and hydroelectric projects in their state.

Instead of dialogue, before dawn on February 5th cell phone service was cut. The national guard rolled in with armored vehicles and helicopter backup to unblock the highway.

 Up in the mountains where I lived, we sat glued to our radios, trying with the rest of the country to decode what was actually going on, from all of the rumors and official stories.

One dead. . . three dead. . . two dead. . . the protesters were armed. . . no, it was the police who were armed. . . foreigners had been taken hostage. . . no, they were in refuge waiting out the conflict. . .

For three days, the confusing stream of half-information continued.

 Finally, on February 7, a truce was called. The protesters withdrew from the roads. The government released the scores of people—including minors, women, injured persons—that they had held in jails throughout the country. The long process of negotiations began.

For the next few months, human rights organizations worked to untangle what had happened. They walked the hillsides talking to communities, tallying any wounded, imprisoned, violated, or missing. They talked to various groups and scoured video and picture evidence uploaded onto YouTube.

Somehow, in the midst of all of the misinformation and propaganda, it seemed of utmost importance to get the facts right.

Three weeks ago, I started work as a human rights accompanier with the Network in Solidarity for Guatemala. My work for a community health organization in Panama, and the struggle of the people I worked with to decide for themselves what kinds of development they want, taught me that you cannot stand in solidarity alone. The road that led me through Panama has brought me here, to this incredible team of dedicated people from Guatemala and all over the world. 

But first, for a little bit of history.

The protests in Panama the week of February 5th were the culmination of 3 years of escalating tensions around proposed mine and hydroelectric projects on the Pacific side of the Comarca (indigenous state) Ngäbe-Buglé. On the Caribbean side these had been going on even longer. For example, when I first arrived in Panama as a student 5 years ago there were three hydroelectric dam projects on the Caribbean side being protested. One of these –Chan 75— would later flood a town without warning the residents. During those protests, the national guard also arrived to put the protesters in jail. Construction continued. We wrote the jailed protesters letters.

 Since then the promises for jobs and reparations have not been fully realized. I have many friends on the Caribbean side who were hired for three months by the dam construction company and then fired--not exactly a stable job to replace the food and fish the river and land had provided them. No surrounding communities have yet received electricity. The price of electricity in Panama has continued to rise; most of the new electricity is being sold to foreign countries. Some of the hydroelectric dams involved are owned, in fact, by US company AES. I grew up in a state proud of its hydroelectric electricity, if a bit embarrassed by our elimination of salmon from a huge part of Canada due to the Grand Coulee Dam. Our sale of extra electricity to California funded schools and hospitals. Irrigation from the dams, allowed the expansion of agriculture in arid Eastern Washington. In Panama, local communities rarely see even those benefits.

 The Pacific side of Panama was a few years behind the Caribbean side in its harnessing of rivers and extraction of minerals for the national GDP. Mining projects at Cerro Colorado had been considered for decades but not actively pursued since the Torrijos regime in the 60s. Hydroelectric dams were just beginning to be developed by the government. Some groups looked forward to salaried jobs and the help constructing schools and hospitals that they hoped such projects would provide. Other groups, looking at the results of such projects on the Caribbean side, saw few benefits in store and began to organize against the proposed projects. Groups on both sides sought information and financial support from foreign organizations.

 In January of 2011, without any meaningful forum beforehand for public input or special consideration for indigenous lands, the government called a special session to reform the badly outdated Mining Code. Afraid that this was the first step towards seriously pursuing the creation of a mine in the Comarca (already, 14 foreign companies had been brought in to see the concession), Ngäbe anti-mine groups held two weekends of visible (but non-violent) protests and road closures. The results: a signed agreement that the President would not give the mining concession during his presidency (until 2014).

 A year later the agreement was finally ready to be signed into law in the Panamanian legislature. However, the provision prohibiting the development of mining in the comarcas had been struck out. Furious, anti-mine groups came down from the mountains and closed the Inter-American Highway in 6 locations, demanding that the president arrive in person to negotiate. The road closures continued for 5 days, with solidarity road-closures popping up in other parts of the country. Soon, radios carried the news line "Residents of the big cities are forced to buy the food that is in stock, not the food they want." Gasoline shortages were widespread and cars lined the sides of the road, their tanks empty and no refill in sight. Finally the government responded, but not by sending the President to negotiate.

Early on Ferburary 5, all four private cell phone companies cut service in the area of the protests and the national police was sent in to clear the roads. This clearing was accompanied by helicopters, tear gas bombs, rubber bullets, and shot fired from guns that the police were supposedly not carrying (although pictures show otherwise). Hospitalized protesters remained under police vigilance, and others were taken and jailed throughout the country, including minors. Two protesters were fired upon with shotguns that day and killed, sparking solidarity protests around the country, including a teacher's protest near the Canal in Colon. Because there was no cell phone service, blocking communications and the transmission of video footage by the television crew in the area, rumors reined for 3 days until negotiations ended the conflict, cell phone service was restored, and protesters were released from jail. 

 More than a month of negotiations in the Assembly of Panama followed, with Ngäbe groups maintaining vigil and closing roads sporadically throughout the day. Within the first week the protesters won the provision that mining would be prohibited in the Comarca, and that all hydroelectric projects would have to be approved by the indigenous governing body, the General Council. However, the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam (the focus of this video) and three others became sticking points in the negotiations. A territorial ambiguity was at the center of the debate; these projects are outside of the original Comarca borders, but surrounded by mostly Ngäbe communities and considered "Annexed areas" of the Comarca. What that means, politically, is unclear. Moreover, the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam concession had already been granted to a company, and the national government was loathe to rescind the offer. In the end, after weeks away from their homes, the protesters won a freeze on the Barro Blanco construction, signed the law to protect the concessions they had already won, and agreed to have another environmental assessment done and resume negotiations afterwards.

 In the last few months, things have been quiet.

 The particularly complicated aspect of this for me was that the communities where I worked included a strong, well-organized, relatively well-funded pro-mining group, supported and educated by a pro-mining community development organization. Other communities where I worked were strongly anti-mine and anti-hydroelectric, and people that I consider adopted family were injured in the protests. The conflict divided families and communities and shattered trust; propaganda and aggression on both sides only raised the tension. As a foreigner, I had to be particularly careful about where I was seen and what I said. On the one side, a Canadian student who had conducted a survey in the area, finding 98% of residents she had interviewed to be anti-mine, was later denied entry to Panama. On the other side, a pro-mining foreigner had his vehicle burned by anti-mining groups and received death threats, having to escape by foot 6 hours under cover of night.

 It seemed like we were in a unique situation. And yet, as I began reading stories of natural resource development and community response in other parts of Latin America--Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica--the similarities in stories were striking. The same pressures, the same divisions, the same violence, the same imbalances of power. What was happening started to look very by-the-book.

 It was clear that no one needed another opinionated foreigner telling him or her what to think. What people needed was good information and safe spaces to have very difficult conversations about their future and what that should look like. People who tried to create those spaces, though, were often threatened. Peace Corps members received false accusations of involvement in the conflict, and pulled their volunteers out of the immediate area. 5 pairs of neutral, foreign eyes were gone.

 How, then, could I support communities that are not my own in fighting for their right to determine their future, whatever that may be? Especially as a citizen of the United States, whose government and companies are so closely involved in what happens in the Americas? That's what I'm hoping to learn, and be a part of, in Guatemala. I'll be reporting on and advocating for groups that are trying to determine their own futures, I'll be educating and mobilizing people back home, we'll be trying to pressure our government and our businesses from both sides.

It is funny how life brings you back to the places that marked you; what I saw and the people I met during two weeks in the Guatemala highlands, 6 years ago, sparked the questions that first brought me to Panama. Now, what I have seen and the people I met in Panama have brought me back to Guatemala. In Guatemala I will be working with groups from 10 different countries and with almost two decades of experience organizing around human rights. I hope to come out a stronger advocate for justice and help their efforts along the way.

Welcome to Guatemala.