Despite Threats To Her Life, Eloyda Mejía Raises Awareness About Industrial Mining At Lake Isabal
Lake Isabal and Atitlan in Guatemala have much in common: pollution and poverty have no end in sight!
By Greg Szymanski, JD
June 8, 2010
Not too far down the road going east from Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is an indigenous Mayan population centered around Lake Isabal.
Isabal is one of the larger lakes in Central America and for centuries acted as a main hub for fishing and agricultural.
However, like Lake Atitlan, the lake is extremely polluted, resulting in extreme poverty for the indigenous people.
The problems at both lakes have the same result — poverty and pollution — but the cause are a bit different.
At Lake Atitlan, where over 200,000 indigenous people rely on it for survival, the the 30,000 acre volcanic crater lake was engulfed recently by a green toxic algae cyanobacteria scum, making the water undrinkable.
Harmful effects of raw sewage and toxic fertilizer, unchecked for decades, have been two of the main causes of over-pollution.
Further, Hurricanes Mitch, Stan and Tropical Storm Agatha haven’t helped, increasing phosphorous levels in the lake from storm run-off, which is another main reason for the severe pollution and undrinkable water.
Making matters worse, solutions have been slow to come by and, despite all the talking and promises from business and government, there still doesn’t exist effective monitoring of cyanobacteria, as well as not one functioning water treatment plant to handle raw sewage being dumped into the lake daily.
And it appears, from recent radio interviews with sincere environmentalists wanting to correct the problems, including top environmentalist Juan Skinner, once solutions are found and money raised, certain factions inside and outside of government then seem to stop the progress and divert the money into unfriendly hands.
According to local sources, not only has money been diverted but people have been threatened, bullied and even beat-up for trying nothing more than to correct pollution at Lake Atitlan.
However, according to Native Americans, the same thing goes on in the U.S. so why should it be any different in Guatemala?
One example of how America and Guatemala are alike is the deporable living and drinking conditions at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where many Native Amercans died fighting the good fight just like the indigenous people in Guatemala are trying to do right now.
And this fight is ever present, as we speak, on the shores of Lake Isabal, where Canadian and American mining interests are running roughshod over the land, the Mayans and their very way of life.
In fact, according to Canadian activist and friend of the indigenous people in Guatemala, Iyra Zybars, if mining interests aren’t checked and controlled, farming, fishing and the indigenous way of life are all but finished.
For example, Zybars said on a recent radio broadcast pollution is so bad at Isabal from uncontrolled mining run-offs that fisherman have stopped fishing, saying it doesn’t even pay to take out their boats.
Besides the environmental disasters going on at Isabal and Atitlan, threats and violence are also common place.
Here is the plight of one person who had the courage to defend the rights of indigenous people at Lake Isabal. The story is an account taken from http://www.oxfamamerica.org/articles/defending-the-people-and-lake-izabal
As the story opens, “despite threats to her life, Eloyda Mejía still raises awareness about industrial mining near a beautiful lake in eastern Guatemala.”
Here is her story:
Lake Izabal is a silver disc ringed by dark mountains; it reflects the sky and clouds. It is out on this lake, and drifting through the back reaches of the creeks feeding into it, where Eloyda Mejía is most struck by the beauty of the Izabal region. Under the green trees and hyacinth flowers, birds fly among the branches arching over the water, and monkeys move slowly among the tree tops. Mejía looks around, and says “When they talk about the tremendous amounts of minerals they propose to take out of here, how can you believe it won’t affect this place?”
It is hard to reconcile the beauty of the lake with the violence along its shores. Mejía’s work to defend the environment, and propose sustainable ways of living and working, has angered some who would prefer to rely on industrial mining for economic development in the region. A local citizen’s organization has written a threatening letter to the Interior Ministry in Guatemala City, saying her work to educate community leaders about the risks of mining is unacceptable. She continues working, with international observers with her at all times to protect her.
A commitment to the lake and its people
Mejía first came here 10 years ago. She and her three children settled in the lakeside town of El Estor, promoting ecotourism and waging a series of campaigns to protect Lake Izabal from oil and mining projects that she says threaten the natural resources of the region—and won—t do much to benefit the local farming and fishing communities.
In 2002, Mejía and a handful of teachers, fisherman, environmentalists, a local physician and other citizens took on Shell Oil, which had a concession to drill right through the bottom of the lake. The small band of opponents founded the Association of Friends of Lake Izabal (ASALI) and succeeded in blocking the licenses for this project. ASALI then turned its attention to nickel mines along the sides of the lake.
There has been industrial mining in Izabal since the 1950s, but it has been in fits and starts as the prices of commodities have spiked and crashed over the years. But mining is now booming everywhere, so the Canadian company Skye Resources, which bought the mine in 2004, is now preparing to work a 100-square-mile concession it acquired in 2005. The area is home to 30 indigenous Q’eq’chi communities. None were properly consulted about the concession. This constitutes a violation of Guatemala’s 1996 Peace Accords and international laws that protect indigenous people. The company is now engaged in talks with communities to convince them to go along with the plan to mine.
Skye Resources is now operating at a loss as it seeks financing so it can start mining in 2009. The company estimates it could get as much as 673,000 tons of nickel out of the mine. As part of its effort to clear people out of the concession area, the company and police forcefully evicted a number of Q’eq’chi communities in January of 2007, burning their humble shelters to the ground.
Land and rights
“We need a strong defense of the environment here,” Mejía says at her home in El Estor. She has just finished a meal of traditionally prepared fish from Lake Izabal, and dines with visitors and two members of Peace Brigades International, who accompany her to ensure her safety.
ASALI is working in 29 communities to teach their leaders about mining: how much water is used, the chemicals, the transportation, and the rights of indigenous communities to be consulted. “We want every community leader to attend one of these workshops, and share their ideas and problems and work on them together,” Mejía says. With help from Oxfam America, ASALI also arranges for these leaders to visit other mining areas in Honduras and in Guatemala’s western highlands to see the effects of mining on indigenous people. “This is so they can see the consequences and talk to affected people,” she says.
With the laws around land rights so unclear in Guatemala, indigenous people lack the required title and other official documents they need to defend their territory. Mejía says this needs to be addressed. “Through our contacts we have put the issue of land on the national agenda; it’s been discussed in congress, so people are aware of the problems of land in mining concession areas.”
Much of Mejía’s motivation comes from her commitment to the people, all those who fish and grow corn on the fields near the lake. “When you come here and see the needs of the poor communities, you can see that people are not asking for much in life. But when you see the injustices and the way things are taken from them, it is so unfair that they are so poor and have so few opportunities despite the richness and national treasure here,” she says. “This leads you to fall in love with this place. It makes you want to do something to contribute to changes here—and to denounce the injustice.”
It is just this commitment that puts her at risk. Her Peace Brigade guardians are with her and several of her colleagues from ASALI, all of whom are working under threat. Mejía says they are not radicals.”We want people to understand that there is another healthy and just way to develop this area, through rational use of the national treasures we have here.”
“If at some time we no longer exist, we hope that we have sowed some seeds of awareness, solidarity, and respect to the environment. In this threatening climate for our work, our vulnerability makes us do what little we can—with all our hearts.”
Here are a few paragraphs taken from a 2007 story from This Magazine in Toronto giving a little background about the mining problems in Guatemala:
Outside Chichipate, Martín Col Caal, a 21-year-old subsistence farmer, is cobbling together a makeshift shelter, using tree branches and palm leaves, for his wife and two young children. About 200 other indigenous families are here in the grassy valley, dubbing their new home Barrio de la Revolución— Neighbourhood of the Revolution. Today, a steamy day in September 2006, more than 3,000 indigenous people from Chichipate and El Estor have set up similar households on five different sites, defiantly claiming the land as their own, land they say was stolen from their grandparents in the 1960s.
Skye Resources, a Vancouver-based junior mining company, which bought the land from Canadian mining giant Inco in 2004, has different plans for the site. With the price of nickel at a 19-year high, Skye intends to re-open the mine in 2009, with construction slated to start this year. The indigenous occupants say they are not here to protest the mine—they simply need the land to subsist. But one of the five groups is sitting on a nickel deposit. Either the mining company or the squatters will have to go.
History is repeating itself in Chichipate. The families of the protesters have been living in the area since the 1930s, but in 1965 the government of Guatemala sold the land to Inco. When community leaders found out, they demanded the government give back the land. In the early 1980s, after much bloodshed, the government ceded an area smaller than the actual size of the village to the community; people living outside its confines were forcibly relocated. But now, with the community burgeoning and a shortage of arable land, Chichipate is not enough. “We just want a patch of land that we can leave for our children,” says Col Caal. “We want the company to negotiate.”
When the police arrived on a Sunday afternoon two months later, shooting 12-gauge shotguns in the air, the women and children began to cry. Using loudspeakers, the men asked the police under what legal authority they were acting. Police responded by lobbing canisters of tear gas. Col Caal’s wife picked up their two small children, aged one and three, and ran in to the mountains. “The company talks to the president and to the mayor,” says Col Caal. “Why doesn’t it talk to us?”
Despite its history of intercepting plunderers, El Estor has been less successful fending off the latest fortune hunters.For entire story go to http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2007/03/miningmisery.php