About 30 minutes outside Guatemala City, a subsidiary of the US based company Kappes, Cassiday & Associates has been trying to set up an open-pit gold mine project called “El Tambor”. Communities have a right to consultation enshrined in international law. But as with most extraction projects, no consultations happened. On March 3rd 2012, when the company tried to start operations, there were met by a resistance in “La Puya”, which is the traditional name of the spot where the entrance to the mining site is. On that day, people from the surrounding communities just stood on the road to impede machinery to enter the mine and today, almost 21 months after, they’re still there.
A key figure of the resistance movement is Yolanda Oquelí. Yolanda was the first woman to get involved when rumors started of a big project in her community. She joined some men trying to get answers from the authorities and, when they realized that action was needed to stop the mining company from operating, she encouraged other women to participate. Not surprisingly, the women really didn’t need much encouragement, because as soon as they knew the mine was going to take a lot of their very limited water supplies and become a threat to everybody’s health, they quickly organized.
La Puya Resistance is remarkable in many ways, but most importantly for its strong participation of women and their commitment to stay nonviolent regardless of the circumstances.
The commitment paid off. On May 8, 2012 at 1:00 a.m., 28 company trucks escorted by 35 police cars tried to enter the mining site. When Yolanda was warned, she ran from her house straight to La Puya thinking she would find a tragedy. When she arrived, the women were holding hands and blocking the entrance, armed with their rosary beads and prayers. Men were behind them and the trucks couldn’t get in.
One month later, two men cut across Yolanda’s path and shot her. She was hit close to her liver. This attack came after months of death threats and defamatory campaigns against her and other leaders. At the resistance site they also had intimidating gunshots, continuous harassment and flyers containing sexually based insults towards women activists. On November 2012 hundreds of alleged mine workers, security staff and police officers came for several days trying to provoke an altercation. People at La Puya knew that the police was just waiting on them to react so they could arrest them and free the entrance to the mine, so the women just laid on the ground and sang. Police and mine workers gave up and left.
Right now, Yolanda and other leaders from La Puya are under investigation or have arrest warrants issued against them. They know it’s a common strategy by the companies to intimidate and weaken the opposition. But they remain strong and won’t give up: “this is a school for our children to learn they can protect life”.
La Puya Resistance has become an exemplifying movement. One of the main reasons for that is that women and men participate side-by-side. As Yolanda tells me, “I don’t know if any of these men were patriarchal, but if someone thinks like that they don’t show it here. What makes this movement different is that we –the women- never asked for space here, we just knew we had it”. And this partnership and respect gives everybody strength.
They are asking the international community to learn about their struggle and call on governments to hold foreign mining companies accountable for their actions.
Gabriela was one of the Nobel Women’s Initiative Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program participants in 2013. She has just returned home after spending six weeks in Ottawa with our team and two other young women’s rights activists from Liberia and Myanmar.
Read the Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program blog to find out more about Gabriela’s experience in Canada.