Gwendolyn Muir and Rachel Small have just returned to Canada after nine months in Guatemala. The two women were working in Guatemala with local community groups through an internship with Breaking the Silence – a Maritimes-based Guatemalan solidarity group.
Less than two weeks after returning to the true North, the two women are raising awareness to the plight that they witnessed in the Guatemalan communities where they lived and worked - a plight caused by Canadian mining companies operating in the global South.
“So as a Canadian who's in Guatemala it is my responsibility... to know what is going on and also to share what is going on,” says Muir, who spent her internship in Rabinal working with the New Hope Foundation at a middle school set up by survivors of the Guatemalan civil war to remember and honour the past.
“I think mining today is one of the easiest ways to make a connection between Canada and Guatemala,” says Muir. “There are concrete actions that the Canadian government and that Canadian companies are doing in Guatemala.”
Spreading awareness was Muir's motivation in organizing a viewing of Life for Gold – a grassroots documentary film on Canadian recolonization and Central American resistance, which was shown at Just Us! Coffeehouse on Spring Garden Rd., in conjunction with Cinema Politica and NSPIRG on March 12.
The film shows various mining projects around Central America and the resistance to them by indigenous communities whose environment and health are impacted by Canadian mining actions.
Some issues that the film highlights are: water contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic from the mining process, health impacts such as miscarriages and skin conditions from drinking and bathing in the poisoned water, water shortages from unrestricted use by mining operations, and violence committed against local activists by private industry security forces.
Rachel Small worked with the organization Ceiba, the group that made the film. “One really cool thing for me this year was helping to show this movie that was made by Guatemalans about a Guatemalan mine, but in the completely opposite side of the country where mining interest is just developing,” says Small.
Ceiba helps communities organize around food sovereignty, decolonization, and, of course against mining. In Guatemala, communities have started organizing grassroots consultations surrounding the mining activities that are ruining their communities. In many cases the communities were never properly consulted by government and industry, so they are now doing it for themselves.
“The most recent [community consultation] took place by the coast in Champerico, where companies are just starting to express interest in mining up the beach. Over 17,000 people came out to vote in these community referendums that are just organized by grassroots and local organizers and that was, I think, over 70 per cent more people then had come to vote in the national election, which had happened just 3 months earlier,” says Small.
“That was really exciting to see. Over 99.3 per cent of people voted against the mine in those recent consultas.”
Presently, the Guatemalan government is not considering the community consultations to be valid. But, says Small, “The hope is that if you can get communities unified ahead of time and already having those discussions to decide whether or not they want [mining] that it will be a deterrent to the mining company coming in altogether.”
This is an issue that should be on the radar of every Canadian, because as Muir points out, “60 per cent of all mines around the world are Canadian based. So I think being conscious of that is really important because as Canadians our presence is manifested in that way around the world in all kinds of communities – like the community we saw [in the movie] at the Marlin mine.” (The Marlin mine is owned by the Canadian company Goldcorp and started operating in 2005 with devastating consequences for the people living in its vicinity.)
“This isn’t an issue where Canadians need to think about giving charity or developing the south,” says Small. “This is really about understanding the ways in which our companies are destroying communities in other parts of the world and understanding how we are a part of that because the Canadian Pension Plan and the Quebec Pension Plan... invest really heavily in these companies. So in turn we are all benefiting, whether we want to or not, from these investments.
“There have been many efforts to try and legislate in Canada to in someway hold our companies responsible for what they are doing overseas, off of Canadian soil."
In 2010 a private member's bill to hold the mining industry accountable, Bill C-300, was defeated 140 to 134 in the House of Commons. It was designed to create a complaint and investigation structure for foreign communities adversely affected by Canadian mining companies. If proven guilty, the bill allowed for cutting a corporation off from public investment, including the CPP.
Small is still hopeful that there can still be justice within Canada for people and communities harmed by Canadian mining companies and their interests. Presently there are 11 women from the Guatemalan community of Lote Ocho (Lot eight) who are attempting to take the mining company Hudbay Minerals to court for the atrocities that they suffered including physical and sexual violence at the hands of private security, military and police acting on the company's behalf.
“If that can happen it will be really groundbreaking because in the past these cases have been pushed out of Canadian courts and people have argued this is not the right jurisdiction for this to take place," says Small. “They are hoping that the tides are changing and that judges are beginning to recognize that they are not upholding justice if they are sending cases to courts that are never going to hear them [such as those in Guatemala].”
For more information on Bill C-300 here is a link to an article from 2010 by Justin Ling for the Dominion.
There will be another showing of the film 'Life for Gold' at King's College - time and place TBA. Watch the HMC events listing for information.
You can also request a copy of the film from the Tatamagouche Centre.