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Been to Jail for justice?

Crisanta Perez talks about her community's struggle against Goldcorp and by default, Canada

by Miles Howe

"It's sad for me to see these Canadian companies who are exploiting more resources where people don't have land, and they're kicking people off their land in order to get to the resources. And these are people who barely have anything to begin with." [Photo: M. Howe]
"It's sad for me to see these Canadian companies who are exploiting more resources where people don't have land, and they're kicking people off their land in order to get to the resources. And these are people who barely have anything to begin with." [Photo: M. Howe]

Over the past week, Crisanta Perez, a Mayan Mam mother and grandmother from the Western highlands of Guatemala, has been on a whistle stop tour of Eastern Canadian cities. Perez has been speaking about her community of Agel, San Miguel Ixtuachuan, and the struggle against Goldcorp Inc, which currently operates the 'Marlin' gold mine. For years, community members have complained of health impacts, shortages in water, structural damages to homes, along with state repression, violence and criminalization of protest activities.

Goldcorp, a Canadian company, has chosen not to heed community concerns and complaints over abuses to environmental and human rights, which have been backed up by scientific studies, as well as the United Nations and numerous international human rights bodies. Goldcorp has instead sought out the optics and endorsements of the Canadian government and complicit greenwashing institutions, such as the YWCA, whose Vancouver office recently gave Goldcorp its Women of Distinction Award in the Outstanding Workplace category.

Crisanta Perez became a target for repression in 2008 when she cut power lines to the Marlin mine that ran through her property. A warrant was placed on Perez, who was forced into hiding for six months. Upon returning home, she was arrested, but community members ultimately liberated her. Perez, along with seven other Maya Mam women, faced charges of “obstructing the mine’s operations”. Two of the women faced charges for over two years before the charges were finally dropped.

I had the opportunity to speak with Crisanta Perez during her stop in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on unceded Wolustuk Territory.

The interview took place with a translator.

(MH) What have been your first impressions of Canada?

(CP)When I first talked about coming to Canada, I felt happy and excited to have the opportunity to come.

When I arrived in Ottawa, I met many other comrades involved in the struggle. And I hadn't really realized that there were so many people involved in this struggle, that I don't exist alone in defence of human rights in my county. When I got there, I saw that, yes, there are people here, that so many people are defending human rights here in Canada. I saw many people who were fighting for the human rights of my people.

When I went to Montreal, I realized again that I have comrades there that are involved in the same struggle. There were people doing training. Actions, teachings, education about some of the issues that my people are facing in regards to their rights and the land. It was a personal motivation for me, to fight even harder.

The night we came here, to Fredericton, I met you all. And truly, that was a really important experience that has motivated me even more, learning about what was happening here, and how I can take that learning back with me, in order to be involved but also to have more strength now to continue the struggle.

As I see it, and I understand that more people are involved, more nations are involved, I see that this is a struggle in Latin America, but also beyond that. Seeing how we're all doing different pieces gives me more strength, and I can see how all of us can gain strength to defend our rights as Indigenous people.

(MH) What about some of the differences? Canada, compared to Guatemala, is richer. But so much of those riches are extracted from other countries and brought here. Can you talk about that?

(CP) I've been driving quite a bit around Canada, and what I've noticed here is how much land there is compared to Guatemala. People in my community live side by side. We don't have land for cultivating. Most of the people are subsistence farmers, but many people don't have any land.

Here, there's so much land. And as we're driving you'll barely even see people. I didn't notice anybody walking down the side of the road, like you would in my community, with their wares on their back, carrying whatever they were going to sell at the market on their back, or on their heads. No wood that we've gone out and collected that morning so that we can cook our food, that we have to bring back on our backs. I haven't seen that sort of thing.

Mostly I just see other people driving, just other cars and buses. So I have a sense that there's less poverty compared to my community, because I haven't seen anyone.

It's really just struck me how much land there is and how there's nobody on the land. I haven't seen small producers or farmers that have to walk hours to get to where they're going to work the land, or hours to get home.

So, in a sense Canada is more developed. The people here are much richer. It's not like my community, which you might say is less developed, because we have to do everything by hand and we have to walk everywhere. Many people in my community don't have a car to get anywhere.

I haven't seen a lot of women in the countryside, walking, or going out to work the land. Where I come from, a lot of women go out to work everyday on the land that we do have.

Again, going back these big extensions of land. There's so much land and it doesn't seem like anyone's on the land. But despite that, despite all the resources that are here, these Canadian companies are going to places like my community, where there is no land. We all live side by side and we have to walk hours to get to where we can grow our corn and beans. They don't think about the fact that we don't have any land. They're exploiting the resources of our people, who really have nothing.

It's sad for me to see these Canadian companies who are exploiting more resources where people don't have land, and they're kicking people off their land in order to get to the resources. And these are people who barely have anything to begin with.

(MH) As Canadians, companies like Goldcorp are operating in our name. You spoke in your talk about how the impression of Canadians, based on the actions of these companies, isn't good in places like Guatemala. If we're responsible, what can we do?

(CP) I don't think everyone in Canada is aware of what's going on in my country and all the problems that we're having there. They don't know what's happening. I don't think all the people are informed of what's happening in my country or in other places where mining is happening in the name of a Canadian company.

People aren't informed. And often the information that they do have is given by the company, who talks about corporate social responsibility, or the work that they're doing for health care, or the work that they're doing to build schools.

But this isn't really the reality. But even when we're trying to give actual information, or counter that, or we're informing people about what the reality is, many people won't listen. Because they want to hear the good things that the company is doing.

It's true that some people won't place any importance on what were talking about, when they hear about what's happening, but that shouldn't stop us from continuing to give the information. The company paints a rosy picture and they talk about working for the people and with the people, and for Guatemalans.

They take advantage of our poverty in that way.

But as more people become involved, then more people will know the truth. Then potentially people will be able to act, to remove their funds or divest their funds from this company. They can also pressure the company to act in different ways than it currently is. You need to hold them accountable for the way that they're treating the local community, as shareholders. But more so, I hope that people divest their funds from this company, to show them that they're not in agreement with how they're working.

The company acts really powerfully when they come to our community, and some people say that the mine is like a monster. But they're a monster because they have financial backing and they can do whatever they want. So the money piece is important.

(MH) We hear so many stories of state repression. When you chose to resist in Guatemala, what is the climate of safety for resistance?

(CP) In Guatemala as people, and as rights defenders, when we stand up and we claim our territory and our rights, and when we defend those rights and territory, there's immediately some kind of repression. This often begins with state forces, like the police, that are sent in. They use violence. They arrest people or they put out arrest warrants for people so they feel like they can't participate anymore. So that is a risk that people face.

At the same time, they figure out ways to divide the community. So they see who's in power. They buy off local authorities, along with the people we've elected to represent us. Even our own people. People who aren't our elected officials, but people who are part of our own movement, they are co-opted into joining forces with the company.

What happens as a result of that is that generally mobs are organized against us. So there's this vigilanteism that starts to happen in the community, and extreme violence follows. So the police are violent in some ways, within the structures of what they're allowed to do, and then there's this whole other movement to insight a lot of violence.

My cousin was murdered in 2009. Essentially what happened was that he was a leader in our community who was involved in the resistance movement. He was eventually captured by a mob. They stopped him and made up a bunch of lies. They ended up lynching him, killing him, within the community. Everything they said was fabricated, but he had no way to defend himself.

That was a way, I think, that the company helped mobilize those people. To target community leaders and get rid of community leaders. That's what they do to shut us up. People get afraid to be part of something once someone is killed. People don't want to leave their homes after that. And because it was all made up, people are afraid that anything could be made up against anybody.

When I leave my house in the morning, I ask God to protect me. That's all I can do.


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