Indigenous Guatemalans Tell United Nations: No to Mining, Yes to Life

HUEHUETENANGO, Guatemala -- They arrived in pickup trucks, in school buses and on foot, resplendent in the vibrant purples and reds, blues and yellows of their native highlands. They came by the thousands to witness a day that would mark history for their people: a visit from James Anaya, the world's highest-ranking indigenous advocate, U.N. Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights.

We fell into step behind a river of them making their way to Zaculeu, the ancient Mayan ruin on the outskirts of the city, and they poured into the entrance. A sun-bronzed elder, her hair done up in the beautifully woven cloth traditional in her village, lit up when she saw me and embraced me, greeting me as though she had known me for years.

"Buenos días," she said. "Gracias -- Thank you so much for being here." I thought I saw tears in her eyes. As we entered the complex an astounding vision met us: the pyramids, which I had seen a few hours before in their stark whiteness, were alive with people -- thousands of them -- traditionally dressed Maya people in all their glory.

Many of them were holding placards. "No to mining; yes to life," read some. "San Juan Atitan says no to the multinational corporations," read another.

"There are some who believe the Mayans are gone, and all that remains are these ruins," a man dressed in white with a cowboy hat was speaking from the stage. "We are here to tell them: we are alive, and we are hear to bring these monuments back to life."

The crowd roared its assent.

Anaya was here along with other members of the U.S. High Commission on Human Rights, part of a week-long information-gathering tour in the wake of allegations that the Guatemalan government has illegally granted hundreds of mining concessions on indigenous lands to multinational corporations without their consent. What he was witnessing was part of a mass uprising of indigenous communities that are becoming increasingly organized and increasingly vocal in a desperate bid to protect their territories from growing pressure from the extractive industries.

On Monday he met with government officials in the capital; on Tuesday he was greeted by an estimated 12,000 mostly indigenous people in the highland village of San Juan Sacatepequez who had come from all over the country to denounce the violation of their lands by foreign-owned mining companies, hydroelectric companies and a giant cement operation.

Wednesday the delegation made its way up into the remote mountain village of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, where the transnational giant Goldcorp operates a gold mine that has stripped away a vast stretch of these mountains.

And today, the fourth day of his fact-finding mission, he began at the crack of dawn here amid the pyramids outside Huehuetenango, observing an ancient Mayan ceremony. Later he heard from community leaders of a mass movement that has organized an estimated 600,000 indigenous people in a series of consultas, or referendums, around the country in a near-unanimous rejection of mining on their lands -- referendums authorized under an international law signed by the Guatemalan government, but which it now declares to be nonbinding.

"This is a historic day for our people," said Aniseto Lopez of FREDEMI (Front in Defense of San Miguel de Ixtahuacan). "We have been crying out for many years, but today our voice will be heard. This meeting won't solve everything, but it's another step ahead. And cost us what it will, we will achieve our goal -- because reality is on our side."

Tomorrow Anaya will deliver a report to the Guatemalan government. Meanwhile, here are some images from two incredible days with the indigenous resistance and their entreaty to James Anaya.

Update: Today, June 16, in a press conference in Guatemala City, Anaya called on the Guatemalan government to issue an immediate moratorium on further mining activities on indigenous lands pending the results of his team's investigation.

"There's a high degree of confusion and ambiguity in the content and reach of the consultas," he was quoted in El Nuevo Herald, apparently the only U.S. newspaper to pick up the press conference as of Friday night. "The lack of participation of the government in these issues constitutes a violation of the rights of those affected."

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Tracy L. Barnett,, is the founder of The Esperanza Project, a bilingual magazine covering sustainability movements in the Americas.