Sunday, July 27, 2008

Human Right Accompaniment Report: Caitlin Power Hancey

Greetings from Guatemala City...

As some of you know, I've been volunteering as a human rights accompanier in Guatemala since mid-June, and will be here until mid-September. This human rights accompaniment is requested by individuals and organizations who are receiving threats and intimidations for their work defending human rights in Guatemala. As foreign accompaniers we offer a dissuasive presence; documentation of any human rights violations that occur; and diffusion of information through international networks based in our home communities. I'm supported by the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network, based in Nova Scotia, and in Guatemala I work with the Coordination for International Accompaniment in Guatemala (CAIG-ACOGUATE), a coordination of 9 countries who send international accompaniers to Guatemala. For more info there are some links at the bottom.

When I arrived in mid-June I had no idea where I would be placed in the country, but quickly found out I'd be sent to a remote region in the north of Guatemala, in the tropical lowlands, in the middle of the rainy season. As a Nova Scotian I felt ready for the water and the mud, but not the heat! I was part of a 2-person regional team. My partner was another redhead (you got it...) named Phil from the northwest US, and we accompanied two different organizations with members in several different communities in the region.

I've never been so thankful for rain because when the sun did find it's way out for a few hours a day it was HOT, and travel between the communities usually involves a few hours on foot. The walks were beautiful though--the rain leaves the mountains lush and green with a mist that burns off after a couple of hours of daylight. (Another blessing--the rain doesn't usually start til the mid-afternoon, and goes through the night, cooling things off nicely to sleep.) I was also grateful for Phil's basic knowledge of Q'eqchi' (in over half of the communities we visited many people don't speak Spanish), his months of experience and relationship-building in the region, and that, for the most part, he knew his way around. Thanks to his quick tutoring, I could say 1) good day/night, 2) thank you; and 3) the food is tasty!

Our time was spent visiting key members of the organizations in their homes, eating and sleeping with their families, talking about the ups and downs of their work (or what Canadians eat for breakfast--just toast and jam?!? just milk and cereal?!? no wonder you're so pale!!), documenting and sharing any important news we could, and planning for any special meetings or events. We were always well fed (my favorite were all the wild greens--like chipilín--available during the rainy season and finding their way into random meals), and between the exercise, the heat, and the food, I was asleep before 9 most nights.

One of the organizations we accompany in the region is made up of survivors a series of massacres committed by the national army from 1980-82, part of Guatemala's 36 year internal armed conflict. These massacres took place on a plantation where they lived and worked as mozos colones or indentured labourers. The survivors and their relatives now live in dispersed communities throughout the region and are soliciting government compensation for loss of land, homes, and livelihoods as a result of the massacres through a national reparations program. Though they don't have much faith they're going to get what they ask for, and of course it doesn't undo or repair anything they've gone through, they're not passing up the chance to officially register their losses and demand restitution.

The second organization is made up of over 20 communities along the Chixoy river that will be inundated as the result of the Xalalá hydroelectric project that's planned to start this fall. The communities have not been consulted about the project--the government is only admitting that 7 families' homes will be affected--and the communities are unequivocally opposed. Private bidding for the project closes later this month, and the winning company is due to be announced in August or September (AES Corp. from the US and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú are among those in the running). The project is touted by the Guatemalan government--and specifically by President Alvaro Colóm--as a matter of national interest, and a much needed "clean-energy" response to both the international oil crisis and the national energy crisis.

The communities that will be affected by the dam are a mix of long-standing Q'eqchi' villages, and settlements of indigenous refugees from other areas of Guatemala who returned from exile in Mexico in the mid-1990s. These "returned" communities have spent the last decade and a half rebuilding their lives, clearing land for crops, building new homes, raising families. One returnee told me "With this dam it's like the 70s and 80s all over again--but this time we're not going to take it. We know our legal rights, we speak Spanish now, we're organized, and they won't displace us again."

CAIG-ACOGUATE is short-handed this month, so I've been pulled from my northern regional team to be part of the "short-term" accompaniment team based in the capital city. This means that I'll be responding to punctual accompaniment needs in the city and in various areas of the country, travelling as needed. So far I've only had 2 assignments (for one of them see the SITRAPETEN article on the ACOGUATE blog below if you read Spanish), and I'm currently recovering from a triple-threat of dengue fever, amoebas, and intestinal bacteria, but I'll be back on the road next week! And I look forward to being back on the regional equipo-pelirojo (red-head team) in August as the possibility of the Xalalá project draws closer, and other activities in the region progress.

Hope you're all well, and it'd be great to hear from you too. I know there are weddings, births, barbeques and cold-water beaches I'm missing this summer (I'm serious about missing that cold water), but I'll just have to catch-up extra hard when I get back.

Un abrazo,

More info:

* Breaking the Silence website and blog
* CAIG-ACOGUATE blog (in Spanish)
* June 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article about the Xalalá dam written by a former accompanier'&sn=001&sc=1000