Trina Moyles is a Canadian writer and freelance journalist. Her writing focuses on social and environmental issues in rural communities in East Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the past 3 years she's been working on a book called “Women Who Dig”, about the lives of women farmers from seven countries in the Americas, East Africa and Asia. Visit her website - www.trinamoyles.com.
In May 2006 – four months after Stephen Harper was sworn into office as the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada – I was a 21-year old post-secondary student traveling to eastern Guatemala to help construct a maternity clinic outside the town of El Estor.
Aside from lacking any actual expertise in construction, barely speaking Spanish (let alone a single word in Q’eqchi’, the indigenous language spoken by 90% of residents), I knew next to nothing about the history of El Estor and Guatemala. I only knew that it was ‘poor’ and that I was going to ‘help’ mix cement, lay bricks and erect a four-walled structure.
Admittedly, I was complicit in a neoliberal development project: send a gang of well-intentioned, misguided white kids into an indigenous community they know absolutely nothing about and pump them full of rhetoric that they’re embodying Gandhi’s vision of ‘being the change’. It was the epitome of bad development and racist, colonial policy.
For my 21-year old self, it was blind voyeurism.
We rode in the back of a pick-up truck along dirt roads that cut through miles of sugarcane plantation. My eyes marveled in that ‘exotic’ landscape. How beautiful, I thought. (Later I would learn how Spanish plantation culture had violently displaced indigenous farmers, and how that sea of green actually represented an awful red, a bloody dispossession).
The maternity clinic was built outside of El Estor in a smaller village. People who lived around the clinic in a clustering of homes, built with bamboo and thatched walls, welcomed us. Their kids played with us. The women fed us tamales, steamed in banana leaves. They gifted us with armfuls of hens. They made us feel proud, that our presence mattered.
But back in El Estor, where we were lodged in rooms at a Texaco gas station motel, it was a very different story. We strolled through town, bought bright woven things and tropical fruits in the marketplace, and were surprised by hostile stares from people.
“Fuera gringos!” (Get out, foreigners!) I didn’t understand the words, but felt their smoldering anger. We all sensed the tension.
Then the town mayor, a paunch bellied mestizo man who dressed expensively, insisted on accompanying us everywhere we went. We nicknamed his bodyguard ‘Rambo’. Rambo cradled an AK-47 and wore a strap of ammo around his upper body.
Why did we need armed protection? We were volunteers, we thought, we were trying to be good. Why did people appear to resent us so fiercely?
“They think you’re here to buy land,” our translator told us.
Any real explanation, any deeper analysis of what was happening in El Estor stopped there; however, and I left without making a connection between being a Canadian and people’s anger. No one mentioned anything about a nickel mine. No one told us that the Guatemalan government had long ago granted land rights to a Canadian-owned mining company.
No one explained that the company, owned by Vancouver-based Skye Resources and run by a Guatemalan subsidiary, had just acquired another 250 squared kilometers of land and was set to begin extraction in 2009. No one told us that the government hadn’t consulted indigenous farming communities, and that they’d soon be facing eviction.
In January 2007, eight months later, I was shocked to stumble upon a YouTube video showing footage from El Estor that documented the Guatemalan police, on behalf of the Canadian mining company, dismantling people’s homes and forcing evictions.
The footage depicted photographs of thatched homes being burnt to the ground. Over the span of a month, it was reported that the mining company had mobilized hundreds of police and private security members to bully, beat and push communities off the land. There were 11 cases where women were brutally gang raped in their homes by armed forces.
My mind raced back to the women I’d met in El Estor, back to the maternity clinic that I’d helped ‘build’. No one could deny the importance of the project, of lessening the distance between pregnant women, mothers, infants and health facilities and services. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that our focus on maternal health had somehow silenced the larger, more troubling reality that rural communities around El Estor had been facing – the mine.
Maybe now women had a four-walled structure with a labor bed and a doctor, but they didn’t have the security of the land – their indigenous territory – and they were being targeted violently for speaking out against and resisting a Canadian company.
It made our project feel like a surface treatment, a pleasant, feel good project that pacified the greater forces that were beginning to shape and violently shake the community from their land and from some of their most basic human rights.
What I wouldn’t come to fully understand; however, until years later, was that the case of the Canadian nickel mining company and the human rights abuses that took place in El Estor wasn’t an isolated one. It was actually a bit part in a much larger machine.
It is what scholar James Ferguson calls the “anti-politics machine”, a well-oiled, strategic beast, built by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives and powered forward by the Canadian mining industry, meant de-politicize issues of land rights, and indigenous rights, specifically a lack of those rights, in which lies the true roots of poverty, and – what else? Profit.
In June 2007, Harper started the ignition by dramatically shifting Canadian aid and development policy and funding priorities from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas.
Canada’s Strategy for Engagement in the Americas prioritized investing public dollars in trade and economic ties for “sustainable economic growth” in Latin American countries, and soon after Harper began partnering with the Canadian extractive and mining industry to promote “responsible resource management... for inclusive economic development”.
Development assistance was suddenly less about addressing the roots of global poverty and more about increasing the “hemispheric and Canadian economic opportunity”.
Harper’s message was loud and clear: Where there was gold, there would be development assistance. The machine’s wheels were in motion. Mine for nickel, construct a hospital. Extract silver, build a school. Drill for oil, fund a food security project.
In 2010, Harper continued to sweeten the pot for Canadian mining companies. Following the release of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Strategy for the Canadian International Extractive Sector, the government began funding Canadian NGOs to implement CSRs in collaboration with mining companies. Despite the protests from a national network of civil society organizations from across the country, Harper spent more than $26 million of taxpayer’s dollars on these unprecedented ‘mining partnerships’, rewarding $500,000 for a World Vision/Barrick Gold project in Peru, $428,000 for a PLAN Canada-IAMGOLD project in Ghana, and $1 million to World University Service of Canada (WUSC)/Rio Tinto project in Burkina-Faso.
The Canadian government brags that they’ve invested more than $4.6 billion in the Americas since 2007, but that number pales in comparison to numbers revealed in Natural Resources Canada’s reports, that in 2011, the value of Canadian mining assets in Latin America reached $50 billion. Harper’s machine logic of ‘win-win’ (‘we create jobs, we create markets, we build schools, etc.) is a cover for paying minimal royalty fees abroad and controlling profit.
Similar to the context of protest and violence in El Estor, there have been numerous reported cases of human rights abuses in communities where Canadian mining companies are operating, in Latin America and worldwide (including First Nations communities in Canada). The story is becoming all too common: the Canadian company didn’t obtain proper community consent, they use aggressive force against those who protest, and/or they’re leaving behind a environmental mess that they’ll never have to pay to clean up.
But Harper’s anti-politics machine abroad doesn’t only involve the silencing of indigenous communities protesting Canadian mining projects. What has allowed the machine to move forward so rapidly, rather, has been creating a culture of fear of dissent from within Canada.
Many Canadian NGOs and civil-society organizations recognize that development funding for mining projects doesn’t address poverty; adversely, it fuels socioeconomic inequality.
But very few NGOs have spoken out and maintained pressure against the government to change policies, and those who have – including Oxfam Canada, Development and Peace, Kairos and Alternatives – have lost significant federal funding support, been scrutinized by the Canadian Revenue Agency, and threatened to have their charitable status revoked.
Remarkably, indigenous communities in the Americas and all over the world continue to fight Canadian mining projects, though they face aggression, abuse – even death.
Only last year I traveled to the Comitancillo highlands in northwestern Guatemala where I met with indigenous Maya-Mam women, farmers and organizations that have been struggling for 10 years against a Canadian-owned gold mining project on their ancestral territory.
What became evident as I listened to their stories – of frustration and anger – is that what many people seemed to value far more than the need for ‘development’ was the hope that their voices would finally be heard, and that they would win the fight. More than anything, they hoped the Canadian company, Goldcorp, would have no other choice but to cease operations and leave their indigenous territory.
“We are working for a miracle,” said Victoria, a 52-year old woman who lived and farmed with her family on the steep slopes of Comitancillo. “We hope the company will leave us in peace – as Guatemalans, as Maya-Mam people born on these lands. That is all we want.”
What do we want as Canadians?
Do we really want to continue to be complicit in Harper’s anti-politics machine that is favoring Canadian mining companies and their exploitative practices in the Americas and around the world? Is this how we want our taxpayer dollars to support international development? By implementing development projects that actually depoliticize groups and communities in their struggles to claim and enact their human rights?
Ten years is enough for Victoria and her community, as it should be enough for Canada’s international development sector and the citizens that foot the bill.
Sooner or later, Harper’s machine will break down.
I’m banking on sooner.