“My mother taught me how to fight.” Guatemalan youth activists tell their stories

Young activists from Guatemala recently shared with Amnesty International their experiences and motivations for putting their lives on the line to fight for the rights of their communities and the environment.

On April 27, 2013, Luis Fernando Garcia Monroy was shot and seriously injured alongside his father, Adolfo, outside the entrance to Tahoe Resource’s Escobal silver mine. The BC Court of Appeal has just ruled that the case against Tahoe Resources for the shootings can go ahead in Canada. After the attack and in response to the death of a 16 year old activist in their community, Luis Fernando and his friends started a peaceful resistance group to give youth a voice.

Here is their story, in their own words.

We would like to share with you our experiences as youth organizing in our communities to defend our territory’s natural resources from the extractive economic model. Our intention is to explain how the people of the south eastern region of Guatemala have created a peaceful resistance movement to protect our lands and territories from unwanted mining. We want to show you, through the eyes of young people and the communities of Mataquescuintla, Jalapa and San Rafael las Flores, Santa Rosa, the ways in which we are directly affected by the Guatemalan State’s decision to permit the El Escobal mine. 

We want to help you see how young people are an important part of the changes we need to make today.

The Escobal mine in our region of Guatemala is owned by Canadian transnational company Tahoe Resources and operated by its subsidiary Minera San Rafael SA. The lack of good public consultation or efforts to take into account people’s views about the project, and failure to share information prior to permitting the mine underscores the seriousness of the human rights violations we have experienced. We view this as a typical neoliberal strategy used by transnational companies to dispossess people of their lands throughout Latin America.

Facing the prospect of the mine, communities of Santa Rosa and Jalapa organized socially and politically to request both Municipal Neighbourhood Consultations and Good Faith Community Consultations [ed. note: provisions of the Guatemalan Municipal Code allow community members the right to request the local government to carry out formal consultations on issues of local concern]. Where these consultations occurred, the majority of voters demonstrated outright their rejection of mineral exploitation in their territory. The consultations created an atmosphere of citizen participation and provided momentum for community organizations calling for these kinds of consultations to continue. The movement has grown over the years.

After 5 years of peaceful resistance to the Escobal mine, a new movement led by young people in the region was created. The involvement of youth in social movements as active participants, entitled to make decisions and be heard about what they want for their territory, is very important. The youth group’s main objective is to sensitize young people to the issues so they can contribute to and strengthen the movement to protect nature and life through different social, cultural and political activities. This work has also raised awareness among children and adults.

Our group’s name is JOVID which means Youth Organized in Defense of Life and was formed on June 7, 2015. It began with 25 participants, mostly young people from the two municipalities of Mataquescuintla, Jalapa and San Rafael las Flores, Santa Rosa.

The group aims to work together across borders between Santa Rosa and Jalapa. Both municipalities have been directly affected by resource extraction since 2007. The government approved more than 20 mining licenses in our region and this has provoked different types of conflicts, increased violence, changing social relations, changes in the landscape, environmental pollution, decreased water sources, high levels of legal and social criminalization of community leaders and failure of the State of Guatemala to respect the results of the Municipal Consultations. This has generated various human rights violations, including forcing changes to the daily lives of community members, creating division between people, and other social, cultural and political issues.

JOVID’s objectives are to: raise awareness about the problems associated with mining in the community, strengthen the leadership of youth from Mataquescuintla and San Rafael Las Flores to educate and provide advocacy on environmental protection, and train young people in political, artistic and environmental processes.

JOVID is the legacy of our colleague and artist from Mataquescuintla, Topacio Reynoso Pacheco. Topacio was a 16-year-old youth leader who organized and helped coordinate our actions as well as shared our work with other youth groups doing similar work to defend lands and natural resources. Unfortunately she was shot and killed by unknown men in 2014. Her father was also shot and seriously injured in the attack and spent several days in a coma in Santa Rosa Cuilapa hospital. We formed two years ago in her honour.

Other active members of JOVID also suffered an armed attack in April, 2013 by private security guards employed by San Rafael S.A. Fortunately, Luis Fernando Garcia Monroy survived being shot in the face during the attack, but spent several days in hospital and underwent several painful operations on to repair his injuries, including to his face.

Despite these violent events, Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor, which is in charge of investigating crimes like this and seeking justice for the harms caused by them, has still not provided any resolution. We feel this shows the State is working to protect the mining company and is complicit in what happened to us. This deepens our view that Guatemala suffers from serious impunity and State corruption.  We want dignity and justice and for the government to solve these cases of violence against young people and members of the peaceful resistance community. These violent acts directly affect social relations in our communities, generate fear within communities and in the streets, reduce participation and effective community organization. Our communities are afraid.

Recently, we reorganized JOVID and are participating in local activities and national level meetings with young people. We keep ourselves aware of what is happening locally and in our country. We never have we received any funding for our work. We are young leaders who, through art, develop our political and environmental awareness. Our struggle is to take care of the environment, for truth and for social justice.

Franklin Valenzuela and Luis Fernando Garcia environmental activists, human rights defenders, active members of the peaceful resistance against the extractive economic model and founders of the youth movement (JOVID), which promotes the ideals of caring for nature. JOVID is the legacy of our leader Topacio Reynoso, and aims to continue training young people to become aware that they can fight to protect their lands. We can develop a more humane world where young people participate, organize and mobilize. Because young people are not only the future, we are part of the changes we need today.”

READ MORE: BC Court of Appeal Ruling: A Breakthrough for Corporate Accountability for Human Rights