Breaking Silence Network marks 25 years of solidarity with Guatemala

Mary MacKay
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Breaking the Silence Network founder Kathryn Anderson, left, and Sr. Maudilia Lopez were on P.E.I. recently to educate people about the effects of a Canadian mining company Goldcorp on the Guatemalan community of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, Guatemala, where Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine is located.

One Maritime organization is marking a quarter-century of standing solid in solidarity with the Guatemalan people.

For the past 25 years, the Maritime-Guatemala Breaking the Silence (BTS) Network has been developing long-term committed partnerships with Guatemalan church and community organizations in support of Guatemalans struggling for political, social, economic and cultural justice.

This community of volunteers undertakes advocacy and lobbying, organizes delegations and sends volunteers and human rights accompaniers to Guatemala. It also promotes fairly-traded coffee and raises awareness locally through speaking tours by Guatemalan leaders and other political campaigns, most recently providing accompaniment for witnesses of the genocide in the 1980s during trial proceedings and spreading awareness of Canadian corporate involvement in unjust mining practices in Guatemala today.

“The focus has always been on solidarity and human rights — solidarity in the sense that we are really about building long-term partnerships with people and having an exchange of people and skills and resources,” says BTS co-ordinator Wyanne Sandler of Iris, P.E.I.

“(It goes both ways) . . . we also get a lot out of our relationships with our partners and certainly have learned over the years (from that). . . .”

BTS was formed to break the silence of the oppression of the Guatemalan people.

During the 1980s, the Guatemala army waged a genocidal war against Mayan communities and social activists, forcing thousands to flee to Mexico.

In the fall of 1988, BTS founder Kathryn Anderson contacted Prince Edward Islander Marian White, who had travelled to Guatemala before, to see if they could work together on a program through the Tatamagouche Centre in Nova Scotia.

The centre, which is a non-profit education, conference and retreat centre affiliated with the United Church of Canada, was at that time very interested in developing stronger social justice programming.

The inaugural project, which became known as Project Accompaniment, was developed to provide an international presence for Guatemalan refugees wanting to return to their country after years of exile in Mexico.

In April of 1989, Anderson went to Guatemala to meet with a United Church of Canada partner, the Kaqchikel Presbytery.

“They began to understand that we were deeply concerned about human rights in Guatemala and  that we were accompanying the returning refugees. The Kaqchikel Presbytery was also involved in supporting the returning refugees,” Anderson says.

“In 1990 we invited two Guatemalan women to be with us in the Maritimes for a month and that began our (ongoing) relationship.”

In 1991, Anderson and White co-led a group of Maritime delegates to Guatemala, which included Ernest Mutch of Hazelbrook, Campbell Webster of Charlottetown, P.E.I. musician Lennie Gallant and others.

“It was very moving for us to meet with these people, (whether) it was the widow’s group or any of the human rights groups. . . . They were just so appreciative in getting the word out.

“That was the big thing — go back to Canada and tell the story of what’s going on here,” White remembers.

“It did take a lot out of us but we channelled that energy into getting the word out when we came back here. . . . You can’t really go there and learn these things and not have a certain responsibility to your fellow humans, so everyone when they came back continued to strengthen the work that they were doing.”

BTS continues to send annual delegations to Guatemala in collaboration with Tatamagouche Centre and has placed more than 70 young adults with partner organizations with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) Youth Internship Program, which ended in 2013 due to funding cuts.

“We don’t have an internship program anymore, which is really tragic because it was one way we could maintain regular relations with our partners through having young people who would be present with them for seven and a half months every year,”  Anderson says.

“(But) we are considering that we will start to send volunteers. They would be like interns, but they could be any age to be with our partners over a period of time because our partners, including the New Hope Foundation and the (Community Legal Clinic in Rabinal), say that it really matters a great deal that they have our support and our presence with them.”

In 2000, the first young adult delegation, led by Margie Loo of Belfast, P.E.I., visited Rabinal where they met New Hope Foundation founder Jesus Tecú, who spoke to the group and shared his story of his childhood,

In 1982, much of the population of Río Negro was murdered, including most of Tecú’s immediate family.

Through his persistence, the mass grave in Río Negro was exhumed in 1993, which led to the prosecution and imprisonment of three of the men responsible for the massacre.

“Because of that very strong and powerful experience we decided to return to Rabinal with our next delegation in 2002, at which time we began to hear Jesus’ dream of a school (for Maya Achi children) that would be built on that land,” Anderson remembers.

“They dreamed of having a junior high and high school for the children and grandchildren of both the victims and survivors of genocide. (It would be) a school where the kids would learn their own language and not lose it, which happens so often when they go to study in the higher grades. They would learn their own Mayan history and the history of human rights so that genocide would never happen again and they would be able to defend themselves as Mayan people.”

With support from BTS and other international organizations, along with Tecú’s New Hope Foundation, the school was first established in the town of Rabinal. In  2004, a team of Maritime volunteers — including Islanders Gary Loo, his son Stephen Loo and Michael Page — travelled to this highland community to help the people in the region to build the first school structure on land on the outskirts of the town. That build was covered extensively first-hand by The Guardian.

Although the Guatemalan Peace Accord was signed in 1996, BTS’s work in Guatemala continues.

“The focus has continued on human rights in a sense that we’re following the genocide cases (of the 1980s). We’ve sent human rights accompaniers to be present at those cases and to be supporting the witnesses in the genocide cases. (So) it’s a continuation of what we’ve always been doing,” Anderson says.

In 2004, BTS had a delegation in Guatemala. On their last day in Guatemala City José Manual Chacon was invited to speak to the group about Free Trade between Guatemala and Canada.

“He arrived late and disheveled . . . and said, ‘I came on the bus all night from the western highlands to tell you Canadians that you are causing huge problems in the highlands with a Canadian company called Goldcorp,’” Anderson says,

“He was an environmentalist. So that began our awareness that Guatemalans were holding a Canadian company accountable for causing damages to Mayan communities. That was the beginning of our involvement with Canadian mines.”

In response, BTS created Mining the Connections education and advocacy campaign, which supports Guatemalan communities negatively impacted by Canadian mining companies.

BTS was also a co-sponsor of Sr. Maudilia Lopez’s recent tour in the Maritimes. Lopez is a member of the Defenders of Mother Earth Committee, which has resisted the imposition of the mine on their community of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, Guatemala, where Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine is located.

“In 2008 is when serious resistance began,” Lopez says. “Really the frustration had began when the people had sold their land and they did not realize it was going to be for a gold mine; also they realized that the mine would be making a lot of money and (Goldcorp) bought the land for very little. . . .

“Then they really began to be concerned about the question of contamination. So then it became a whole lot of things. For example, there are houses (in which) walls have been broken apart because of the explosives they’re using. There is a problem not only of contamination of water but the drying up of wells.”

Another aspect of the Mining the Connections campaign is raising awareness that many Canadian pension plans are invested in gold mining companies.

“It’s very ironic that now we are fighting against our own Canadian companies, but the purpose of Breaking the Silence has always been to hold the Canadian government and the Canadian companies accountable,” Anderson says.

Sandler says there have been lots of changes, political and socially, in both countries in the past 25 years.

“Still, I think our work is really based on those relationships that started way back when, even before 1988. It’s really based on this long-term friendships and relationships, and it’s still about human rights.”

 

 

Organizations: Maritime-Guatemala Breaking, Tatamagouche Centre, United Church of Canada Guatemala army New Hope Foundation Canadian International Development Agency Goldcorp Defenders of Mother Earth Committee Marlin Mine

Geographic location: Guatemala, Maritime, Rabinal Mexico Canada Nova Scotia.The Charlottetown Río Negro Belfast San Miguel Ixtahuacan

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