Berta Oliva

Interviewee: Berta Oliva De Nativi, Founder of COFADEH, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: COFADEH offices in Tegucigalpa
Date: 14th October 2016

Key Words: Human rights defenders, Land rights, Corruption, Impunity, Criminalisation, CICIH [International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras], CICIG [International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala], MACCIH [Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras]

Martin Mowforth (MM): …. Some thoughts of Berta Oliva de Nativi about the case of the 35 high-placed government officials, including those from the Honduran Armed Forces. My question is: do you believe that the resolution of these 35 cases would clean up the situation in Honduras, or is it simply the tip of the iceberg? Do you follow?

Berta OlivaO: Look, yes, I think that the issue of the detentions following on from the extraditions of people from our country is not going to resolve any problem. What it’s reflecting is the inexistence of a system of justice in our country – the incapacity of those who administer justice in Honduras. What it also shows is the complexity of the degraded state of affairs that our country has unfortunately fallen into after the military coup.

It becomes more and more worrying because one sees the human rights organisations have been accompanying not [specific] cases but processes in the country in order to document, help and position themselves with respect to the different petitions which are legally recognised in our country. This gives the chance to the same authorities which claim that they are conducting investigations to bring prosecutions to the courts in Honduras.

Why [do the human rights organisations do this]? To return hope to the Honduran people who are eager to see justice. But we have constantly seen that there is manipulation covering up technical knowledge in human rights, throughout the whole justice system, cleaning up everything as regards human rights. But what we see every time is the strengthening of impunity in Honduras. And impunity then allows aggression towards human rights defenders in general. Also we see the complicity of those who are charged with imparting justice in the corruption that our country generates, a country full of impunity.

So the extraditions reflect that, that we do not have a system of law, we do not have a system of justice that is capable of carrying out an investigation and of applying sanctions. And we don’t have such a system because when extradition charges are brought or when we mention the extradition of members of the National Council or Deputies or even Congress members, some local authorities, such as Mayors or Deputies – these are the authorities which represent the different legal structures established in our country, and they are the ones on the list or who have been charged [with extradition].

So we have a lot to do to understand why there is no justice in Honduras and why it’s going to be so hard to return to this position of building the hope that Honduras can change in terms of the application of justice. For one, because it’s interesting to see that it is these same authorities who are linked to organised crime and who are part of the structures of terror which are part of the phenomenon of narco-trafficking. So when they are charged, when they are accused in the courts, we have a complex situation in the country. It is the authorities which are part of the problem of organised crime, of narco-trafficking and of the serious and constant violations of human rights. We have a country so degraded that every time fewer Hondurans get angry in our own country. Why? Because we don’t have anyone to turn to, an authority which can solve the problem. You have to come from abroad to see how to help resolve such an acute crisis in Honduras. With sorrow, with concern and with indignation, I can tell you today it is a country that suffers serious intervention. We are under complete control. Here we have, for example, the presence of the Southern Command of the United States [which] is more than evident. Here one can see how the international organisation MACCIH [Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras] operates; it says it aims to combat corruption in Honduras or at least helps to combat corruption.

But also all the time the International Red Cross is being strengthened in Honduras. Why? Because something serious is happening here. We also have the presence of the offices of the High Commission [UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency]; although this doesn’t work for the defenders, but the reason that there is a presence and offices of the High Commission in any country is because it is a country in crisis, and it also suffers a high degree of outside intervention. And there is a strong presence of the UNHCR in Honduras. And simply we have the presence of PBI [Peace Brigades International], which although it helps the defenders is here because they are aware of the crisis and the agony that we have in Honduras.

So, I make these remarks because I always see a tendency from central authorities, from the government, to believe that militarising the country, re-militarising Honduran society and the state’s institutions is going to resolve the problem which it’s been incapable of resolving because that [militarisation] is part of the strategy. From within the state they create a culture of fear through violence: public insecurity, legal insecurity, the student crisis, the education system that we have in the country; it is so worrying because in a country where the education system is permanently in crisis, it’s logical that the results are going to be so mediocre that we are going to have a population with much more illiteracy than we currently have.

So I believe, I’m absolutely convinced, that the situation in the country is deteriorating, and it’s becoming increasingly debased. And the human rights defenders, especially those with human rights organisations, that we have worked with accompanying processes and the victims – we are at permanent risk. And that costs us dearly because personally I work for the promotion of life, the promotion of liberties, for the strengthening of a state of law so that we can have those rights, to see how we can recover our rights. So we’re aware of the risks that face us, but we’re not going to recommend saying “I’m at risk”, because then we would dedicate ourselves to protecting ourselves and that would generate tension which they would see in us. And I’m concerned, really concerned, that the people in the communities, in the interior of the country, those who are unseen, that they are not protected.

I believe that it’s important that the international organisations must understand that to protect human rights defenders and organisations you have to be part of a chain. You protect me because I carry out a function of accompaniment, of follow-up, of exposure and of action on the ground.

MM: Yes.

BO: So it’s a game of chess, like moving a chess piece, but we also have to be aware of it. First, I think that to understand the logic of what we are living through, you have to have a class consciousness.

MM: Yes, I understand. OK. Many thanks.

One las question please. Do you think that a CICIH [International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras], like the CICIG in Guatemala, would be a route out of the Honduran problems? I imagine that that won’t be very realistic because the government is blocking the possibility of creating a CICIH. But they’ve already created their own investigative organisation. But do you think that a CICIH would be a possibility? And would it be a serious path out of the Honduran problems?

Berta Oliva: Look, with the levels of breakdown of the country, I believe that we have to begin to re-establish our participation as citizens. The government has done all it can to create the culture of fear, to keep us in silence so that we say nothing and are unable to join together. But it’s also doing everything it can to impose its own structures and mechanisms, making use of its international alliances and also taking advantage of international treaties and conventions to put in place its own spaces which certify its actions. Far from calling for the government and the authorities for a non-continuation along this route, what we have in the country is a process of certification of violations of human rights and of citizen rights.

So at the present moment I don’t see that a CICIH in the Guatemalan style can be installed in our country. Why? Because it has to have the approval of the government in order for it to function well. And it’s not convenient for the government to have a CICIH because there is already the example of what happened in Guatemala. So it’s not going to want to create a space of that kind so that within one, or ten, or five, or four years, it brings to life what the government in Guatemala is experiencing.

So, I think that at first what must be done is the empowerment of Hondurans, to begin to speak, to begin to articulate, what we are left with to adjust, to juggle with the necessities really. Because I’m going to say: the government also has a strategy to submit the majority of the Honduran people to hunger. Through unemployment we get the buying and selling of people at a local level, and those who can’t buy are submitted to fear. There is a strategy to place us, for example human rights defenders, against the majority of the population. We can’t continue to remain silent about the levels of criminalisation which we face in the country. I can tell you that lately, whilst the government has been working on international lobbying to say that it has advanced on human rights, here they continue criminalising people. On Friday last week, six campesinos from the ‘El Paraíso’ ranch were criminalised for defending a piece of land on which they could live and eat. Amongst the six campesinos is a human rights defender who has been a beneficiary of our training programme for empowerment and who represented human rights defenders locally. And on this we can say that he is a member of the ‘El Paraíso’ network; that is, a defender found guilty today. But likewise another defender of the South network, who has also benefitted from our programmes and who even managed to create networks of human rights defenders, has been arrested and convicted. We’ve managed to get him liberated, this human rights defender from the south of the country, but conditionally.

So, what to say?

MM: The ‘El Paraíso’ ranch is in the south?

BO: No. The southern network is in the south of the country, and it’s there that Abel Pérez was convicted. He was arrested, we managed to get him out, but his freedom is only conditional. And he has to present himself to the Judicial Power, saying that he is there, that he’s not doing anything bad, prohibited from going near the land he was defending and where he was accompanying those who were recovering a bit of land.

And the ‘El Paraíso’ network is in the north-west and has a border with [the department of] Olancho.

MM: Ah with Olancho.

BO: With Olancho and with Nicaragua.

MM: Yes. OK.

BO: So there we are, we have to denounce this type of deed. That is to say, feel for the defenders, they are imprisoned because they accompany those who recover a little piece of land which they have worked on for years. And they are submitted to an unjust system of justice, but they say “No!” so they’re submitted to the law, and the law is what it says. And so it becomes clear in this sense that not all the law is just because they are committing injustices not only against the campesinos, but as much against the human rights defenders. Apart from this burden that affects us, there is a campaign of permanent criminalisation. Today the government sees the human rights defenders as the enemy, like before they saw us as those who were accused and who were then disappeared as terrorists. Now they look upon the defenders in the same way as if we give a bad image of the country; so they declare us to be bad Hondurans because we speak and say what is happening in Honduras.

MM: Yes, I follow. OK.

BO: So, as far as the MACCIH is concerned, I don’t believe that it can be installed in our country at this moment. Sorry, I don’t believe that a CICIH can be established here. What we do have is a MACCIH which has already been here for two months, and we have seen that it is largely silenced; and whilst everything happens, nothing happens. They don’t notice the danger.

MM: Yes. OK. Very many thanks Berta.



Interviewee: Marta (This is a pseudonym used for protection of the interviewee’s identity).
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: San Martín, El Salvador
Date: 19 January 2019
Themes: Interview with Marta about her experience as a migrant on one of the migrant caravans from El Salvador heading for the United States during 2018. Interview conducted  in a car surrounded by much traffic noise.

Key words: migration; human caravan; ‘coyotes’/traffickers; gangs.


Marta: Where do you want me to start?

Martin: From your departure from El Salvador, on the first caravan.

Marta: I went on the first caravan where there were a lot of Hondurans. I left from here in El Salvador on Friday 20th October [2018] and I arrived on Sunday [uncertain date] at 2 in the morning where we were crossing the Río Hietucumbando [?]. I was incorporated into the throng in the Ciudad Hidalgo Park where there were all the people from a caravan who still hadn’t made it. I was with my grandson and a neighbour who had also come with me, and we were waiting for them to get up at 4 in the morning. They got up at 3:30 in the morning and we began to walk to get to Tapachula.

Our aim was to make it along the whole road and I’m not sure if it’s about 38 or 40 kilometres from Ciudad Hidalgo to Tapachula; but we arrived at 6 pm, or around 5:30 pm at Tapachula. That was the first section that we walked in the journey. There were masses of people, going carefully because there were migration patrols and police too.

Martin: Were there coyotes as well?

Marta: Well the coyotes I found out when we were there … Yes, I did a lot to get to Guadalajara. We were there for two days and I saw this man who seemed suspicious to me, and we began to talk.

“What do you do,” I asked.

“Right now there are many coyotes with your people. Because I know that with the same situation of the caravan they couldn’t pass themselves off as mere people.” And then, “Yes, I’m one of them,” he told me. “I brought eight people here.”

“Really? And it was no problem?”

I said to him, “Because you’re charging a fee to get these people and to bring them here. And México is giving them food, and you bring them here.”

“Yes, but only to get them to this point. There’s a zone where they won’t let them pass, where they have to pay; and I fear that they’ll get rid of me too.”

I don’t know, perhaps it’s the narcos, I don’t know. He didn’t explain it to me very well. “They won’t let you pass through this zone and you could be kidnapped. So here I’m going to be with you and everything is relaxed, and I’m here to go with you if you want to go onto another state.”

When we got to México City, I saw him twice, but I never got to know the people that he brought. I saw him because he’s from here, a Salvadoran, and I had seen him in México.

Martin: And what did you do in Tijuana?

Marta: In Tijuana?

Martin: Yes.

Marta: Well, when we reached México City, they sent us to Tijuana. There they received us in the Benito Juárez Auditorium. There they told us where we were, all of arrived, and they put us up. Well, in my case, I didn’t go in because I was carrying a child, and I hadn’t registered in the caravan. I always tried to avoid it whenever they were passing lists around. Because I didn’t want him to be recorded as being on the caravan to the United States; firstly because I didn’t take him with me because I wanted to, rather because the pandillas (gangs) wanted him to join them. Because he was a child of 15 years old, so here in El Salvador when they become young adolescents, young men, they are obliged to join the gangs; and I was fearful of that. I’d already told his mum and she told me, “look, mum, you’ve got the have a chance to join the caravan.” And thank God it happened and I brought him with me; I felt that I was saving his life because if he got roped into the gangs he would have only three options: prison, hospital or the cemetery. So, I brought him with me, thank God.

From the time when we began to enter México, as we were arriving in the streets there were lorries with water, fruit, food. And where we got to sleep there were medics who spent the whole night with us. For me it was a good experience and I thank God because at least we didn’t suffer like others had done.

We didn’t know if on an event like this – I went on the caravan – I didn’t know if we were going to be able to eat or if there would be nothing to eat, where to sleep, or if anyone would give me water. You go ready for everything.

Also on the caravan you have two aims: one is to incorporate yourself into the caravan and to get through México without problems. There are organisers who talk with the authorities so that they allow safe passage, to go and not to have to spend anything, thank God. The other is the final point at whichever frontier. In our case we got to Tijuana and there, as we say in our country, “Snub, snub, each to their own house.” So, once there, there were those who had relatives who came to collect them, others who stayed there waiting for documents, and others who wanted to enter the United States. And my aim was to get there to Tijuana, and to find out how this child could enter the United States, and with God’s help my daughter also had contacts there, and so I managed to deliver him into the hands of some lawyers who had a house in Tijuana. We went there and I managed to leave him and he was there for fifteen days. Afterwards he had the bad luck, on the day that I came back to El Salvador, and when he was to get into the United States, the Mexican migration got him and he spent five days in jail at the frontier. But the same lawyers were able to get him out. But he was there for another 15 days because by chance a congressional representative arrived – he was a friend of a reporter who was a friend of my daughter, of the boy’s mother. So she told him, “look, you’re going to México to see the emigrants, aren’t you? I’m not going to go because I’m going to Casa Venta; so you go and bring Vladimir back to me,” she said (because Vladimir is Veronica’s son). It’s a case where they see the caravan and all of a sudden he says to me “they’re going to interview me mum.” And I was interviewed a lot too by reporters who came from Los Angeles to Tijuana. And that’s how it was with the congressional representative who came and got him through, passing by migration. So he’s in Florida hoping that one day I’ll take a plane and he’ll say I’ve left.

I’m still not completely happy; I wanted to see my son who also left because he’s still in immigration. But I have faith in God that our walk and the sacrifice, the effort that we made – because we put up with storms, we got exhausted, we slept in the street, but …..

Martin: And how did you get back?

Marta: I came back when I’d already delivered the child and I said to my daughter “Daughter, I have nothing more to do here; the child is in the hands of the authorities who will look after him, who will deliver him to the North American immigration authorities. I’m going back to my country. So I bought a direct ticket, from Tijuana to Tapachula; from Tapachula to Guatemala; and from Guatemala to El Salvador. And that’s how I’m here, thanking God.

Martin: By bus?

Marta: By bus. What a journey in the caravan and nobody is going to say I’m lying. I know that’s how it was. Also I know that’s a good caravan.

Martin: An adventure.

Marta: Certainly an adventure.

Martin: But do you want to do it again, or not? To try it another time?

Marta: Well I would say if in the case for example, I have two grandchildren and they said to me that they have problems and wanted to join a caravan, yes, I would do it again. Because a mother tries to help her sons in whatever way is possible for her. And I saw that whilst you go with God in the caravan, I always put myself as near as possible to the organisers and close to the reporters and the authorities – it’s always best to be near them. And I used to get upon the trucks which migration had sent to give us rides. One lorry I didn’t get up on was one that lost a lot of people – sadly they lost 100 people – we didn’t notice because we were many thousands of people. There were rumours, but I didn’t see them and so I’m not going to say that it’s certain, but I did hear the rumours. They told us that they wanted to steal children too, there were rumours, but again I didn’t see it so I’m not going to talk about it. There was an accusation that some people were stealing children in the night, but I can’t be certain because I didn’t see it. There were loads of people. But thank God, everything worked out OK for me.

Martin: Many thanks and good luck in the future. 

Marta: Yes, like I said, I’m an adventurous woman.

Martin : OK, thanks.

Purificación Hernández

At the time of this interview (2009), Martin Mowforth was a member of the CATAPA delegation investigating the problems caused by metal mining in Guatemala. (CATAPA is a movement of volunteers active on the topic of sustainability, focussing on the problems caused by irresponsible mining. It is based in Belgium.) Purificación Hernández from Honduras was an invited guest on the delegation. He represented the Honduran umbrella organisation ASONOG (Association of Non-Governmental Organisations) and in particular their campaign to represent and assist communities in the Siria Valley, badly affected by the Siria Valley gold mines operated by Goldcorp, a Canadian mining company.


Interviewee:Purificación Hernández (Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (ASONOG)), Honduras, regarding the Honduran General Mining Law
Participants: Martin Mowforth
Location: San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Quezaltenango, Guatemala
Date: 25 July 2009
Context: Visit of a CATAPA delegation to the Marlin Mine, San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Guatemala.
Key Words: General Law of Mining (Honduras); mining companies; open cast mining; cyanide; Hurricane Mitch aid; Civic Alliance for Democracy.


Martin Mowforth (MM): We want to know more about the context of the law and its origins. I believe it was created after Hurricane Mitch.

(PH): After Mitch, yes.

MM: So could you tell us something about this and its effects on local communities?

PH: My name is Purificación Hernández. I work as a technician with ASONOG and also I have the job of coordinator of various actions carried out by the Civic Alliance for Democracy which serves as a political space for the struggle against the mining of heavy metals in Honduras.

MM: Can you tell us a bit about the origins of the Honduran General Law of Mining?

PH: The General Law of Mining in Honduras was decreed in 1998. The Law was approved in the National Congress in the middle of November 1998 exactly a month after Hurricane Mitch. There is more than enough proven evidence to suppose and believe that all the aid which Honduras received after Hurricane Mitch from North America (the USA and Canada) was conditioned by these countries as economic aid to help us get out of this natural disaster, but that it was given in exchange for the approval of a Law of Mining which favoured the mining companies.

This was from ten years ago, 1998, and we saw that more than 300 concessions were given to Honduran mines that are still open; there were some companies which are still working and others that were hoping to be able to work due to their politicking in our country so that they might continue working.

The Civic Alliance for Democracy (the political space to which I belong) was struggling against the approval of this decree, but the government wasn’t interested. From this struggle against the Law of Mining we launched an attempt to see which articles of the law were unconstitutional. So we hired a lawyer, Clarisa Vega Venturas. She worked especially on a legal demand to clarify that there were at least eight articles of the Law of Mining which were illegal and which should be repealed. We went through the whole process to get it to the Supreme Court of Justice and on the 4th October 2006 the Honduran Supreme Court of Justice declared that not only eight articles were unconstitutional, but 13 articles in the Law of Mining were in contravention of the constitution of the Republic. And in that way we transferred the struggle from the streets to the Congress. With the support of the struggle in the streets we managed to get these 13 articles to be declared unconstitutional.

Sadly, although that was all very well, the current Law of Mining continues to favour the mining companies. Still now they have to pay only 1% [of their profit account] to the municipalities. They don’t have to present any fund or guarantees for any damages caused by their operations. They don’t have to consult the communities by means of open meetings for their permission or to ask whether they are in favour or not. There are many things which they still do very badly and against which we continue to struggle because we want to repeal this law, because we consider that while the law doesn’t say anything about what this open cast mining produces, it uses cyanide, and we are getting absolutely nowhere because our government doesn’t have the technical or professional or economic capacity to supervise the mining companies.

We believe that the governments of Latin American countries do not have the facility to regulate, to stop or to obligate the mining companies. So we cannot allow them to continue working in our countries.

MM: Thanks.





Patricia Blanco

Interviewee: Patricia Blanco
Interviewer: Stephanie Williamson of PAN-UK
Location: Offices of PAN-UK, London
Date: 29th August 2018
Key Words: pineapple production; monocultivation; export crops; food security; pesticide abuse; contamination; supermarkets; transnational corporations.




Stephanie Williamson (SW): This is for the newsletter. 

Patricia Blanco (PB): I’m Patricia Blanco; I’m a Costa Rican journalist, and I work in the University of Costa Rica.

Other PAN-UK representative: Yes, the questions. OK, so when you are ready, just carry on.

SW: So, we’ll go with the first question. Well, since we had the pleasure of interviewing you in 2000, 18 years ago, when we talked about the state of pineapple production in Costa Rica, could you explain a bit to us about what has changed in the pineapple production system in Costa Rica – perhaps things like what has improved, what’s got worse, and well, in terms of human health, environmental health, socioeconomic aspects, workers’ rights, occupational health, etcetera. So, in order to introduce the subject.

PB: Perfect, OK Stephanie, firstly, many thanks to PAN for the opportunity to talk a little about pineapple cultivation in Costa Rica.

Really, from 18 years ago up to today, pineapple production in the country has changed a lot; principally as pineapple has become an extensive monocrop. Back then we could say that pineapple production was concentrated in the south of the country, whilst today it covers various areas of the country; mainly the south, the Caribbean coast and the northern part. So, this means that pineapple has expanded from approximately 5,000 hectares of pineapples sown at the end of the 1980s; whilst today there are more than 50,000 hectares sown. The data are not exact and there are different data. But there is agreement that there are more than 50,000 hectares sown.

So, with things as they are, the problems have increased. One very interesting thing to say is that this expansion follows an agro-export model and a diversification of agro-exports which governments decided to promote from the 1980s decade. So the pineapple became, as we would say, the star agro-export product. In macro-economic terms, it’s been successful such that it’s become one of the top export products and today it’s the third most important export product in the country.

SW: After what?

PB: After the banana. In first place: medical devices – a manufacturing product which we would say is produced in something like a maquila style; and although it’s also a result of research, it’s more than anything a manufacturing product. And in second place, the banana; and in third place pineapple. It’s exported principally to the United States – around 60% to the US; and 40% to the countries of the European Union; and the rest to other countries.

So, this pineapple expansion has magnified the problems. The problems range from environmental to social and health as well, although there isn’t any research in this field, despite the fact that there are reports of complaints from affected communities. But I think that later on I’ll go into more detail about the consequences.

SW: Well, at that time in 2000 when you came here, you were working and collaborating with the Popular Front Against Pollution. I’d like to know if the lawsuits that you had as a coalition against PINDECO, the biggest pineapple company at that time, lawsuits concerning more precautionary measures to protect the environment, social rights, etc, had any successful results, or not?

PB: Well, as regards the companies and the struggle in the 1980s of the Front Against Pollution by pineapples in the south of the country, one result was the creation of a union, which is actually very difficult to achieve in the private sector. It’s something which is demonised; unions in the country are not wanted in several sectors, despite the fact that they defend the workers’ rights. I think that was an important achievement which still has some validity, as there’s a union of agricultural workers which defends the rights of this sector.

However, with the pineapple expansion, control of the activity has gone out of the hands of the government because it’s very difficult to keep control over an activity that has become so extensive in different parts of the country.

I was forgetting to say that one thing which has changed compared with the 1980s is that in the 80s the only producer of pineapples was PINDECO, a subsidiary of Dole. Whereas now there are other very large companies involved, so it’s the transnationals which are in control of the activity. Also, we have a large number of producers, small and medium-sized producers who decided to leave their own parcels of land producing basic grains for our country, producing for our national diet – such as rice, beans, corn – and decided to change to the production of pineapple. They were encouraged to do so by the incentives given by the government and by the high prices on international markets.

It’s also very important to say that we are not dealing with an isolated activity within the country, but with something that is tied into an international economic model, with the markets, with free trade.

So, many producers changed, left their former activities and began to produce pineapples. As you can see, and returning to your question, we had immediate results, but we never imagined that such an expansion would occur.

This expansion also had its origins in research carried out by PINDECO and Dole on a variety of pineapple, called Pineapple Gold, if I’m not mistaken. The research was conducted here and showed that this variety would adapt very well to the climatic conditions; and the results were very, very successful. This type is a very sweet pineapple and very small compared to endogenous varieties or at least the varieties we have here. So, this helped the expansion.

Thus, we can talk about how the pineapple changed from being a local problem in the south of the country to being a national problem.

What effects have we had since the expansion of the crop?

Well, I’ll cite some of them:

  • Change in the land use. As I said, many producers left their parcels of land or changed from producing the basic grains to growing pineapples.
  • Destruction of protected areas, especially of wetlands which had been declared as RAMSAR sites in Costa Rica. This is very serious.
  • Environmental contamination from the use and abuse of agro-chemicals, of pesticides, especially leading to water pollution.
  • Intensive use of pesticides. I don’t have the figures to hand, but we already know in this country that there is abuse of chemical substances and that pineapple cultivation contributes in large part to this situation.
  • There is also an impact on food security, originating in the abandonment of the growing of basic grains.

SW: Well, the third question – and you were already beginning to say that we had to think that there is that demand for the pineapple at the international level – consumers, supermarkets, all those companies in the chain from producer to consumer. My question is: have you seen changes in attitudes or in the behaviour along this pineapple chain? That is, the supermarkets in Europe or the States, those who are buying Tica pineapples or also their consumers.

PB: Well, as regards the changes in attitude of consumers, of supermarkets, and of everybody involved in the chain of distribution of pineapples or of associated products, in Costa Rica, we aren’t aware of these. The information on that doesn’t reach us, even though it’s extremely important. Why? Because in all this the consumers are very important, because it’s they who make the purchases and who eat them, even many times without knowing how they are produced or even what they are consuming.

So, international campaigns are very important and put a lot of pressure on the country.

I’ll give you an example: in 2017 on German television, Deutsche Welle, there was a report, a journalistic investigation into the cultivation of pineapple in Costa Rica. And later it was distributed through all the channels. That had a big impact on Costa Rica because the country depends on, and fears, its international image. It’s very important to have a good international image, especially because it’s a country which sells itself as an ecotourism destination of great importance. So, here you see there is a tremendous contradiction. Well, this TV report, made by German TV, had a big impact. These types of things, I think, are very important. If each time [they see the report], the consumers, consumer organisations, and some of the companies too, become more aware, they can get involved in lawsuits and spread awareness of the problems associated with pineapple cultivation: that is, as I said before, it’s a monoculture which has spread throughout the country.

SW: OK, now the fourth question. I understand from my Tico colleague, Fernando in IRET, that the current Tico government takes a very welcome position, more proactive in certain aspects of environmental conservation and in aspects of sustainability. Could you comment and give us any examples of governmental policies on improved or stricter regulations which have to be followed with pesticide use on pineapples or bananas or other large-scale export crops?

PB: Well, I think governments ….

SW: And in particular the Tico government.

PB: Yes, Costa Rican governments are worried about getting foreign currency into the country, and also about generating employment. And that’s how they see it and how they justify their support for an activity like this. In the case of pineapple, as I said before, I believe that control [of the activity] has gone out of their hands.

In recent years, however, it’s important to point out that scientific studies have been conducted by the public universities, the University of Costa Rica and the National University, along with the state institution that is associated with and has responsibility for the agricultural sector. These researches detected the presence of pesticides in sources of water, in surface water as much as in subterranean water, which is the water that people drink. Many years back, there was a terrible case in our country of various communities in the Atlantic zone which had to stop using water from the wells and the government had to supply water daily by tanker. I don’t know how you would say it in English, but they’re like ‘trucks’ which transport the water and supply it to the population because the water in the wells is contaminated.

And for several years now, the presence of various agro-chemicals in the water supply has been documented. For example: in the northern zone of the country, where 53 per cent of pineapple production is concentrated, since 2015 we have seen the presence of pesticides like bromasil, ametrina, exaxinona and diuron.

As a result of this the government took the decision in 2017, and I think that it is a positive action, to prohibit the import and the use of bromasil in pineapple cultivation. To me that seems like a positive action.

Another positive action is the carrying out of studies to monitor the state of the soil and water and the existing levels of contamination. That wasn’t done previously – although IRET has been very consistent for many years, but most times the university researches haven’t got to the level of political decision-making.

[Both talking at the same time.]

PB: Another very positive thing is that now there are more complaints and denunciations from the communities, from environmental organisations and they’ve even presented judicial lawsuits against companies which have contaminated their natural resources and which have threatened personal health. This is very important in a country like ours, which is very legally based and where there is recourse to the law for everyone. This type of action has important effects. And it has also generated more information in the public domain and a greater concern about the negative effects of pineapple production.

SW: OK, the fifth question. In your opinion, what would be the single most, or two most important actions for priority and decision-making that could achieve most in turning pineapple production into a healthier, safer and more sustainable system?

PB: Well, that’s very ambitious. Really, with the current model of pineapple production that we have, I doubt that it can be turned into a sustainable system. I would say that what needs to be done, from some time ago, is that the communities and associations should be making demands of the government and the municipalities. In the first place, a moratorium on the cultivation of pineapple should be declared – that is to say that the dedication of more land to pineapple cultivation should be suspended.

That’s a very important thing because up to now we haven’t had any such declaration and if it’s going to continue increasing, I think it would be really impossible for it to become sustainable.

Now, I think that in order to gain greater control we need much stricter public policies; we need to establish a series of measures with which the companies have to comply.

I think that this is also a matter of economic power because, as I said before, there are some transnationals that control this activity. With the small and medium-sized national producers there has been work done to improve agricultural practices. But they aren’t the only ones involved in this activity. There are the big companies which, although they certainly have their teams of professional agronomists and the rest, they still follow a system, a model of intensive agro-chemical use. We already know that pineapple cultivation uses practices that are very toxic for the environment.

So, what is the government’s margin for manoeuver? It’s limited. Recently a former Minister of Agriculture of the country said in an informal conversation that for all the will that he had, in this particular activity there are very strong economic interests in operation. However, I’m certain that the government and the institutions of the state must have greater control.

SW: And a follow-up question. What actions, what decisions could be made by and what role could be played by, for example, the British supermarkets that import pineapple from Costa Rica?

PB: Well, I’m not especially knowledgeable about how the distribution chain functions; it’s not an issue that I’ve researched or read about. But I believe that, as regards the transnationals, the only entities or actors that could have influence are the supermarkets. They’re the purchasing companies and they are the ones that distribute the product. The Tico farmers who grow them don’t distribute them. They sell them to the transnationals and the transnationals are responsible for selling them in the different markets.

It seems to me that the consumer countries’ supermarkets should have better information about the effects of the production, in this case of pineapple cultivation, on the origin countries; on the social and environmental conditions of the production. That could be really important. From our countries, under current conditions, I see that as difficult.

SW: OK, the last question and an issue that is a bit more positive. I’d like to know a bit more about what is being done? If there’s an agroecology movement in Costa Rica? If so, what type? And what kind of activities do they do? What kind of agricultural practices? What type of people are involved?

And a little about any level of governmental or municipal support, or support from the food sector for promoting organic or agroecological systems of production?

PB: I think there is a tendency – I would say at the global level – to move towards more environmentally friendly production. And Costa Rica is also in that tendency. I think that peoples’ awareness that chemicals, agrochemicals are toxic for our health and for the environment is increasing all the time. And there’s a greater desire to eat more healthily.

However, that implies that in a country there are decisions and policies which government authorities can take to make this possible in many cases. In the case of Costa Rica, how do I see that situation at the moment? There is greater availability of organic products than before. There are many more organic markets in different towns. Also, in a limited way, you can find a section of the supermarkets dedicated to organics.

And also, I could say that there are changes in the teaching and in university courses concerning agriculture. That’s very important because in that way there begins a change in the mentality of people and of future professionals who are going to work in different places. So, for example in public universities where there was a teaching model based on the use of chemicals, they’ve changed to a bio-model, more in league with Mother Earth, with the environment.

For me that is really a source of great hope, because it’s the new generations who are going to be able to make the major changes.

Also, I see an important agroecology movement in the communities, with the campesinos, with people, supported in many cases by small associations of students, of professionals, who have major information resources, for the transfer of technological information and on many other aspects. So, for me that’s a source of hope, because if there is really an important movement from the communities, I believe that it can reach up to the state. That is, so that the state takes effective measures, determines policies and supports those small movements that there are in different communities because they want to have a healthier environment free of agro-chemicals.

But it still seems to me that this kind of movement continues to be limited. The greatest availability of products continues to be, unfortunately, those grown with agro-chemicals, and with unsustainable practices.

SW: And can you end perhaps with some examples of how it affects your own work, or that of your colleagues in the university where you work? What evidence is there of ecology or bio-production? I don’t know if there are any examples of research or work on ….

PB: Yes, I think there are some that you can use for reference. I’ll give you a link to our website at the University of Costa Rica. Recently, last June, we did some journalistic work to see how the university is contributing to making pineapple production more sustainable – what you were asking me about. And we realised that there is a series of researches which have been done especially looking to reduce the environmental and social impact of pineapple production.

An example: the use of the stubble, the waste from the pineapple, which gives rise to a lot of pollution because there’s so much of it and because in order to get rid of these remains, what the producers do is burn it. And that has a strong impact on the soil. So, some research has looked at how they can make use of these wastes in a sustainable way. There are several investigations into this – so that’s one case I can cite.

The other involves alternative ways of reducing the impact of the stable fly which propagates itself on these wastes and which strongly affects cattle. On that also the universities have collaborated on research into how to control this insect, but without causing more pollution; but doing it in a more natural way, with the use of biodegradable technologies.

Also, another way in which the universities have contributed, along with the government, is with training for the producers in good agricultural practices. For example, there is a project that the University of Costa Rica has carried out in the north of the country, and I understand that the National University has also been involved in that. For example, there has been work on the environmental properties of agro-chemicals so that the farmers are informed about these.

On water and the management of waste water; alternatives to reduce the use of agro-chemicals; also, to reduce pests such as the stable fly, as I was saying. And the wastes, which we call stubble, amongst other things. So, not everything is bad – there is work in various sectors that are aware and concerned about the impact of pineapple production.

And I think that perhaps in several years we might not manage to reduce the area that’s dedicated to pineapples because that will depend on the international market. Probably in several years another product will come along and supplant the pineapple, but there’s a lot of work to be done in that respect.

Gerson Suazo

Interviewee: Gerson Suazo
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: Central Square, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
11 September 2015
Key Words:protests | government corruption | CICIH (International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras) | Hunger strike
Notes:For background information on Los Indignados please see where you will find a blog entry by James Watson on his time spent with the Indignados protests in Tegucigalpa.
Note: ‘Los Indignados’ may be variously translated, but is probably best and most commonly understood as ‘The Outraged’.

Martin Mowforth (MM): I am going to begin. So, everything is ready, I am recording. So if you want to, only if you want, can you give me your name? [Please note that not all the hunger strikers and members of Los Indignados would wish to give their names due to the likelihood of threats and persecution if their identities are known by the government. Outside the encampment of Los Indignados in the Central Square of Tegucigalpa there is normally a group of plain clothed government officials taking note of who enters and leaves the encampment.]

Gerson Suazo (GS): My name is Gerson Suazo. I am from the department of Santa Bárbara. I have already been here in Tegucicalpa for 15 days. I was involved in the first strike around the Pesidential Palace. We’ve maintained a huge struggle in order to be able to find a solution, a solution to the political, economic and social crisis that now, well, is causing us a lot of problems in our country. This is a momentous struggle to get the president Don Orlando to put in place the CICIHHH the International Commission against Impunity in Honduras, enforced by the United Nations. So, we have been subjected to these problems, social problems, in which all of the sectors of society are involved. There are so many problems of landowners, so many problems, of officials who are involved in a lot of corruption; that all sectors of society have come to us to launch a big struggle, to incorporate everybody in our country.

In fact, from the land, its recuperation, the care of the environment. We are making this struggle so that it can flourish again – really, the culture of our country. In truth they have implanted a sub culture in which, they have made sure, they have erased the identity of with the people and all of the sectors. So the struggle has been going for several months now – it began with mobilisations, which now have become very big, which has been accompanied by different types of protest, such as taking control of roads, occupying government buildings. And a hunger strike which is taking place here in the Central Park. In truth, this represents ordinary citizens who do not belong to any organisation, nor any political party, who are wanting to see a change in our country.

To be able to live with dignity and that everyone’s rights are respected, we are at the limits of our country Honduras.

This is a very big fight that we have taken on. Unfortunately we have not had any response from our President. So that he heeds the call and the demands that our people are making. So then, the president is taking underhand actions, wanting to create a CICIH but one that is imposed by him. It’s more commonly known by the Honduran people as CHICHI, they say the CHICHI, because it is a lie, thus it is a farce, what he is doing. And this is what he wishes to create, a system of interaction of Hondurans to fight corruption. But directly what the people ask of him is, if he wants to combat corruption, then it should be with the international commission set up by the UN. The truth is that this is what the people want, and it is the only demand that the people are making. Because the people trust that this is the tool which allows them to investigate cases and take away immunity from people who really should be paying. True? How all the people have paid through a lack of the laws. So there we wish to see them in prison. Unfortunately they have ‘prosecuted’, in inverted commas, people like Elena Gutiérrez, Mario Celaya, who are directly implicated with what has happened and what they have done has angered the Honduran people, that was what they took from the social security. So, they are directly enjoying their liberty – right? They make it appear that they are prisoners, but they put them inside barracks where they are not really confined. They can leave and go directly to their homes and there isn’t any real security keeping them behind bars. So this is what the people want to have, to actually solve in part, true? But the people are willing to continue fighting, to carry on, demonstrating in all areas, all types of pressure to be able to make direct changes. To be able to change the system in this Honduran society. So, we really want a change, more profound change. We trust that we have the tool, but we’re going beyond that, ok? No, we will stay here, even if it’s the start of a fight, which has actually already started but we’ll take it further.

MM: OK, many thanks for that. Certainly you have brought me up-to-date a little. But, at this moment here in this small area, where we are, what are your plans for the future?

GS: Well, what we are doing right now here is raising awareness of the people who, most of all, are not involved in what is the social struggle, the fight for the freedom of our country. Therefore, we are directly here to be able to break this indifference that is instilled in us, that disillusionment that is put into us and that has been filtering through to the people. That splits or drives actions which generate division within the Honduran society. So we are here to demonstrate that we can unite and we can do big things because the intention is to unite all of the Honduran people; without distinction or political allegiance, without distinction of race and without many things which might restrict us in becoming united. We wish to break this individualism which has been imposed to unite the whole society. Because we know that the government is the party of government, the national party, but within its militants there are normal everyday people who aren’t in line with the way the country is governed. So we also want to involve these people so that they demonstrate and are able to unite everyone. Because in solidarity is strength and it is only in this way that we are going to be able to change this. So, this more than anything else is like an epicentre to unite the people, to unite all sectors and, to unite that indifference, to eliminate that which really puts us on different sides. So the intention is a general awareness so that we can continue forward hand in hand.

MM: Yes, OK.

GS: All, all to follow the same path which is to liberate our country.

MM: Good. And is it your intention to stay here?

GS:  Well, we have already been here a month. Within that, we have been rotating people, because there are others who have been going to the doctors, because of the state of their health. They’ve have already done 50 days, but during that time there have been other people coming to support. It has been a great achievement in itself – the people can see because this is a well transited place. The Central Square is the heart of Honduras. So, people have been able to see that this little plot continues to be maintained and that this will not cease until it achieves what the people want. That is, finish with the corruption and truly live in dignity for all. The 8 million Hondurans.

MM: Yes, yes, that is it. Many many thanks. And, eh, and can you let me have your name again.

GS: Yes, Gerson Suazo.

MM: Excuse me, Gerson Suazo. So, perfect, many thanks.



GS: So, this is what we have been doing here, and we have managed to make many people come together, people who have never been involved, including those who came and gave their experience. By chance a man approached me and he said that that he had never been interested in politics, he had never been interested in taking to the streets, and none of that. But he saw a part of the messages we have on our signs, which drew his attention, and now he is involved, he comes more frequently, and he has never participated in anything before, in politics, not in any group from the left, in absolutely nothing – he has been nothing more than a citizen who hasn’t cared about the situation of others. And now, seeing this type of action, carried out by a group of people who also want the same, who are demonstrating their discontent with what is happening in our society. So, he was able to take that example and now he is incorporating himself, just like others who have involved themselves.. Right now, we are hoping that more young people will come from other sectors, to add themselves to the strike, the camp of the Indignados. So we are here to make a big noise – the intention is that that big noise of the people of Honduras may always be maintained..

MM: And say hello to James.

GS: Yes, James, a very good friend. Greetings to James – the last time that we were talking – he is a very good person. And so greetings, greetings for James.

MM: Yes, I’m really pleased about his experience here.

GS: Yes, it was very good because he had the opportunity ……

MM: Yes, yes, for him too.

GS: He had the opportunity to live with us and through what is happening in this country.

MM: Yes. So, perfect. Many, many thanks.

Candy and George Gonzalez

Interviewees: Candy and George Gonzalez
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: San Igancio, Belize
Date: Friday 16th August 2013
Theme: An informal interview about environmental and developmental issues in Belize.
Keywords: TBC



Martin Mowforth (MM): Can you tell us a little bit about your own association with BELPO [Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy] and what issues it has dealt with in the past, before you bring us up date with its current issues?

Candy Gonzalez (CG): BELPO stands for the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy. I got involved with BELPO in 1997, and at that time it was just prior to the fight against the Chalillo dam. I was involved in coastal zone management in terms of general environmental issues and environmental impact assessments, and the initial work I did with BELPO was educational in terms of trying to make the environmental laws understandable to people in Belize. When the fight against the Chalillo started, we got involved here in San Ignacio and through BELPO because we saw the problems the Chalillo would cause to this community (the Santa Elena and San Ignacio communities), in terms of what the dam would do to the river and the importance of river tourism to the community, and then the issues of the health and safety of the people living downstream from the dam, (2:28 – unverifiable) meaning that we weren’t aware of and concerned about what it [the Chalillo dam] would do to the rainforest, but there were people were arrowing in on that, but nobody was arrowing in on what it would actually do to the people downstream. We’ve always been very firm in terms of you can’t have a healthy environment without healthy people, and people need a healthy environment to be healthy themselves, and we believe that clean water and a healthy environment are human rights. So that’s been a lot of the focus that we’ve tried bring into the quote, “environmental movement” in Belize, in terms of our perspective.

MM: Okay, thank you very much. Before we get to any current issues, do you want to have a final word about Chalillo and how it progressed to its current situation?

CG: Well, I don’t think there’s a final word today, because we’re still struggling to deal with Chalillo. Chalillo has unfortunately caused all the problems we foresaw; there’s virtually no river tourism, the water quality is poor and they [Belizean Government/BELPO] warn people to not drink the water. People can’t swim in the water because it itches and a lot of people have come out of the river having stomach problems from swallowing the water. We still don’t have a “dam-break” early warning system even though Chalillo went online in 2005, and so we’re facing all these problems and then in 2009 the Vaca dam opened and then there was a third dam put there, but it was really quiet, there was very little said about it. There was a public hearing, and we went to the public hearing – we opposed Vaca because the owners of the Chalillo dam still had not complied with the environmental compliance plan for Chalillo, and we said until they comply with it they shouldn’t be allowed to build another dam, and then make another bunch of promises in terms of mitigation.

We [BELPO] took the Department of Environment to court for failure to make the company comply with the environmental compliance plan, and we took the case in 2007, and we won the case. We got a decision saying that in all the areas that we were contesting, which meant the health and safety issues, that there was no water quality tests that were being shared with the people, that we weren’t getting the tests on the mercury levels in the fish, that we still didn’t have a dam-break early warning system, and that there was no public participation committee, which was supposed to be a two way conversation with the stakeholders, the company and the department of environment. On all those issues, the court ruled that there had been a failure to comply, and we ended up going back to court two different times seeking enforcement, and unfortunately we still don’t have a compliance, but we’re still working on trying to bring attention to the non-compliance and to get the government to force people to comply with the law. So that’s why I say there’s no final word!

MM: Our students will not know about the Chalillo dam, but I shall mention it to some of them if I get a chance, but it would be fine it you could mention precisely what you have just said to me, when you talk to the students. Just as a side, I’ve been visiting quite a lot of – I just want to pause this.

[Apparent pause in the tape at 7:30 and discourse of topics]

MM: I must take a photo of that before I go.


CG: They heard word that they’re going to build a dam on the Mopan River, because the Mopan starts in Belize, goes into Guatemala, and then comes back into Belize. So they were looking for information and support from people because we would be affected by that dam also.

MM: So this in other words is still an active programme, but can you now update us on one or two other programmes that BELPO is currently dealing with.

CG: I sat on the National Environmental Appraisal Committee [NEAC] which is a committee that vets all of the environmental impact assessments for Belize, and I sat on that for over 7 years. One of the things that we did as BELPO was to try and say, okay, we need quality information to make quality decisions. The problem was that the majority of the people on NEAC were in our government employees and so they just, even though they raised points that this is no good, and that is no good, they would still vote in favour of the project because that was their job.

MM: In fear of losing their job as well, presumably.

CG: Right – and the other NGO’s that sat on NEAC at the time, other than me, they had co-management agreements for protected areas.

MM: So, Belize Audubon Society [BAS]?

CG: Right – so they rely on government for the continuation of their co-management agreement, and so a lot of times they voted in favour of [propositions]. So most of the time it was 11-1 vote, or 10-2 once in a while! But what it did in terms of BELPO was that we demonstrated we were across the range of looking at environmental issues that are countrywide, though in the beginning most of our members were here in the Cayo area, either in San Ignacio or Santa Elena – they didn’t stop us, this is not a big country. We were down in Toledo District doing workshops on oil and petroleum in 2002, way before any of the controversy [surrounding] oil and oil exploitation arose, and we also worked with a number of other lawyers from different countries, trying to bring attention to how climate change would affect or impact the [UNESCO] World Heritage sites around the world. We filed a petition with the World Heritage committee, asking for the barrier reef to be put on the endangered list, trying to get a little bit of leverage to try and force the government to do the right thing.

MM: And did the World Heritage people actually put it on the endangered list?

CG: Well, they put it on the endangered list a few years ago, but not related to climate change. They rejected that argument saying that they would have to put in 70% of all the World Heritage sites.

MM: If it was because of that, yeah – okay.

CG: After we brought attention to the problems that we were trying to raise in terms of the government taking parcels [of land] that were within the world heritage site, in terms of development, cruise ship tourism, and how that would impact, was even prior to the whole fight against offshore oil, and we included that in terms of one the reasons why the barrier reef was endangered. It remains, as of earlier this month, through updates from the World Heritage committee that the barrier reef will remain on the endangered list. Along with that, one of our main focuses has been trying to draw attention to the need to protect our rivers and watersheds, so that involves the issue of oil and the issue of dams, because they all impact our watersheds. I do believe, as has been stated by many experts, and I’m no expert, that the future wars will be fought over water, not oil, and we’re rich in water, and we’re ruining our water, and we need to be made aware of and have people appreciate what we have in terms of water resources because people tend to take something for granted until its gone, and we’d rather not get to the point that it’s gone!

MM: Yet another good point for our students, I’d like them to be aware of these struggles over water as well.

CG: The other thing that BELPO continues to do is to try and make the laws understandable to the people on the ground, and we did a guide to public participation in Belize, focusing on the Freedom of Information Act, the Ombudsman Act, and the Environmental Protection Act, giving people sample letters on how they can write a letter. Just last month, we came out with a second edition of it because all of the first edition was gone, and so that was a really happy thing to be able to do, because most of the time you have things that, you always have leftovers of this and leftovers of that, and this time they were all gone!

MM: I’m aware of having lots of leftovers as somebody who writes things, and then having too much left over. That’s great that you did manage to get rid of them all. Just on the World Heritage site, the coastal problem, I’ve been doing a bit of reading over the coastal problems recently, particularly in Belize, and one thing which appears in all of the other central American countries, is the way in which agricultural pesticides are washed down into mangrove areas or affect the reefs, and so on, but not in the case of Belize, it hasn’t been mentioned, that’s the one thing that has studiously not been mentioned.

George Gonzalez (GG): You didn’t mention chemicals.

MM: They don’t. Well, that doesn’t mean to say that they don’t use them though, does it?

GG: Yeah, they use them but they don’t mention them, they try to make it sound like there’s no problem here.

CG: We have tried to bring attention to that as a problem, and there have been a couple of workshops that have been done on land based sources of pollution, as connected to the reef because there’s so much attention that goes into the reef, but everything that happens to our rivers ends up in the reef, so we try and bring attention to what’s being done to the rivers and the banana and the citrus industry do an awful lot. And the sugar canes.

MM: And all the pesticides and all the plastic bags, but the one thing that’s mentioned –

GG: We using something to deal with pesticides – GMO [Genetically Modified Organisms] – a lot of the stuff we grew, and educated the people, is that when they bring GMO, they have to bring the chemicals, it’s one of the chemicals that they are already use here, to make people aware of what happens with all that stuff. Right now, there’s a not major support of GMO, there’s a lot of people against it, but it changes real quick. You get a couple of ministers to say something is good, and the people go for it because they want jobs, or they want to keep their jobs.

CG: Or they want a scholarship for their kids to go to school.

GG: The government has ultimate control over those things.

MM: I gathered that from my recent reading as well, not just from Bruce Babcock’s book, which was an excellent book and very enlightening. One thing that’s mentioned on the coastal thing is the litter – basically bottles, plastic bags, and so on. It struck me that there was one thing being missed, and that was the pesticides, the chemical pesticides and the residues and so on. So I thought I’d ask whether that is still a problem here, even though it’s not mentioned.

CG: It’s definitely a problem.

MM: Really? Okay, fine. On the oil exploration – this is really a last question – can you enlighten me about what the current state is in Belize? Is the government going hell bent for it?

CG: Absolutely. It’s really sad because we’ve done a lot of campaigning, we had a people’s referendum because we have a referendum act in Belize, but the original referendum act was one that says only the government could call for a referendum. So when we had a change of government, they revised it to say that the people could call for a referendum. They really weren’t happy with the changes they made themselves, because when we decided we would do a referendum against offshore oil drilling and drilling in protected areas, thinking about protecting our water and watersheds, the government really opposed the referendum, and ended up where we got the number of signatures that we were supposed to get and more just in case they threw some out, and then government threw 40% of the signatures out because they said the handwriting didn’t look the same, or little things like that. So we went to court on that, challenged it and then on technicality the case was thrown out. The coalition to save our natural heritage which is been the force behind trying to stop the offshore oil drilling and in protected areas, which BELPO is a member of and OCEANA was also a member of the coalition. We did a people’s referendum saying okay, we’ll hold our own referendum just so that you realise how strong the public opinion is, and we got an awful lot of people out to vote – I can’t offhand remember the numbers.

GG: 8/9 thousand or something? [21.53 – check for the figure, but this is what I perceived it as]

CG: It was something like that, of registered voters who came out.

MM: How many now?

GG: I think it’s around 29 or 28 [thousand].

MM: Yeah, that’s a lot in Belize.

CG: The campaign continues; OCEANA and the coalition filed a court case to void concession contracts that the government gave to different oil companies, seven different oil companies, saying that they were illegally granted and there were different parts that did not follow the petroleum act. We won the case and the judge in the case said that the contracts were null and void. The government just recently, because the written decision still has not come out on this, they went saying they wanted a lifting of the injunction on the oil exploration offshore, with these companies where the judge said the contracts were null and void, and they made this argument that the injunction only applied to the government, did not apply to the oil companies, and therefore, the oil companies were going to proceed and government couldn’t do anything, because on their side it was null and void, while any law that I ever came across –

MM: Way of interpretation –

CG: And the Chief Justice ruled in favour of the government on that argument, and I haven’t seen their written decision that is yet to come out.

MM: Are the concessions just for exploration or for exploitation as well?

CG: There’s no line between the two, but our law says that up until 2007, I believe, oil exploration was on the ‘Schedule 1’ list meaning that you had to had an EIA to do exploration, and in 2007 they revised the law saying that exploration didn’t required an EIA, but exploitation did. We already knew from experience that once they find oil, they just start, and it’ll take time for an EIA, and the government doesn’t make them take time for an EIA, they want to get that oil out of the ground as fast and as much they can, so there’s really a very blurred line between the two in terms of concessions for everything – do everything you want. Even with all the promises we’ve seen in so many other countries, where the oil companies have no regard for the people or the land, and I’m always amazed no matter whether or not people think it will be different here, and no matter where you live they always think it will be different.

MM: They also associate oil exploration with great wealth, and if you look at places like Ecuador for instance where poverty levels before oil exploration were at 40% by the UN definitions, and now they’re at 70%, so there’s a higher proportion of the population living in poverty now than there were before. Not only that of course, in the case of Ecuador, they’ve destroyed huge tracks of the Oriente region, which was part of the Amazon basin and left it contaminated, for goodness how many decades in the future, so it certainly leaves them a lot poorer. Despite that, there’s still a general feeling that oil will bring wealth, of course it does to very few people.

GG: You know what they get here? The oil company keeps 95%, the government gets 5%, and of that 5% they have to give 1.5% to the property owner. But they don’t mention that, they mention about the millions that they are going to get, and it’s been made and everything and they make it sound like they’ve made millions, not that the oil company made it, and they’re already almost out of oil, for what 10 years?

CG: Yeah well, Spanish Lookout is.

MM: How long have Spanish Lookout been exploiting oil?

GG: About 10 years, and its running out. They said they don’t have a long time, we only have a few years so what they’re destroying, they’re destroying for a lifetime, only to get a minimal resource.

MM: It’s very similar to gold mining around Central America as well, where the companies leave tiny, tiny proportions 1% or 2% of their revenues, that kind of thing, it’s just frightening. Thank you very much for your thoughts and bringing me up to date with that.

[Onto second recording]

MM: If you’d like to just explain that again, the situation with BEL Fortis and Sinohydro.

CG: Belize Electricity Limited is BEL, and they are the ones that distribute electricity around the country. That used to be owned by Fortis of Canada, and it was nationalised 2 or 3 years ago, and BECO [Belize Electricity Company Limited] is still owned by Fortis, and they own the 3 dams on the Macal River. They sell power to BEL for distribution and BECO, which is the one that owns the dams, are operating under what is called a third master agreement, and the third master agreement them, or guarantees them a 1.5% raise annually. Payment for electricity, whether or not they produce the electricity and compensation for water that goes over the dam in case of flooding, that they don’t produce electricity they can estimate how much electricity was lost by the water going over the dam, and no liability if the dam breaks and there’s loss of life or property downstream. We believe it’s an illegal contract, so if anything happens in term of the dam breaking, we would definitely not believe there’s no liability. Sinohydro are the ones that constructed the dams, they were hired by Fortis, to construct not only the Chalillo but also the Vaca dam, they hired a lot of non-Belizeans but people from Nepal in the main, to come over and work for extremely low pay, and very bad conditions. One of the problems that we’re facing now is more incursions into the rainforest because of all the paths and all the areas that the hydro construction workers opened up, so we’re facing more incursion in terms of taking the natural resources from the Chiquibul Forest and National park, and pretty much clear cutting a lot of the area along the border on the Belize size, they’ve already clear cut the Guatemalan side.

MM: Okay, thank you. And of course the more incursions into the forest, the more it will attract other settlers and colonisers. Do you want to add anything George?

GG: No, I guess the only thing I would say is that in the agreement they are unregulated and when we were fighting Chalillo, we were always amazed of how Fortis would use the excuse of the money its losing on this here, but never mentioned the other one, and we had to remind them it was the same pair of pants. You know, the money went in this pocket and that pocket, for the same person. A lot of people, even though we told them, they just couldn’t grasp that concept, that it is actually happening. Being unregulated, we’re not getting the value of cheap hydro; we’re getting what they say the value is, and one year they tried to charge us, or did charge us, for poles and electrical equipment that was already paid for. So that was an extra, what, 15 million or something?

CG: I think it was 14 million.

GG: It’s not just here; I don’t want people to think that we’re a banana republic and stuff, this going on in the US – upstate New York – Fortis is planning a utility company, a co-op.

CG: In the central Hudson Valley.

GG: And he’s telling them the same stuff that he told us down here, only he’s using down here as his recommendation about what a wonderful guy he is.

CG: And their wonderful environmental history.

GG: And he gave himself an award in the Caribbean.

MM: It’s amazing – it’s incredible how they get away with it. That’s Stan Marshall isn’t it?

GG: They contacted us, and they put us on the radio and TV through satellite, and we let it run on all the stuff that he did, and I think they’re still fighting it. They got permission to buy it.

CG: They bought it and it’s in the appeal process.

GG: But it’s not just here, they’re doing it to there [New York] and then to the people in Canada, they have the same contract that we have here. Some of the ones that found out that it’s just standard big business contracts – it’s call incentives! No taxes, no regulations.

MM: You find that in many other fields of activity as well. Well thank you again, both of you.


Council of Women of the West of Nicaragua (CMO)

Interviewees: Council of Women of the West of Nicaragua (CMO)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: the office of the CMO, Chinandega, Nicaragua
Date: Friday September 11th 2015
Theme: Drought in Nicaragua
Key Words:Nicaragua; drought; monocultivation; small-scale farmers



Contextual background of the interview with members of the CMO (Interview follows)

Taken from Nicaragua News (29 September 2015) under the heading ‘Continuing drought is punctuated by heavy rains and flooding’.

On September 28, government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo reported that 284 families had been affected by the heavy rains that fell over the weekend in the Departments of Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa, and Managua. She said that in Managua, four houses were seriously damaged, six others were at risk of collapse and 280 others had been affected in some ways. On Sept. 25, three little girls drowned in a river that overflowed its banks and carried away the pickup truck in which they were riding. On Sept. 24, two people in Chinandega were killed by lightening during a fierce thunder storm which also caused storm sewers to overflow and houses to flood.

At the same time, concern grew about the regions of the country with insufficient rainfall, especially the area known as the Dry Corridor. Government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo said on Sept. 23 that the government in September had distributed more than 30,000 food packets to homes in the region and on Oct. 5 would begin another month’s distribution. Meanwhile, Minister of Industry and Commerce Orlando Solórzano said that the Ministry was considering importing several tons of corn to avoid scarcity and speculation given the loss of a part of the first harvest. He authorized the importation of onions and carrots to satisfy domestic consumption.

Fr. Uriel Vallejos, director of Caritas Nicaragua, asked the government to declare an emergency in the municipalities of the Dry Corridor. He said, “We’re not asking for it for the whole country because it’s a sector of Nicaragua that is suffering so much in this drought.” He added that the drought is affecting 10,000 families or 60,000 people. Vallejos stated that the food that the government is distributing does not reach everyone and he said that he is preparing a letter to President Daniel Ortega in which he notes that people in the drought zone are losing their harvests and having to sell all their animals in order to survive.

Alvaro Fiallos, president of the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), said that in the humid zone of the country farmers have planted for the second harvest of corn and beans but “where it hasn’t rained they haven’t planted for the second harvest and if it doesn’t rain they can’t plant.” Michael Healy of the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua (UPANIC) said that this week farmers would be meeting with the government to agree on what measures to take. He said that UPANIC was proposing projects in irrigation, water storage, reforestation and biotechnology. He noted that due to the drought harvests of sugar cane and peanuts, both export crops, were down by 20%.

(El Nuevo Diario, Sept. 24, 27, 28; Informe Pastrán, Sept. 23; La Prensa, Sept. 26)


Martin Mowforth (MM): So, a short interview with the members of the CMO, September (11) 2015 focussing specifically on the immediate effects of the drought which is hitting this zone [The departments of León and Chinandega.]. Can you give me your names first, please?

Marina Serrano (MS): Good day, my name is Marina Serrano Tercero. I am a member of the Council of Women of the West of Nicaragua. We would like to tell you that we thank you; in truth, you have been the first that is, to find out about the situation of the drought that we are going through here in the West.

Well, we sow during two periods in the West: that is the first and the latter. That is to say that the drought has affected us throughout, in all directions. Because with the livestock, without rain there is no pasture, true? It dries and we even have limits with the milk, the curd, which is the staple food. And the corn, the beans, we also can’t harvest, we lose them. We have already lost the first (harvest) and we had the hope that as we went through the latter we might find a bit of a solution. However, we are aggrieved because I think as we continue, we aren’t going to get a second (harvest). So, this is something quite worrying, right? This is what we ask, as much to the government as to fellow citizens, that in some way they are able to help us, right? To be able, at least, to support our children. Because they are the ones most affected, the children. And us, the women, right? Because it is, practically the drought which has left us drinking the dryness, as we say in Nicaragua.

 MM: Yes, Can you repeat something, the effect of monoculture, of monocultivation? Can you give me your name first, please?

 Maria Jose Urbina (MJU): Good day, my name is Maria Jose Urbina, I am from Leon, and in truth one of the consequences that we are living through nowadays is the drought which we have – its effects are really traumatic; with the large expanses which we have as a result of the growth of monoculture here in León and Chinandega; and the large amount that they are sowing. Why? Because many of the small producers don’t own land to be able to work. So it’s easier to rent the land, or sell. So in this way this has helped monoculture to expand. The same as the peanut – the peanut, in spite of the fact that it is a product, it is a product for export, it has always been one of the biggest monoculture crops that we have had. However, this is also seen to be affected by the change of the drought. And all of these monoculture products have made our soil more exhausted. In León they plough large Tolibañeras [areas?], depending on the weather, because we don’t have, the means of how to [her voice fades] to give proper maintenance to what is our environment and agriculture. One of the biggest problems of the drought is that we cannot produce or sow the first crop; now we are in the period of the next season. And right now we are at that period and we cannot sow because we have the drought; it isn’t raining enough. We’ve not been able to sow and what little rain rain has fallen well we haven’t been able to do anything, for small-scale production of the small producers. Also, one of the biggest problems of monoculture is the drought of water – excuse me – the water, the water table of León and Chinandega, [inaudible] have been seen to be affected. Why? Because to irrigate the sugar cane they use huge irrigation systems which has ramifications for the water table. And this makes our water table dry out; we have dry wells, we don’t have rivers, the rivers are dry. So this is one of the great effects that we experience.

The large producers and businesses are growing, the small and medium-sized producers are disappearing every day because of the lack of natural resources and finance which we don’t have for production.

MM: I thank you, a perfect explanation, many thanks.

 xxxxxxx (end of file 1) xxxxxxx

 A voice that’s not easy to hear well

 MM: Can you give me your name please?

Victoria Vidal de Suazo (VVS): My name is Victoria Vidal de Suazo, I belong to the CMO group, and I represent the cooperative within production, the theme of production. [The voice goes and is inaudible.]

Today the current problem is the drought that still affects us. With regard to its growth and value, the value of the shrimp, which is under much stress, is losing worth. I can tell you … [the voice goes and is inaudible.] and its growth falls. And no, it’s profitable, it is more costly. And this is a very hard cost.

Voice of another woman: And the harvest is also falling.

VVS: The harvest falls, it is a result of more risk [a lot of static noise – inaudible voice]. All of the parameters that it should have for us to get a product, but a product which is going to be satisfactory, I can say, for our business that we have …. [inaudible].

MM: Thank you, many thanks for everything.


Julio Yao

Interviewee: Julio Yao
Interviewer: Karis McLaughlin and Martin Mowforth
Location: Panamá City, Panamá
Date: 3rd September 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
Notes: Please note that … denotes that the recording was not decipherable at that point..



Julio Yao (JY): Just imagine, it’s a cattle ranching concession – they say that they registered the finca in 1960. The indigenous people claim that they have lived there for a long time. The fact is that they have always been there. The problem you have to see is with the illegal registration of lands. Here anybody can register a property and everything inside it if nobody has already registered it, especially after you pay some official to put an earlier date on the registration. That happens a lot.

So I founded a movement, called the National Coordinating Body for the Defence of Lands and Waters, to address this issue. It began with a concern for the defence of dolphins. A company called …???… arrived here which wanted to build a huge hotel on the San Carlos beach with three dolphinariums for tourists in Bocas del Toro, in the Gulf of Pearls, and we opposed it. I founded the Front for the Defence of Dolphins. The business was well thought out because in Latin America there are no dolphinariums, so all the Latin American tourists go to Miami; but we had strong opposition and we defeated it.

There are lots of environmental groups here. I started on the Petaquilla issue because of an incident that there had been with an indigenous person, whose house was not only destroyed but also he was thrown off his land. He and I joined forces and I took him onto the television to make his denunciation – he came on Thursday and on Monday his home was destroyed. That was a long way off from here, in a place called San Benito, in the Petaquilla area. He made his denunciation and we got involved and now we are active on the Petaquilla issue.

I realised when I went there that there is a massive problem because the land concession is enormous. Also, the type of people they’ve got there are really dangerous, very dangerous – these are the people of Richard Fifer, a really dangerous person who has a bad background. Fifer is the President of Petaquilla Gold S.A.. That has changed a bit – the company is complex because there are various things which they don’t make public. They’ve got lots of divisions and they make sales and transactions amongst themselves, and it’s apparently legal, but they don’t make it public and you have to discover it.

Karis McLaughlin (KM): I have some questions which I sent to you. I’ve read a lot about this, but I’d like to hear in your own words, what are the environmental effects of the Petaquilla project?

JY: I always give the opinions of the communities directly. I’m very close to the communities, we defend the communities, their independence and their way of doing things.

We think that the resistance movement, the rejection movement we conceived as a non-violent resistance movement, and it’s given us excellent results. There are other people who recently have been trying to get into and take control of the movement of the communities through various members. They haven’t managed to do so yet, but it’s a very strong movement, like a strong union movement in Panamá. But they haven’t had much success. Previously they had problems with some other campesino coordinators, and they didn’t allow them to take control …???… So we are in line with the biggest campesino coordinators in Panamá, called the Campesino Coordination for Life (CCV). In Panamá there are two large campesino coordinating bodies. The CCV works in three provinces. Previously they were called the Campesino Coordination Against Dams. They campaign against dams and reservoirs that …???… they’re with me. I’m with them. But there’s another large coordinating body which works to the east of the Panamá Canal.

Petaquilla is on the coast, below Colón – it’s a place cut off and distant from Colón because there’s no road. So there are many campesinos there – they are mestizos – and there are more than 1,000 indigenous people who live in three communities. They’re also completely with us.

So the Campesino Coordination dominates three provinces: Colón, part of Coclé and part of Panamá. Here they are going to create a large lake and inundate the lands of and expel 50,000 families. So the people joined the Campesino Coordination. Then there is another Campesino Coordination that’s east of the Canal which is called the Campesino Coordination for the Rights to Life and Land. They’re also with us and I’m with them. We are on the point of merging completely. And then there’s a big association of La Pintada farm producers which is in one district of Coclé. They have done …???… to the Petaquilla project. We are also unified with this association.

We’ll talk about whether we’re going to make a campesino union or a national campesino movement from these three organisations. It’s an idea that’s maturing now.

Unfortunately, the people who live in Petaquilla are different from the people who live in Colón. In Colón 95% of the people are of African or Caribbean origin and there is a complete disconnection between the culture and economy of Colón. Donoso is the name of the district where the Petaquilla project is found. The link with Panamá [City] is by road rising up to Penonomé to …??… This climbs the central cordillera and goes through the Mesoamerican Corridor, more or less comes here and ends in Colón. Petaquilla is in the Corridor and beyond that you have the Caribbean Sea. It’s not connected because there is no road [shows map]. There is a road planned, but they’ve not started to build it yet.

This mining project is creating an extra problem of the pressure brought by land owners and land speculators coming here because these are virgin mountains. It’s in one of the most forested protected areas of the Republic of Panamá, and the most preserved. So people who are greedy for land are trying to get in there – some support the Petaquilla mine and others are there just for their own account. Some leave the land to the campesinos or register it and then sell it on to the mine, or maybe even work indirectly for the mine. They are people from the oligarchy, and they’re very corrupt. Some of these people are linked to drug trafficking. Even, in my opinion, although we haven’t said this publicly – it’s a carefully guarded opinion – but we have indications and suspicions that the Petaquilla mine is itself linked to drug trafficking.

I’ll tell you one case. Last year (2008), in the month of March, the Panamanian police of Colón carried out a drug seizure. The mine is in the area which comprises Coclé and Colón. That’s the initial project because the complete area is much bigger. The contract originally talked of 13,600 hectares but if you look at the Petaquilla web page it talks of 79,000 hectares, that’s seven times bigger than the original size. Now, Minera Panamá is the new name of Petaquilla Minerals Ltd, which was the company composed of Canadians and Panamanians. Fifer sold off the copper part to the Canadians because the Canadians decided to separate themselves from Fifer because of his villainy and gangsterism and many other things – so they separated. So the Canadian interests are now called Minera Panamá. Before that Minera Panamá was Teck Cominco and Inmet Mining.

When we held a protest outside the Canadian Embassy – I have here the letter we sent to the ambassador – that was on 12th November [2008]. On the 13th November, the same day that we held the protest outside the Canadian Embassy and sent the letter, that same day there was the annual [general] meeting of Teck Cominco in Canada, in Vancouver, and Fifer had to present a report. Also in Canada at the same time, Mining Watch Canada strongly denounced what was happening in Canada and described Fifer’s company as a company without international support and which lacked any seriousness, etc.. This prompted the Teck Cominco people who were there to leave and then Teck Cominco sold everything to Inmet Mining. For us that was a triumph because it was one enemy less because everything was now with Inmet Mining. So, Inmet Mining is with Minera Panamá and Fifer is with Petaquilla Gold.

In this Petaquilla concession there are three rivers: the Río Caimito which flows out to the Caribbean Sea; the Río Petaquilla which comes down from the Petaquilla Sierra to the sea; and the Río Palmilla which partially crosses the concession. They are all affected. A curious thing is that there are three indigenous communities here: Nuevo Sinaí, Nueva Lucha Petaquilla and Río Palmilla. The cargo of drugs was cocaine – there were three tons of cocaine in 7,000 packets. They were found in the Río Petaquilla, inside the mining concession, because I compared the police map with the one that we have which shows the Petaquilla mining communities. So I said: how curious. From the Río Petaquilla, the nearest people are the indigenous groups and they are loyal to us, and trustworthy and disciplined. I asked them how it came about that 7,000 bags were found in the Río Petaquilla – more or less 7,000 pounds. It happened on 21st June 2008. Now, in my opinion, that’s the biggest seizure there has been in this country, but the indians didn’t know anything about it. But the map says that it was inside Petaquilla, and there was an armed confrontation between the police and drug traffickers. I know this because one of our campesinos has a finca very near this area which is called the Río del Medio and he told me that he heard the firing for several hours and he saw the dead and wounded who they took out of Petaquilla.

I suspected that Petaquilla was involved in this for obvious reasons because the only company around that has planes and helicopters is Petaquilla and nobody controls it, nobody registers anything for Petaquilla. They come in and leave by the river, by land, by sea, by air as they wish and nobody says anything. The news was only in the papers for two days and then it disappeared. I checked who was in charge of the operation and it was the Drug Tsar at that time who was called José Abel Almengor who a month ago was removed, supposedly sacked. But I suspect that he knew something and that he was being silenced.

Three weeks ago I went to a morning TV programme and he was there and I was going to ask him. He’s now something like the Minister of Security, it’s a new responsibility. I said to him: “I heard last year that there was a very important drug seizure in Donoso, very near to the Río Petaquilla, three tonnes worth, and I was very curious because the news disappeared after two days. What do you know about it?”

He was really nervous and said: “I don’t remember anything about that.”

I said to him: “You don’t remember anything about it? That can’t be.”

And he said to me: “I don’t remember anything about it” and he looked at me and asked: “And who are you?”

I told him: “I’m Julio Yao.”

Then he said: “Ah, yes, I don’t remember anything, but I’ll check it out. Call me at the Presidency of the Republic and I’ll fix a meeting for you.”

I told him that I would call because we were very interested in this.

I think that he was involved in some way or is part of the business or they threatened him or who knows what; but he knew something because three tonnes of drugs can’t just appear and disappear as if it didn’t exist. For starters, it’s never been known what happened to the drugs. Then as far as what happened, well it happened, like I told you, in a zone next to the Canal and to the east there are nothing but campesinos. The indigenous are to the west. The Caimito campesinos who are here beside the sea are constantly complaining that they are being thrown off their land and that the people who are throwing them off their land are armed with heavy arms, and they’ve told me that these people are involved in drug trafficking. The narco-traffickers even …???… to people who live here. I’ll give you a name: Benjamin Boyd, he’s the son of a famous Panamanian ophthalmologist who is the first cousin of the wife of ex-President Ernesto Pérez Balladares who was the one who awarded the contract to Petaquilla in 1997. He’s one of those who have land there. There’s another one whose surname is Vallarino, also a member of the oligarchy, who has monopolised large land tracts. I think that what they want to do is to take over the best lands, because they’ve got a huge tourism potential because they know that the road is going to be built – this coming year they are possibly going to build it.

So, as well as the problems associated with Petaquilla there are extra stresses on the communities. It’s very difficult to go there. To get there you have to go up to Penonomé, go up to Coclecito, go down the river, it’s seven hours getting down to the coast, and on the coast you take another boat to go by sea. It’s a really big problem and it’s dangerous because there are dangerous currents along the coast. Those boats are not at all safe. So I’ve told the campesinos that they should form a committee to defend their lands against the monopoly of land. The indigenous groups don’t have these problems because …???… they have to respect all interventions, and they’ve been cutting wires designed to mark private property because this land is theirs.

It’s a complex struggle and we suspect that drugs are part of it because the people who live there talk of those things. For example, containers come in every day, loads of containers, with no registration and nobody knows what’s in those containers. And if they are authorised, they are not in the exploration nor the exploitation phase but they’re in a phase of preliminary prospecting. A cargo comes in with many quintals of coffee in the container and people wonder: OK, how many people drink coffee and what quantity of coffee? How much coffee do they drink in a week? 20 pounds, and that’s not much, and yet there they see containers full of coffee coming in, because the employees tell us.

Then there is a question of deforestation. Look, Petaquilla began its operation in 2004, the contract was earlier, without an environmental impact assessment, without consulting the communities, and without being authorised – totally illegal. Why did they do that? First, because Fifer is considered to be a very important man – he was governor of the province of Coclé. When he was the Coclé governor, he was also a member of one of the most prominent families in Coclé, because he is Fifer Charles, and the Charles is one of the most powerful families in Penonomé; within the Penonomé oligarchy is the Carrizo family, the Arauz family the Charles family and others. They are all completely a part of the Petaquilla system, with soft jobs / sinecures. For example, one of them who is a secretary gets $10,000 per month. And that was what the Canadians found, and so the Canadians distanced themselves somewhat from it. They join forces on many things because the two were involved in the same contract; so the Canadians are jointly responsible, at least in some way, for what is happening. The Canadians have tried to be more careful – in inverted commas – in this country.

They began clear felling in 2004 and on 28th April 2007 the Regional Administration of the National Environment Authority (ANAM) said that they had seen 28 hectares deforested. We’ve seen more than 28 hectares, because we see what the campesinos see, and the campesinos are all over the area. And ANAM has no capacity to supervise anything inside Petaquilla, not inside nor outside.

The ANAM Administrator, Dra. Ligia Castro, is a member of the PRD [Democratic Revolutionary Party], but everybody says that Martín Torrijos is interested and active in Petaquilla. In fact, Fifer’s people always said to the communities: you have to move from here for better or for worse because President Martín Torrijos is the boss of Petaquilla, perhaps not the boss, but for sure he’s a very active supporter even though his name doesn’t appear. The fact is that Torrijos has protected Petaquilla 100 per cent, he’s been complicit in the devastation of the forest. The most recent report I saw last year talked of 150 hectares which have been deforested.

The deforestation is one thing, the other is the contamination and another is the destruction of the rivers and streams. They have destroyed hundreds of streams and important lakes. The Río San Juan, which is one of the most important, they destroyed; they dredged the channel and built a road in the centre of the river. It’s an abundant river, big and very pretty, and these people built a road all along the side of the river which was the deepest part, dredging its banks and filling it in; and why? So that they could move their machinery and get building material throughout the length of the river for their plant, to build their own site. I’ve been there, in July I took my car, and drove along the centre of the river, and realised what an enormous destruction it was. Then all the water stagnated – it was horrible. I was in Petaquilla and Coclecito quite a time before, in the 80s, because General Torrijos had a house near Coclecito. I had to go there for official reasons. And when I went there, there was no Petaquilla, it was a beautiful place with plenty of water and big rivers, one which goes to the Pacific and others which run down to the Atlantic; but they are near one of the others. It’s a strange phenomenon.

But the deforestation is huge, they make loads of explosions without any control, frequently, day and night. They don’t give any warning to the communities; they place childrens’ lives in danger when they walk to school, and they pollute the waters. There are multiple effects: the explosions, the dredging and the illegal felling. They say that as the Petaquilla contract is from 1997 and the environment law came some months afterwards, they are not obliged to comply with what the law says, so they keep on doing this. ANAM publicises it but at the same time it gets hidden, because a long time ago they had to suspend their operation and were called to account because they violated their contract from A to Z, they violated everything about it. The contract had been violated substantially.

I’ve got here last month’s resolution of the Ombudsman – it’s completely favourable to us. The Ombudsman finds 100 per cent in favour of the communities and asks …???… This document is very important because the Ombudsman made a resolution of five pages of serious points, and in considering those …???… it has three, but it’s very clear. In this resolution, the Ombudsman asks the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI) to annul the Petaquilla contract because of its substantial non-compliance, and it says that the same contract actually makes allowance for this possibility. It asks both ANAM and MICI to be more rigorous in order to oblige it [Petaquilla] to pay the fines, because there is a fine of almost $2 million which they of course have refused to pay. Because the legal question is like that, when they responded to ANAM’s administrative processes, they claimed that it was a matter for the Supreme Court. But the Court decided that the laws can indeed be applied to Petaquilla, and I think the argument is correct, by reason of special public order / interest, when it is thus, it is retroactive. So they have already begun to lose. That was in November last year (2008), when ANAM fined them $2 million, it was ordered to suspend operations and to pay a very small sum of $900 in costs for mitigation of the damages. Notwithstanding that, ANAM approved an environmental impact assessment, one month after, under pressure, but conditioned on the insistence that the mine must comply with it – but the mine didn’t accept any of it. So they are in rebellion against the state and in contempt, or perhaps they’re in total non-compliance. It is totally illegal.

KM: And the money for the fine – where did it go?

JY: In that case, all the money goes to ANAM, because ANAM argues that it depends on an administrative process by which they opened the mine in 2004 or 2005. We, the communities, looked for a lawyer in 2007, and she [?] also made a claim, but they said that this argument was later and that therefore the earlier demand was the one that applies and that all the money would go to them. We had hoped that if the argument failed that it was well made and that legally half of the fine would go to the claimants, the communities. That would have been good because it would have been useful for the struggle against Petaquilla and to close it, but it didn’t happen like that. So ANAM should have surrendered the same amount, but they didn’t pay either. In any case, the fine was very small.

KM: I want to ask about the issue of sustainability. Is there a sustainable way of mining?

JY: No there isn’t. Sustainability implies that in all ways a mode of production can continue permanently; or perhaps that the raw materials, the natural resources that are destroyed must be replaced in an integral way, in a way that ensures that our children and grand-children can continue to make what we made. But that’s impossible because the damages caused by Petaquilla cannot be mitigated in any way. What we’re dealing with here is, well, we’ve destroyed 150,000 trees here and we are going to sow 300,000 trees elsewhere – no, that is not the same. First, there’s no place where you can sow 300,000 trees. In their case [Petaquilla’s], they have felled, I think, millions of trees, all illegally – there is nowhere you can put all those trees. The problem is not the trees, but the people who live there. The people who live there now are not as bad from the point of view of …???…

JY: …???… they still haven’t started their work, but it’s what they are going to do. Suppose they give the total, everything. Fifer more or less has this now, but if it develops fully, they are going to take everything. If the new lands which they have asked for are approved, seven different sites will disappear, and it’s known that these seven new sites amount to 75,000 hectares. These 75,000 ha. bring what they already have to 78,000 or 79,000, and then we would be talking about an area of land of about 1,500 sq km, a figure greater even than the area of the former Canal Zone which the US had. You can see the area of the Canal on the map. It was 16 km by 86 km, the Canal Zone, plus the hydrographic basins of the Canal.

To say that this area is going to be given to Petaquilla in exchange for 2 per cent is totally ridiculous, absurd. It’s 2 per cent that they give to the state, it’s nothing. To give you an idea of what it means, when there’s income from the mine, providing that other conditions are met, then they’ll give 2 per cent to the state. They are paying 50 cents per hectare p.a.. That means that for the year 2008 they paid the district of Donoso the grand sum of $318, for the whole year. So, I don’t know what this really means – it’s a pillage; the government has presented the Canadians and the Panamanians with the best metallic resources, because this is a zone that historically has always been very rich. Christopher Columbus arrived in Panamá in 1503 – Panamá was discovered, in inverted commas, by Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501, but Christopher Columbus arrived in 1503, buying gold. He journeyed round Central America and then went to Venezuela, but he came back to Petaquilla. It wasn’t called Petaquilla at that time, but it was on the Río Petaquilla. He arrived there with his brother Bartolomé. They asked the indigenous who were living there in Petaquilla – because they brought interpreters with them – where was their king, and they said: “quibián/sleeping”. Quibián means sleeping. And at that moment the king was asleep in his hammock – I suppose it was his siesta. They said to him [Columbus]: “Quibién”. But they thought that he was called Quibién, so they referred to him as Quibién.

He [Quibién] was a fierce warrior, so they began their diplomacy very delicately offering little mirrors and other trinkets and at the start they had very good relations. But when he saw that they wanted gold, because there was a lot of gold in Petaquilla, they began to apply pressure. They kidnapped Quibién’s family and took them away in boats, and they kept them on the boats. They also seized Quibién and tied him up. But when they took him by boat along the Río Vera – now it’s called the Río Veraguas – he threw himself in the river and swam away. Then he made an alliance with the neighbouring indigenous peoples and routed Christopher Columbus. He burnt the town of Santa María de Belén, today called Belén and it’s by the side of the Río Belén. It’s a river with a Ngobe name. So, Columbus is defeated and Bartolomé fled. That was the first defeat suffered by the Spanish in the whole continent. But when they went to find Quibién’s family, most of them had been killed in the boats or had been thrown into the sea and drowned. Christopher Columbus never returned. In my opinion this was an important moment in history.

Five decades later the Spanish returned and encountered another warrior called Urracá. He was more famous and in the same region, between Colón and Veraguas. In Veraguas there is also a lot of gold, but the gold is really in Petaquilla. So the communities which are living in the area must know the history and I told them that if they want to defend their indigenous rights more strongly they must unite into one single entity, and they must get the services of a legal person so that they can make claims on the state and in the case of the state failing them they can make appeals to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) – and if necessary to the UN Commission for Indigenous Affairs.

We are going through the legal proceedings and the association is called the Quibién Association, in order to recover the history and identity. In the history books it’s written as ‘Quibián’, but I’ve been correcting it to ‘Quibién’, with an ‘é’, because I asked what that meant to an indigenous person, and I was told ‘quibién’ means that he sleeps, and that it’s not ‘Quibián’. So the Spanish copied it wrongly. Now we’re always doubtful about whether to correct it or to leave it as it is because to the warrior known by the Spanish as Quibián, the lord of the lands, he had sovereignty there. The tribes were from all over Panamá – they came from Coclé, and they came to fight at Petaquilla. They made a statue of gold to Quibián but the Spanish stole the statue and took it away to Spain. They became mad because they saw so much gold. There’s actually a part of Petaquilla which if you go now you will see gold in the road. The campesinos and the indigenous people collected it but it took them a long time because they use artisanal methods, but they always earn a little money from it. It’s preferable that they get it than that the Canadians take it.

The Canadians and Petaquilla Gold blame the artisanal miners, who are very few, for the contamination, the explosions and the deforestation. It’s incredible. And that’s totally false because the artisanal miners don’t use cyanide.

KM: It’s been mentioned that you’ve been threatened. Can you comment about that?

JY: Yes. I’m used to driving in a 4×4 – to get here you have to go in a 4×4, full traction. At Penonomé there’s no problem, any car can get up to there, but from there you have to use a 4×4. One time I came in a double cabin pick-up with my son and another member of the team. In the afternoon we had been …???… and that road is almost exclusively used by the mine. But listen, the mine says that they built the road, but that’s false; the road was built with a loan of $23 million from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The company boasts that this is part of the social development that they have brought to the communities. The thing is that we came by that road and my son was driving – he was driving very well. Five minutes after the village of Villa del Carmén, there was a white pick-up truck – vehicles belonging to the mine are white, but there are others which are black and with darkened windows. Strangely the black cars arrive at night, and they belong to the top brass. Why do I know this? By one of life’s chances/coincidences.

One of the mine bosses’ drivers was the husband of the leader of the Coordinating Body of Campesinos for Life which works directly with me every day. He works there. So the information came through their daughter. We have many sources.

On that day, that car got itself in front of us, but it seemed perfectly normal to us. We were going at a normal speed along an unsurfaced road. Strangely it was increasing its speed, but we did the same, increasing speed because it was still within the normal. But when we arrived at a place called Molejón they increased their speed but we kept our distance. Suddenly the other vehicle braked really fiercely, without showing its lights, without hand signals or anything, and we had to break sharply. He braked, and he turned round 90 degrees really sharply, and it seemed we would hit it. This was all very sudden. We didn’t suspect anything, we didn’t see anything strange. The car in front braked, but my son avoided it, then it swerved so that my son would hit it whatever he did, but my son swerved again to avoid hitting it. In the end the car did hit it in the back bumper and it was left hooked up to it. We took photos of the prints of the tyre and all, and a tall, white, young man got out – he was alone in the car. The car was a white Toyota Land Cruiser. We also got out and said, “Listen, you brake like that without any lights and without any hand signals or anything – how come? We didn’t suspect anything.” Now the police don’t operate in that place, they just don’t get there because it’s too far out. There was no way of making a report of what happened. The thing is the two people with me said something, but it didn’t get to anybody. So I thought I’m going to do something. So I went up to him and said: “Listen, neither you nor I are going to stay here and wait for the police to arrive the next day. But why did you do this? There are five of us, five leaders in the car. We think that it was totally irresponsible of you and I don’t see why you did it.” He didn’t say anything, he left the car and moved back slowly and I went over to him. “I’d like you to tell me how you’re going to answer for this.” I said to him, “What’s your name?” “Álvaro Tejeira.” The Tejeira are a powerful family in Penonomé.

I remembered that in Petaquilla at that time Dr Marcel Salamín was working. Many years ago he was allied, for a short time, with General Torrijos after the Torrijos-Carter Accords. I used to be an advisor to General Torrijos. And this Salamín was a professor of rhetoric. But at that time, Salamín, who had been ambassador in Venezuela, was a member of the Security Council. He had been nominated to it a little while before. I said to him, “Listen, do you know Marcel Salamín?” He told me “No.” “You don’t know Marcel Salamín?” “No, I don’t know him.” “Look, you do know him. Stop this foolishness. I’m going to give you my Peace and Justice Service card and tell Marcel Salamín that I’ll give him two days to call me, to answer for this and to pay me the damages. Tell him that I’m Julio Yao, and look at my face, I’m public enemy number 1 in Petaquilla.”

After we got to Penonomé I was reflecting on the night and what a strange accident it was. My son and the others said to me, “Dad, that was no accident; it was an attack.” I think it was because there was no explanation for what he did. He made two manoeuvres. Fortunately, the photos we took show their tyres and our tyres clearly – technically, they demonstrate that.

That was one incident. The other was worse – it was afterwards. The other was on 19th March 2008. I was in a 4 x 4 Jimmy Suzuki, a 2008 jeep. There were three of us: a journalist and the President of the Campesino Coordinator. We left a meeting at night from a community called Loma Blanca which is almost inside the [Petaquilla] project.

Obviously when we have meetings in the communities, they can pass by to see which cars are there – all their cars are white, and ours are all sorts of colours. I was driving and when we got half way along the road a white pick-up truck came up behind me with large lights, and then it came up beside me. As I was suspecting that it could be an attack, I tried to prevent it by putting some distance between us, I was shifting. Then it came up beside me again. To drive in these mountains at 120 – 140 km per hour is very dangerous. Well, I was speeding for a good while and he didn’t catch me. But we got to an area called Loma de Volteaver which is a very big hill that we go down. I’ve never had problems on that road because I’ve done it hundreds of times, but that night I’d gone the whole distance when a moment came when I was going downhill and saw that he had stopped, strangely, as if he was watching. I had the double traction on and I was in third gear. So the car was driving well. But the road was full of a fine dust, because it was summer, and at one curve the road was totally black because it had been sprayed with a hosepipe which made it like a bog. Well there was no way of controlling the car because the mud was very fine and the car did various turns and left the road. It ended up lying in a gully facing upwards and in the opposite direction. Everything was too quick. The gully prevented the car going further down towards a precipice. The car was a write-off along the right-hand side. It cost me something like $3,000 because the insurance company didn’t want to acknowledge the damage. Fortunately, nothing serious happened to us. In that part of Volteaver there were various machines from the mine and there was a man who was looking after the machinery. I couldn’t see the wet part, I didn’t see it till we got into the bend. Obviously I failed to control the car because the mud was so extensive. Anyway, finally, some passing cars tried to help us.

On another occasion we had a meeting in Coclecito, in the church, with indigenous people and campesinos. They had walked for a day to get to Coclecito. There was one lady who was listening. Our meetings are always open. One of the residents tells me: “There’s a lady who is a friend of the mine and doesn’t like what you are saying.” I said to him, “Very simple, tell her to come in and to sit and listen and then tell us what is her concern.” She didn’t want to come in, but her daughter works for the mine and that lady lives alongside and behind the church, opposite the offices of Teck Cominco and Inmet Mining. When the meeting ended we went to the car and one of the campesinos on the committee came running to us: “they told me to stop you and that you shouldn’t go. Don’t go professor. Don’t go because it’s very dangerous if you go right now.” “But why?” “Because I saw what just happened. The lady, that same one who was here, when she was going to her house we went with her because we were going in the same direction, and she asked my son, who works in the mine. She said to him. “Listen, that Doctor Yao, which car did he come in? Where is his car? What colour is it and how many people did he come with? Is it double traction?” The boy told her because she was asking. The miners are waiting on the road.”

I have two testimonies, one from this man who gave me the name of the woman. He told me that this had happened and that the miners were waiting for me on the road. So he told me not to leave and that I should stay and sleep there. I told them I was going because I had to get to Panamá and that I would go very carefully. They were shocked. The boy’s wife, the boy and his father came here and made declarations which we recorded.

But also another campesino who is a member of the Petaquilla Committee, called Jeremías Pérez, he called us to a meeting and took us aside from the meeting to tell us something very confidential. I asked him what happened. Fortunately with me was a journalist, and I told him: “Record this, whatever it may be.” The campesino told me: “Look professor, there was a meeting of the bosses at the mine with a group of campesinos who worked there. They told them that in that meeting they were going to speak about something very confidential and that nothing of what they would talk about there should be spoken about outside, and that if anyone did talk about it they would be fired and their loans would not be made any longer.” There was a cousin of his at that meeting who told him that the boss who was speaking told the campesinos that the mine was failing and that Professor Julio Yao was to blame. And if they wanted to keep their work, the meeting was to discuss the best way of assassinating Professor Yao.

So we made a formal declaration, which we still haven’t presented, but I have the recording.

Perhaps it’s the woman’s testimony who said they were going to kill me on the road and the campesino’s testimony that a special meeting was called about a way to kill me.

What happens is that the campesinos, bit by bit, I helped them to get over their fear, because they’re very afraid of the mine. For example, on one occasion we were meeting in a church and it was really hot. So they said, “Professor, we’re going to go by the church door because it’s a bit cooler there.” I went behind them, and they said, “Professor, look behind you.” So I looked. There were three cars from the mine and, like, there were five persons filming us whilst we were inside. They take reprisals against the workers. I got angry, so much so that I said to them, “This is going to stop.” I got up and went, with nothing to hand, I ran down the stairs and confronted them. The campesinos and indigenous came behind me to see what was happening. I said to them, “What are you doing here? You have no right to be filming or spying because it violates our constitutional rights.” They were there with people from ANAM. I asked them, “Are you collaborating?” Yes they were collaborating. Then the people who’d come up started making a big racket. I have told them that I don’t like violence, but they pressed very strongly and there were more of us, and they left running, jumped in their cars and set off quickly. In the nervousness of the situation one of the cars didn’t start, so we grabbed onto it. I held onto it and said, “Who are you? What are your names?” Then we let them go. That helped the campesinos to get rid of a bit of their fear because they saw that I’d done that without anything. (I had a machete elsewhere.) So the miners didn’t like me, but they respect me a lot.

Those are the three or four things that have happened. They really have serious problems with me for one simple reason. For them it would be very easy if we were given to violence, but if we were given to violence we would lose. The people do want to do that, yes they want to use violent means, they want to burn tractors and houses. But we cannot do that because it doesn’t bring results.

Who is it that supports us, the communities? The University of Panamá. I’ve got here a paper of the University of Panamá in which the General University Council, made up of employees, teaching staff, and administrative staff, is 100 per cent in favour of us and against the mine. They have formed an important team of scientists and technicians who are studying the issue of Petaquilla from all angles: the social, the pollution, health, technology, everything.

Also, the Ombudsman supports us, 100 per cent.

But, what have we achieved? We’ve carried out a very intelligent struggle/campaign. We’ve tried to avoid violence. One violent situation which we had was the fault of various elements from SUNTRACS (Unique National Union of Workers in the Construction and Similar Industries) who gate-crashed our encampment. For more than two weeks we closed the access road to the Petaquilla project. They wanted violence, they wanted to burn the ranchos, the houses and everything down. We said that we couldn’t do that. They were the ones who burned the ranchos. They were the ones who set fire to and destroyed nine indigenous ranchos and everything in them. Some of these characters fled, but others stayed put. We’ve started proceedings against the mine for these things, but the process has been too slow and nothing has happened. I have the names of the persons involved. That happened on two occasions, between 2006 and 2007.

On the 22nd April 2007, the Day of the Earth which was a Saturday, by pure chance, all the campesino and indigenous communities had a big assembly and invited me to be there. They were supported by claretian missionaries. [Note: this sounds like they must be missionaries who are keen on their red wine! I’ve never heard of misioneros claretianos.] The claretian missionaries have been there for many decades, supporting the poor. Well there was one missionary, a Spanish woman called Ito Manred [transcriber uncertain about name] who advised them and accompanied them. There were about 400 people from three indigenous groups that had a resolution where they request an interpretive action. The campesinos had interpretive resolutions. We discussed throughout the day, until the afternoon. And finally one of them said to me: “If everybody wants interpretive actions, we’ll organise ourselves and form a committee to close the Petaquilla mine; and they did it, they got themselves organised and also created a directory in which each community had two representatives. It’s growing because those who participate are not just from the affected area but also from adjoining areas. We have a campesina coordinator who is …???… and it’s a big organisation and stretches even down to Kuna Yala on the other side of the Canal. There are thousands of communities, not just three groups.

Martin Mowforth (MM): In your testimony about the threats that you have received, do you want us to change the names of the people mentioned?

JY: No. What happens is that a lot of people have told me that you can’t legally make a denunciation if I don’t have any proof and the problem is how I can prove those incidents on the road. The other, yes because they are threats, they gave their testimony that they were waiting for me on the road to kill me. I thought that there wasn’t sufficient strength to take it to the legal field. One of my friends who was a minister during the time of General Torrijos, Fernando Manfredo, he’s against the mine and he’s studying for a way to annul the contract. He told me not to do anything until I have solid proof. The truth is that the most solid proof was what the campesino had during the meeting but he didn’t dare to speak – he told it to his cousin and the cousin told me, but I think it’s not the same. They’re very afraid of the miners because the miners there, like the communities, are very dispersed all along the road. They’ve raped girls of 12 to 14 years old, of primary and secondary school age; they’ve made them pregnant and abandoned them.

The other bad feature is that within the mine there’s a type of sexual exploitation of women. People work there for two or three weeks and stay within the mine during that time, [{they leave and they return} – Note: I’ve put this in italics because it directly contradicts the clause that preceded it]. They have different encampments, but the rule is the same, that is to say, the layout of the houses and the installations is the same. They have a house where all the bosses and trusted employees live. The workers live in a barracks some distance away, about 500 metres, very far; and the women live beside where the bosses and engineers, etc., live. These women are exploited, abused, harassed, mistreated; they rape them, some they sell for money or for …???… it’s a disaster. It has brought about family disintegration all over the area of the project which wasn’t known before because the area is a very tranquil one. Now there’s prostitution, drugs, social disintegration. That’s the other aspect of Petaquilla. A woman gave her testimony to all that, but she doesn’t work in the mine, but she’s the mother or mother-in-law of someone who was working in the mine, and she told everything. This is an aspect that I’ve tried to see if women’s organisations would get interested in, but they haven’t been interested because some womens’ organisations are supporters of the government of Martín Torrijos and they don’t want to rock the boat on this issue. Women undergo a very special suffering in mines in Panamá; women are more affected than the men for many reasons.

KM: Are you optimistic about the future despite the problems?

JY: I feel optimistic. My only worry is SUNTRACS because they’re very aggressive and they consider themselves to be an organisation of the left with a union base. They’ve created a thing called FRENADESO which hasn’t resulted in anything, but they are very strong because they get many millions of dollars in quotas because they’re construction workers and that is the most productive sector of Panamá. So they’ve got lots of room for manoeuvre. Our worry is that they are trying to infiltrate the movement to raise it up and turn it into a mass movement. And why do they incite violence? Because they need to gain attention to make it grow into a national organisation. We think that’s an error because the workers cannot lead the campesinos; the campesinos must have their own leadership. There is a kind of worker aristocracy. They are determined to obtain control, they still haven’t achieved it, but they are using some well known ways to get it – on the basis of individual personalities, personal protagonists, that type of thing. We have left in place there a coordination based for the moment on three people who are the most important that are there. One is a delegate of the word (who replaces the priests, officiates at the mass, as if he were a padre) who is called Carmelo; another is a representative of two magistrates who is called Toribio; and the other is a leader of the site most affected by the mine who is the teacher in the place and who is called Ramón Vergara. I told them: “You have to take this on. As always we will continue supporting them; I’ll now take a step back so that you can take one forward. Your own movement must mature now, but we will always accompany you.” Those three are the ones who will take decisions; they know that this is a threat. They are the ones who will lead and who will broaden things out.

I’m very optimistic because it’s very difficult to say no to the Ombudsman, it’s very difficult to tell him …???… that the Ombudsman is wrong, it’s impossible to say to the University of Panamá that it is wrong. So the action of the communities is not like it could have been, but we would have had the support to call [public] attention. We have not had to call [public] attention – our reasoning has enabled us to go higher up. Now what we want is to draw the fight to the attention of public opinion and to bring it to the institutional level, to demonstrate that there is a serious contradiction within the government with regard to the mine, for a very simple reason. Because the central government does not understand what sustainable development is and is not interested in understanding it, and possibly President Martinelli does not give any attention to the environmental claims of the communities.

We have tried to get a meeting with Martinelli’s government when it was still Martín’s [Torrijos]. In the end, the Vice-Minister of Commerce and Industry received us. He’s called Ricardo Quijano. That man is a really backward person.

JY: We’ve had two provincial coordination councils. The provincial coordination council is all the authorities of the province who meet to consider the issues facing the province and already we’ve had two councils where it has been impossible to talk about Petaquilla. First because the quorum was broken and second because they cancelled it …???… and they moved it perhaps so that we weren’t able to talk about it. The communities have not been able to talk about the Petaquilla issue, but the company is feeling the pressure. Now so that the president and the deputy …???… invited Carmelo. Carmelo is one of the three leaders …???… something we have to say. In effect he says yes, there is an attempt by SUNTRACS to promote violence to see if they can wrest control from us, but it’s very difficult. They are mad, they are real extremists, very dogmatic, very sectarian and very authoritarian. They are people with whom the left has problems. But they have a lot of money.


María Consuelo Sánchez

Interviewees: María Consuelo Sánchez, Director of the Asociación Quincho Barrilete
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth, Karis McLaughlin, Alice Klein, June Mowforth, Ken Martin, Sue Martin
Location: Managua, Nicaragua
Date: 6th July 2009
Theme: Violence and abuse against children; family breakdown; The Quincho Barrilete programmes.
Keywords: TBC


María Consuelo Sánchez (MS): When there’s a holiday the kids also think they have a holiday from the Centre. So they don’t come in, or very few of them come in. But it’s OK … XXXX … The important thing is that they always treat the Centre of Attention as an alternative to their problems. Normally there are 60 – 80 kids with us each day, one session in the morning and one in the afternoon; and the rest of them are in their communities, because the Association attends to an average of 200 children annually. Some finish the process of care; others don’t. But we get an average of 200 – 210 annually. The kind of attention which Quincho gives includes those children who are interned with us for very short periods whose lives are at risk. The person who rapes them or abuses them is within their family, and this includes the period whilst the abuser is being processed by the police until they go to jail. The other kind of attention is for those who come and go on a daily basis, from Mondays to Fridays, and who live in the communities.

Interview Team (IT): These latter still live with their families?

MS: Yes, one characteristic of these children who we look after is that almost all of them have a family, and our studies reflect the fact that the families do not know how to educate them in any way, don’t know how to look after them, and live in poverty, with violence, lack work and opportunities, and suffer social exclusion. So the child leaves the family, and then they go through a stage of rebellion, and the family kicks the child out. Then this pushes them into drug abuse, alcohol abuse and into being victims of sexual exploitation, and on top of all this the problem we get is sexual violence. So, it is the abuser in the house, the stepfather, or the uncle or the neighbour who carries out the rapes. So all these circumstances are what push the children into this situation.

IT: But who are most at risk? The ones who live with you in AQB’s centres?

MS:  Yes, for example those who have only just been raped stay with us. Police proceedings are very slow during that time, and so the children stay with us. It’s important that we work in parallel with the family, not just the boy or girl, because one of the problems which we always face is that the family is afraid to make the denunciation/accusation. For example, if it’s the partner of the mother of the girl who raped the child, then they’re afraid to make the denouncement because she knows that she’d then be left on her own and that she wouldn’t have any economic income – so rather than that, she chooses to learn to live with the rape. So things then return to normal for the mother.

IT: ….

MS: So, in our programme of family empowerment, for example, say we have to confront a neighbour in a community which says “it’s the child who offered herself, it’s the child who was guilty, she took advantage of the man who was alone and knew that he had work and money.” This is really difficult because it’s a struggle against a cultural problem in this country versus what we could say are the rights of the child. Then the boy or girl becomes depressed and stay away from school; then the parents put them to work because they aren’t studying. On top of this you have the problem of poverty where the mother has to go out to work leaving the kids uncared for. So this is a vicious circle; poverty is a vicious circle. And this country is very, very impoverished, and there is a lack of opportunities for work; and along with this problem you get a majority of parents with very low levels of education. Perhaps they have managed to get through primary school, which is six years, no more, and they can barely read and write, so what are they going to work in? Selling water, selling in the streets at the intersections. I always ask and say that a mother who arrives home after spending all day in the sun and having earned very little, on seeing their child, an adolescent rebel going through the normal stage of adolescence, then the mother goes … XXXX. And our studies tell us that these families are dysfunctional and hardly ever do you see the mother with the father of her children. In fact the mother is never with the father of her children. So normally what happens is that the mother seeks another partner or marriage and then has another child with the new partner, and then the same happens again. So she has three or four children all by different partners. Finally, when the children are bigger there comes the moment when the last partner … XXXX. So it’s very, very difficult.

IT: What proportion of the children who you deal with here at Quincho have been abused?

MS: Sexual abuse is about 30 per cent. I could give you some statistics here – there’s another big percentage who have been raped.

IT: How many have been raped?

MS: It’s a study which we did some time ago about the population of children when they enter the centre.

IT: The most at risk who stay here?

MS: Yes, we have three places which give attention with different phases of care at each. This is the place where originally the girls most at risk stayed. The girls who are being sexually exploited are in a house which we have by the side of Parque de su Jardín, by the Mercado Oriental. The Parque de su Jardín is a centre where we have around 70 boys and girls – already some have reached adulthood, and many take drugs. The profile I want to give you at the moment is that here we give literacy classes from the age of ten, 75% of them attend school – about 15% of the boys and 29% of the girls/young women don’t attend school – always it’s the women who have less education.

Here is the problem: 76% experience intra-family violence; 31% experience sexual violence; 58% spend much of their time on the street; 18% (almost 19%) are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation; 21.4% have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation; and 31% work on the streets, either selling or simply playing. Basically, the children who are not at school are on the streets.

IT: But is there also a certain proportion of children who are selling on the streets during the afternoon but who during the morning go to school?

MS: Yes, but we’re against that because this is what happens – for example, if the child goes to school in the morning and in the afternoon goes out to sell, when do they get down to any of their own studies/homework? This is like a family breakdown …. intra-family violence, how much physical violence and psychological violence do they suffer – as well as the sexual violence that we’ve already talked about? How much hassle, how much abuse, how many rapes, how many attempted rapes?

IT: And how are children referred to Quincho? By the police? By the Minsitry of the Family?

MS: Yes, we get them from the police, through the Ministry of the Family or through work that we do in the community. We sometimes identify some cases and take them, but we inform the Ministry of the Family. Everything is coordinated with the government.

IT: Do you not have any street educator teams working in the streets now?

MS: No, but remember that within our work the psychosocial team is permanently in the community? Why? Because our work is now as much with the family as with the child. So we make interventions in the family whilst the child is there in the house with the family.

IT: Do you have education programmes for the families in your centres or do your teams go to the houses?

MS: Both. We have both schooling for the parents who come here and family interventions which we make in the homes. Because if there is a situation of really bad violence or a lack of communication, it’s best to approach them in the family.

IT: Are your centres solely for the children? I expect that there are some cases where the women, the mothers, also need protection?

MS: Yes, but what we do is coordinate with other NGOs which look after the mothers.

Now, this is interesting because the girls almost always have worse problems than the boys. For example, in intra-family violence it’s almost equal – 33% and 34%; but in terms of physical violence, dishonest abuse, the girls are always on the receiving end more than the boys; psychological violence is equal; as regards sexual violence, 6.4% of the boys and 28% of girls; as regards rapes, 2.1% of boys and 15.7% of girls; attempted rapes are greater on the girls than the boys; and commercial sexual exploitation is equal. All sexual violence has increased a lot.

IT: Entrapment?

MS: Entrapment is a situation where the person lives in sexual exploitation and knows that they are living with it, in which case the process of recuperation is much slower, because, as in my case for example, I was the victim of sexual exploitation but I was clear that it provided me with money, an economic benefit. That gave me the power to go to a restaurant, to change my clothes and that type of thing. So it was an option for life which I had. And it’s more difficult to break that when you are clear that it’s a sexual activity which brings you money. I didn’t like it, but it paid and poverty presses you to do things like that. Here, on the other hand, I enjoy what I am doing.

But it’s difficult even now because already the link has been broken, including with the family.

IT: What do you mean by ‘dishonest’ abuse?

MS: Dishonest abuse is a proposition – it’s someone who proposes “I am going to have something with you and I am going to give you something …” But nothing happens; it’s punishable by law because in this case it involves minors. Now, for example, we have a serious problem with health because many of the children come to us under-nourished; 30.5% have psychosocial problems; 28.2% are depressed; sexually transmitted diseases have increased a lot in recent years. Nowadays we attend to many more children who are being sexually exploited, something like 60%.

Suicidal tendencies are about 9.4%. We have had children kill themselves because of the type of life that they lead. We get self-mutilation and attempted suicides. In terms of disabilities, we have some disabilities. We have a boy of 17 and a girl of 15 who had a baby and we pray that nothing is transmitted vertically to the child. But what we try to do here is assess the characteristics which the children have. We have had orphans, we have had child labourers, we’ve had victims of sexual exploitation, kids who have lived on the streets for seven years, kids who use drugs and alcohol, particularly the glue-sniffers, we’ve had depressives, psychosocial problems, paternal irresponsibility at an early age when fathers abandon the babies.

IT: Do you have a programme for mothers and babies or for those who are pregnant?

MS: Yes. We have the ‘Club of Pregnant Adolescents’ for when they enter the centre. That gives the guidelines for child rearing and, above all, how to accept the situation because many times they are such children that they don’t want to accept the fact of the pregnancy; but as abortion is penalised in Nicaragua, they have to have the baby – there’s no other option. They also learn to read and write, without going to school. And femininity, they’ve been a victim of physical and psychological violence from the father, made pregnant at an early age, perhaps when they are just 15, and perhaps the family are violent and the mother abandons them. Or perhaps they live with the father, hardly able to read and write.

IT: Is it a recent problem?

MS: I think it’s a problem for the whole country because the truth is that I consider that if the mother is not prepared for this the child will be a victim of these circumstances. Sadly the government does not provide preventive measures for pregnancy. The woman has to have a minimum of five children before they will operate. So the mother cannot decide to have just one or two. So this generates yet more poverty. At the same time, whatever type of contraceptive the woman wants has to be bought by her – it’s not supplied – so the woman gets pregnant and has a pile of kids. And as we were saying before, normally it’s not with the same partner. So, “I have 5 or 6 kids; I don’t have a house; I don’t have work; I have no opportunity; the government, the state gives me nothing; so I get poorer and poorer.”

IT: Do you promote the use of condoms?

MS: Yes. That’s one of our strongest tasks because more than anything it’s part of the prevention of STDs and HIV. It’s part of their education as well because we consider that, more than avoiding pregnancy, the power to be aware of what they have will be of use to them all their lives. It’s one of our really important roles, but it’s hard.


39.3% take drugs; the girls are more into alcohol than the boys because of their depressive state and all the trauma of violence that they suffer. ….

IT: Even in our country which is more developed, women use alcohol more.

MS: It’s the women who bear more social pressure because they don’t have a house, a husband, work and all that. The average age at which they start work is 12 for the boys and 14 for the girls.

IT: What’s the lowest age?

MS: 8 years old. And this brings consequences for malnourishment because on the street they don’t eat well. Being on the street is like an addiction – the stimulus of the street. But they also get HIV infection, physical, sexual and psychological violence. But they do get tired and worn out by being on the street.

Tremendous problems on the street. 51% of boys were outside the school system and 71% of girls after the average age of 13. For all these reasons they are outside the school system. Just imagine being a pregnant child out of the school system. 16% of the girls had left school because of being pregnant. And out of the total of 172 children surveyed, 73% had deserted school.

IT: Who did these studies?

MS: We do a profile of all the kids who enter our system.


MS: ABOUT VOLUNTEERS: They’re from a Spanish university and they commit to produce something, a document or some product. They’re doing a communications strategy with a view to being able to project the Association internationally, with the aim of generating more resources. For example we have a Japanese volunteer who helps us a lot in the handicrafts work – he’s lived with us for two years now. He says he likes Nicaragua better than Japan.

We have some agreements with, for example, PLANAGUA, a Canadian NGO. They sent a social worker and left with us a diagnostic report on the social work that we do. We always ask that they know they have a command of the language, because if they don’t and they come for less than two months then it is hopeless and we can do nothing. One thing that they can do for us is produce a diagnostic report, an evaluation. We are particularly interested in this because of the quality of the relationships that the children have with their families. With mothers for instance, 34% say it is good, 9 regular, 9 bad and 1 violent and very bad relationship and 16 say that they don’t live with their mother. With the father, 9 say it’s good, 14 regular, 11 bad, 1 violent and 16 don’t live with them. With siblings, things are much better, 65% say it’s good, 19 regular, 8 bad, and 3 violent – an increase. (In my case, my mother mistreated me, I mistreated my brother, and so it would be obvious that I would then mistreat my offspring.) And 15% live without siblings. …. With stepfathers 5% say it’s good, 3% regular and 10 bad. Probably there’s a lack of information here. Probably this reflects poor information because when some kids arrive, they are extremely closed and don’t want to talk. In the case of the stepmother, we never get good information. It seems that it’s always a bad relationship. In the case of grandfathers (21 of them), they do somewhat better than uncles and partners because they have their own partners. Cousins and nephews/nieces also do better than others, possibly because they aren’t part of the live-in family.


MS: I believe that this is one of the achievements that we have made because it has enabled us to take many decisions about our work. When Quincho Barrilete began, we had this idea about care that separated the boys from the girls. Each house/centre got its own money and gave its attention/care accordingly. Now we have a Quincho Barrilete much more integrated and I believe that this is one of the things which has helped us a lot, because in the end we are only one project.


MS: We have made a care programme, detailed in these supporting documents, which more or less show the route that the kids who enter follow. We register the child and carry out a diagnostic inspection of them and their family situation. It is this which yields the statistics which we have given you. After designing a care plan which includes the denouncement, the health care, special protection (the laws of the country allow for special protection), and psychosocial care for the strengthening and conscientisation of the family. Then we see a small advance – the idea is that the child follows a clear programme of need – only one for each child.

If I’m in the community, for example, and I detect that a particular child is referred to me by neighbours – maybe a neighbour tells me that there has been a certain situation, maybe sexual exploitation of an adolescent, maybe the mother has put the 13 year old to work in a dance salon – then, ….


MS: So after that detection, or after the study of that detection, and after all that we do with the family so that a child can enter our programme ….


IT: Who has access to these files?

MS: Only … XXXX …

IT: So they come from the Ministry to here?

MS: Only that.

After we have all the necessary information for their registration, then all that remains is to include the child. And that’s when we do the diagnostic of the child and their family. This includes a socioeconomic evaluation of the family, whether the child goes to school (because Quincho also supports the school). And if I see that the father or mother has some form of income, then we can support with other things, but not with uniform because we don’t want to take over the responsibility of the parents.


MS: So when we have all the background information collected, we send a psychosocial report to the Ministry which gives all the information and all the support that we have given along with a full picture of the family situation.

IT: The Ministry of the Family has social workers?

MS: Very few, and they’re very weak.


Ernesto and Aurora Saquí (Interview)

Interviewees: Ernesto and Aurora Saquí
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth, Jamie Quinn and Plymouth University Geography students
Location: Maya Centre, Belize.
Date: 3rd May 2016
Key Words: indigenous land rights; subsistence farming; citrus cultivation; conservation; cruise tourism



Ernesto Saquí (ES): Our community is an indigenous community. As a result of Belizeans in the southern part of our country coming this way in search of a way of life, improving our way our life, and seeking opportunities to make their lives better. The reason they left the southern part of this country was that there was a problem in the land situation where we were all on an inland reservation and when things started changing and some of these inland reservations started to be broken and put up for sale, then some of the regions were affected and we were affected and we were not used to those type of ideas. We never believe in buying a piece of land that we felt has a God-given right to exist.

And so because of that we decided to come up this way and so most people started to move independently around the country …. When we move, we brought our culture, the Mayan culture. And besides our culture or practices such as sustainable agriculture, which means subsistence farming, alright? That is, you take a piece of the forest, you open it, you let it fall and you burn it, and you grow your crops. Basically that’s what we do, alright? Then whatever it is that we need, which is principally corn, that we use all the time; and that is what we did when we came here. But we realised that this area was different; we didn’t know this until we got here. We came and we brought everybody including our chickens, our dogs, our horses, they came here. And in 1976, we built about nine thatch houses from the junction all the way up here. And when we got here, everything was so beautiful, there were no houses, there was no electricity, there was nothing except tracks of jaguars and people from this very access road, where that house is standing. And we were so happy because you can mould our way of life one more time; we can continue to live and feel good about ourselves not having to have our way our life disturbed or interrupted, so we felt like the Mayan people, right?

OK, so that started, but then a Mayan village or a community has to have some kind of status, otherwise you become the leader. You can’t continue to live if you’re just going to be a group people in a given area, so we were conscious of that. So immediately what we did was organise ourselves and just said “look, we’re here to live, we’re here to develop our village, we’re here to make things happen and we’re going to go and live”, but we must be always conscious that we are going to be sustainable or subsistence farming, alright, that is the deal. It didn’t take too long for us to realise that it was all nonsense. The next big thing up, well the first thing we did was to construct two buildings, it was very important for us we had to construct a church and a school building, and when you do that, then you grow yourself. No system and no building, but if you don’t do that, then that’s a problem. So that’s OK, for the next few years we had to stabilise ourselves because when we created a church we hoped it was going to manage the community in that type of situation and we realised that it was not going to be easy. So to form a village we realised that we had to take charge and be responsible and that all the members will somehow be benefiting from any of the programmes. So the first thing we did was to find a volunteer teacher in the school, because no government, no system will give you that. We are doing this ourselves, so that’s what we did. So, I was so fortunate that I became that teacher at that time. I volunteered my time to become a teacher. I made sure I worked this programme, simply because we wanted our village to be grounded, we didn’t want to go anywhere else. Those were some of the initiatives that we took in aid to help our fellow supporters and group of people.

Land tenure for indigenous people

Now once that happened, here comes the big problem – somebody from outside came and handed a letter to us and said, “Do you know what? You people are illegal here, this land belongs to somebody else.” Now that’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, because when we left there we thought everything was terrible and now we’ve come here and we think everything was OK. To find out now that we are illegal and we can’t set foot on this piece of land. The big question was where do we go from here? What do we do as Mayan people? We can’t go to the government, because the government will tell us “look, it’s a choice that you’ve made and you know it’s illegal – go back where you came from.” And we didn’t want to go back because if we go back, we’ll have that problem, plus other problems, and that is really separating our own way of doing things.

So, as a group of people here at that time we were a group of about maybe 30 to 40 people, and we have mostly children – Mayan families have big, big families. So we are looking at about 30 children between us. Together that qualifies us for the school. So we asked ourselves, are we going to correct this problem, and as a group of people we asked ourselves, are we going to go anywhere? We should be able to do something. It was at that point we decided that we are not going to go anywhere. Let those who have the land know that we are going to take them by force if we have to; we are not going to go anywhere; and that’s exactly what we did. But like all other developments, we started to expand and expand and expand. We were so happy that nobody was really pushing us out. Every time this guy said you all can’t live here, we said “but look we are not going to live here for too long, just enough so that we can grow and move somewhere else.”

But there was a point in time when the government of Belize started shaping their system. One of them is that you have to elect a government through one of those general elections that they came and found us here in the middle of nowhere and said what are you people doing here? We told this guy, “look, we are trying to make a village and we need people to help us.” And this guy was a politician and said “OK we can help – how can I help you?” And I said you have to make sure we can be here. He said I will do that if my party wins. So we took advantage of that and fortunately when the election came, they won and when they won, we won, because he came back and he was honest, and he said “let me see how I can help.” Now, the movement is going to be stronger because when they come here, we said OK, we don’t want to go anywhere, this is where we want to live. And so we were going back and forth until the government finally acknowledged him being powerful or gaining power and said OK, we won’t let you go. We will give you 1000 acres of land on the southern or the eastern side of the Southern Highway for you all to do your agriculture and we’ll give you 50 acres of land for real estate. For us, that is very important because that has never happened to anybody. Anybody who does say they have a village, sometimes ends up going back to where they came from. It’s that easy to make it because when they do that you create another problem for the government so that they have to provide services for us. But we did it, so we were happy, and we took it on from there, and we were very happy. It’s not the development, it’s not the challenges, it’s just making it and trying to escape and realign.

So once that has happened, and now we realise that we were successful in acquiring those pieces of land for our people, the next thing we did was to take care of it ourselves by land distribution. So to each family at the time we said, “OK we don’t have enough land for each person, but we have land for each family, so each family will get 20 acres of land.” We did this so we don’t go back somewhere else, we are stabilised and orderly, so everybody felt happy. Then the next thing we did is sub-divide up the village land and allocated it into house lots. Each one of these families now is able to get a piece of house land to build their houses and a piece of land where they can do their farming. This is what we were looking for and since then we said we were very happy that it happened.

OK, so now we have to move on. You remember I said I was the teacher? OK, that can’t happen anymore, we have upgraded, so they took me and they send me to school to find teachers. The truth is that we wanted new people to come and help us. By this time we are growing, we built a better school, then we decided other infrastructure such as the clinic, such as the help poles, such as the community centre, such as the telephone system. I remember in 1990, 1992, there was a time where just central electrics were required, and that’s only street lights I’m talking about. But we said good because that is development right? But after all this is happening, subsistence farming is not going to make it right, because we were burning our plantations. They assume the Mayan people are the reason why the rainforest is disappearing. Although that’s not really true, it’s the easiest point to make; it’s a point of view if you really wanted to put down any group of people.

Move to citrus farming

So we said that’s not going to happen, so somebody said let’s change, let’s move away from subsistence farming and agriculture. So someone said can we enter the citrus industry? So we said OK that’s a wonderful idea – remember by this time, our land has now been subdivided into your own plots – and so that’s what we decided to do. Everybody went into this programme, and you know what? The programme was very successful. Why? Because after 5 years of planting your trees, you begin to see progress that your trees start from there and after that then you start to reap. Any citrus farmer in this community made between 2 acres to 5 acres at 80% of citrus eventually and each acre would provide, or would give you between 300 to 400 boxes of oranges per acre, that was a good yield. Now if you’re able to do that each box of citrus you take it to the factory is going to cost [bring – i.e., reward] you 12 Belize Dollars, so 300 or 400 boxes times 12, for a small farmer that doesn’t know much, it’s such a great thing, so if you have 5 acres, times 400, times 12, that is what you’re doing and people were so happy.

We were very happy. We were very good in terms of meeting that number, so we started light, we don’t have to do subsistence farming because the plant helps the economy or helps make you an income, right? So everybody went into the citrus industry for a period of time. Then again it came crashing down, a loss, and one day they said, do you know what? This here is going to be hard for citrus the prices on the market is really going down. So the price of a bag went down from 12 dollars a bag to 8 dollars a bag and we’re going to sort out the problem because to get involved in the citrus industry you need a lot. It’s a cash crop – you need a lot of items to meet the supplement. You need to have fertiliser, you need to have chemicals, you need to do your reading, you need to do your reaping, you need to do a lot of work, and when you really look at it, that’s not much, but the next thing you know, you get down to five dollars for a bag and eventually, three dollars for a bag. A bag of fertiliser was too much so we said how could we try to balance this? A lot of the farmers were scared and not only here but the other farmers that got involved had to work their farm up to the point where they are not going to be fussed anymore. And that was around the 90s and up until this time, alright?

Conservation of the Cockscombe Basin Jaguar Reserve

So the benefit that came from the citrus industry and the oranges, was really the kind of good income to afford ourselves. So that stopped and now where do we go from here? The next thing we needed to do is? We don’t know. Until finally, there is another programme that came into the region, part of the locality and that is the conservation movement. The conservation movement in the first instance was not necessarily a good move because nobody really knew about it as well, so when this new movement came into this village, a lot of things happened. We heard stories about jaguars hunting etcetera, but we didn’t know what it meant, and then finally in 1984, there was a declaration that said the jaguars are now protected here. It means a lot of things for local communities; that one, it means that nobody can go and hunt in the park anymore; nobody can go and fish in the park anymore; nobody can do anything in the park anymore. But we said what is that for? See, two things are happening here; first there is another programme coming and we are not aware of it, and second of all, I don’t know that anyone of us that I know were consulted and explained to us that it’s such a good idea. The only thing that we know was that this area became protected – you people cannot go anymore into the park.

In addition to that, there were a group of Mayan people that went to live in Cockscomb prior to the establishment of the park. And so this village ideally wanted to go and relocate in Cockscomb before it was a park. But we could not do it because of the children that were going to school that we had established for them – the distance from here to there is so difficult that on a very troublesome day, how would we take care of the problem? For example, if somebody gets sick back there, how are you going to bring that person here? So we said let’s stay here. But those people who broke away and went to live there at this point had to come back – they had 30 days in which to leave right? They have their palapas, they have their farms, they have their product, and so they were told they had 30 days to leave OK, and they had no choice, they had to leave. And when they left, they left with a very heavy heart they were sad because this kind of programme for the first time made them leave their homeland, alright?

I want you all to understand a little bit here that when you tell or when you ask a community of Mayan people to leave their homeland or their houses, it’s like taking a fish out of water and throwing it onto dry land with no help. So those people when they were forced to leave were never compensated or reallocated to a given area, in fact they were told to leave and go to a place of their own choice because they were squatting and squatting is illegal in this country. So, while we were living here, we decided well we would take care of them, so those that left came back to the village and those that decided to go, got another place of their own choice. Most of those people came back to this village. So that kind of agreement immediately created a barrier between the park and not only this community, but also the communities lined around the park.

Now this is a new problem. In the first part of the life of the park, we felt that we were taken advantage of and that whatever it is that was going to happen up there, we would having nothing to do with it because it is all about somebody else and costs. The question is, at the time, how come an animal like a jaguar can be given access to land, when people need land and there’s no land for people to live? Why is that so? Why does the system have to decide that? Who decides that? Why should it be, right? So now those are hard, hard questions. You don’t go to communities and ask them, do you like the park? They’re going to punch you in the face, because of their views about it. The issues were those of management.

At the time there was a system called the ‘Peace Corp’ and they asked the Peace Corp to come up and speak to the management of the park. It’s not all that obvious, but you talk and you’re honest, so what you do is you go up there and you establish a set-up on the side and you send the idea that Cockscomb is very good for you, right? Besides that, the community realised that this thing was not for them. In Cockscomb, they refer to this place as ‘the white man’s paradise’, that’s how they look at it. There was such a negative thing about it and people don’t seem to understand it; the planners don’t seem to understand that we are doing something that is good, we support this. That is something very, very important.

Now besides this happening, we continue to develop. We are now making good strides. By now we had good electricity, a good water system, the roads were built and the community was beginning to see the light. But there’s one problem – how do we work with this park? Because any time you think of the park, this is the problem – how can we get our own back; who can help us? So when the Peace Corp started to come here and help the people, people were so upset. One day, the village got together and they wanted to trap this Peace Corp guy, trap him, tie him to the side of the tree and lash him – that is the extent of how much they had this thing about why did this thing happen to us?

So it was at that point that we decided something has to happen here; we cannot continue to live like this as it was not our intention.

So whilst this was happening, I became a leader. I’ve been a leader in my community since 1984. I advanced a little bit, I actually went to farmers school and then I studied primary education as a teacher, but now I’m qualified to teach at the school. I’m also a very good leader and very, very good at prompting and actually getting people’s support. I just can do that. So those people at the time were very strong with us and then being a leader you have to have a vision. You have to try and answer some of these peoples’ questions and find some solutions for some of these people and it’s very important, because we’re talking about development and we’re talking about improving our lives. We’re talking about wanting to empower ourselves, so that we can be like our own leaders. Because one of the things that’s said, is that if you want go to Cockscomb, then your life will be better, but how? Tell me how, I don’t want you give me an idealistic opinion; I want you to give me a tangible example of how this is going to happen.

Now nobody has the answer. The Belize Audubon Society who was the executing agency at the time and still is now, had a serious problem, because – whilst we didn’t tie a Peace Corp [guy] to a tree to lash him and hurt him, because that’s not going to answer our problem – we had to conduct work and be real, and discuss this issue at length. So the Belize Audubon Society, I was teaching at another school, moved me from here because they think I can be the problem in instigating problems for this organisation. I said no, I had nothing to do with that. In fact, I believe that the establishment of the protection is one of the most important things. But I can’t go and tell them that, because I don’t know why it was created before at the time when it’s new. But then I give myself some time and talking to these people. I said that maybe there’s something for us. So when I came one day, back home here in the village, we have our meetings, they said to us, how can we get rid of these people? That’s the question. They don’t want to work in the park. So the first thing they did was to go illegally to Xunantunich which is the traditional thing to do if you have a problem. So I told them that it’s really not the way to do it, and so the discussion from the management point of view and the village relationship to the park became an issue. So one day, the Belize Audubon Society, like I told you, the executing agency, came to me, came my school and said, “you know what, we are looking for a Belizean counterpart to create some management and at the same time, integrate some of the relationships between the park and the villagers.” I told them first of all, I am not a jaguar oriented person; I am people oriented; I am good at dealing with people. So I don’t want to take the job in the park. At the same time I don’t want to jeopardise my relationship with the community. They said no, we want to work together, hand in hand. Because I think this is something good. I decided let us look at this, and I told them that I’m going to reconsider it and maybe it’s a good thing, maybe I can go and help.

Developing alternative incomes

So after six months they came back and said are you ready? So I decided yes, I’m going to keep tracks, I’m going to go. So, everything was OK. We now have a job and a house, and we can start this time. I came to the village, now I have to explain to everybody I backed, I said look, from now on I will be helping the community in the Cockscomb Park, I will be in charge of the park, and when I said that, everybody was up in arms. They said, “you are going to be with the enemy!? I thought you were supposed to be on our side.” I said “well, I am on your side, except I have to go to that side, learn it, and bring it to you so that you work with it.” That was the hardest thing that I could have done, in a small community. So some of them were sitting there sleeping, but as soon as I said that, everybody really started to pressure me, that was the only time that I felt my leadership was in question and I was really worried, but then there was a while after that I was like you can go ahead, I’m going to work. I give it some time, now we have to work with these guys our responsibility is not just for us, but to help change the attitudes of people that I have learnt that you can never change.

But anyway, so that day was gone, so now I need to work, I need this, now I’m sure the judgement [26.32 to 26.39 inaudible] and after a period of time, I went into the village and said to two women, “would you be able to come and meet me, I want to have a little chat,” and they said OK, if it’s important.” So everybody came. So I sat down and I told them, “listen, I know you people are very great people, I know you can help me and I would like to do something, I am in charge of the park, and I want us to work together.” I had to explain to them when they asked, “how should we do that?” I told them, “all I want you to do, is I want you to support me, so that we can bring out another programme that all of us can benefit from.” So they said “well OK, well maybe that’s good, but how are we going to start?” Then I told them “first of all, we are Mayan people, you are the people that the world wants to come and see, am I right? And we can tell our story through our eyes, if you really want to do something, we can tell them who we are, we are Mayan people.” And they said it’s very good.

So at our first meeting, I give them an assignment because we have to be real, I told each one of them “look, you go and make something with your hands, we are artistic people, we are people who do embroidery, we do ceramics, we do all sorts of things, go and do that. Then when we have our next meeting, I want to share something with you.” So they left and went. Three weeks later we came together and I had two tables, one here and one over there and I told them when you come back and bring your items, right? Bring it, because we’re going to talk about it and talk about all of them too. So I told them as they came in the room, I said look, if your art is very nice, put it on that table, if it’s not so nice, put it over there. The point I’m trying to make is that I want them to look at themselves, I want to see the difference between their work. … So they came and it was very true, some of them realised in their own minds that it’s very nice and some said it’s not so nice. That idea was clear. So I said to some, this can improve, let’s work overtime. So we grinded a lot of work, we worked together, and now I have their support, nobody can get in-between the women and myself, because they saw that I am trying to work with a programme on it. They have to touch it, they have to feel it, they have to experience it, they have to care for it for them to believe it because I’m going to go somewhere with this.

Now, I’m still at Cockscomb, I’m also the leader, but now I’m trying to create a new cross-hair. So this will be the driving force for the community to come, it won’t be me to do it. And so there came a time, after a long time, … and one day I told them, let’s do another thing. I want all of you ladies here to create a small centre, where we can show these to people. They said but how are we going to do this? I said to the ladies well, we have to because nobody else wants to. One lady said, you know what, I have my husband, I’m going to take him to come and build the house, and everybody said the same thing. So next thing you know, the men helped put up the house but the ladies said not me, which is good. We’re learning and the house is up now, then we’re ready to make the move. … So when these people move building, you see where the gift shop is right now? That used to be a little Cockscomb hut. So the next thing I need to do is to tell the organisation for which I work, that employed me. I went and I told them, listen, I will take the gate that is over there and I will bring it and I will put it in the village, right? And they said, “why are we going to do that?” I said we are going to pretend to take the gate, right? That is of no use there, the way that it’s there is just a barrier for everybody, we want to make it look like a welcoming idea for anybody that wants to feel part of this thing. I will have to monitor it. They will be the first contact for the people coming into Cockscomb, where I want them to feel a part of this thing, they have to have a certain feel or something, if they don’t feel part of it, they don’t want it, right? So I want them to be part of it; I want them to know this because conservation is going to be coming in the next few days in terms of resources. Now this is something that they’ve never really thought about directly. …

So the Audubon Society told me that if that is going to happen, then we are going to create a new problem, because we are about conservation, we are about communities, but we need people to support us. If we have people supporting us then that’s 50% of our problems taken care of. They might have a read, they might not have a read and may have said something, but the next time they said we are going to discuss it some more, so I said very good. So by this time, this little place, we divided it first room: the items that they made they put in the second part of the room and each one of the ladies, I told them look, I measured a certain section for them, you’re going to put all your stuff here. You are responsible for this part, then you’re responsible, then you’re responsible. You take care of your piece in that given area and you will learn how to sell. You’re going to sell what’s yours and then eventually it becomes an activity for you to think about and figure out a way how we can make this thing work. And they were so happy.

So they were ready, and finally I went back to the organisation and said: “look we’re ready to move these people.” They said they’ll do it with a heavy heart, if you take it down there and it doesn’t work, who’ll be responsible? I said I have no problem with that, I’ll be responsible, because I really wanted to make this thing work. So we set out on a day when we were going to do this, so finally now we were going to go to the centre and show them how we were going to do things, you know like book-keeping, how much we earn, how much we sell, what money we were making. So it’s very important that all of them are happy. And so, that day came and the last thing we needed to do was among the women that were there – there were 18 women at this point. Among them we had to select 5 women amongst these beautiful ladies. And the reason we had to do this was because we had to smile, now that’s the catch to get them to do the work and we had a hard time making a choice, but we got the ones and told them they had to do this. You’re going to smile, you’re going to be nice, you’re going to meet people when they come in and then we’ll do the rest. They were so happy doing this, they were so confident that we were going to do this properly and then that week came.

So, we sent flyers and said look, from this day onwards now we’re going to register at the Maya Centre and not at Cockscomb; and again we did this because we want to have that contact the people and get them involved and realise that we can work together. So that day comes, the first bus came and lady went up and put the gate up and asked them to come inside and sign the guest book, then push her through the door and then outside. When they get in here, they can’t believe their eyes, “wow these things are nice, these are beautiful, are they for sale?”  “Of course they’re for sale.” Then they started and that is really what I wanted them to understand, because you see this is important for them to feel, to touch, to see and experience. If we doubt this you’ll never get them to do anything, because they don’t feel as though they’re a part of it, right? So that bus had about 40 people and it took about almost an hour, people couldn’t believe they were buying everything out, they were buying.

So they left and then another group came, then another group came, and that was the way it was for the first day; and in the process, I can see how much this means to a group of people that never had an opportunity to do anything like that. Now they can see a different life through it, alright? So at the end of the day at 5 o’clock, the gate has to close, and we looked on the table and we had about a basket of money for the first time. We’ve never seen that kind of money before – a basket full of money for the first time; and it was at this point that they understood about themselves, that they have potential, they can derive a benefit, provided there is an opportunity that is given; and I felt so good about it because from that day onward, I never had to tell them anything.

This kind of system is very important because once over time those same people became business people, they understood the economics of the park. They probably didn’t understand the conservation resources or the principles of conservation, but they understood the economics. If this park is going to be here and we are going to send for people then this must mean that this is good for us, you know why? You can bring all the Peace Corp you want – they will never try to catch the man because they are connected, they are part and parcel of a decision. They can see the benefit of it, they can touch it, they can talk about, in fact they can send it. I am so happy about it – I’m just going to give you a figure – on a good day like between January to March, these women paid themselves 2 weeks every time, and the least that any one woman would get is about 1200 dollars and the most that one gets is about 5000 dollars, Belize dollars. That, you will never make anywhere else, at that point in time, and that really sparked off the interest that wanted to keep these together.

So you have a bad relationship turning into a good relationship, but the other side of that story is that the Belize Audubon doesn’t have to worry about hunting and fishing because the people who were doing that were people who now understood what was happening and they just wanted to work together. There starts a good relationship, we have a win-win situation where the common people are happy that they can make money and making a living for themselves. Now that is what you call empowerment, right? I can get involved and I can show you that I can make money, that’s empowerment, because I have learned the abilities, I don’t really have to go anywhere. So today they’re involved in home industries and they are making different kinds of things, so much so that it isn’t only arts and crafts anymore – people have got enough of one thing, so they have started to look at avenues to see if they can expand. So, this is my wife Aurora.

Aurora Saquí (AS): Hello.

ES: So she’s going to talk to you now, so I am saying that kind of helps you to understand people’s service, that we can do a little bit of business, that we can now understand what this tourism industry is. And it’s changed now. So they are not only in one set of projects, people you have to be able to grow, which is good, that’s the idea. If we can’t stay in one group then fine, some people back out and start up their own industry, which is good, that’s telling me you’re learning so you have different gift shops now, you have services providing now and then, people have started all kinds of businesses to show that what is happening in Belize is they are taking advantage of the opportunities that are provided. And we got into trouble, because we had someone else who is not a local wanting to come here and create a gift shop for us, for the Mayan people. Come on man! We don’t need you, we can do it ourselves. Now that’s the mentality and approach we took. We have to beat ourselves. So that is the reason why these people are still part of this old programme.

OK, so that is the connection from community to protected idea. Now, what does protected idea enforce? I got involved: it was created in 1984 after a jaguar study in 1984. They wanted to look at, examine, the gates and what species of the jaguar were there and this is as a consequence of a programme or a congress that happened in Belize on the environment, the status of the environment and tourism. One of the discussions that came in that programme was how come Belize is still doing trophy hunting of jaguars? Why is it that you are still doing that? So the environmentalists at that time questioned the government of Belize – can you give us this status of the jaguar? They said we can’t do it now, but we will do it; and they did, and that was how that study was done between 1982 and ’84.

Jaguar research and conservation measures

The government of Belize at the time did not have any conservation department; the people to do it were not there so you know what, people decided that it needed existing. So the government of Belize asked the Belize Audubon Society, please could you do this job for us? And they said we will do it, and that’s how they went back to the NYCS at the time and then Dr. Alan Rabinovich came over and got interested in doing the programme here and that’s how it started.

It was interesting because when we looked at what was happening, he tracked five jaguars in the basin and he looked at it and out of the five jaguars that were there, three of them were sick; sick meaning either blinded eye, or broken canine. So three out of the five is not great. They said that’s more than half the sample. Then the next thing they needed to know was the physical appearance of this animal. A lot of them are the time swishing around now, a lot of them have butterflies on their skin, big ones. So that can easily make it troubling. It’s about their life span in the wild – anywhere between 12 to 15 years because of the hiding secure or diseases, and their health; and then they disappear. It’s a harsh environment for them to live in. The next thing they found out is their home range – how big an area does a jaguar require? Well, at the time they said it was 14 square miles, but now it is more than that. The least you can have now is 14 square miles, but more than that if you wanted to have really good conservation of the jaguars. They are huge animals, they need enough space to find their food as well as enough space so that they can roam. They’re always solitary animals, they never work in groups, so they move by themselves. So you never see them until they’re mating, the only time they muck around. So the male, who we have been waiting for, the male is always the winner, so when there is a male in there, no other male can come into the given area. We’re looking at a huge area of anywhere between 150,000-200,000 acres of land for this job, that is the size of the area that we are managing now for the conservation of the jaguars.

The researcher also said there can always be two cubs, or there can still be one and the babies stay with the mother for two years. After two years then they get kicked out. Now sometimes, the mother can kill one of two babies if it comes to a point where the baby is sick or there is something wrong. It’s not pleasant but we have seen scenarios like that before. So that is some of the information that came out of the programme and it’s so important to protect the jaguar because of man-hunting, destruction of their habitat, and at that time we were still doing black marketing, which meant I can kill a jaguar and sell it, or eat it, or put it on a chain and round my neck. Although, once the jaguar became protected, it’s illegal to have any part of it, and anybody who is doing this will go to jail for 6 months and can be charged 500 dollars; or if you repeat the offence it can be double that; but that is the way it was then, it’s sad.

Now 90% of the animals are at the jaguar base. The reason for this is they are common because the rainforest as you know, is not really primary rainforest, it’s rather a sub-tropical forest and we only get 180 inches of rain; and the forest because of logging for so many years, you never see big trees, so the forest is still considered as secondary, and it makes more cover per square miles, so the jaguars go there and they hunt like jaguars every now and then, so at least that’s what they’re doing.

So it’s very important for this programme to have acres of land and as a consequence of this now, there are still none. That is how I think in our year 80% of our income is generated from that protected area. People service providing as tour guides, as other programmes, taxiing. So it is a benefit for the community because it provides and people are taking advantage of that, so that is really the reason. Communities are very used to the park, now you can’t tell anybody that you’re going to close the park because people are going to jump up and try to stop you from doing that, which is very good now because they feel they’re part of the programme, and I’m very happy for them and for that, because you know that any programme that comes to this country, any programme whatever comes for this country could be the brightest idea. When it comes to this country, the indigenous people or the grass-roots people are the first ones to get impacted in the most negative way and they are the people who get the least out of that programme, so our lives never really improve. Many of these programmes come as a programme that will help lives, to eradicate poverty. That never really happens because people are never really impacted. Now the only reason why there is success in this community, people let me tell you this, the only reason why we participated [bird cheeps loudly a lot, laughs] is because we had to take the bull by the horns, twist it, and we make it go the way that we want it to go. So nobody come to tell us look, you must do this and that – we decide this, but that comes as a consequence of the vision of local leaders. So we are very happy to say now that we are a community that helped Cockscomb with their management – we didn’t know it, but it’s the only way that success can come, so that’s just the idea but the point I’m making is that conservation of resources is so important.

The existence of Mayan people now is not only stable, but sustainable, alright? And then finally, conservation of resources is so detrimental to our own past, if you take a helicopter and you fly over, there is a huge operation around. In the north here, citrus industry, in the west, in the east, citrus industry, here you have the protected area and here you have the farms to make oil, etc. etc. So we are squeezed out and then where do we go from here? We can only develop and build this way, so the next thing we would want to do I believe is take the companies land by force and we’re going to occupy it and we’ll be like human rebels so that we can have space for ourselves. You know, they’ve got so much land, we only need a little bit. Why can’t you just give us a little bit!? Not for free, but let’s compensate you for a little bit and we can live together.

Now that is the challenge. We are still Mayan people, we still believe that we have work, expect that we have to have vision in terms of where we are. Whilst the Cockscomb [Basin Jaguar Reserve] must exist now – because just one last thing before I finish: the management objectives of the park state that the area there should be left intact with regards to the ecosystem; so that people can use it for education, for research and for information; and if you want to do some research you can go there; if you have to do your classes you can go there; if you want to get married up there you can also do that as well; but everybody says that’s the idea. The second most important thing is to continue the conservation of resources, because we felt that one day tourism is going to be a thing in this country and that we’ve prepared ourselves so that people can come and enjoy the natural resources and do what they have to do and go back, and then continue to teach the principles of conservation and let this place become a role model.

Cockscomb will become a role model to other protected areas, or it can also be a watchdog for people who are developing and abusing the resources. Like for example, you have all these big plantations; they do every spring on people’s houses, they are bringing a lot of poison, what are you going to do? How are you going to address this situation, people taking fertiliser bags running down on a trailer and dumping the bags down below the river so that it takes care of the problem. That’s not taking care of the problem. So we have a lot of work that we need to continue to focus on and address that.

And then finally I want to finish by saying that if it’s true that this protected area, that Cockscomb is for us, then we want the Mayan people to be the managers. Today, all the people that are managers are Mayan. They can do a good a job just like anyone else. When we were run short by NCS, we tell them, come show us how to do it, so you do it, and then go back, we can take care of this. So we did a lot of work with howler monkeys, dendrochronology, botanical work, we did. Well I guess next year they are going to start to build an introduction for howler monkeys, we’ll have to have a look at all of this in a broader picture.

So, I think that I want to say tourism is actually supporting conservation, but we need to do more, but I think that it is teaching us a lot more than before. I’ll give you an example. When we first started to live in this community, all of us children made slingshots, you know what that is right? We wanted to go and shoot the birds, today I have young people in this community or young children in this community including my son, when they see a toucan, they call people over and they say look, a toucan is there! Ideas have been changed and people are realising that they are way too good to do this, they don’t really have to go anywhere, but we learn that these things are useful right? So I am very happy for that as well. So tourism, very important, and conservation I think they sort of go hand in hand, although let’s leave that alone for right now.

Generally speaking, I think that’s where we are, and if you need any help with this thing, you should bring more work into us somehow, right? Though that’s just an observation I am making. So really I don’t have much more to say, I would just like to give a little bit more time to questions? Martin, do you have any observations?

Martin Mowforth (MM): Well, yes we’ve just been given a lesson in conservation and the lesson of people’s participation in conservation, so thank you very much indeed. We do of course have a lot of questions. I’d be very surprised if we don’t, but I really think we ought to show our appreciation right now. [Applause] I think that was a great talk, thank you. How much time have we got for questions?

ES: We can do another twenty minutes.

MM: OK good, well would anybody like to kick us off in what prompted in me a huge number of questions about conservation? I think they should come from the conservation group.

Jamie Quinn (JQ): We’re going to look [at the Reserve] later on, so your time is precious more than ours.

MM: OK, you mean you can give Ernesto a grilling later. OK, I will kick off, but I’m glad the tourism group have come down with a few questions that you were preparing. Have you any idea what the jaguar population is now, given that some time ago it was just five individuals?

ES: Yeah, at the time when the programme was first implemented, they sampled five, and the number that we estimated was 20 jaguars; but that’s just an estimation, we could not live with that, so somebody came, one of the researchers came and said let’s find out the figure, and indeed 7 years ago, we did what we called a ‘jaguar survey’ in Cockscomb where we had this region divided into 100 metre quadrants and we put cameras up in each of the quadrants where we feel jaguars would pass. We ran the programme for five years and we had to do the cameras every two weeks, to change them so that we could get the information; and we realised there were at the time 50 jaguars counted on the camera – different jaguars – we know it’s different because the researcher also has a technique where he takes the markings on the paw and he locks it into another one, and then another one. If it fits, that’s the same jaguar so we can find like today or tonight if we can find one right at point A, and on the other side of the park, maybe at point F, you can actually find the same animal moved. So you can clearly see that they are different jaguars. But because actually not all of these animals came on the camera, we are saying between 50 and 80 now. That’s what we decided. Now I don’t know when that will happen again, but I think the jaguar numbers will pretty much stay the same.

MM: A sign of success compared with many years ago.

ES: Yeah, that’s the point. It’s good that there’s been an improvement in the population of jaguars, which is very good. Although, they’re not in the same area, they move around a lot.

Student, Jess Vagg (JV): When you spoke about the individuals that had to leave the park, you mentioned that they didn’t get any compensation, did they not get any land or any sort of other places to go? When we spoke with the Belize Audubon Society they said that they were given land.

ES: Where? Did they say where?

JV: No.

ES: Well, then it’s a lie. We had land here and we were the ones who observed that problem. Now I’m not fighting with them but I know they keep saying these things. But now let’s stay and talk reality. The truth is no. I know when these people were told that you have 30 days in which to leave and you have to go to a place of your own choice. They didn’t say look, we’ll give you so much dollars or we’ll give you this land, that’s not true. So that is not very true.

AS: Some of them didn’t even stay here, some of them went to Belize City, some of them went to Belmopan and some of them went back to Toledo.

ES: Yeah, they went back to different places, but some of them stayed, but the point is that they were never given land. In fact we tried to use it but we couldn’t, no.

Student, Isaac Pelham-Chipper (IPC): So now you’ve kind of integrated yourself into or rather, working alongside the wildlife sanctuary, how many people in the village are still kind of opposed to the original sanctuary?

ES: Now?

IPC: Yes, now.

ES: Yeah, to be honest with you, I think I can confidently say that I don’t think I can find anybody who is against it. I’d find some people who don’t really care about it, but if you say something then I guess most people would be in favour of the park for a good reason. So that’s something that isn’t highlighted all the time, but I guess if you build a relationship with it and it’s a one-sided thing then they would support it.

IPC: What about, you said there were nine communities around?

ES: Yes, there were nine other communities around.

IPC: Do you know what the reaction in any of the others was?

ES: Yeah I used to work with them, I was involved with them for a long time. In fact, I paved the way for some of the programmes to happen. The only communities that really mattered for them at the time were villages called Mayamopan, San Román, Santa Rosa and Georgetown, besides Hopkins. The reason for this is because they were kind of roped into it, they have no choice about it, they had to be taken, the programme had to go there because they were right at the boundary. In fact Red Bands is another one, and they had to come in because it was important and in that same sense it was very good because we got to know what the problems are, what they would like to see done. It was not easy and they were never really happy all the time. The reason why they were not happy all the time was that everybody then said the Maya Centre got the best deal, everything is Maya Centre. The only reason for this is because it is the gateway, and because of that problem, they became jealous of the Maya Centre. Because of that problem we went back to the group there and we asked them, could you people become like a B point? Let those people start that programme that we did here, bring it to your centre, you buy it, you pay them the money, and I think that worked for them. And we said look, all the people are working [inaudible due to wind] … into one area, one in each of the Mayan villages because they are so close together and that is the group that is making the start right now. So at some point they have taken an opportunity, either as employment, as service providing or any other programme that they want to do. The Audubon Society mind you, also came up with another programme, a starter programme in the community, like checking for eggs and different kinds of Audubon activities, that is more also Mayan based and community based so that they can continue to produce. So I think they were jealous for a while, but they learned because we had one more activity.

MM: Again, they’re involved – that’s the crucial thing.

ES: The involvement is very important right? You can’t tell them look, this is good for you and I don’t feel it or believe it, and I will not believe it and that’s a problem, and that’s what we came across.

Male Student: Have you got any idea how many visitors there are a year?

ES: Here at Cockscomb? I was trying to ask this question, I don’t know for this year but last year I was told that we had about 25,000.

MM: You might find out when the conservation group go up and find or look up that figure for us when you get up to the entrance.

Female Student: You mentioned the importance of the Mayan culture within the community. Do you think the move to tourism and that sector, do you think that has affected you?

ES: That is a very important observation, do you know why? The only reason why we are surviving is because we take it from our cultural approach. We don’t want to serve pizzas here, we want to serve local food that you can come and taste right? We are doing additional programmes in the community where we are saying look, let’s take a test of this life. My wife was the one who started the ‘Cockscomb Day’ programme, based on what people are looking for and we said look, this is very good, this is a Mayan community we want you then to come and experience Mayan life, how to taste Mayan food, how to help make Mayan food, how to do this and how to do that, to get an inside view or picture of what is going on. Some people end up making tortillas, some people end up making this, making that and we always get a report out back saying that it is one of those most interesting experiences, not comfortable but at the same time it’s worth experiencing. I think that is very good because when that happens too, you’re strengthening the base which is the grassroots. They know they are appreciated, because without the culture we could never compete with these other groups of tourist operators that are here right now. We don’t get tourist groups here, we are not even qualified to do this is what we are saying, because why do you have the monetary investment that’s so good you don’t even think about it. We are looking at the approach of eco-tourism where we share our culture, share our stories, share our lives with you and learn what is happening on the ground. So that is the only reason why I think we continue to survive, that’s the way it is.

Male Student: I heard you have like a hotel or a Bed and Breakfast here?

ES: Yeah we have a Bed and Breakfast.

Male Student: OK, so what kind of percentage of people are just passing through in terms of eco-tourism?

ES: Well truly, we would like every person to pass through here, … We are not really up to date in terms of marketing. Firstly marketing is so expensive. Second of all, we have a website which we hope to change for good. Some people get us through the website and they are mostly people who are looking at local activities. For example, I want you to understand how Mayan people come to live here, or let’s talk about the Mayan people, or what we can do through Mayan programmes such as making chocolate, making tortillas and others. So it is easier for us to get those people because it’s not just the reason because they come, these are people who have already been organised, they’ve known us for a long time. We have like six or seven people or operators that come and want to include us in their programme. I know one group who has been here 18 times, they came here 18 times, some other people 12, some other groups 10 and they keep coming back and they bring other groups. They are more into now natural medicine; they are into more like spirituality and a lot of that happens at the Maya end and so they want to see things differently. So that kind of programme, some of these people have reservations and say we are hoping to come back next year. The right people book, and then we have another programme that we call ‘Classes for Herbalists’. My wife is the herbalist and she is now going to start a class, but then she also has students who come from overseas. Starting this month they are going to come and take classes there and there’s another 3 or 4 groups coming Saturday to start this. Now that kind of programme is available here and so they write to us and tell us what they want and that’s what we agree.

AS: I think it’s very low the percentage that comes from the village, I think 5% of classes around.

ES: Yes, yes. I think as far as people staying in the village, they don’t do that, except if we were going to do home stays. Like I said, it is a community where things happen on a regular basis where you know, they come and we try to explain to them that this is what we can do and they do that, but only those who would want it, to spend time with families. They mostly visit the centre here because that’s our contact point, but they don’t stay in the community for too long, I can tell you that we have about 6 or 7 home stays that we had who stayed in the community, we have a little more who stay here because we operate our little guest house and we provide food, some of them stay here, some of them would like their service provided for them, but we have a very small number of facilities for them.

Female Student: [Inaudible question due to wind, but it’s about cruise tourism] So the cruise tourists just come and spend the day, so if the cruise industry wasn’t as strong, would you find that people would want to stay for a few days within your community?

AS: I don’t think that it would change.

Male Student: How heavily reliant are you upon the cruise ship industry?

AS: Yeah, because the last time when they started to do their meetings I usually go and attend meetings and see how I can get in and I started to sell my business through a circle meeting, like numbers and people come in and that would be good for my business and for my community because then I would employ more people, because there is a lot of ladies, not only from this community but other communities who want to come and get a job from me. But then I cannot offer them a job because there aren’t enough jobs for them as well. So directly or indirectly we would take advantage of that opportunity, but if they came with a contract then I’d be very nervous about signing any contracts because it happened to us when we were very young. So I tell my husband let us get a lawyer and see what the papers are saying, I don’t just want to sign up an empty contract that doesn’t exist. So we went to Belmopan and we had to hire a lawyer, we paid a $100 only to hire the lawyer, and then he went through the paper and told us the very important things are not even in the paper, like payments and then the amount of people that we are agreeing with, because if they only bring me 2 persons I cannot hire anybody, and it is not worth making the whole ceremony for only 2 people.

MM: Just to be clear, this was a contract with the cruise company?

AS: Yes the cruise ships that are going to start in November and October.

MM: The NCL (Norwegian Cruise Liners) yes?

AS: Yes, so we have these calls with the person who is in charge of these tours, that is going to be the one managing the tours here, and he told us that he was going to be paying us every two weeks after the cruise ship comes and we agreed that the cruise ship will come three times during the week, 40 people per group, two times a day, for three days in the week. So we said OK, that is manageable because I don’t want to overwork myself through the whole week, so that is OK for us we agreed with that. But then they said we would be paying you after the groups come and after two weeks, you know in two weeks’ time and then we would be having a minimum of 35 people. If there is not 40 people to come at each time, there needs to be at least 35 people minimum, so which was a good idea.

The only thing that they said was that we had to make another centre that is going to be only for them and then bathroom facilities. I have to invest in another bathroom for ladies and for men, so that was the investment that I was going to do and then when they came with the contract I was excited. But then I realised, I said to my husband I really don’t want to sign straight away, I think it’s better to take it to a lawyer and see what it says. If it’s OK then we’ll go ahead and sign it. So when we went they said the most important thing is that the minimum of persons, the payments and three times for the week is not even included here. It has happened to us too that those cruise ship programmes are very good for a night for the programme to come into the village.

One time we got involved into a cruise ship programme. They are elderly people and they said they only want to be around the area because they are weak, so they made us sign a contract for three years, for three months every year. The first year it was so good because they tell me they want entertainment for two hours. What can you do? OK, we do Mayan day with a chocolate drink, we do entertainment with music and a dance and we make a tour of the garden, so that will take them two hours to do. It went so good for the first three months.

After that the bigger hotels started to question it because why is it that they are coming to me and not to them? The bigger fish want to eat everything and you are not leaving anything for us, the smaller fish. If you leave yourself, they’ll eat you too and suddenly I can see that those people that are more like powers, demand the power. They want to be in charge of my business and my organisation like the BTB (Belize Tourist Board). They bring me the law, like the tourism police; they bring me the police force. They said first of all, I want to question who is doing the tour-guiding for you? They wanted to take people round the trail. I said I do it all myself because I have a lot of knowledge with the plants. Second of all, they said where is all the trash going? They don’t bring any trash, they don’t even eat here to begin with; we don’t do any lunch for them. They said my sign was illegal because I was advertising bird watching and guiding here. I tell them I don’t hire anybody to do the guiding because you sit right here and you watch the birds, I have over 100 species of birds in my yard. If they tell me off, I will tell them off too because I am not afraid of them, because I know my rights, and I tell them to take them people on the trail and I do it myself, where can I go to train myself to know all about the plants? Have you told me about a school where I can go, this is part of me and you’re not going to stop it.

So you know all of those came to an end and then they stopped the cruise ships because their other excuse that they said was because it was on terrain like the ‘Jaguar Reef Hotel’ in Toledo. That is a big resort and they said it’s breaking quotas and this and that so it stopped and only ran for one year. Now other cruise ships would come, there was one group that started to come and needed lunch here because they come from Belize City and they come to the reserve, they eat lunch and they go back again. So this person that is bringing me the cruise ship knows me also so that is why he brings the people for lunch here. So they said this only verbally, they said OK, every time we come we are going to bring the people to eat lunch with you so it only happens two times, it’s going to happen other times like every Sunday. So I was excited I went and invested in more chairs, I didn’t have enough chairs for sometimes 60 to 90 people and that day when I went and invested in more chairs, that following weekend they never came, they went to another place because there was no contract signed, it was only empty.

So that could have happened to me. Now when they bring me the contract, I would have signed the contract thinking now I am set to go, but it was not even true. So whatever they are promising for people like the locals, especially those who don’t know the law, how to defend themselves, they will take advantage of them, they will really mess them up. And so I tell Ernesto, the way I feel about it. I still don’t feel bad because if they are going to come to me and lie saying that they are going to bring me these people, I’m going to sign an empty paper that I don’t even read. … At the end of the day when they’re like standing on a rug and they pull the rug, you drop flat on the ground too. You know, so before I said that I was excited that the cruise ship will be coming, but I am not anymore because only today we sent word with the person who came with the contract that we are ready now to sign the contract because we have fixed it properly now. They have not appeared up to today.

Female Student: Do you think anything will change when they build the new cruise ship terminal? Do you reckon you might get more possibilities or …?

AS: No because the cruise ship tourists only have a limited time and if they’re going to come to me, they’re going to come from here and back to the ship again. They don’t have any time to spend anywhere. So if they don’t come directly to me that means I cannot offer them this.

ES: Well of course this whole idea of the cruise tourism in Belize was never received with a welcome. There’s always an outcry, and the only reason I personally felt that it could work is that they were going to be using local people. They’re asking us, are you interested in participating? If you’re interested in participating we’d like you to tell your own story; we don’t want to tell you what to see or what to do. Can you do that? That I think was good. If you are coming to me and you ask me what can you share with us, then if I think that it’s good; then I know that I am the one who is creating or making this activity; then I know how to manoeuvre it and how to control it; but that was good because they are going to go to the most interested. But as is, I also feel that they’re maybe not honest about what they are doing in some ways. Maybe it’s just an excuse to make their own programmes to do what they want. I know Cockscomb did not want them.

MM: Did not want the cruise tourism?

ES: That’s what they said. I don’t know if they changed their position. I asked them because I wanted to get a feel for it as well. They kind of just pushed it aside; they didn’t say yes or no, but from the people I am talking to they said no they would not like it. So when they ask if they can come to the village, the village in that sense said maybe not – we are not ready for them because we don’t have a programme to give them. It’s not because they said well we have this programme and we don’t want them; we’re saying we don’t know what programme to give them.

So when they came here because we used to work with the cruise business for a short period of time, every time when they had something, we came across and said what about this place, and then we came up with this new destination at the time that we talked about and they liked it. There was a guy from Miami who had a cruise business there – he said “well I like this, so let’s sign up the programme,” but we didn’t sign the contract, since we started to investigate if this was really true. That’s the point we got to and they haven’t responded up to this time. So I believe we are out more than him, which is not a problem because then you know that they are not honest. And if it’s true that this is the way they are going to work, then they are not going to be for everybody. I know some of them that are involved – they are very poised in terms of getting things the way they want to work, but I don’t know if they have all the little fishes around them swimming to feed, I think they are going to take it.

The other part of this – sorry, just one last thing – they came and said to the people that don’t know anything about tourism or don’t want anything to do with tourism, “Farmers, you farmers have the only opportunity to stand, because if you get together you plant food and fruits, we’ll buy it. We buy an enormous amount because we have to feed people every day; we’re talking about 4,000 people every day.” That’s the capacity of the ships we were talking about. Then for the whole year, they’re talking about 200,000 people. Right so if you have food to buy every weekend or Monday, now a lot of people get excited about this, but they don’t really know how this thing works. Like you give me the taste of this thing, I can taste it, the imaginary phrase is like ‘wow, it’s good’, but in reality we have to do that to see if that is the scenario. So those were some of things that I thought of and maybe they could work. The farmers could get together and do their farming and sell it, but is it true?

MM: But you have to guarantee production as well. It’s a difficult one to do.

ES: Exactly, but it is something we could do, because there’s not many new things happening, and the last thing I want to see is that I got involved into the idea of tourism. We negotiated our time and they were looking for people to work at the office or on the ship. Last year or a year and a half ago, we got some publicists and said come this way and we’re going to talk to a guy about a job. All the young people got excited, we realised if we look at them, you have a tattoo on your skin, oh you have dreadlocks, you you’re too short. I mean like, what’s going on!? So I called this guy and I said you’re blowing my people out, and he said OK let’s give it a second thought. They accepted a few of them for an interview, but that’s it, it was never really a job that came through. So what I realised is that they’re looking for only people that would work for them. … They said some more employment will come, but by the time comes around, I won’t be one of them. So whether you want to get involved or not is not my problem, it’s not their problem, but it’s our problem because this is a government supported programme. To help poor people to get better, which ones are supporting those guys? Not me, because I haven’t gotten word from anyone.

Female Student: Do you know if there were employers? Did you know if they employed anyone?

ES: They employed a few people, a few Mayan people, but I don’t know to what extent or what exactly they did because I haven’t heard from them, but one or two people were employed. I heard this guy, one of the Mayan guys that they employed went on the ship and after three months he said he started to cry, he wants to come back he can’t handle it. So he served his time, but he’d never go back again, he said. Well we are not seagoing people, we are Mayan people. We like the land better.

MM: Maybe Abi wanted a job? Anyway, you’re probably quite tired now, so I’ll just ask one more question of particular relevance to the conservation group, but more of an interest to me. It is my concern about the cultivation of palm oil. You mentioned it once – is the cultivation of palm oil and palm oil plantations, is that exerting any pressure on the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary?

ES: Because it’s on a very small scale at the moment I know it’s going to have an impact, but I don’t know when, but it’s not great. Likewise, this can be for the future as well because you can do it this year, you can do it next year, you can do it for however long you want to do it. But honestly, it’s going to have a huge impact not only on the community but the reserve as well. There’s a lot of development that’s going on. I have two neighbours that are coming right next to me, they said we are only going to do 150 acres of land clearing and they are going to put houses for Mayan people there. Now the problem I have with that is that I know it’s not true because they are going to do real business that is going to impact us like this one right here. I’m going to show you a particular example. Here is a conservation group, their name is ‘Sanctuary Belize’ – you can Google it if you want. They are trying to break that hill up there for mining, right up there, right above the water that we drink. When the rains come, all that rubble will go into the water and wash up with us. We are Mayan people, we are used to going into the basin to wash. When we told them, they said that’s really not a problem that we can solve, it’s just the company. So I said where do we go? It’s typical that they’re taking advantage of people who don’t have anywhere to run to for help, we are always exposed because we don’t have anywhere to go, to the point now that this forest we used to go and we’d cut our leaves and we’d cut our sticks to make our houses, but we can’t go there now because there is a sign that says look, if you get past here you’ll go to jail. They might not be here again, but the point is that they don’t want me here again, so where do I go now? What do I do now? So a lot of the pressure is going to come, I can see this happening, in fact I’ve been hearing now – you don’t have to record this now.

MM: OK, I’ll turn it off.

Iduvina Hernandez

Interviewee: Iduvina Hernández, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy.
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Alice Klien
Location: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Date: 27th July 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC



Alice Klein (AK): Why are there so many human rights violations in Guatemala and why do they go unpunished?

Iduvina Hernandez (IH): This question has two types of answers. These things are happening right up to this day, 12 years after having signed the Peace Accords, through impunity, which is of a structural nature in Guatemala. There was the signing of the Peace Accords: for example, in the accord on Strengthening of Civil Power, a series of changes in the security system that particularly indicated the army as the main agent in the committing of human rights violations during the armed conflict. The creation of the Historical Clarification Commission was also agreed, a commission which had some limitations, because it was unable to identify by name the people responsible – the way it was phrased is that they were unable to individualise responsibility.

You could say that the state committed human rights violations or that the army was responsible for something, but you couldn’t say such-and-such general ordered such-and-such plan, ordered such-and-such thing, was executed by this Colonel, with this captain, with these soldiers, at this place, on which day. The commissioners were very intelligent in how they used their mandate; what they did was carry out, to the finest detail, the place in which the violation was carried out, the unit responsible for carrying out the action, and the victims. This report had very positive support, it was drawn up by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric, with Monsignor Juan Gerardi at the head, who identified by name many of those responsible.

Another important help was the release of documents by the National Security Archive, a U.S. NGO [she says NGO, but I don’t think it is.] that revealed information about the Guatemalan army from secret U.S. files, including names of officials and units with the years in which they were in specific locations. It’s not entirely complete, because as the enquiry has deepened, it has become clear that there are some things missing, that there are some officials who seem to have their biography protected by the U.S., as the details of their missions in Guatemala don’t appear. Therefore it is difficult to fit one thing to another … but it has been a big help.

All of this is external help, because there wasn’t any conviction to pursue the violators of human rights during the armed conflict, from which to start a judicial process, from which to send a lesson to the future that these violations were not going to be tolerated. From the moment in which the dust settled on the Peace Accords – and what I’m going to say I have said in other places, I don’t have any problem in saying again – there was a certain level of complicity from the UN’s own office, which had to have verified, acceptance of conduct which did not match up with the disposition to overcome human rights violations. And it turns out that the person assigned as verifier for compliance of the Accords [director of United Nations Verification Mission] is Jean Arnault, who was also the UN moderator during the negotiations for the Accords. In the end he was a kind of judge, and because he was responsible for verifying the Accords which he had helped create through the process of mediation, he was quite lenient towards failures on the state apparatus’ part, especially the army. The Guatemalan army finally found mechanisms for evading full compliance with the Peace Accords, with regards to correcting conduct which allowed it to become the most criminal institution that could exist in Guatemala, and for the most part in the whole of the Latin American continent.

This carries on up to this day. With the exception of Lima – father and son, who are in prison for the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi  – there is not a single high ranking military figure in prison with a clear sentence for having committed an act of human rights violations against the population, nor a General, nor a Colonel, not one person accused of genocide or forced disappearances. All these policies have created a system of terror and barbarity in our land. By these means the army considers itself victorious, and if it considers itself victorious and society accepts that what it did was OK, that conduct, maintained through a tolerance of impunity, prevents the Guatemalans from getting angry at human rights violations, at the many human lives that are lost day by day. They don’t get angry that a women is mistreated, that a group of judges decide to alter documents to pass the illegal adoption of three children, that one has to go on hunger strike to incite the slightest bit of feeling. But they kill bus drivers, they kill children, they kill young people, people are lacking basic resources and society doesn’t get angry. We have lost the ability to get angry because we have developed a high level of structural tolerance, because it works this way in the Justice system with judges, in the Public Ministry with the public prosecutors, lawyers, specialised in developing mechanisms of impunity for crimes against the Guatemalan population.

These structures that functioned during the armed conflict were allegedly for pursuing the rebels, but they went much further than that, because the same rebels were pursued violently, annulling the country’s own laws, they weren’t dismantled, the crimes that people committed during this time weren’t processed … they continue to this day being powerful structures. In this sense a schema of human rights violations exists and survives in Guatemala, because there is a system of structural impunity that maintains itself in the non-compliance with the essence of the Peace Accords signed in 1996.

AK: In your opinion what are the causes of femicide?

IH: There are two terms: femicidio and feminicidio. I’m not a technical expert in the matter because I’m not an activist in the feminist movement, where there is the debate about whether it is femicidio or feminicidio. But I can talk about the murders of women, which are becoming more and more violent each time they occur.

I want to say that this rests much on what was raised in the previous question, but that it also feeds off the cultural sphere in which we find the roots of personal character beyond the Guatemalan State. This is a mutually exclusive and expulsive State, economically and socially – those that have less are those that are mistreated. With regards to gender, women – in the field of State conduct and of society – are the people that are least protected legally in all spheres, and most unprotected with regards to using and claiming their rights in society. The woman is seen as a machine for having children or as an object of desire or in certain social strata if it is a woman who furthermore – and here comes another factor for exclusion – is of ethnic origin. The indigenous people make up the greatest part of the population in Guatemala, but at the same time they are the most excluded. So, if the reason duplicates itself in the sense that in addition to being a woman, she is indigenous too, there is a double reason for discrimination, which indentifies them as people suitable for servitude, as domestic staff in the houses of wealthy people, practically a system of slavery.

In Guatemala a good number of families have the means to pay a woman, generally indigenous, and often very young, a minor, for permanent domestic help, from 6 in the morning to 10 at night, without rest, responsible for everything, for sweeping, mopping, washing the clothes, cooking, going to the market, doing a thousand things, a system of slavery, which is culturally reproduced and inherited through families.

This way of seeing the woman as an object of reproduction, as an object of desire, and as an object of servitude, builds the elements that are also reproduced in the media. And the result is that, if the woman in a poor district of Guatemala is young, the single fact of her having a tattoo means she is identified as a member of a gang. And since she is a gang member, the media practically say that she deserves it. I’m not expecting the media to make political propaganda, or publicise in favour of human rights, but neither do they have to publicise in favour of what is happening. In continuing to feed these prejudices, the media should stress, at the same level and in the same space, actions such as the murder of the lawyer Rodrigo Rosemberg, the murder of any woman, of any person, but especially of any woman.

In Guatemala we have a print media, in an illiterate country, which is a ‘boom’ business in Latin America. There’s a tabloid with the highest circulation in Latin America per capita; it’s called Nuestro Diario and it’s dedicated to sensationalist crimes full of images, because photography stands out. So if the title is “they find her chopped to pieces”, it’s feeding the morbidity and it’s earning money and profiting from the death of people, in this case from the death of women, of which there are plenty. The discussion in the sexist opinion that prevails in the spheres of the security authorities and justice and in other spheres, like with some conservative columnists is – on the deaths of women, if the proportion of deaths of men is always much greater than women … they complain if there are less women that die in comparison to men … so the men should claim that there are hombricidios because the women claim that there is femicide; the womens’ fight to put violent murders on the agenda is questioned and condemned by the male voices in the media, and by the authorities.

But there are various factors that set out the construction of these terms: one relates to the brutality of the murders – generally men are shot, whereas with women, in 90% of the cases the attack is sexually violent, there is mutilation, often to the breasts and the extremities, apart from other types of evidence of mistreatment prior to the murder, so there is a cruelty and rage against the person’s feminine expression; and furthermore, in a good number of cases, there are connections with the partner living with the woman, which implicates the existence of an extreme expression of domestic violence. These are the factors, not the number of women as such, because there may be more than men and because numerically, from the point of view of how many cases are reported, there has been a substantial increase of more than 500%, or be it, from 100, 200, to 500, 700 or more in only one year. Therefore it is a number which really alerts us in an impressive way about the need for this to be documented. If we had to compare this with the case worldwide that raised the alarm about this situation against women, the case of the women killed in Ciudad Juárez [North Mexico], in Guatemala the number is higher, in the same period, despite Guatemala having a smaller population than Mexico, or from the point of view of Guatemala City in comparison with Ciudad Juárez. Therefore, in the context of this foundation of tolerance, of impunity, threshold of tolerance, culture of acceptance of all violent acts and social exclusion, and of the description “she deserved it because she was part of a gang”, or in the past, they said that she was with the guerrillas – and that’s why they were killed. We haven’t overcome this attitude as a society and in the case of the media, we haven’t even been capable of questioning it, nor capable of questioning it in the educational field, all of which feeds these types of situation.

AK: …..?

IH: Amongst other things for reasons that I have already raised. We would see, and that is also what feeds the maintenance of these cases. If the woman is a person who has a tattoo, that stigmatizes her as a member of one of the gangs or as a person linked to a gang, even if she only got a tattoo because she liked it or wanted one. With this argument, the police say “she’s a marera”, and then it’s a case of not having to bother to investigate [the death]. They inform the Public Ministry and the Public Ministry validates the police decision because neither of them want to demand an investigation. It stops being a priority case for investigation. The judges also go along with this and the media explain that a body has appeared, etc, and that it has a tattoo, and that a tattoo is a social code which signifies that this person is disposable. We have built up a social perception that there are disposable people in our society, in terms of gender, relations, characteristics, age, youth.

Martin Mowforth (MM): Are there no daily papers which press on these issues? For example, I have read a daily paper, the first three pages of which were about CICIG. I know that the message of the report was from the right, but at least it gave coverage of the problem. But are there any other daily papers which are a little more questioning or investigative?

IH: No, here in Guatemala when we talk about investigative journalism it’s El Periódico. So it is called, but in reality it uses a team to get evidence, at times facilitated by a source who has their interest against a given functionary. That is to say that they use the concept of investigative reporting to carry out campaigns against a given actor/person in the State when it suits them to affect/get at someone. I’m a journalist by profession. I said that I was going to take a year’s sabbatical and I’ve had 12 years of sabbaticals. I’ll probably never return to journalism. In the period in which I worked, there was a weekly paper, the Crónica, which probably wasn’t the best that Guatemala had or the best example of journalism, but in its time it did have a different attitude. It was mid-conservative and its owner was conservative, but the journalists who were working there had some power, and we even managed on occasions to prevent the publication of certain stories or certain slants of given stories with the arguments of professionalism. So being that the owner was a conservative man as well as the President, it became clear that the Crónica was a media a bit too questioning and so it was disappeared by the government of Álvaro Arzú. After the Crónica was stopped there was no written media in Guatemala which took a questioning stance. Of the traditional media, that is Prensa Libre, El Periódico, Siglo XXI, La Hora, which have national circulations, I would say that La Hora is a little more questioning, but with many weaknesses from a professional point of view.

Beyond that we are talking of a kind of reporting which in reality takes advantage of the moment when it can exploit someone. Technically we can question this kind of reporting. I was a Professor of Journalism and I read the media critically – I held my head in my hands every time I saw these barbarities, almost every day.

Beyond that, independent media don’t exist with the exception of a critical journal called La Cuerda, which is feminist. It’s produced by a collective of feminist women, it’s more open, more democratic, and obviously its focuses are from a more feminist perspective, which in my opinion has some limitations. It’s for an elite – the informed elite of the feminist sector of the capital city of Guatemala who receive it by subscription. The women of La Cuerda are great activists and very strong women in Guatemala’s feminism, but their communication media is very limiting. Also there’s an opinion journal called La Coyuntura which is circulated every 15 days by internet which also means that whoever receives it has to have access to the internet, which is not great.

As regards the radio, which is the most extensive media, ownership of commercial radio is concentrated in four family groups. Open television is concentrated in the hands of just one person and cable television is controlled by three companies which are also associated with the radio and written press because there is a characteristic of the written press. Prensa Libre started as the property of five families, each have 20 % of the shares. So there was no overall majority stakeholder. As the first owners died off, the children developed another vision for the running of the business and began to sell off some shares. Some of the associates began to accrue more shares than others until today when there are just two families who own 80 % of the shares of all the holdings of those companies which make up Prensa Libre, which is not just the daily paper but includes much more such as a cable television channel. And very probably, one of the owners of the daily La Hora is the person who is jumping to the defence of the new owner of Siglo XXI, which was bought a month ago when ownership changed hands.

What this means is that the press, radio and television are concentrated in very few hands and independent media don’t exist. That’s what facilitates the reproduction of an image of social conservativism in Guatemala. It’s very similar in Honduras – the difference is that in Honduras you don’t have Presidents of the Republic who are owners of newspapers. Here that still hasn’t happened, but we have aspirations.

AK: Talking of CICIG (the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), has it brought about any changes?

IH: I believe that yes. Originally, CICIAG, which was the first proposal pushed by human rights organisations in the year 2000, and which ruffled a few feathers amongst the conservatives and ultra right in Guatemala, was rejected. It was President Oscar Berger who found the perfect excuse not to insist on the ratification of the agreement which would have created CICIG, which had a wider brief than CICIAG. During Berger’s government they began to negotiate a new commission, which was CICIG. We said CICIG is CICIAG. Sholca, sholco in Guatemala is someone who lacks teeth. CICIG had teeth, but CICIAG is CICIG without teeth, maybe with some teeth lacking because the brief it had was very limited.

I think that the Commission, like the Commission on Historic Enslavement, has used every last point of its mandate to advance the investigation. We, like other civil society organisations, have also supported changes in the government authorities and in the Public Ministry because CICIG is obliged to liaise with the National Civil Police and with the Public Ministry, something which the other Commission was not obliged to do. For more than a year, CICIG wasn’t able to do anything worthwhile – in Berger’s last year – because government authorities, who were in charge of the police, did not give sufficient support to ensure that CICIG could employ qualified researchers, and most importantly whose honesty was proven. The same happened in the Public Ministry.

With the change of government, one of the merits of Álvaro Colom’s government is that for some reason the pressure which we are exerting has worked on high government officials and they have managed to make changes in the Ministry of the Interior and the Public Ministry. That marks a radical change of course in the functioning of CICIG. CICIG manages to find …??? … in local institutions with which it has to liaise in order to further its process of investigation. I would say that CICIG started off as sholca, but found someone to put on a prothesis.

I would say that sadly, for what it signifies, the death of Rodrigo Rosemberg gives to CICIG the support of another actor that isn’t widespread but is powerful and has the media, and that is the actor who begins to complain that he doesn’t trust the responsible authorities in CICIG. This says a lot, that is to say, CICIG is not the emblem of human rights organisations and that the press have built us up as the ones who arrest delincuents. No, CICIG is the instrument of society, we believe that to have managed to build this image and to have created this degree of confidence is a positive change. And we hope that there is an attitude of relative honesty on the part of the media who have pushed this, an attitude of understanding that if the symbol of CICIG falls there is not going to be an argument about campaigning against it. So what we want to do now is to make certain that CICIG produces a sustainable change, and that sustainable change in my opinion can only come about through the generation of local capabilities to fulfill their functions. Otherwise, we will have won some cases, but not as a society. We need to have a good enough tool to produce a structural change.

AK: In the Prensa Libre there is an interview with Carlos Castresana, but before that there was an article which says that CICIG is not Guatemalan and that that is not fair. People here in Guatemala, the authorities, say that they don’t want it because it’s a foreign organisation and therefore has no credibility.

IH: It’s a United Nations organisation, so it comes from outside. It’s an external actor, not a local one. It’s not a national entity and has no legitimacy and no credibility. That is part of the arguments which some time ago were used against CICIAG, against CICIG and against MINUGUA because always as far as human rights violations go in Guatemala foreign authorities have been very strong in their remarks. So whoever has supported the system of impunity rebukes this foreign image, which highlights bad Guatemalans, paints us in a bad light internationally and speaks badly of Guatemala. That’s what the military said during the armed conflict, and now some actors still say it and consider the presence of the United Nations threatens national sovereignty. It’s a concrete expression of a very strong xenophobia that is well rooted in that type of actor. It’s a selective xenophobia because it’s towards the external actor who takes a position of questioning the exclusion, the discrimination, the human rights violations. If the US Army comes here, they have to let them enter; if the FBI comes, the FBI must have an office here – there’s no intervention in our sovereignty, there’s no intrusion into our internal affairs. It’s a selective xenophobia which has class origins and an ideological position. I’m impressed – I didn’t know that there was also an article in Siglo XXI (the article that Alice mentions). It’s an indication of a very strong push by the Press Office of CICIG and at times it makes me fearful when they give so much space to CICIG in the media because it could also generate high expectations and the hope that everything can be resolved. When in fact CICIG can’t rise to that, they’ll throw all the rubbish of the world at it.

AK: What are the dangers for a defender of human rights such as yourself?

IH:  In general terms we are in permanent confrontation with a conservative position in the sphere of the media which uses the work of human rights defenders to question all national struggle and all social struggle for the purpose of bringing about national change. We are under the world’s magnifying glass, and when I say all the world I’m referring to the media, to a conservatism so marked from the military intelligence services to the prosecution service of Guatemala. We are questioned because we work with funds from international solidarity and we have practically built something positive in our own culture by paying our dues. This is different from Guatemala’s big companies which seek out every possible way of avoiding paying their taxes.

Our organisations are under the magnifying glass of all types of persecution that we must be sure to have covered all angles of all legal matters. As for prosecutions, in recent years we’ve been cited for prosecutions on three occasions, as an institution and in my case in a personal capacity. In all cases things have worked out well because all our papers are in order; but at each step the organisations feel a kind of persecution by these means, when we’re actually at a strong level. At least it’s a waste of time because you have to assure yourself and get through a full day when we are feeling very strong, and to go a full day whilst they prepare and bring over your documents.

If those aren’t the problems, then the other risks are the threats. As far as we ourselves are concerned these haven’t been a problem, but we have seen human rights defenders who have lost their lives. The number of assassinations is rising in the field of human rights defenders, so the risk even includes death. In our case, in May this year we had a series of threats. Between the 2nd and 5th May, six members of our team received 20 text messages by mobile phone that included death threats and demanded the turnover of declassified information. Declassified information is information which has been held by the security forces, like reports, etc., and which has been made public. So to declassify it was to remove its secrecy. Our organisation worked in support of the Human Rights Attorney in 2003 on the declassification of files relating to the now defunct Presidential Staff, which was the military detachment which provided security to the President of the Republic. According to the Peace Agreements this body was closed down and replaced by the creation of a civil entity. When it was closed down all its documentation had to be incorporated into a public archive. It wasn’t made public, but the Army and the Attorney General’s Office were given the possibility of accessing the information. Our organisation worked for more than a year taking digital photographs and we got 800 disks with almost a million images that contained the information.

One of the text messages insisted that we were going to deliver this information to the Attorney General; but he already had this information. We did all the work, and the Attorney General still had not made it public. But it was as if the military wanted us to deliver this and other information that they believed we had, but which wasn’t in our power.

What information do we have? Declassified information which is already in the public domain, because we have an agreement with the National Security Archive of the United States. We have it and we make it available to the public and we give training mostly to organisations which are pursuing issues of genocide and to lawyers who are working on human rights. We’ve trained them in how to use the documentation to press for judicial procedures, in what kind of information there is, where they can find it and what steps they have to take to ensure that a judge will accept these documents as valid proof when a human rights case reaches them. We’ve been doing this as an organisation, so we understand that this kind of threat could come from them.

Two years ago my house was broken into and the office car (which was at my house) was opened and left open, but nothing was stolen. This is the kind of action we have faced. Others have had burglaries in their offices where documentation has been taken, offices destroyed. Others have been temporarily kidnapped, or beaten, or in extreme cases assassinated. For example, a little while ago youths who were gang members decided to join organisations which were working to re-insert youths into society – they do theatre and cultural things. They killed, assassinated six of them from the same organisation. So, in extreme cases, death can occur.

Up to now, over the ten years that we’ve been operating, we’ve received threats, harassment calls which are emotionally upsetting and have an impact. One has to concentrate on the protection and to invest in psycho-social support. We are 14 people in the team, and six received threats over the course of five days. This had an impact on their work and its quality. At times people think that it’s going to be passed on to the family, and so they think it’s better to get out of here. They begin to think about training another person, because the work we are doing here is so specialised and you simply don’t meet others in the street who are trained in this. So you have to begin to think about training as a part of the process of work.

AK: Talking of impunity, why are some of the ex-militaries working with the police and government?

IH: In fact until September last year, President Álvaro Colom had ex-militaries as his own bodyguard. President Alfonso Portillo had as his Chief of Staff a soldier who was being prosecuted for corruption. Retired General Otto Pérez Molina is the Secretary General of the Patriot Party and during the government of Óscar Berger he worked for a period as a National Security Commissioner and as it became convenient for him to conduct his political campaign he returned to the Congress as a deputy. He also competed as a candidate for the presidency, but lost. So he is the Secretary General of a political party which is an important part of the opposition in the Congress.

In Congress, beginning with Efraín Ríos Montt (who is accused of being the principal architect of genocide and who is a deputy in Congress), and along with him in other parties there are approximately 6 or 7 ex-militaries. Another military man is Colonel Otto Noa. He is at the head of the Santo Tomás de Castilla company in the Guatemalan Caribbean port which is one of the places through which it is suspected that the major part of Guatemalan contraband enters the country in an organised way – all types of contraband, vehicles, drugs – they’re very diverse in their business.

And I would say that they [ex-military men] are in various positions of the state, which are often not visible but they’re key positions and they maintain the structure of impunity.

MM: I don’t want to put you in a difficult position, but what do you think of Álvaro Colom and the possibilities of changing the structure of Guatemalan society?

IH: I don’t think that Álvaro Colom would propose making any change that would imply a structural transformation. I think that up till now he has been an apparently well-intentioned man, but he’s a well-intentioned man without a political party capable of helping him to push, even minimally, his good intentions. In Guatemala there is a phenomenon which shows itself at different levels, in both politicians and in social organisations. I know sister organisations with which we have serious differences on account of the way in which they relate to power – from a poorly understood political pragmatism they accept the idea of giving way on whatever things for the sake of gaining a tiny bit. We believe that negotiation is important, and one can negotiate certain things for the sake of seeking others, but it’s not necessary to negotiate questions of principle or to negotiate so many questions of principle that you end up not knowing where you are and what you stand for. I believe that that has happened to the President of the Republic. In order to reach the presidency and in the belief that having got the presidency would enable him to do everything, he allowed any kind of person to get into his party and to get to Congress and accepted whatever kind of financial support they gave for his campaign. In the end, he remained trapped inside those networks, and not in the social support networks in which he had intended to integrate himself.

So, some changes can be positive, but they are not changes of a structural nature. I begin to doubt if this country’s structure can be changed in the short term in an easy way through politics. I think there’s a need for a sustained effort over the long term, for the construction of an alternative politics which right now does not exist for the vast majority of the Guatemalan population. I strongly questioned the candidacy of Doña Rigoberta Menchú in the last election because it brought out the coffee-growing oligarchy which was the major promoter of the most retrogressive and most racist laws in Guatemala, and which probably explains why, without there being a clear and strong public movement, many of the Mayan population didn’t vote for her but rather for Álvaro Colom.

I believe that in a strongly self-critical approach, she got the message and is very probably trying to construct a new project. I don’t know how easy it’s going to be, because she lost/wasted the most valuable opportunity. But perhaps she will be able to regain this capability in the future, or someone within the movement might manage to build a solid base. At the moment, coming as I do from the left, I can see no possible alternative within the left nor any capacity to build this alternative. So I think that although it doesn’t represent a solid ideological position of the left, perhaps a proposal which arises from the grassroots of the Guatemalan Mayan people may manage to develop some structural change, but it’s not going to be in the short term. And that means that whatever happens, there will be a confrontation with the oligarchy which continues to be the powerful boss of this country, and which, in my opinion, is in large part tied to mafia capital.

MM: I was asking because I recall the hope which was associated with Álvaro Colom’s election, but also the reality is that the things which you face are structural – changes are not going to happen in the short term

IH: I think that he is creating things which could help towards the future, certainly in these programmes which have a secondary or subsidiary effect. But there are people that don’t have anything, don’t have enough to eat from day to day. People have to forget their concerns because they have to concern themselves to provide food from day to day, and also they have to ensure that their daughters and sons get to school, because many of the benefits are conditional on their sending their children to school. That is generating a different relationship between each actor and the state, creating minimum conditions of empowerment and citizenship. That’s not going to yield results, not even for this government; but I believe that it will do so further on in time.

AK: And Rigoberta Menchú – are you hopeful?

IH: I think that if she manages her position in a self-critical way and seeks wide alliances – not in the capital but with other actors – she could be a figure who could convince people from the grassroots. What happens is that political campaigns in Guatemala require millions; people believe that if you don’t have millions, then …. But I believe that there are still possibilities to win over social groupings which are committed to a hard and constant struggle but which offers the only possibility of change and of compromise.

MM: Do you also work with Casa Alianza?

IH:  No, we don’t do anything with them at the moment. We did join forces with them on some activities a few years ago, particularly when the executions of street children began, and especially of those who had tattoos. For us, Casa Alianza was an important ally when it carried out its research into this. That was really the relationship that we had with them. It was very painful for us to know that … the director of the organisation. [This latter refers to Bruce Harris who used to be the Director of Casa Alianza until he left under a cloud – which I can explain some time when we meet up again.][Please also note that this was a silly question really because earlier this year the Guatemalan office of Casa Alianza had to close because of a lack of sufficient funds.]


Osvaldo Jordan

Interviewee: Osvaldo Jordan
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: Panama City.
Date: 14th September 2016
Theme: A conversation with Osvaldo Jordan, regarding the construction of the Barro Blanco Dam in Panama.
Key Words: Ngabe Indigenous group; Barro Blanco dam; land demarcation; militarisation.

Notes: the ACD is the Association for Conservation and Development and ENCA is the Environmental Network for Central America.

Martin Mowforth (MM): Recording on the 14th of September in Panama City with Osvaldo Jordan of the ACD. Just a short explanation by Osvaldo of the situation at the moment and over the last few months of the Ngabe Indians and their struggle against a range of development projects, particularly Barro Blanco.  Osvaldo, many thanks.

Osvaldo Jordan (OJ): Thank you. Yes Barro Blanco is the latest in a series of complaints between the government of Panama and the Ngabe people that began rising about eight years ago with the construction of the Changuinola dam or the Chan 75, and there were many human rights violations and abuses and manipulations during that project. There are several legal actions which are still pending, but there were several reasons that some of the Ngabe thought that Chan 75 was a weaker defence; one was that they did not have any land tied down or dedicated and the other is that some of the other people had accepted it in a very desperate way – they had accepted reparations and they thought, you know, they had weakened the common front. However, we get into Barro Blanco and the land is perfectly demarcated, nobody has accepted any reparations, and still after years and years of dialogue, the government closes the gates you know, and they see a plot of land – I would say technically not the government, but a company and then the government doesn’t have any regulations to stop the company from doing it. So basically that demonstrates that it’s not about having land demarcated; it’s not about the people not being decisive to defend their territory; it’s about greed; it’s about the desire of investors to seize land that is viable and to turn what is a sacred land or what is their home and their lives, and turning that into money. Because basically the land surrounding Barro Blanco flooded again on May 22nd and stopped from about June 9th until August 19th .

MM: This year?

OJ: Yes, this year, on August 19th the flooding was resumed and now that a lot of the territory has been flooded, it demonstrates that it doesn’t have any value, not to the government, not to the investors; you know those lands were simply flooded. Not even rescue happened to biological artefacts or flora and fauna; no it was just a case of closing the gates and letting the waters rise.

MM: Let’s see, the forest cover which existed, was that cut down beforehand?

OJ: No they didn’t, they just left it.

MM: So that’s suggests then, that all of that vegetation under the water is going to release all of its carbon over the next twenty to thirty years?

OJ: That’s right.

MM: Which will be released into the atmosphere. Can you tell me whether this scheme has got any carbon credits or carbon emissions certificates from the CDM [United Nations Clean Development Mechanism] for the Clean Development Mechanism?

OJ: That’s a case where Barro Blanco is a CDM certified project. We fought together with the appropriate committees through a process of validation but they still proceeded. Basically they launched the first consultation online in 2008 in English and we managed to send comments and then they sent a second consultation in 2009 and we couldn’t get the comments on and then we asked the executive board for the CDM not to approve the validation, but they completed all that paperwork by 2011, And then when the conflict escalated, and if you read that first submission from November 2008, you can see what happens later. It said see that the project doesn’t have the support of the local communities. There is a history of mobilisation and clashes over the project and the project is going to harm the environment on which the communities live. That’s all there. But they still approved all the CDM registration by 2011. As far as we know they have not been able to attain CER’s [Certified Emissions Reduction certificates] because they are not on the reparation yet so that cannot begin with. We really would consider re- ?[inaudible, 5:34] if this kind of certificates are issued, since we have been writing again together with solidarity organisations in Europe and the US. We will be writing again to the executive board of the CDM. The only way out they gave us, in a very legalistic way, is that the Government of Panama retrieves the letter of approval. The Government of Panama, this new Government in 2014, well they stopped the project for some periods and they issued a fine, and we said OK if you issued a fine, that  demonstrates that there is non-compliance, please be consistent and take away the LOA [Letter of Approval]. Well there is currently a campaign – you can see it online – because the Government of Panama is trying to portray itself as a global leader with carbon mitigations and fighting climate change, so we really want them to demonstrate with this what they are saying.

MM: For me, whether the CERs are issued or not, is an enormous contradiction in the fight against climate change with schemes like this that are going to be allowed to go ahead when in fact they’re just contributing to instead of saving carbon emissions. It’s amazing. Anyway, do you have anything else to add about the project as this was only meant to be a very short interview? Do you have anything else to add about the current situation here, particularly the problems being faced by any other indigenous groups in the chase of development projects on their territories?

OJ: Yes, one thing we are clear, this is not solely to do with Barro Blanco and this is not only about the Ngabe. It’s the global prowling of the indigenous peoples living under pressure in terms of natural resources, which they also call their homelands. If they didn’t think the way they did and that they cheered and thought that was part of their lives and they sold everything, a lot of investors would be happy. However, that’s not the way they think, and since they are not going to give it up voluntarily, that’s where the use of the violence of development happens with the use of force. So we are deeply concerned about what has happened at Barro Blanco. We’ve been talking to some of the leaders and the consensus is that they are going to continue fighting, because they realised that if they don’t continue fighting this is going to repeat itself in different parts of the territory with different people, so that’s the consensus and that’s the reason the Barro Blanco mobilisations have not only happened in the area that is regularly impacted, but in other areas, and that’s the reason why I wish you could actually visit over there, but the whole region is militarised. They are policed really, but police with military training sadly all over the roads and it’s very shocking for the community. They feel invaded by all these people there, with shields and tear gas and they will not allow them to protest, so that’s the reason I told you some of the leaders are here in Panama City because they want to bring some visibility to the situation.

MM: OK. Many thanks Osvaldo, thanks for your company and your words, and I’ll try and get some of your words into the next ENCA newsletter or the ENCA website, and onto the website for The Violence of Development. We look forward to more cooperation between ENCA and ACD in the future.