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.


Interview with Manuel Zelaya, deposed President of Honduras

Interviewee: Manuel Zelaya
Interviewer: Anya Parampil
Date: 20 October 2019
Theme: In the interview Manuel Zelaya discusses the extreme violence, drug trafficking, economic depression, migration crisis, Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), WikiLeaks, Venezuela, and more.

In August 2019 The Grayzone’s Anya Parampil held an exclusive interview with Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, on the 10th anniversary of the US-backed right-wing military coup that overthrew him. We are grateful to Max Blumenthal of The Grayzone for permission to reproduce the interview in The Violence of Development website.

The Grayzone is an independent news website dedicated to original investigative journalism and analysis on politics and empire. It was founded and is edited by award-winning journalist and author Max Blumenthal

AP is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She previously hosted a daily progressive afternoon news program called In Question on RT America. She has produced and reported several documentaries, including on-the-ground reports from the Korean peninsula and Palestine.

Anya Parampil  (AP): Thank you for your time, Mr. President. It has been 10 years since you were removed in a US-backed coup from your position as the democratically elected president of Honduras. What has the United States accomplished since then, what has changed in your country?

Manuel Zelaya (MZ): The rupture of a social contract, which we call the constitution of the republic, in the constitution of the state, when a social contract is broken, what logically comes next is the law of the stronger (survival of the fittest). Crimes, killings, torture. Always the winning side against the opposition.

That has been a sacrifice for the Honduran people, because the side that took power had the support of the United States. The US is the major beneficiary of the coup. And there is a principle in penal law that says the beneficiary of a crime is the principal suspect.

How has it been the beneficiary? The US has almost complete control over Honduras. Control over justice through the OAS (Organisation of American States). It controls security through US Southern Command. It controls the economy through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and IDB (Inter-American Development Bank).

It controls the main media networks in Honduras; it has a big influence over the opinion of the main media outlets. It funds many churches, which receive donations from North American NGOs. And it finances Honduran NGOs. That is, it controls public opinion. It controls the powers of the state.

And in this way, it has a high interference in the decisions of states like Honduras, poor states, weak states, where their rulers, to receive protection, give up everything to the North Americans.

AP: What has been the impact on the average Hondurans throughout these years?

MZ: Poverty increased. There are more poor people. The poverty level already surpasses almost 70 percent of the population. Crime increased. Drug-trafficking increased. According to a report from the US State Department, drug trafficking in Honduras after the coup increased by almost double. And the report says that Honduras became “the drug-trafficking paradise.”

External debt increased. When they took me out at gunpoint, we owed $3 billion. Today, in 10 years, we owe $14 billion. That is four times more. So this means the country has serious problems with a lack of economic growth, a lack of investment, human rights violations.

And I will present you with only one piece of proof: The [migrant] caravans heading to the US are from Honduras. Because the [US-backed] coup d’etat turned Honduras into hell.

AP: How has this situation, what has happened over the last 10 years, contributed to the development of your party, Libre?

MZ: We are a party of opposition to the coup d’etat. And for 10 years those who carried out the coup have governed. They are the spawn of the coup. And the more errors they commit, the more they oppress, the more the opposition grows.

AP: And this has led to the strengthening of the social movements here?

MZ: Well, social movements don’t grow for a sectarian political reason; they grow because electricity was privatized and they can’t pay for light. Many social services have been privatized. They have been given to private companies. And the problem is not just that they leave it to private enterprise. Private enterprise is efficient, but it’s expensive.

The most comfortable thing for a ruler is to say, “Security will be managed for me by US Southern Command.” “The economy will be managed for me by the IMF.” “The soldiers will manage internal security for me.” “And private enterprise will manage the money for me.” So, what does the ruler do? Nothing. Simply give benefits to his followers.

AP: Who is Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) and why are we seeing now, 10 years after the coup, a re-ignition of unrest in the streets and a demand that JOH leave office?

MZ: He (JOH) is a son of the coup. He has serious personality problems. For example, I was president. And I walked in the streets. And people greeted me. And they told me, “Hi Mel! Hi President!” He (JOH) travels with armoured cars, with helicopters. He travels with a huge security team.

In my opinion, he has a problem with mental illness. He believes that being president is a big deal. And the pastors come and tell him he is chosen by God. So it becomes even worse. And he begins to act like a person who is not in touch with reality.

The people are protesting because of hunger. And he thinks they’re protesting because of politics. And he tells to the United States a speech that the US, its right-wing, conservative governing class wants to hear. He says, “In Honduras there is terrorism. [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez’s people are there in Honduras. And they are affecting me, the drug traffickers.”

I think he is suffering from psychopathy.

AP: And what about the accusations of corruption? Some Hondurans I spoke to today told me how JOH is one of the richest men in the region.

MZ: The corruption is public. They broke the social security system. Look, how do you sustain an illegal government? Paying people off. If they are legal, they don’t need to pay. Because they are the product of a social pact.

But when there is a coup d’etat, there is fraud. So they need to corrupt the institutions to sustain themselves. The fact that the United States supports a coup d’etat makes them support a dictator. And that is why corruption is surging. The corruption is the result of the dictatorship.

AP: Hondurans have also told me that a small group of families control much of the country in terms of industry and specifically the media. Can you talk about the media’s role in the coup and also in sustaining the dictatorship, which you describe?

MZ: That is how capitalism works. In the US, France, anywhere. Capitalism is based on just one principle: accumulation of wealth. That is how it functions here and in the rest of the world.

A small elite of transnational [corporations] associated with people in countries who clean up for them. They do business, and that business creates the need to set up security for themselves.

They don’t tolerate competition. I brought in oil from Venezuela, with Hugo Chávez, and they insisted that they had to maintain their agreements. And they did not accept Venezuela. And that was one of the motives behind the coup.

AP: And I believe the US ambassador at the time, Charles Ford, told you you’re not allowed to do this, as though he had the right to do this as a foreign ambassador.

MZ: The US gives advice that if you don’t follow, they act with reprisals. US President George W. Bush told it to me. John Negroponte told it to me. Ambassador Ford told it to me. And other government officials.

Bush said it to me in these words: “You cannot have relations with Hugo Chávez.” John Negroponte, his deputy secretary of state, told me, “If you sign the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance), you are going to have problems with the US.”

And I signed the ALBA. And I would sign it again if I had the chance. Because it is to help Honduras progress.

I needed the support from Brazil, the support from Venezuela, the support from the US, the support from Europe. We are not able to depend solely on the US, because the US has its own interests. It’s another nation.

AP: I would like you to comment on the significance of Wikileaks in the history of your country but also the region, and what you think about what is currently happening to Julian Assange with the with the help of the government in Ecuador?

MZ: Julian Assange is a symbol of freedom in the world today, tomorrow, and forever. He will be one of the people, in the future, like one of the great prophets. In their day, they are repressed. And later they become a symbol. That’s what Julian Assange will become.

Julian Assange proclaimed a world without secrets, an open world, a free world. Of course he affects the [powerful] interests of today. But in the future, I, and others in other generations, will follow the example of Assange.

AP: We were speaking about Ambassador Ford, I believe after he finished his work in the embassy here he went to work for SOUTHCOM, the military. Can you talk about how central the interests of the US military are to what happened with you and how its presence in the country has grown since you were ousted?

MZ: [Honduran] soldiers are trained at the [US] School of the Americas. All of their drills they do with the US. For the soldiers, the ideal of their life is to be like the US Marines, like US soldiers.

And here, the US controls the armed forces and the police. They do what the US wants them to do. They are occupation forces.

AP: I want to talk a little bit about the region, specifically Nicaragua. What do you think about the US-backed coup attempt he (Daniel Ortega) has faced over this last year? This month, I believe, is the one year anniversary since the government there defeated a US backed regime change operation.

MZ: When I returned [after the coup], I made several attempts to return to Honduras. In the return from Washington to Honduras, I was not able to land, because the military blocked me. So I had to come back through the Las Manos border crossing in Nicaragua. Then I secretly entered the Brazilian embassy. Two years later I returned from the Dominican Republic, from the Dominican Republic to Nicaragua, and from Nicaragua to Honduras.

In relation to the US trying to overthrow [Nicaraguan President] Daniel Ortega, I believe it already did it before, in the 1980s. The US armed Contras here in Honduras to fight against Nicaraguans. Since that time, I have always protested against this US occupation of Honduras to invade Nicaragua. And the people


voted for the Ortega government. He was elected.

Now, the US has been unable to overthrow him. Now, he is strong. Now Ortega has a lot of popular support. And I don’t think they are able to overthrow him, as they did in the past, from Honduras.

AP: Can you compare your party, Libre, to the Sandinista Movement and what lessons you took from them?

MZ: They are two different historical moments. Sandinismo was developed by a military sergeant, who went to the mountains at the beginning of the 20th century, and he created an anti-imperialist force that created a party called the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). This party won a war, overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, and now organises democratically to stay in power.

We (in Honduras’ Libre Party) are a party that did not come out of the armed struggle. We did not come out of a war. We were born out of a movement that is revolutionary and democratic, but peaceful. Against the coup d’etat. And against those who support the coup. The US supported the coup.

AP: I want to talk about your personal political development because when you were elected you were considered part of a more centre-left party and movement, and now you are speaking about socialism. Why did you change and how would you characterize yourself now?

MZ: Centre-right actually. (Not centre-left.) It has been an evolution. Because the right wing is done for. It sustains itself with weapons, with coups, with fraud, with deceptions.

The future of humanity has to be social. You are a social being. You. Aristotle says that we are rational beings. The human is a rational animal. But we think that the human being, today, is a totally social being. Without society, men and women can’t survive. Everything that we think and perceive is related to our social environment.

So where should humanity walk to? To individualism, to egoism? To individual interests, or social interests? It’s to social interests.

The future of humanity is socialist. We might have to struggle for 10,000 years or more. But in the future, if humanity does not advance to be social, we would be living in caves, according to the survival of the fittest. Human beings are advancing, progressing to become social.

I was raised in a liberal political philosophy. But now I evolved to a new politics: first liberal and pro-socialist, but now democratic socialist.

AP: How were you influenced by other governments of the Pink Tide, specifically Hugo Chavez of Venezuela?

MZ: Well you would have to ask how Chávez, a soldier, became a socialist. If you find this explanation, then you will find an explanation for how I, a land-owner, went from being a capitalist to a socialist. It is a heightening of the spirit. It is the conviction of a human being.

Capitalism is so barbaric. It is not the future of humanity. If capitalism is the future of humanity, humanity is destroyed. It is defeated. It is doomed to fail. The same for the planet.

The future of humanity has to be social. It’s simple. It’s not money. It’s not commerce. It’s not simply economic activities that should lead humanity. No, those should be subject to the social.

It’s fine that private enterprise exists, private initiative. It’s fine that capital exists. But it is not ok for capital to direct the world. No, it is the world that should direct capital. This is an upside-down world.

And when you reach the highest governmental position in a country, which I reached, even in a small nation like Honduras, I learned then that there is no way to deal with capital other than subjecting it to popular sovereignty. Capital should continue to exist, but subjected to a plan of popular sovereignty that is the people.

The voice of the people is the voice of God. You have to have faith.

AP: Like Chávez, you were pursuing the process of a Constituent Assembly in your country the day of the coup, to change the character of the state here. Why do you think that specifically was so threatening to the oligarchy here and the US government?

MZ: The question is not well formulated. Do you know who Thomas Jefferson is? Do you know who George Washington is? They created the United States, with a constitution.

Why mention Chávez? Chávez is simply from the 21st century. Jefferson and Washington were from 1776. The American Revolution was anti-imperialist, against the British Empire. They developed a constitutional assembly. And you have your constitution in the US. It’s not Chávez who invented the constituent assembly; it’s Jefferson and Washington. So why be afraid of the way in which nations are formed?

When the social pact is broken, because there is a lot of poverty, there is a lot of hunger, many people in need, and the majority does not resist the economic and social situation, you have to return to the constituent dialogue. This is basic in a society.

Inside the US, there are no coups. No, there presidents have to be ready in case in any moment they are killed. Here, there are coups. And in these countries in Latin America there have been 170 coups. And the great majority of them were sponsored by the US.

And what do you do when the pact is broken? You start over with a constituent assembly.

AP: When you were facing the coup, Maduro was the Foreign Minister of Venezuela and you worked very closely with him at that time. What did you think about him, what was your impression of Nicolas Maduro, and what do you think about what’s happening now with Venezuela?

MZ: Two things: One, Chávez did not seek me out. Chávez was never going to look for a far-right country like Honduras, almost totally governed by the US. And now more than ever. And me, a president who arrived with the centre-right. Chávez would never have sought me out.

I reached out to Chávez. I have to clarify that. Chávez never had an interest in Honduras. This is an invention of right-wing activists in the US, like Otto Reich, Robert Carmona, and Roger Noriega. I had to convince him [Chávez] to come here to help us, with oil, with the ALBA alliance, with Petrocaribe.

Two: Nicolás Maduro, yes he is a socialist from birth. He is a worker, from the working class, from the class that is exploited by capital, from the class that sells its labour force, and that is denied the rights that capitalists enjoy. He is a socialist, like Chávez.

And moreover, the Bolivarian Revolution, that was initiated by Chávez, with his socialist convictions, was inherited by Nicolás [Maduro]. And he has led with a great capacity, sensibility, and conscience.

They don’t want you to recognize it, but Nicolás [Maduro] is a Latin American leader of great international stature.

AP: We’re 10 years since the coup, since then, one by one other progressive governments have been picked off and changed back into pawns of the United States. What gives you hope that one day we will see progressive governments return to power in Latin America?

MZ: No empire is eternal. With the exception of God eternal. Since the end of World War II, the US has ruled over much of the world. But it has serious contradictions. It is a country with high levels of poverty. There are serious internal contradictions.

And sometime soon, the North American ruling class will learn that to survive in the world, it will have to reduce military spending, to give medicine, healthcare, education and a good quality of life to its people. Someday they are going to understand that being the soldiers of the world, that being the police of the world, does not bring them as many benefits as they think.

And one day they are going to understand that it is better to have democratic countries than military dictatorships. When they come around, let’s hope it’s not too late.

The world is going to applaud, and meanwhile they continue giving fascist and imperialist orders installing dictators in our countries, setting up multinational corporations that exploit our rivers, our seas, our forests, our lands, and our working class. Then they will be pointed at and called practices that do not suit our countries.

I don’t have anything against the North American people. Nor do I have anything against the North American society. I’m an admirer of Lincoln, Kennedy, Jefferson, Washington, of what the US had signified. But I condemn its imperialist practices toward small countries like ours.

Instead of strengthening democracies, it strengthens military dictatorships. And that impoverishes our nation, and immigrants move there. And when immigrants move there, they start to complain.

The original source of this article is The Grayzone.

Copyright © MZ and APThe Grayzone, 2019


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.

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.


“Guatemala is Designed for Impunity” Interview with exiled Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez

We are grateful to Rights Action for their policy of allowing and encouraging further reproduction of their work and reports in other media, in this case in The Violence of Development website. The original article by José Luis Sanz can be found in the digital newspaper El faro at: and the Rights Action website can be found at:  We are grateful to El Faro and to Rights Action.

Introduction by Grahame Russell (Rights Action)

The U.S. and Canada maintain full economic, military and political relations with Guatemala a “democratic allie”, condemning the majority population to endless exploitation and poverty, repression, corruption and impunity

It is hard to imagine how the situation of repression, corruption and impunity in Guatemala could be worse. Knowing all this, the U.S. and Canada maintain full economic, political and military relations with the country, directly empowering and emboldening the elite sectors of society – the Pacto de Corruptos (Covenant of the Corrupt) – that plan, implement and benefit from the corruption, repression and exploitation.

Here, we re-publish a moving and informative El Faro news interview with exiled Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, including a link to an earlier El Faro article – “Disassembling the Death Squad Dossier Case” – that details how the Pacto de Corruptos regime has dismantled the extraordinary Diario Militar (Military Diary) war crimes trial.

“With the Death Squad Dossier, I understood that Guatemala is designed for impunity”
By José Luis Sanz, April 10, 2023

Since November, Miguel Ángel Gálvez has been living out of a suitcase. In the hotel room that serves as his home for the week, the coffee pot has been placed on the floor, next to the bed, to make more workspace on the desk. When I arrive for our interview, he shuffles a stack of papers and moves them from the small table to improvise a place for us to talk.

This is what exile has meant for him: always improvising, always adapting. And always keeping busy. He spends nearly every day denouncing persecution against him and his fellow judges. Nearly every day, he breaks down while talking about his and his country’s plight.

Prior to his exile last November, Gálvez, 64, was the judge of the historic “Death Squad Dossier” enforced disappearance case. In his career he also sent former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to trial for genocide, imprisoned ex-President Otto Pérez Molina on charges of corruption, and handled a major government corruption case implicating banks, construction companies and the media.

He was preparing to retire when he found himself in the judicial crosshairs of the very apparatus of corruption he had been attempting to dismantle and was forced to flee the country.

By then, the daughter of Ríos Montt, Zury Ríos, was leading the polls in her bid to become president of Guatemala.

Gálvez speaks about the situation plainly and with unmediated dignity, without hiding his pain or holding back his vulnerability. “Exile hits so hard because you’re already experiencing it even before you leave,” he says. “It’s like if a doctor tells you what day you’re going to die. There are times when you start to think that maybe it was a mistake to believe in the justice system at all.”

He blames his departure on a diffuse “them,” encompassing the current government, the private interests that support it, its enablers in the justice system, and above all, the military, which he says has once again taken control of the country’s institutions to procure impunity.

For ordering military officers to trial, “they” have forced him to flee his country, Gálvez says. On March 20, speaking before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, he warned the Guatemalan representatives: “I hold you responsible for anything that happens to me, not only to my own wellbeing, but also to the wellbeing and safety of my family in Guatemala.”

Two weeks ago, Gálvez came to Washington, D.C., to testify in person before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and meet with U.S. officials.

Gálvez says that those meetings made clear that the United States has no interest in taking tougher actions against the officials who are turning the country into a kingdom of impunity and corruption: “The U.S. already has so few allies in Central America, and they don’t want to lose Guatemala.”

Q. You continue to appeal to international bodies and denounce your persecution, but I assume you don’t have any intentions of returning to Guatemala?
When the permanence of the CICIG [the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala] was still an open question, we were in an arm-wrestling match, and now that they’ve won, the judiciary has totally deteriorated. They no longer respect the law. The current magistrates are acting foolishly…. The dismantling of the rule of law has been incredible to witness.

So, yes, under these conditions, I know I won’t be returning to the judiciary.

Things have deteriorated so much… Just imagine this: one day, I was in a packed courtroom when suddenly [Ricardo] Méndez Ruíz and [Raúl] Falla [attorneys for the Foundation Against Terrorism, or FCT, a group of far-right operatives with ties to military] stuck their heads through the door and shouted “jueeeez prevaricadoooor!” (“crooked judge!”), in the middle of the hearing!

Everything is falling apart. The justice system in Guatemala has completely collapsed. Completely.

Q. What you’re describing sounds like schoolyard bullying.
Exactly. There’s such complete insolence and immaturity, so much cynicism, you would think that even these bullies might have some principles, some ethics. But no, this is the situation. These are the people in power now. To me, that’s the issue.

Look, before this all happened, I was planning on just finishing up a few cases and then retiring. I was going to ask Rafael Landívar University, where I was teaching at the time, to give me a few more classes, and with my pension and the courses, I thought, “I can make up the income and live in peace.” But they didn’t give me enough time.

Q. What cases were you hoping to wrap up?
The Cooptation of the State corruption case, the Diario Militar trial [Death Squad Dossier]…

There were some very interesting and important cases, at different levels, like one pre-trial hearing against a judge in Izabal related to drug trafficking. I thought, if I set my mind to it, I can finish those cases in a year, or a year and a half, and then I can retire in peace.

Q. What made you decide you had to leave?
I mean, I’ve had bodyguards since 2000. I was one of the first judges in Guatemala to be assigned a security detail. And in 2015 they gave me an armoured vehicle. I always knew I was at higher risk than other judges, who all take on some level of risk.

But then last year, there was a point when it became too great and I couldn’t stay any longer. Ever since Méndez Ruiz threatened me in May, there was an intense campaign of harassment unleashed against me. They even started to follow me, break into my home… They threaten me with total impunity.

And then the risk experts did an analysis, taking into account all the cases I’ve brought against the military, and all the corruption cases, and they told me that they couldn’t rule out the possibility of an attempt on my life. A kind of countdown began, a countdown to a moment that was coming, coming, coming… and then would one day arrive.

Why? Because in Guatemala, the institutions of state are being militarized, the Ministry of Governance especially. They’re restructuring it to be like it was in the 80s, when each department had a military officer. From studying the Diario Militar case, I understood exactly what was going on.

Q. What do you mean by that?
That Guatemala is designed for impunity. Romeo Lucas governed from 1978 to 1982; Efraín Ríos Montt forced him out with a coup and governs from ‘82 to ‘83; in 1983 Ríos Montt was forced out by a coup and Mejía Víctores took the presidency, then called for a constituent assembly.

But how can you justify, in the middle of a constituent assembly, with all the pressures to sign a peace agreement, during years when the guerrilla groups and the government are sitting down to dialogue, that they continue killing professionals and students? What could justify the continued dismantling of the Law School and the Economics Department at the University of San Carlos? What explains the continuation of repression?

In Guatemala, peace was imposed. The military lives off war, but they knew the conflict couldn’t last forever, and they tried to make sure there would never be any real change in the country; they wanted to destroy everything intellectual, any possibility that Guatemala could rise up and become a better country.

The Diario Militar case shows how they killed professionals, students. That’s where you start to understand what the objective of the military really was.

The new constitution finally took effect in 1986, on January 14, and that constitution created what are known as “postulation commissions,” with the goal of involving the University of San Carlos and the Guatemalan Bar Association — some of the few institutions remaining after the armed conflict — in the political life of the country.

But the real objective was to break the educational system in exchange for political gains, because giving San Carlos the power to participate in the election of the Attorney General, the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice, the magistrates of the Constitutional Court, the Public Defender’s Office — up to 53 public positions in total — meant that the political parties started focusing on controlling the university, which is now in the business of training voters, not professionals.

And wherever they made inroads into the university, there was power to be grabbed. It was a strategy in stages, where sectors of political power took over the university, which had already been weakened, because they had killed everyone.

Q. Some say that, in just the few months since you left the judiciary, the Death Squad Dossier case is already facing setbacks. Do you have that impression as well?
Definitely. That’s why the case raised my profile so much.

Q. Do you mean that you were forced to leave the court and the country because of that case?
There’s a larger context. There are other trials. I had the burning of the Spanish embassy case, the Sepur Zarco trial, the genocide trial… It’s not like they had a lack of reasons.

But the Death Squad Dossier got the attention of certain elements in the military, and it’s the one that made me feel pressured to leave the country. This explains why Toribio Acevedo was released from pretrial custody as soon as I tendered my resignation. That tells you a lot about why I was pressured to leave.

Q. What are your thoughts on Acevedo’s release from pretrial detention?
A judge has the power to grant pretrial release. That’s not in dispute. The problem is, how is it possible that [senior anti-corruption prosecutor] Virginia Laparra can be imprisoned for four years and meanwhile, someone accused of crimes against humanity, extrajudicial execution, torture and enforced disappearance is granted pretrial release? It’s totally unbalanced.

Besides, in cases like this one, the number of victims must also be taken into account, and the fact that, in the Death Squad Dossier, the victims are extremely vulnerable people. We’re not talking about one, two, three deaths.

The dossier has 175 photos; and these photos don’t just represent 175 murders, disappearances or cases of torture, because for each one of those faces, there was a wife, children, loved ones who endured their death, torture, disappearance.

Releasing the accused from pretrial custody puts survivors and witnesses at risk.

Q. Do you think they’re dismantling the case?
Of course. And not only the Death Squad Dossier case, but all the cases I was involved in. Let’s start with the basic issue: who else could they put in charge who would understand the Cooptation of the State case, considering it took me years to begin to understand all of its details and ramifications?

And the same for the La Línea [customs fraud] case: the people who are left in charge don’t even understand the process. What possible future could the case have under these conditions?

That was the objective. Who worked with CICIG? The FECI. Well, they took them out first. They took Juan Francisco [Sandoval] out, and two years later, the FECI was completely dismantled.

But the judges remained, and that’s why Érika [Aifán] was the first to leave. Then came my case, precisely because our courts were created expressly to hear cases involving criminal structures.

Q. What has living in exile been like for you?
It’s hard. Only those who have experienced exile can understand it. I left my country after 23 years when my only income was a monthly salary. I have absolutely nothing, because in those 23 years I could only do so much. But imagine leaving with just a suitcase, leaving behind your books, your clothes. To be in another country, not even having a sweater, a shirt, with all your things at home, it’s…. It’s as if a part of your heart is still there.

Q. You’ve been to Europe, you’re passing through the United States, and heading to Costa Rica, but you haven’t found a place to settle down.
No. One option is Spain. There’s also Mexico or Costa Rica. But it’s not easy, because I’ve been offered a stipend to study, but that would only keep me entertained. What I need is to work, to do some consulting, research, find a stable job so I can bring my family and my son, who are still in Guatemala, with me. To decide where to settle down before doing that would be irresponsible.

Q. Is your family safe in Guatemala?
No. And the problem is that the more I speak up, the more danger I put them in.

Q. Blackmail and threats seem to follow you wherever you go.
Yes, definitely. I’ve been out of the country for five months and cars keep showing up at my mother’s house. They park outside, taking pictures of people coming in and out. And there are people in my family who have been forced out of work.

It’s as if we were still at war: If you’re one of their targets, they won’t be satisfied with just attacking you; they want to destroy everything around you.

Q. Have you spoken with other exiles from Guatemala?
Yes, all of them.

Q. What have they achieved by leaving?
Look, international cooperation is ending. There’s no more support for the people who are outside the country, nor for those who are detained, nor for those who are still in Guatemala and who it’s clear will also need to leave.

There’s a lack of interest at the political level to force Guatemala to return to the rule of law.

Q. You’ve been in Europe for a few months. Do they understand what’s happening in Guatemala?
They understand what’s happening, absolutely. The exclusion of the MLP made them see exactly what kind of democracy we’re talking about. Yes, they’re aware, but they have other priorities.

The challenge is to get Europe and the United States to take up the issue, not just of Guatemala, but of Central America more broadly, which is a ticking time bomb.

Q. What’s been your takeaway from the meetings you’ve had in Washington?
It’s even worse here, because they understand the situation even better, but the challenge is to convince them that, without their support, conditions in Guatemala will never improve/

Q. What kind of support?
With sanctions on economic powerholders. And on the military. The United States has the tools but refuses to use them.

Q. Why?
The United States already has so few allies in Central America, and they do not want to lose Guatemala. That’s why they’re asking themselves how far it’s prudent to go. And there are a lot of international pressures. There’s the issue of China, Russia… The landscape is quite complex, and they’re afraid that, if they take stronger actions, Guatemala will start leaning toward another power.

Q. A year and a half ago, you made a visit to Washington with Érika Aifán and other judges. They were still on the bench, but the possibility that the pressure would increase and they would end up in jail or exile was already very present.
During one meeting their compatriots were offering them words of encouragement and jokingly saying, “We don’t want to see you around here.” At the time, did you believe that this situation could be avoided, or did you think it was only a matter of time?
With the way the situation was developing, I knew it was just a matter of time. That’s why exile hits so hard, because you’re already experiencing it even before you leave, and you start to think about the people around you, and you start to reflect…. It’s like if a doctor tells you what day you’re going to die. The mind and body freeze, and you wish you could stop time.

Then you… [Judge Galvez starts to cry but holds his gaze and continues talking]. There are times when you start to think that maybe it was a mistake to believe in the justice system at all. Because you get wrapped up in what you’re doing, and you detach yourself from reality. The cases are your whole world, and you wake up, get ready for the day, walk, and then everything is the case, the case, the case. You dream about the case, and you no longer have time for anything or anyone else.

The truth is that only those of us who are experiencing it can understand it. One would think, why ask for help if we can do it ourselves? How sad. Why do things have to be like this? But we have to admit it: ‘Given the condition the country is in, no, we can’t do it alone.’

Berta Cáceres in her own words

Toward Freedom, 29 July 2020

Berta Cáceres, photo provided by Silvio Carrillo and used with permission of COPINH.

We are grateful to Dawn Marie Paley, Coordinator of Toward Freedom, to Asís Castellanos, Adrienne Pine and the Coordinating Committee of COPINH for permission to reproduce the interview in The Violence of Development website. An introduction to the interview is given in the first two pages, as follows.

Much of what has been written about Lenca/Honduran activist Berta Cáceres has focused on her identifications as an Indigenous woman and as an environmentalist. While neither is false, those two facts alone paint an anemic picture of Berta’s militancy, and that of COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras). While she strategically organized alongside her fellow Lencas and other feminists, her struggle was not rooted in identity per se, but in her analysis of the legacies of colonial and capitalist violence.

“This whole project of domination has been consolidated in Honduras,” she said, clarifying that “the concept of power created from within capitalism…is very patriarchal and racist in its form of domination.”

On March 27, 2015, Honduran sociologist Asís Castellanos interviewed Berta at a mall in Tegucigalpa. The two spoke a month prior to her famous Goldman Prize acceptance speech in which she proclaimed: “Wake up, humanity! There is no more time.” Their meeting came a little less than a year before Berta was murdered in her home by military hitmen in the pay of powerful local interests with connections to international financial institutions.

The 2015 interview questions were pre-determined, as on this occasion Castellanos was working as a research assistant to a professor who required the data for study on “Social Movements and Democracy in Honduras.” He faithfully kept to script, with results that, years later upon transcribing and translating the interview—and knowing Berta as we did—we found hilarious.

One by one, Berta brilliantly dismantles each question, demonstrating the flaws in its underlying assumptions. In her responses, she turns the questions around, reframes them, and proposes powerful, coherent revolutionary alternatives. When the fixed follow-up questions fail entirely to acknowledge her masterful exposure of the vapid U.S.-friendly “democratization” logics that frame the entire interview, Berta patiently answers each one, time and again demonstrating that his questions would produce nothing but pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist results, if answered on their own terms.

In this interview, Berta instead presents ideas that are anathema to the interview’s framework: ideas like decisive democracy, in which groups engaged in democratic processes have full sovereign power to decide what happens in their territories and communities, in contrast to electoral or other less sincere performances of democracy that permit politicians, corporations and international lending institutions to check off the box requiring “consultation” before moving forward as planned with harmful projects.

The ongoing logics of the liberal North (despite recent powerful counter-examples of the Standing Rock protests and #ShutDownCanada movements, to name just a couple), tend to preclude the possibility of Indigenous people being revolutionary, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist scholar-activists and powerful leaders of diverse movements. Instead, Indigenous people are often limited in the liberal (white) left imaginary to identity-based and ecological advocacy.

Berta refused to be bound by these logics, rather she was driven by the conviction that the most effective leadership cannot be bound up in an individual or her ego, but rather must be horizontal. “I don’t share [that] understanding of the concept of democracy… For us what is important is respect for human dignity, the right to happiness for collectivities. Democracy needs to be exercised as a horizontal power, built by the people, and defined by their participation not just in terms of their numbers but rather through their actual participation. It should be decisive, and I think it has a lot to do with which concept of power we have in mind when we speak of democracy,” she said during the 2015 interview.

Berta’s close relationships with Zapatista organizers and anti-hierarchical Indigenous movements throughout the Americas, as well as her collaborations with non-Indigenous-identified anarchist-leaning organizers were mutually beneficial and constitutive. Though her leadership, revolutionary clarity and vision were undeniable (as her words demonstrate), her praxis centered on building broad-based, radically democratic, horizontalist movements and coalitions capable of confronting the murderous power of capital and creating in its stead a profoundly different model of social organization.

After her death, instead of a burial, her children and COPINH organized Berta’s siembra—her planting, attended by thousands of grieving Hondurans. In Honduras, there is a saying that goes, “blood of martyrs, seed of freedom.”

Hundreds of other lesser-known Honduran revolutionaries and land defenders have been killed since the 2009 coup, including dozens of Indigenous activists from COPINH and other organizations alongside which COPINH continues to fight.

In the small Tolupan community of San Francisco de Locomapa alone, for example, 10 community members resisting logging and mining projects were killed between 2013 and 2019.

And as of this writing, the whereabouts of four Garifuna men from Triunfo de la Cruz, including three OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras) members fighting to protect their collective ancestral lands from rapacious developers, are still unknown.

Elected council president Sneider Centeno and three other community members were kidnapped from their homes on Saturday, July 18th by heavily-armed men dressed in Military Police uniforms. Community members fear their names will be added to the long list of victims of the Honduran state’s brutal repression of the Garífuna people.

Berta and the many other brave Honduran activists murdered since the coup were targeted because they refused to be silenced by entities far more powerful than them.

In Berta’s case, the primary entity in question was Banco Ficohsa, owned by the Atala family, a major financier of the DESA hydroelectric project opposed by COPINH. Since her murder and despite ongoing threats to COPINH, the organization (whose coordinating committee includes two of her daughters, Bertha and Laura Zúñiga) has continued to denounce Ficohsa for its destruction of ancestral Lenca lands and waterways, and for its likely role in the murder of Berta and other Lenca leaders under the hashtag #FaltanLosAtala.

As part of a diverse toolkit of tactics aimed at countering the violence of finance capital against their communities, COPINH has warned international financial institutions to not partner with Ficohsa (a threat backed by the promise of international direct action). Their bravery in standing up to the Atala family is shared: just last week, Congresswoman María Luisa Borjas, who was fired from her position as Police Commissioner in 2002 for blowing the whistle on police death squads, was convicted of defamation, a crime that carries a nearly three-year prison sentence, for naming Camilo Atala, president of Ficohsa, as the probable intellectual author of Berta’s murder in 2017.

Another saying, originally attributed to the 18th century martyred Aymara leader Tupac Katari, was popularized following Berta’s murder: “I will come back, and I will be millions.” The expansion of Berta’s legacy internationally, following her murder, is indeed a powerful opportunity to grow this solidarity movement. But Berta and so many other courageous Honduran martyrs planted seeds in life as well as in death, by organizing relentlessly toward a radically democratic, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist society.

Having known and loved Berta like so very many of our friends and compañerxs did, we urge readers who did not know her personally not to idolize, essentialize or mourn her. Instead, we can listen to and learn from her own words and follow her example.

Alongside her compañerxs in COPINH, Berta spent her life building democratic processes and organizing local, regional, national and international coalitions of struggle. She tells us: “It is impossible to exercise democracy from below under capitalism, it can’t be done.” Coming from Berta, this frank assessment is not meant as discouragement. It is a call to join in the struggle to dismantle capitalism and empire through militant, collective direct action, as the path to sovereignty, democracy and liberation.

What follows is the second of two audio-recorded interviews Castellanos recorded with Berta, whom he had known for many years. It has been translated and edited slightly for length and clarity. We look forward to publishing the transcript and translation of a much longer interview with Berta, conducted in 2014, shortly.

Asís Castellanos: Good afternoon, could you begin by saying your name, and your position within COPINH?

Berta Cáceres: Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores, and I am the General Coordinator of COPINH.

AC: What are your thoughts about democracy?

BC: Well, first of all I don’t share the understanding of the concept of democracy that was a creation of the financial organizations that came here after the Second World War with their ideas about democracy and development, which today are also mixed up with the theme of human rights, from the perspective of Western law that constrains the very liberties and concepts that they are pushing.

And for us what is important is respect for human dignity, the right to happiness for collectivities. Democracy needs to be exercised as a horizontal power, built by the people, and defined by their participation not just in terms of their numbers but rather through their actual participation. It should be decisive, and I think it has a lot to do with which concept of power we have in mind when we speak of democracy.

Power is closely related to this, and what we are seeing now is a despotic power that imposes, that violates. So it is from that exercise of power that you build that concept of “democracy.” We understand democracy differently; for us it entails the full and just exercise of rights and freedoms that an entire nation should enjoy—not just one family.

AC: From the 1980s to the present, what democratic advances have you seen?

BC: It has all been window-dressing, because from the 80s to today we are living the same situation. The imposition of structural adjustments, which they call modernization of the state, has meant that a state that is very militarized, backwards and conservative, gives off an appearance of modernizing through its discourse, through technology. But what it really means is giving away all collective property and natural resources and more militarization, only in a more technocratic way, more structured, more planned, with better financing, and completely tied into transnational capital and the mandates of capitalist financial organizations.

So the democracy that we have here, for me it’s just a discourse that the politicians roll out every four years; it is governments that hand over the country’s sovereignty and identity, that destroy its liberatory identities, that have institutional and legal structures that they themselves have created and solidified but with precisely the intention of catering to the interests of big capital and powerful economic, political and military organizations—not to the people.

I believe things have actually gotten worse since the 80s. Even though there was armed conflict in Central America, there were certain norms that were still respected. But today, the level of impunity –if we compare it with that era– the level of impunity, of social injustice, of denying the right, for example, to land. The concentration of lands, of territories, the plunder, in comparison with what was happening in the 80s; today it’s done in a way that is shameless and the institutions, the laws, the system of justice that is carried out in this country only exists to support that process, not to support the peoples [of Honduras]. So for me, what they call democracy here, which is actually something else, has gotten worse.

AC: In what areas have there been fewer democratic advances to date?

BC: The economic injustice in this country is striking. I can’t get it through my head. The economic rights of peoples are inseparable from the exercise of democracy. In this country—recent studies on economic injustice show this—the situation is dire in Honduras. The other thing is that access to justice and access to land and territories and the right for peoples to live a full life with dignity has been completely minimized.

And this is happening in the context of increasing militarization, not just Honduran militarization but also the military occupation by the United States, which isn’t just coming in with more and more bases that we’re seeing in Honduras, but is also replicating its role from the 80s, but worse because of the Colombianization [of the military], because we have been positioned as a failed state like Mexico, to justify further intervention and the murder of young people in this country.

It’s very hard to tell you what the worst facet of it is. But the violation of human rights and the absolute lack of opportunity for the Honduran people to exercise power as a sovereign nation—since the constitution says the sovereign power is the people—but when the people tried to exercise that power, for example, answering a question in a regular old poll, they overthrew the government in a coup. I think we continue to be a laboratory for cruelty against nations, and I think it’s going to continue like this for a long time and I believe it will get worse.

AC: What are the main obstacles to democratization in this country?

BC: For me it’s the system that we live in. It is impossible to exercise democracy from below under capitalism, it can’t be done. We can engage in struggles to advance, to build…[but] there are huge obstacles designed to prevent it from happening. Powerful groups like the ones I mentioned, 25 powerful families from this country, the transnational mining and energy companies, the issue of privatization, of the financial organizations, of giving even more power to the military, plus everything that has been woven into the legal framework of CAFTA [US-Central America Free Trade Agreement] and also criminalization. For example, the criminalization of human rights defenders, the criminalization of those of us who defend our lands, in laws written to define us as terrorists—all this is a huge challenge.

But on our side as well, as social movements, we have challenges. I think we have to start with ourselves, working on the processes of internal democratization of social movements in order to build something coherent. And if it is possible to build spaces of internal democracy, with new practices, with political ethics that honestly reflect principles that are profoundly human, revolutionary, re-foundational, Indigenous, feminist, environmentalist, however we want to call them, the important part is that they dignify Honduran society and they dignify us as human beings.

So it’s a huge obstacle that we live in an unjust system in which people don’t think democracy or the exercise of democratic processes are possible, because there is so much lack of hope too and a crushing media war that makes people believe that if you have a good television and a good cell phone, if we can come here to the mall, if the middle class can go to Miami once in a while to have a good time, then that is democracy. So the concept, the lack of a critical consciousness about that is also an obstacle.

AC: Who are the actors who are most committed to the democratization of Honduran society?

BC: I think that whenever we exercise our rights, when we fight for our right to life, to create different logics of power, any and all of us who are in that struggle are committed. All of the social and political processes working to decolonize our thinking and practice, to break down the oppression that has to do with [the concentration of] power and those ideas about democracy, that is our commitment.

The problem can also be in our internal practices. There are many organizations focused on territorial defense, on justice, against corruption, religious movements, feminists, alternative media, academics—although only a few of them are on board—and the diversity of all of us who are in the social and political movements working toward an emancipatory process. I think that when we fight ethically, and build ethical politics, that we are all in it together. It would be very difficult to point to any one person in particular.

AC: Which are the most authoritarian or anti-democratic actors in Honduran society?

BC: The state itself, the government itself, because its aim is to maintain its power and idea of democracy that has already lost all its legitimacy. And it has been overcome; other forms of democracy are being built by people in struggle. For example, in Bolivia they propose a democracy that is not just representative, not just participatory, but which is decisive.

The ones who are impeding the development of democracy here are the State of Honduras, the government itself and its institutions, the legal framework, it’s all part of a broader ideological and media machinery. And I’ll say it again—they are working to keep us from thinking critically and continue colonizing our way of thinking. The media is anti-democratic, and the political class of this country is one of the main actors in blocking the exercise [of democracy].

AC: What is your assessment of the impact of the Coup d’État of June 28, 2009 on Honduran democracy?

BC: It has several effects. One is that it institutionalizes the violation of human rights; it institutionalizes an act that results in dictatorship, imposed by force with the clear intention of preventing the Honduran population from having a sense of what it means to exercise a right, to truly be democratic. Or at least to begin to exercise that right, because the Fourth Ballot Box [the proposed November 2009 referendum, which would have asked Honduran citizens whether or not they approved the formation of a popular Constituent Assembly to work on the formation of a new, more democratic constitution] didn’t represent true democracy either.

Building democracy is a life-long project, together, as part of a collectivity, in society. It also has to do with making an anti-democratic attack permanent, a project of domination which has not only invaded all of our [Honduran] territories, our neighborhoods, our communities, urban and rural alike, but which has expanded and is being consolidated: model cities, the Alliance for Prosperity, military bases, the whole national territory being offered to transnational mining corporations on a silver platter. And criminalization, in order to finish off the opposition by any means necessary. This whole project of domination has been consolidated in Honduras.

This is an impact that, for me, has to do with power—with the concept of power created from within capitalism, which is very patriarchal and racist in its form of domination. And it’s sucking us dry from all sides, advancing. And they carried out a coup d’état in order to not have to cede anything. It’s what we’ve been saying since day one. They carried out the coup because they are not willing to cede an inch.

Today we live in a state with a government that is effectively a dictatorship, it murders, it violently represses us, it does not permit different ways of thinking, diversity or plurality. It does not allow a plurality to work together to improve conditions in this country; quite the contrary. The effect is profound and long-term, and also has to do with how they have changed the Honduran people, who are so suppressed, so humiliated. But there are also other sides to it; one is that as a result [of the coup] a large sector of the population had its conscience shaken up, another is that people began to imagine other ways of building power, of democratic life in a country. I believe this is also an undeniable effect, despite the fact that it was a terrible, shameful event.

AC: What have been the contributions of social movements and civil societies to the process of democratization of Honduran society?

BC: We have a great responsibility to this country as political and social movements, as the popular movement, which brings me back to the internal issue: What are our own democratic processes? Are we dismantling these unethical practices of power within our own movements? Are we allowing and making way for the creation of internal democratic processes, through training, [collective] leadership, debate, analysis, arguments, self-critique, constructive criticism? Are we dismantling the patriarchy, which has to do with power? Anti-democracy, injustice, inequity—are we dismantling racist practice? If we accept these things as natural, then what are we ever going to accomplish?

For me, this is where we have to begin, and of course we also need to strengthen ourselves to face outward, with a very strong platform. But voices from the social movement proposing projects for the democratization of this country are few and far between, because at the core there are many other debates, for example, about social and economic injustice in a system that is imposed by plunder, colonization, death, repression, murder.

The debate around democratization is more than simply a conversation about going back to elections with a new, progressive political party. It has to do with a discussion about what kind of power we want; it requires a serious ethical commitment.

 AC: How would you characterize electoral processes in Honduras?

BC: They are backwards, despite the participation of new political party [Libre and the Anti-Corruption Party] actors. And this is important, I’m not denying it. But at the same time it’s a step backward because the State, the government, and the power elite have managed to refresh their image by incorporating these new actors. After the coup d’état, they had been completely denigrated and discredited worldwide.

Although the people in the new parties are waging interesting battles, there is so much more to do. The electoral process in Honduras is a process that in reality has very little to do with democracy, since as we know there is fraud, there is abstention and lack of interest among the population, the political discourse is washed-out, the people hate it and this discourages much of the population. It’s a machinery created to guarantee the status quo.

AC: How would you assess the contributions of political parties to the process of democratization of Honduran society?

BC: I could speak about the new parties: they are making efforts, they are trying to include a different voice. But by and large they continue with the same practices of the conservative political party system, and furthermore this is preventing the development of a sustained, long-term construction of what should be a different kind of democracy, of power. It’s very short-term. They can have important fights that overlap with the demands and causes of social movements, but they’re still very isolated [from them]. They replicate the practice, for example, of using certain organizations just for their electoral benefit, and this has to improve.

AC: What is your evaluation of citizen participation and democratic political culture among Honduran citizens?

BC: It’s very poor, very uncritical, with very little analysis of reality or understanding of how to read what is happening. And this is due to historical marginalization, to subjugation. It’s not that we are stupid, it’s that our people are bombarded with a machinery telling them to think that everything is fine, and the effect of this is that there is little critical citizen participation and they are not questioning the big problems in this country with a structural analysis.

They might have an immediate analysis of things that happen on a day-to-day level, but what are the causes of these? For example, of migration, which is a huge phenomenon in this country; the murder of boys and girls; how the national budget is allocated—there is so much room for more critical thought and participation among the population. For [such analyses] to be decisive– I believe that is where, as movements, we face a monumental challenge.

AC: Thank you very much.

BC: [laughs] Cheque.

Author Bios:

Adrienne Pine is a medical anthropologist and coeditor of Asylum For Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry. She teaches at American University.

Asís Castellanos is an Honduran Miskitu sociologist and researcher with CESPAD (Center for Democracy Studies).


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.

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.





Aurelia Arzú

Interviewees: Aurelia Arzú, vice-President of OFRANEH (the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras)
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: The Tattershall Castle, a boat on the River Thames in London
Date: 25 September 2017
Key Words: OFRANEH; Garífuna people; indigenous peoples; the ‘commons’; ILO Convention 169; human rights defending; criminalisation; land titles; threats; tourism developments; coconut oil; African palm oil.

The interview was conducted on the Tattershall Castle, a boat on the River Thames in London, just before the start of an event entitled ‘Defending Rights Defenders’. Because various items were being set up around us, there were numerous breaks in the interview along with interruptions from other people. The event was organised by the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) and Peace Brigades International (PBI).


Martin Mowforth (MM): So, Aurelia, to start with can you give us your name, your role in OFRANEH and a short description of what OFRANEH does; and then the problems which the people of OFRANEH face in Honduras.

Aurelia Arzú (AA): Well, good afternoon. My name is Aurelia Arzú; I am from Honduras and I represent the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras, OFRANEH. My role is as vice-president, vice-coordinator of OFRANEH. Well, we are here in this country seeking support.

MM: Welcome.

AA: Because really we need it. Right now OFRANEH is facing many problems as an organisation, of colleagues being driven apart. We are constantly being persecuted because of the simple fact that we are defending what are public goods.

MM: OK, thanks. One moment please ….

Interruption …. new recording

MM: To continue …., can you tell me a little about the battles that the people of OFRANEH face? Is it solely in the coast area or not?

AA: Yes, it’s more specifically there because that’s where the Garífuna communities are. As an organisation there we’re in a difficult struggle because we’re up against various entities – principally the Government of Honduras, the narcotraffickers, and the business community. So as you can see, it’s an unequal struggle because these are monsters, so it’s very unequal.

Why? Because as an organisation we’re fighting for our commons, that is to say, the water, the sea, our lands and our territory. So we have a government which sees whatever it wants to see and which takes advantage of our common goods and doesn’t give us the right to fight against it. If we lodge a claim, we are taken to court. If we protest, we are also taken to court. Right now in Honduras a law has been established to deny us the right to protest.

Also, they’ve created a ‘law of tourism’. It wants to say that when a foreigner arrives in our country they can develop tourism freely on our lands and we have no right to protest, and so they can take us to court. Also, our comrades are being criminalised and they are throwing them into prison and arresting them. The thing is that those of us who live in our country and act as simple defenders [of our commons] face real difficulties because we don’t know when we can carry on with our lives or when we are going to lose it. Also, the organisation has to struggle because our rights have been established. Despite having an agreement, that is [ILO] Convention 169, it’s not complied with by the Government of Honduras. So we don’t know if we are protected as the Convention is not respected for us in that we can’t support the fascist Government and its dictator.

MM: So the Government protects the investors rather than the people of Honduras?

AA: Yes, to such an extent that the Government of Honduras has actually told us that we are not Honduran as Garífuna people, and that it doesn’t recognise us as a people. But yes to the investors it’s opened the door to them all for them to make their investments at our cost. They’ve never consulted us, there’s never been any prior consultation or information. It does things in its own way, giving priority to the investors because what interests it most is the money. It doesn’t matter that it may endanger the rivers or the sea. When they want to make a tourism investment, for example along the beach, we are prohibited from going there. And the Garífuna depend on the sea because we live from it, from fishing and agriculture. Also when we get to various areas in the mountains for instance, they also close the tracks to us. For example, when we get to a particular site, there are already guards there who tell us that we can’t go through. So, they prevent us from moving and close all ways to us whether it’s by sea, by river or through the mountains.

So, the crime then is, as defenders, to protect our commons. And for the simple deed of protecting our commons, we are prosecuted.

MM: And the industries?

AA: Invading.

MM: Yes. Which industries are invading?

AA: The mining industry; extractive projects such as african palm. Did I mention the mining? There are loads of them.

MM: Tourism?

AA: Tourism too.

MM: Do you have an example of where tourism is affecting the rights of the Garífuna?

AA: Yes, we have two bays which have been affected: Tela Bay and the Bay of Trujillo. How has the Bay of Trujillo been affected? In the Bay of Trujillo a dock has been constructed for tourist boats.

MM: Cruise ships?

AA: Yes, cruise ships. They got the people to sell their land without problems and they said they would give us work and that they would be affiliates in partnership with the Garífuna. But when the project was done, we had rights to nothing and so we were certainly affected.

MM: One moment please.

Another interruption … new recording.

AA: So, we’re talking about Trujillo Bay. So there in Trujillo Bay we’ve been enormously persecuted because they’ve cut out our freedom, our freedom of expression, freedom of all our commons. They’ve taken control of every part of the beach, they’ve built new buildings, hotels, a dock and they’ve thrown people off their lands. That’s affected us big time in Trujillo Bay.

MM: And in the case of Tela Bay?

AA: It’s the same in Tela Bay. They are building tourist complexes, Marbella, an enormous tourist complex; giving no chance to the Garífuna; likewise, they take our land and leave us no right to get near to these complexes; and we can’t get near to the beach, we’re not allowed to bathe ourselves, we can’t fish. It’s a form of destroying us as a people.

MM: And have various villages been affected in Tela Bay?

AA: Yes numerous.

MM: Miami?

AA: Yes, there’s Miami, Triunfo de la Cruz, Tornabé, San Juan Tela, Miami, Ensenada, Cienegüita.

MM: We stayed there, in a Garífuna Centre. It was a centre run by the Garífuna in Tornabé.

AA: Ah, in Tornabé? A big centre?

MM: A dormitory of four rooms.

AA: It’s not for the senior citizens, is it?

MM: It was in 2010, 7 years ago. It was very interesting, but we only spent a few days there.

Another interruption … new recording

MM: What about the situation of Madeline [David] right now, because she’s stayed in Honduras because of a court hearing?

AA: I’ll explain it to you. Colleague Madeline, she was going to be the one to come here and to make this trip. Her full name is: Madeline Aurelia David. She couldn’t make the trip because she was being indicted and prosecuted, accused of illegal encroachment on land. Why? Solely for the simple deed of recovering something that is ancestrally ours – these are our lands. So she was prosecuted. By whom? By a foreigner, a Canadian called Randy.

MM: Ah, Jorgenson?

AA: Yes, that’s the surname. What was it?

MM: Jorgenson.

AA: That we didn’t know. [Laughter]

MM: Jorgenson, the King of porn.

Womens voice: King of porn? [Randy Jorgenson made his fortune from the publication of pornographic magazines in Canada.]

MM: But also Patrick Daniel Forseth?

AA: Him too. So we might ask how is it possible that a foreigner can arrive and accuse a Garífuna of taking the land, a Garífuna who is the owner of the land? That’s something unusual that could only happen in my country. That a foreigner can denounce the owner of the land for owning the land. And she is being prosecuted for it – to such an extreme that she can’t go three meters from her home. Because otherwise she would go to jail. Madeline was studying to be a nurse, but she can’t get on with her studies because she can’t leave home. So we have a situation like this where we can’t do anything, and truly we need help. In our country the laws are not going to favour us, the Garífuna and the indigenous peoples. Because they claim that we are not Honduran, so we don’t have any rights. It’s lamentable.

MM: But he says, or the two of them say, Jorgenson and Forseth, the two say that they’ve bought the land officially with their own money. So what’s the response in that case? I don’t believe it, but ….

AA: No for sure. Look, they offer proof that they’ve bought it legally with their own money. When we the Garífuna have ancestral title to the land, that means that the land can’t be sold and can’t be loaned out. But what they’ve bought is a fake, illegally. Because they make use of a Garífuna, the Garífuna can then buy it and then sells it to him. They use a Garífuna to buy the land and then they pass it on in his name. But it’s not legal because we have only one title.

MM: Yes.

AA: So, as you say he bought it legally. He knows that’s a lie. But he’s protected by the laws of my country, so he keeps on saying that he bought them legally. Because he’s protected, because from the moment he can take us to court he is protected by the laws of the country. And he has more rights than we do. And that’s unjust.

MM: In the case of African palm, have the Garífuna lost much territory to the plantations?

AA: A lot. A great deal that these extractive plantations – let me tell you a little about it. It has ruined us, destroyed us morally, physically and economically. Why? We the Garífuna have our own gastronomy [staple diet] – that is to say we have our own typical food and meals. We also do our own processing of coconut oil. Coconut oil.

A woman’s voice: Yes. Oh, you are talking about palm oil.

MM: Yes, but to say ….

AA: Something natural.

MM: To say they have their own gastronomy, their own meals.

AA: Something natural that is very much ours, that we use for our meals, we use it for our hair, and we use it for the body.

Womens voice: It’s very popular here right now. Coconut oil.

AA: And previously it was only the Garífuna who used it, but it spread, and how? When they ….., in industrial medicine. They began to say that coconut oil was harmful to your health, bad for the cholesterol, that it was bad for high blood pressure and for diabetes, and so on. Like they knew that it wasn’t easy to destroy this food, so they began to kill off the coconut palm in Honduras. They began to get a disease called ‘lethal yellowing’ which kills all the coconut palms. But when they began to kill off the palms, they stopped producing. When there was no more coconut oil for the Garífuna people, they began to use African palm oil. And that’s how we began to consume other things.

MM: Yes, why? It’s a different type of oil.

AA: It’s different because it contains chemicals, but the coconut oil that we made is natural.

MM: It is very much a natural product that has been replaced by the African Palm, that it is more chemical oil.

Voice of another woman: Also it is poly-saturated.

MM: OK, another introduction …. [Another person arrived to be introduced to Aurelia.]

Another interruption … new recording.

MM: Another explanation about African Palm. 

AA: So, as a result of having to use industrial oil, that’s really affected us in our organisation because as indigenous people we have our own gastronomy. So they’re forcing us to lose that too, so it’s certainly affected us.

But how has African Palm really affected the people in Honduras? In the first place, it’s taken our land, it’s dried up our rivers, it’s contaminated the rivers with chemicals. The palm has a life duration of forty years, and when it dies off the land isn’t returned to us and it’s no longer fertile – you can’t sow anything there. So those are the ways in which we are affected. Moreover, the processing of the palm, making the oil, involves throwing the waste products into the rivers, leading to fish die-offs.

MM: So, the factory also ….

AA: Yes. They’re in very close proximity to the people, so it’s a danger.

MM: So, thanks very much. There are other examples, but one final question, please? [Laughter] Do you have any suggestions on what we can do in this country, from here, many thousands of kilometres from Honduras? What we can do to help your situation, not only of the Garífuna, but also the others

AA: Yes, for us defenders the same arises. When I speak of the Garífuna, I speak of all the indigenous peoples. So because we’re all in the same situation there is support between us and for all the indigenous; because there are other indigenous peoples too; we’re the Garífuna. And we have seen and we appreciate that with the international role we can achieve something.

MM: We can give you solidarity. Normally I suppose that like others we can exert pressure on the ….

AA: Exert pressure, yes, make alliances, use your networks …

MM: On the industries?

AA: Yes, to make noise most on the cases where we really have problems and where we need help urgently. Because what’s happening with our colleagues is that there are six of them who are being prosecuted in Honduras. So instead of things getting better, they’re getting worse; so it seems to us that it’s going to get much worse, because from the moment that the government empowered Randy [Jorgenson] to prosecute us – well, Randy’s not going to stop, he’s going to carry on; but also we aren’t likely to give up either. He’s going to carry on, so what comes afterwards? We don’t want to know what comes afterwards because we’re seeing that something worse is coming, our prosecution. Because they have the money. We don’t.

MM: Yes.

AA: And when they have money, they buy the authorities – it’s the worst in my country. So it’s chaos for us.

MM: Yes. So Aurelia, very many thanks for your words, your explanations and we’re looking forward to hearing a bit more tonight. Many thanks. Well done with your struggles.

AA: It’s not an easy struggle because everything is against us.

Another interruption … new recording.

AA: We don’t have support. So often we go to international organisations. We can go to the capital to make denunciations, but when we get there they are filed and spend a lot of time without us hearing any response. But the threats are constant; so the replies, the paperwork associated with the denunciations, we have to archive them. But the threats are constant.

MM: We’re sorry that we can’t give you more time, more than five minutes, in the presentation.

AA: We can carry on talking about ….

MM: Good. Thanks.






Conversation in the office of PASE

Interviewees: PASE (Professionals for Social Accountability and Management)
Participants: Alberto José Legall López (director de PASE), Edilberta Gómez (Coordinadora de la Clínica Xochilt en la ciudad de El Viejo), Josephine Weinberg (La Isla Foundation), Martin Mowforth, Natalia Petrucci (Ciara) (intern)
Location: Chinandega, Nicaragua
Date: September 2016
Key Words: chronic kidney disease of non-traditional sources (CKDnT); maquilas; labour conditions; plantation agriculture; Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (INSS); social security.

Alberto José Legall López (AJLL): Well let’s mention to you a little about PASE. This association was founded in 2003, and its original source grew from a women’s movement in Nicaragua which was called ‘Movement of Women Maquiladora Workers’. These women fight for the defence of human rights and workers’ rights for the women of the maquila; I don’t know if you understand the term ‘maquila’?

Martin Mowforth (MM): Yes.

AJLL: But it is the preparation and production of textiles. We were founded in this initiative, because at that time there were many abuses of human rights and workers rights; and there was an international campaign to put pressure on North American and European clothing brands so that they correctly improved their codes of conduct. So from there we originated and we’ve been monitoring these in Central America.

Initially, then, our main experience was on the issue of maquilas. However, in the relationships that we were developing we were getting to know North American associations, like the ILRF, the International Labour Rights Forum. Also, SAI, which is Social Accountability International, amongst others, were motivating us to work with agricultural issues. We began to research and work on training and accompaniment to the unions and businesses about the issue of human and labour rights in the west of the country, principally with bananas and sugar.

We have experience in collaborating with other economic sectors such as coffee, tobacco, but this has been more at a level of events or multi-party forums. I don’t know if you understand that word, but it is where businesses, unions , government institutions, civil society and international organisations … all, participate. So that was a little summary of what we do.

In 2005, we did our first investigation with ILRF about the labour conditions around bananas and sugar. They’re on their web page in English; I can send you a link so that you can go over them. And from there, from that investigation, other organisations began also to develop and to understand more about this issue of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease.  We were one of the first organisations in Nicaragua that undertook this type of research.

We focus on different areas. One, we want to develop educational materials at different levels, like this. For example, this is a simple piece of educational material that was distributed in a project that is called ‘to cultivate’; we made more than 5,000 copies, and they were delivered to all the banana and sugar cane workers. This was a basic document and was used by the unions for their training. It is set at a basic educational level. This educational material is more complete:  from the Social Security, and it’s what we are using at the moment. This is what we’re using to train the community leaders, union leaders, workers who have problems with social security. Also, it is used by unions and state departments as a reference. This is a little more complicated, more complete and more complicated for workers who have a basic level of education.

MM: I have read a little about it, 125pages.

Josephine Weinberg (JW): Yes, it is taking all of the Social Security laws; there is advice about property … 

AJLL: This manual we made is very complete, principally because we identified that the subject of social security is very precarious here in the north of the country. There are workers who spend their whole life paying in to social security and when they are sick, about to die, they take pensions of 30/40 dollars a month. This is a rip-off which is happening. There are many companies who take away the money and so there are people who have had big problems. There is one company – ‘apparently’ – although we can’t say it. But there is certain complicity between the state and these large companies. So it is a big battle and we have to be very careful.

So, for us, the project has a low profile. One: we do not have open publicity, because when there is this type of issue here in Nicaragua there is a lot of repression. Because, if groups of workers have a campaign or demonstration, many of them are arrested; there have been assassinations, because they are against, they are trying to, or somehow they are affecting the millions of dollars that these sugar refineries shift in the sale of sugar. For example: they depend on sugar to Coca Cola. Pellas, who is the owner, has a liquor business at a global level, we are talking of multi millions, or billions. So, many, many millions of dollars at stake. Yes?

MM: Between Pellas and …?

AJLL: Yes, exactly. So it’s a very sensitive topic, very complicated and has a political/economic aspect that, if managed at a very public level, can affect our clients who are the workers we help with their pensions. They could lose their jobs, and we could put at risk our lives, our security. So there is a leaflet that we distribute and we only give a telephone number. This is an information leaflet that we give to the people, where it only gives a telephone number and basic information.

MM: For all the workers?

AJLL: For each client that we identify. We have a filter.

MM: Yes.

AJLL: With the Community Centre which you will get to know in the afternoon, firstly we identify if the person who is looking for us really has a need or is a spy for the sugar refinery and who wants to extract information. And after we have made this filter, we attend to their needs. It is a little complicated in this work for the reason already mentioned to you, no? Already we’ve seen cases of lawyers or offices that have been closed or end up arrested because they have gone against this system. So we have to do this in a way that is more opaque.

MM: And their backgrounds are suitable?

AJLL: Yes. I am a lawyer. I am an investigator because I have developed distinct grassroots investigations. I am a lawyer, I defend the subject of labour, human and environmental rights, in different economic sectors. So, more or less, this is a little of the experience we’ve had.

And on this basis also, so that you know, we focus, we try to develop relations on a multi-party level. That is to say we have a connection with the unions; we try to develop relationships with companies, with state institutions, the community leaders, union leaders, civil society organisations and also international organisations. So we try to have a certain balance, in such a way that allows us to be able to manage in this type of environment, which is a little difficult.

These are examples of some of the investigations that we have undertaken in the past. So here, I am talking about the maquila; we undertook this investigation at a regional level. Yes, it’s more or less, must be like your book.

AJLL: Yes. That’s about the issue of the maquila. When we were looking at the subject of the brands and the violations of workers and human rights. Yes?

MM:I can say that your first surname is very appropriate.

AJLL: Yes, yes. Legall. Yes, it fits very well.

MM: When I saw it for the first time, I thought no, no it is a title, a position, it couldn’t be a surname.

AJLL: (Laughing) Yes, Legall. This is another investigation that we did. You can take those that you’d like, the others – no problem, do not worry; we are not going to feel that you are undervaluing us. This we did on the theme of the obstacles to accessing labour justice. Also it was a comparative analysis in Central America, and those issues appeared, those of Communal Justice. So there they are. I won’t show them all because it would be … well, you’d have to carry another travelling bag, but they are some of the investigations that we have undertaken during PASE’s time. And this is another investigation that we did about the subject of the maquila.

MM: Excuse us. I am going to buy another rucksack. (General laughter)

AJLL: That’s why I decided not to show everything, only those which might be of use to you.

MM: Yes, many thanks. You have a lot of useful information.

AJLL: Exactly. And this …

Bell sounds – Several Voices 

AJLL: And this is a more complete summary of the project that we are running, which you can look at in your own time. However, in a minute we are going to give you a basic description of all the work that we are developing in the office – with Josephine Weinberg.

JW: Do you have all that?

MM: I was wondering what was your interest, but I imagine that you can translate this into Italian.

Ciara (C): No, I can be the link …. because I have done my Masters degree in English.

MM: Ah, yes.

C: Yes, and I have travelled. No, it was in Italy but it is a Masters degree from the United Nations, so it was in English, of course.

MM: Perfect. All good. (Translating for June Mowforth) His friend has just finished her Masters degree.

AJLL: So, this office was established a year ago, we had an approach after a United Nations project which we were developing. We knew the Isla Foundation, which is directed by Jason Glaser in the United States. So, we had the opportunity to get to know them; they knew of our experience working here in the west, and some organisations here commented that we could be like the organisation required for this type of work and we should place an office here in the west. So we initiated this experience in June last year, and we said that we would try it for a year and see how it goes, because at that moment there was a lot of repression by the state. Jason was denied entry into Nicaragua, and a lot of things have been happening.

MM: Yes, I’ve heard.

AJLL: It was intense yes. And there was a lot of repression, a lot of people locked up; there were two assassinations, so….

(MM: gave an English translation for June Mowforth.)

AJLL: Yes. So when that incident happened we decided to change strategy. Jason cannot be here, we needed an office to operate on the issues of labour rights and human rights, for the sake of advising the clients. Then they asked me if I was prepared to take on the challenge and the risk; and I said yes, that it was part of my line of work. Maybe this has made the project a little more difficult, a little more complicated due to the pressure that might be generated, be it from the state or the companies. However, it motivates me because it’s something that develops and I have a lot of experience working in this field.

Before with Jason, they were a little more open on the subject of repression, and this was one of the reasons why the State and the sugar mills criticised the name of La Isla and Jason, and for this, they were very strict with them. I suggested to them that if we were going to continue working on the theme, we would go in their shadow, with a lower profile, forming a network. For me, I told them that it was important not to work in isolation. At the time of the setting up of the office, there was no network or collaborative work. I mentioned to them that if I worked in this office, I would develop collaborative networks. It is because of this that we are working with different organisations to be united in this struggle. And we need a low profile, not to attack the State strongly. So we have some contacts within the INSS, which is the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, who collaborate with us in a certain way; also, they know our manual. So we have tried to carry out our relationship a little differently. Not directly confrontational, always being critical, making observations, but so that they do not perceive us as an organisation that wishes to overthrow the Party. Because when the Party feels that you want to overthrow it or remove its power, that’s when they are going to eliminate you.

MM: Yes. We are aware of that approach.

AJLL: Exactly.  And that is why, as Jimenez says, a report that we are developing, is going to be like our investigation but will be of the office. We are also being careful, as the language that we use is critical, the observations, the suggestions, mustn’t be too strong or too hard.

MM: No confrontation.

AJLL: No confrontation, principally because we are in an election year. 

MM: Yes.

AJLL: So for us there is a lot of pressure. So we need to be very careful in what we are doing. This is a little of the history of how we were born, no? In the project we have various lines of work. One of these lines is legal assessment, which is the attention to workers, ex-workers and their families, covering access to pensions or modification of pensions when there are violations of this right. So we work with people who are in receipt of a retirement pension – that is to say they are insured. That is our principal group because we also identify the violations of human and labour rights which is what allows us to compile the information for our reports. So this is very important, attention to the client. And we identify where the violations are to be able to prepare constructive criticism to the state and the companies. That was one of the key points, giving attention to the client on the subject of Social Security.

The other area is the development of didactic and educational material, like the one we showed you, the 125 pages. And we intend each year to prepare a new updated edition. The state is always making reforms to these laws, or makes modifications to their politics. We have to update this information so that the worker is aware of the changes that happen. One weakness of the state and of the companies is when there is a change which they do not tell you about, they (the workers) lose access to many rights because of not knowing them. So, it is to maintain updates for these educational materials for society. So we are always giving them follow-ups to the reforms and the changes to the administrative policies which are happening in respect of social security, to update these educational documents.

The third subject we are developing is the training: training leaders of communities, union leaders, civil society organisations and our clients, the workers, ex-workers and their families. So that they know their rights and also so that they are able to reproduce information in their communities or in the workplace.

And the fourth point we are developing is our policy reports which we are going to do annually. The objective of this report is to make, as I told you, constructive criticism of the State, but also at an international level so that they know what is happening. For example, organisations like the World Health Organisation, or ONITENDO (?), or many international organisations, do not have the updated information of what is happening in the country on this kind of topic because the state does not put this information in the public domain. So what matters is to be able to share, make international alliances and also local alliances for the fight against this situation.

At the moment we are focussed on themes of social security, on the subject of sickness and on one of the state’s institutions called the INSS. However, we intend to expand. The Ministry of Work has a lot of difficulty with employers on the topic of supervision. So we are also thinking in the future of making a manual about the subject of labour rights, aimed at the Ministry of Work.

We are also interested in expanding to have another type of client in the banana sector. There is a great weakness in the banana sector, those who have insurance, the workers who are insured, they have an insurance that is  … outdated from the decades of the 70s and 80s. And they are still using it. This is to say, the new rights which have been incorporated for the workers in general, do not apply to the banana workers. And for us it was a very hard fight. ….

So that you also understand a little of the concept: my father was the one who introduced me to this world. At this moment he is a civil servant with the Ministry of Work – yes, he works and operates  here in Nicaragua, so we communicate a lot, principally as he knows I am on this project, he is always giving me recommendations.

This then, is the other aspect, the report which we are developing and we are interested in developing in the banana sector, and probably on other aspects. But initially at this moment we are interested in the subject of sickness, which is something very big and what we are seeing is that there is a tendency, since 5 or 8 years ago, international pressure began so that the companies would improve the labour rights of workers in the countryside. The sugar refineries began to mechanise the cutting of the sugar cane on their plantations. What has happened? They’re replacing the workforce. But all of their workers are falling ill. So, they are not confronting this problem directly; rather they are avoiding the problem. So, 5 or 10 years ago there were always tens of thousands of workers in the countryside that were available for the plantations. Since the beginning of the mechanisation process, there are now only a few thousand workers, but there are many thousands who are sick.

MM: And without social security.

AJLL: And they were without social security. Many of them are unaware that they have this right. At times, when the worker dies, the widow and the orphans did not know that they had a right to a pension. So all of this information we try to give to them. Because all of this money remains in the INSS, that is to say, when the worker dies, the widow and orphans have the right to receive pensions, and the way they manage the probation period means that the money stays there [with the INSS] and they remain unprotected. And all the time the precarious conditions of the families of the countryside get bigger. Each time a worker dies the life of that family becomes more precarious. However, they have the safety of a social security net, for at least a monthly benefit, something for all the effort that the worker made.

So it’s a serious issue. It is also big because they consider that the INSS is like a private bank of the state, because they manage a lot of money. Here all of the companies make a contribution and they take money from their workers to make a contribution. So for the state the INSS is a bank which manages a lot of funds. So, they try to reduce the amount of rights that the workers have, and that is the struggle that we have – to avoid this private bank continuing being as it is currently, and rather that part of its benefits go to the least protected workers.

So, this is practically the fight that we are developing. This first year has been very interesting for us: we’ve identified how we can develop the network of work. For this, we allied with [Edil]Berta. [Edil]Berta is a communist and union leader with many years of experience. She has very good relations with the state, but is critical of the state. And also, she is a person with a big heart, to collaborate. So she forms part of our team. When we see the video, she appears in the video.

MM: Yes, let us see.

AJLL: Berta forms part of the team. We are forming the team at the moment. Me, Josephine, who is in the USA making all of the relationships, an assistant/intern who at the moment is our friend Ciara and Berta. In this small team we are trying to give answers to all the citations. There are other people who collaborate with us, who you will get to know. One of our trainers is called Pablo Casco, who is the legal assessor of an organisation called Association of Rural Workers [ATC, by its Spanish initials]; they have a presence throughout Nicaragua. He is also a director of a clinic called Flor de Sacuanjoche.

So we try to make it so that our allies are people who are going to support us or who are able to back us in this struggle. In fact, in the future I think that with the Flor de Sacuanjoche clinic we could form an alliance. For example, at some point, we are thinking of offering free examinations of peritonitis, to allow us to see how advanced the illness is. They are available to do this for free – maybe if we find in ENCA or one of these organisations someone who could donate the medical equipment which they need to undertake these examinations, they are prepared to do this?

MM: In the clinic?

AJLL: In the clinic, yes.

MM: And in other clinics as well?

AJLL: In others yes, but this clinic is the one that is being seen initially with us.  It may be where Berta is as well. But this clinic has the advantage in that it has the authorisation of the INSS so that their examinations are valid. So, in the case of clinics, this is why we look for clinics that have the recognition of the state. So in the future we could undertake this type of … we only need to obtain what is necessary to carry out the examinations for all the workers of the countryside; and the clinic is available to do the charts with their doctors, and we’ll run a campaign so that they admit themselves for an analysis.

When we are there with the doctor we will be able to talk about this.

We have another ally which is the Ramon Salvatierra Union, the union which is from the Monte Rosa Sugar Plant. They are very active; they form part of a national federation of sugar unions, also the International Federation of Sugar Unions of Central America.  They are also strongly allied, and I believe that you might be interested to get to know them in the future, because they provide information that we can share here in the book and in our relations with yourselves.

I think that I am mentioning this to you to make the most of the meeting, they will probably mention to you some of their interests. Maybe right now an interest of the union is that there is a weakness at the sugar mill. When they want everything to appear well, in the cutting of cane, for articles they provide you with a camera at the mill so that you can take photos; however, when there are violations, they prevent it, they don’t offer a camera to you. So for them there’s a huge need [for us] to have a camera. Because it is like this, when they see that there is a violation of rights they will be able to take a photo and make it public. And so when we are discussing the possibility of capital investments, a big necessity is a camera, to provide evidence of the violations that the mill will not let us demonstrate. So these are some of the subjects that I believe they may mention to you so that you are not taken by surprise.

MM: Yes.

AJLL: So, that is basically it, so right now MM:, we are in a campaign, we are supporting the organisation called Solidarity of Holland, that  …

MM: Ireland?

AJLL: Holland, from Holland. For problems in … there has not been a good relationship between Jason’s strong position and this organisation; so there have been some differences in the management of funds. And they told us, well, we are going to cut your funding until May, this month. That is why we are starting this campaign in the United States for the next months of the year, whilst we find a stable ally for the long term. Next week we are going to receive a visit from another Dutch organisation which is the National Confederation of Unions of Holland. Mario Lys of the National Confederation of Unions of Holland is coming to get to know the project and to see in what way they can support us.

In the case of ENCA, I thought that you could help in two ways MM:. One: in the short term, there is a campaign we are running where we are raising small funds. I’d like to know if you are interested in our project and what we are doing. If you can get all of the ENCA members to be aware of this page and although you may only donate a dollar, for us that is a lot, because with all of the activists this will allow us to continue reaching the goals for the next seven years.

MM: Is this through Pay Pal or …?

AJLL: If you can, you can pay by card … We know that you do not have a lot of resources, but you have the connections. You have a network, you have all of these organisations who you work with, their members and their funders. So I think that if you could try and run a small campaign with them, and your friends there; and if they can manage at least 1 dollar, 10 dollars, 15 dollars, this can help so that we may have more months of continuing in our project. Unfortunately, with these differences which happened between solidaridad and Jason, well we have come out worse off. But we continue with the struggle.

Can we take a look a look at the manual? We’ve been thinking again about bringing out a new edition – this is the first edition. Here only the organisations that collaborate locally appear; ATC appear, La Federation [Edil]Berta appears, the union, the sugar mill and the clinic. So, for example, in the future, next year we might collaborate with ENCA or Santa Rosa; here I could bring to attention a special mention to the funder, and for us it is important that they know us. In this first edition I didn’t mention Solidaridad because they preferred not to appear – it’s a complex issue. The same would be for you, if you said to us:  Alberto, we do not wish to appear in the list of organisations – well that is understandable. Because this, this little book is aimed at the workers but it might end up in the hands of a businessman or a functionary of the state.

MM: Yes.

AJLL: But as this an information/educational document which is not attacking a political party; so this has been accepted. So this is the advantage that we have, that the strategy which we are managing is positive. So we think that the collaboration for now is to develop the second edition of the manual for the sake of imparting the training. For us, we will distribute this manual at the training to the workers; this could be a collaboration between us.


AJLL: Another collaboration that we could have that would require a slightly smaller fund, is that we, these workers, as they are of limited resources, we can offer them the journey to allow them to join us when we have to travel somewhere.

JW: But the travel allowance?

AJLL: The travel allowance, yes. We have a register of the money that we give for journeys, or at times, we have to undertake examinations, and we cannot do it for free, we have to pay. So that assistance is so that they can travel.

MM: So they can attend a …

AJLL: Exactly, or they could have examinations, or they might …

JW: Here is an examination of a woman that has been done.

AJLL: Yes, or we have to travel to Managua, so we cover these costs. So, for example, we point out on this page what we will give each of them, with their signature, but if we were to receive help from ENCA, or Santa Rosa, we would produce a page which carries the name of the organisation giving this money for transport or examinations. And the fund is a little smaller, which helps them, (the workers), so that they do not have to use their own money. I am trying to identify the areas in which we could collaborate.

MM: Yes. Tell me how much you need for the edition.

AJLL: Each of these booklets cost us 3 dollars to make. 3 dollars each. That includes everything, because there are a lot of pages.

MM: And how many do you want to produce.

AJLL: At first, we were with the Solidaridad Project and we made 1,000. The goal is maybe produce 1,000 each year. 3,000 dollars. But we believe that it is necessary because, for example, at the moment we are left with only 200. We have already distributed 800, and there is the need for more, because there are thousands of people that need this information. So, with a thousand each year we believe that at least minimally we are trying to reach out to each community. And what we tell them is: listen, we are leaving this booklet in your house, but try to get other families to get familiar with it. So, we believe that one thousand examples a year is like an acceptable target. But if it’s too ambitious … it’s also used for the training. So, it has a double purpose. So, basically we initially thought that we could do something like this. But then we realized that there are so many violations that we had to do something more concrete. And we are very satisfied, all of the organisations and the workers are very satisfied, because here [in this publication] there is all of the information that they need, to undertake the procedures, the functions. What the INSS does not indicate, here, we explain everything. However, as every year they make changes to the laws and are able to change the internal administrative policies of the state; we are getting out each year updated editions, like updating the information.

There are small funds that I believe that we can still collaborate on, that are not ambitious, and for example we are not asking for an annual budget to run the office – that could be very big. We hope in future, maybe with the collaboration that we might have between ourselves that one of the funders that you mentioned might want to support this office.

But also they undertake activities like those that I mentioned to you …, and I believe that these areas can be very important. So that is what initially occurs to me. But yes, it is important, MM:, in these moments, when we are seeking funds. I believe that right now with the campaign, at the end of April, we have already raised funds for the next two months: June and July. However, we are searching (for funds) for the rest of the months.

I don’t know if you have any questions? If you want to say something?

MM: I have a few questions about these possibilities and some things to say.

AJLL: Perfect. Would you like to watch first the video and talk afterwards?

MM: Yes.


End of the First recording

Edilberta Gómez (EG): I worked 4 years on the Cultivar project, with the training, with all of the banana workers. And this experience, really made me learn a little more of the organisational part.

Alberto Legall (AL): This is Cultivar; this is the manual …

EG: Yes, this one. And I say that it was very important the work of those who came to talk to the banana workers. Because it was like we had a coffin, merely to know our duties and our rights, even though working with the unions, right.

But no, they never supported us directly in reality, right? And I’ve seen the work that they’ve been doing, which has been excellent work, special work. And the social work I also point out, because in reality in our country it is needed a lot.

The brief remainder of the recording involves Alberto and Edilberta discussing – often inaudibly – their work in helping sugar cane and other plantation workers, and their families, to receive the pension to which they are entitled when they fall ill because of CKDnT. They mention the need to involve the INSS [the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security], but also the gaps that the INSS leaves when informing workers, gaps left, possibly deliberately, to avoid the payment of pensions and sick pay. So PASE has a slightly awkward and difficult, but necessary, relationship with the INSS.


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.

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.