Yolanda Oquelí

Guatemala

Defence of the environment
Frente Norte del Area Metropolitana (FRENAM)- Resistencia La Puya.

Yolanda founded the “Resistencia Pacífica La Puya” protest movement against the mining project Progreso VII Derivada in 2011. The project centred on extracting gold and silver from the municipalities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc. The protest movement has become a benchmark in Guatemala.

Her work defending the environment and human rights placed her at extreme risk. In June 2012 was the victim of an attack against her life. Two men who were riding a motorbike stopped next to Yolanda’s vehicle and shot her. She managed to survive, but still has a bullet located very close to her liver and has to live with the idea that the attack remains totally unpunished.

In addition, the activist has been criminalised and involved in several legal procedures. It is not an isolated case. The 2017 report by the Human Rights Prosecutor Office of Guatemala alerts of the serious situation in which defenders of human rights live and warns that “in the last years criminal law has been used unduly to block the work of the people defender of human rights”.

She has been living in Spain for 3 years. Hers is a forced political displacement, as she was made to leave the country because of the continuous threats she was receiving as a result of her work for the region. She has now been granted political asylum and she is still involved with the resistance movement in her country, from outside Guatemala and with a greater level of personal security.

Oquelí continues her commitment to fighting for human rights and justice, and she continues to participate in numerous public events, in which she reports on the harshness of those struggles being led by Latin American defenders of the land. She has not stopped her condemnation of the links between the activities of transnational corporations and the human rights violations occurring in Latin America from this side of the Atlantic. In her own words, she states “I have learned that from this side much can also be done to condemn and stop these megaprojects”

She is also linked to various organizations that work with migrants in Spain and she also works in the defence of the territory-body with the group of TZK’AT, the Network of Ancestral Healers of Community Feminism, which was created in Guatemala 2015. This organization comprises Mayan women who describe themselves as community feminists and who participate in the emotional and spiritual recovery of indigenous women who defend ancestral territories against the problems of criminalization and prosecution and who fight for the life of their communities.

» Interview

> You headed the La Puya Peaceful Resistance Movement, a prestigious struggle at a national level, and the only women-led resistance in the country. How did the organization start?

When I participated to the establishment of the Resistencia de La Puya, in 2011, my job was focused on raising awareness, talking to communities, explaining to them the problems that the mine entailed and exposing the central role women had to play in the resistance.

Then women started comming to meetings, and they understood we had to lead the fight. Because the strategy of the enterprise and the government was to send the police to repress us. Soon, police started attacking men, they pushed them, men answered… and were taken to prison. We made women barricades, hand in hand, and for the police it was a crime to touch us. They did, but it was them who fell into committing a crime.

At the national level, La Puya has been the only resistance that has been able to put men behind. In all other fights, the central role played by women has been invisibilised. It’s always men who lead the way, talk and give speeches. Not in La Puya, we have all been there.

> The mine’s operating license was totally revoked on the orders of the Supreme Court of Justice. Has this fight been won?

Yes. From the moment we set the precedent that we would not allow the entry or exit of more cars and machines either in our out of the project site, we were already winning. The company applied for protection after the Supreme Court ruling, but I think that even if they keep on trying, the project will be unable to move forward. The communities and Resistance of La Puya have received support from all social movements on a national scale. If the company tried to work again, all the grassroots communities in the country would mobilise against it.

> The danger, however is latent

In legal terms we have won the fight. The resistance has achieved its aim of having the license withdrawn, however because we live in such a corrupt system (one in which, the law is disobeyed if it does not favour certain parties) the movement remains vigilant. Watch shifts are still being implemented at the point of resistance, although the mining company is forbidden to remove even a bit of earth.

Even though it may seem that the mining offensive has been dropped, I am sure that the company responsible still intends to enter other areas of the country and that it will do all it can to try to establish some kind of connection with the mine we stopped.

Our peaceful resistance movement, won, but we are still fighting back, because this corporation can start up somewhere else.

> (I assume that) the current situation in the country does not help

Not at all. President Alejandro Giammattei is a member of the Vamos party, which is a far-right organisation that represses movements that defend the land. He is also a puppet of the multinationals. Mining companies always come from abroad, however he insists that they bring benefits for the companies here when they come, as domestic companies are responsible for excavating the land.

> What about informed pre-project investigations?

It is now the company (responsible for the project) that is in fact promoting the community consultation process, they view it as a last-resort strategy after the revocation of their license. They think they can convince people to accept it (the mine).

All the same, prior consultations are never finally binding. I have followed all those that have been undertaken nationally and in the long run they have not been respected. They play with people and they tire us out. The consultation should be “prior and informed” and we are not informed.

> Do you think that people can be bought, even after the resistance?

Misinformation is used. There is a lot of awareness at a national level and across the country, however more is needed. They reach villages where people have no education or health, which is a factor that has worsened, and a great deal in these times of the pandemic.

The people in the villages are offered the infamous lure of “development” and promises of employment. Right from the start, the people see these offers as being a good thing. I have been in contact with communities (under another name, of course, to ensure my safety), and yes, cases do exist where land has been bought from families where they had been told that it was to be used for growing coffee and agricultural products. We know that this is not true and that it is company people who are confusing them with their games. What they are doing now is offering jobs and hospitals.

This worries me a great deal, as they are playing with need. It’s like offering bread and water to people who haven’t eaten in a long time. This is what is happening. I learned that they recently bought a plot of land with a lot of gold from a family, and that each child (8) received 8 million Quetzals (about 800 euros).

> How can this situation be reversed?

The strength the masses need to defeat impunity and looting lies in the younger generation. This is why I’m interested in young people who are studying, who are realizing what their role is and becoming aware of their conscience. Because if they become engineers, chemists or biologists, for example, they work as professionals and with awareness, and they are not motivated by the money that multinationals offer. There needs to be an awareness that a wedding ring cannot cost blood.

> Defenders are also being criminalized

It is terrible to face justice without having done anything. In Guatemala not only can they put us in jail, they have even killed people in prisons by colluding with organized criminal groups. So much has happened to us that our fear has gone.

But what happens is that when we think about the risk our families run, then we become paralyzed … in this case we feel fear.

On a personal level I am very pleased to be the first woman in the resistance, to be the founder of the resistance, as afterwards hundreds and thousands of women joined. This is a great source of satisfaction for me, and one that keeps me motivated in those moments when I get depressed.

> Despite the high personal cost you’ve had to pay becuade of your engagement, could you share a positive aspect of your role in the Resistencia de La Puya?

Being alive is already, for me, a victory. Another success is the relevance that has been given to women, having achieved that their fight is more visible and appreciated in my country. Besides, the mining project has been stopped. Every step we’ve taken has been worth it.

> Exile is a high price to pay.

It is very difficult to be out of the country. No one wants to leave, and when they force you it is very hard. It is a very tough sense of loss. But when I recall those women who still stand tall with the example of peaceful struggle as we did in La Puya, my spirits rise.

In national terms I can say that the resistance of La Puya has been a standard of reference when it comes to showing people how to fight by demanding one’s rights without violating those of others or using violence. We have shown that, even if it costs and causes pain, we can fight peacefully to demand our rights.

We have to keep on raising awareness about our rights and informing people. It’s not fair that these multinationals can be as assured of their protection while it’s guaranteed that the government receives our taxes. This was one of my main demands in Guatemala.

> How do you connect the La Puya resistance organisation with other movements in the country?

La Puya has become a force of reference because it has maintained a non-violent struggle that has been unstoppable. Unfortunately, other struggles have collapsed under the provocation of big business and government. We believe that they are just trying to defend themselves, however they fall into crime, and they are then criminalized and imprisoned. This process really grinds you down, and eventually big business and the government win. It has not been easy, but in La Puya we have been able to withstand provocation and criminalization. In fact, business and government failed to prove what they had invented to criminalize us.

> What remains to be done?

I would like the organizations that fight for the defence of the land to unite, to come together. When we are on the front line we feel alone, but there are a lot of people behind us and a lot of human rights organizations as well. I think we should unite more because they (big business and the government) take advantage of the fact that we are not entirely a common front. Strength lies in unity!