<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Forum of People in Resistance

Local Oaxaca Priest Backs Auto Determination and Defense of Environment

By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca

April 19, 2009

The national and international forum “Weaving Resistance for Defense of our Territories” (Tejiendo la resistencia por las defensa de nuestro territorios) took place on Friday and Saturday April 17 and 18, 2009 in one of thirteen tiny towns in the municipality of Ocotlán, Oaxaca. The town has no restaurants, no hotels, no bus service. A van came by every half hour to drive people into the city of Ocotlán. The town is small in everything but resistance.

Photos Nancy Davies D.R. 2009
According to numbers last published in 2000 by the national government, the economically active population totals 380 persons. The taxi driver guessed the entire population is maybe 1,500 inhabitants; a total of 79 persons still speak Zapoteco. In Ocotlán County (municipio), San Pedro Apóstol is typical. The entire municipality, including its city head, holds about 20,000 people, mostly indigenous.

Neoliberal projects historically target areas of poor or indigenous people, whether they live in Mexico or Guatemala, or the USA. These are the people of whom it could always be said: they are defenseless, they have no power, they have no political clout. In the case of Ocotlán, the land beckons investors with its mineral resources: gold, silver, and nickel. But to extract them, earth and water are irreparably damaged with no regard for the local inhabitants. The federal and state government of Oaxaca has leased over 300 concessions to foreign mining companies, the majority of them Canadian, like Fortuna and Continuum.

Tejiendo la resistencia forum indicates that the days of the indigenous and/or poor surrendering their land and livelihoods, their health and their drinking water without a struggle have ended. Marcos Leyva, a director of the non-governmental organization EDUCA, opened the forum with the question: Why are we holding this forum? And the reply : Because resistance by individuals, organizations, towns, states and nations, all working to defend their territories from mines, wind generators, transgenic corn, single crops, privatization of water, dams, air pollution, trash pollution, and other problems of so-called “development”, now requires joint efforts.

The first speaker, a Guatemalan woman named Eloida Mejia is president of an organization of women affected by mining in the area of Lago de Izabal in Guatemala. She related that not only are women the first to notice when the children sicken and potable water vanishes, but they provide the main support for families when the men migrate. Guatemala’s income source is similar to that of Oaxaca: remittances and tourism. But the environment is being destroyed by petroleum, mining and a large monopoly cement company. Canadian mining in Guatemala holds hundreds of concessions. Not surprisingly, they locate in the poorer regions. One mine contaminates 200,000 liters of water daily. Cracks have appeared in house walls from dynamite explosions. This continues despite environmental reports. Worse: oil has been located beneath Lake Izabal, where presently 40 different species of fish live and provide a food staple. Concessions for the mining companies take precedence over indigenous communities who have no “legal” rights and are evicted from their land to make way for the mines.

By noon on the first day at the forum site in San Pedro Apóstol 380 people had registered, and more were entering the hall. They represented international, national, state and local geographic places and grassroots organizations. Many women wore traditional aprons over their dresses, the supportive (and honest) town authorities who came wore their campesino hats. Other participants came from areas more sophisticated, such as Mexico City, the largest and dirtiest city in the world. The forum provided food, and places to sleep.

Over lunch break (papayas, bananas) in the event salon, conversation included the
question: what is development? What are its limits? When the environment is exhausted, what then? These questions were posed by the guest from Honduras, Adalberto Padilla, whose organization is aptly named Economy for Life. Life and wealth for the few is destroying the finite biosphere, he said, and by definition, infinite growth is impossible, especially development which does not pay the costs to either environment or people. For the local Ocotlán people, mining presents the most dangerous and imminent foreign threat. Nobody in Ocotlán will benefit; the rape of the land for gold and silver resurrects the worst days of Spanish rule.

San Pedro Apóstol was chosen as the forum’s site not only for its proximity to the San Jose mine La Trinidad, but because its pastor, Father Martín Octavio Garcia Ortiz has been denounced by the mine supporters. In a published reply, the Diocese Commission for Justice and Peace points out that the priest does not direct any group, organization or people; his work is spiritual and religious, and in social matters he has been only and exclusively offering education and information. The coordinator of the church Commission, Father Wilfrido Mayrén Peláez, (who answers like all priests, to the bishop) added that a mine representative, asking only to give the people information, visited the Oaxaca auxiliary bishop a few years ago. Then Father Martin indeed began giving out information. He encouraged forums.

To prepare for a 2008 April 17 forum, participants in a prior national forum went from San José del Progreso (the neighboring Ocotlán village) to learn what the mining company Continuum had done in the mine called Natividad: bad damage. Subsequently the first public information meeting followed in San Pedro Apóstol in May of 2008. The authority of San José del Progreso, who sides with the local mine subsidiary for reasons we can only guess, did not attend.

At that time, the organization “Project for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (Proyecto de Derechos Económico, Sociales y Culturales” A. C.) came from México City. They explained the Mining Law and possible ways the community of San Jose del Progreso could legally defend itself against the mining companies. Also present was the Inspector of Calpulalpam de Méndez (Comisariado de Calpulalpam de Méndez) who revealed that the mining enterprise Continuum had drained dry thirteen water springs, after which the company’s permission to mine was withdrawn by the government agency SEMARNAP: too late. Photos showed the damaged river; the number of cancer deaths caused by contaminated water was revealed

A second forum in October of 2008 in San José del Progreso brought scientists from the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) who explained the dangers of the chemicals used to separate gold and silver. An economist explained what the mining company gained and why the crisis in the USA was attracting interest in gold and silver, metals which also are used in manufacturing components of electronic systems .

Two further meetings took place with the mining company. Priests at the deanship level expressed their concern for the environmental impact and pointed out there is no benefit to the communities. A third forum took place, educating the people about the experiences of Latin America.

Father Martin’s efforts continued. The Church recognized that the indigenous people “suffered low self-esteem, which the government takes advantage of.” So the parish began classes in “self-esteem” and human development, to break their dependence on government authority, Father Wilfrido explained. .

Meanwhile the parish of San Pedro Apóstol planted l, 300 trees in the Ocotlán communities, as well as promoting other environmentally friendly systems such as dry baths, low wood- consumption stoves, cisterns to capture rain water, wells, composts, worm composting, etcetera. These efforts were inhibited by certain authorities. The catechists of San José del Progreso were refused a place to plant their trees. In Santa Lucía Ocotlán, after parents of families said no to a greenhouse project of Fortuna’s subsidiary mining company Cuzcatlán, the green area which the catechists had sown years ago mysteriously caught fire and burned.

The catechists played a strong role, abetted by their priest, very similar to that played in Chiapas prior to 1994. The parish of San Pedro Apóstol informed the townspeople about the treaty signed and ratified by Mexico, Convention 169 of The International Labor Organization (ITO in its Spanish initials), the UN agency that promotes decent work ethics throughout the world. A final decision about accepting mining was left to the communities.

Father Martin, who has been attacked personally, legally and directly by the “affected party” does not stand alone. The Church supports him. Oaxaca’s Bishop Botello usually defends the status quo. To those who accept bribes, he proclaimed that they must not compromise with truth, justice, the common good and the life of the peoples. Platitudes of that sort are his daily offering. But he has given a free hand to those serving directly under him, such us Fathers Wilfrido and Martin, and the social movement’s Padre Uvi. Am I seeing a resurrection of liberation theology? Church actions suggest it.

With self-determination, 300 townspeople of San Jose del Progreso blocked the entrance to La Trinidad on March 16, 2009 and declared it won’t be worked. Violence seems to be an instant away. The blockade installed an encampment at the mine’s entrance and fortified their numbers. The military came in helicopters on March 24 and removed the mine’s dynamite supply. State police arrived at the site.

In this tense stand-off, with 300 townspeople facing 70 authorities of other towns plus the police, Father Martin, clad in T-shirt, jeans and glasses, took an active role in the April 17 forum.

The forum concluded on April 18 by articulating strategies for actions the people can take to defend their homes. Clearly the idea is to link one geographical area with another throughout Mesoamerica, hence the name of the forum, whose thirteen originating organizations established the first pathways. The most salient quote: “We who live here are the judges of what you can do on our land, not the federal or state government.”

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America