A Discussion with Francisco Mateo Morales, Environmental Activist

With: Francisco Mateo Morales

November 14, 2015

Background: Francisco Mateo Morales and his community are engaged in work to protect the environmental diversity of the Guatemalan Western highlands from a variety of local and foreign threats. He is a leading voice in a movement seeking to improve working and environmental conditions in the mining industry. In this interview Morales traces the history of the local mining conflicts, the role of the government, and the responses of local communities and social movements seeking to assert their right to prior consultation and control of their territories. This conversation with Carlos Martinez Ruiz on November 14, 2015 in Guatemala City is part of a WFDD and Berkley Center project to map the landscape of social and religious development in Guatemala.
What is your background and what brought you to your current work?

I’m Maya Popti—the Mayan people are made up of 22 linguistic communities. I am 42 years old, and I studied forestry engineering at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, but I was also interested in training for politics. I was part of a training program for political leaders headed by the Institute of Political Management at Rafael Landívar University here in Guatemala, which was, in those days, supported by the Swedish Inter-Partisan Forum. I have also participated in other training programs related to democratic communication and local government. I was involved in the student movement, since I studied teaching and I am a primary school teacher.

I have the good fortune of being the son of organizers. My father is the manager of a co-op of small coffee producers, organized at the national level, and my mother belongs to an association of traditional midwives. Thus, since I was little, I have participated in politics, because my parents would take me to their meetings. It was then that I became interested in getting involved in social processes.

Currently, I work for the Mayan Peoples Board [El Consejo de Pueblos Maya]. We focus on the strip of the border that neighbors Chiapas, Mexico. We came here in 2005, doing a joint project between the towns along the border. In compliance with the framework of the Peace Accords in the 1990s, we saw the need to strengthen the identity of the indigenous people from each town and territory. So we promoted part of the implementation of the Peace Accords. I was part of an effort called the Forums for Consultation and Follow-up of the Peace Accords [Mesas de Concertación para el Seguimiento y Cumplimiento de los Acuerdos de Paz] from 2000 until 2002. It was a civil society initiative that encouraged compliance with the Peace Accords. That was its fundamental objective.

From our territory, the region called Huista, we organized and formed the Huista Network [la Red Huista], which was born from the interest in uniting forces in civil society of six or seven municipalities in order to push for the constitutional reforms that were needed in those days. Chiefly, we decided to aim for transparency. In that era, we started to see that the primary problems were related to the environment, such as excessive deforestation in order to grow coffee and other monocrops. There was also a lack of black water and sewage treatment; all sewage was dumped in the rivers.

Around 2005, we began to face another reality as a consequence of the free trade agreement with the United States. We realized that the government had already granted a good deal of our territories to various industries without first consulting with the communities at all and without participation of the authorities or civil society. It is possible that some local bureaucrats knew about the projects, but the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Board of Ministries are the ones who made the decision. That is when we started to get together and meet with other towns—that's how we met Monsignor Ramazzini, the bishop of San Marcos. We started to analyze the dimensions of the issue. To give you an example, there are currently 37 mining licenses that are authorized in Huehuetenango but are not in operation.

Around 2005, in San Marcos, there weren’t any mines, but the project to develop the Marlin mine was already very far along. A Canadian mine had bought the land plots, and they were almost ready to start mining.

The authorities did not consult with your community?


Of course they didn’t. So we reached a consensus with the local and national organizations to promote consultation with the community as a peaceful and democratic response in the face of the threat of extraction on our lands. In this way, we also promoted ancestral practices of participation and decision-making.

Can you tell me about these ancestral practices?


The notion of consultation did not come about with Agreement 169 of the International Labor Organization, which states that the indigenous peoples have a right to be consulted about any project or program that might affect their integrity. It didn’t come about with the Peace Accords either, which contain the Accord of Identity of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the idea of consultation. The practice of consultation is a concept of the Mayan people. In Mayan practices, consultation happens at different stages, at different moments, and in different places, through community assemblies where the goal is consensus.

For what type of decisions are consultations needed?


When there is a major problem. The consultation isn’t a meeting; rather, it’s a process that leads to a decision, until a consensus is reached. But they also have to consult with the energies of time, the 20 energies, the nahuals, the four cardinal directions; it’s more of a cosmogonical and spiritual matter, and there’s spiritual consultation. Everything is consulted with the holy fire and our grandparents, the elderly. There are different mechanisms of consultation. So we wanted to exercise our right to consultation, and as such, demand our rights.

Which laws outlined the right to consultation?


It was outlined in the Peace Accords and Agreement 169. In 2002, three laws were passed on citizen participation: the Municipal Code, the Law for Comprehensive Rural Development, and the Decentralization Law. The objective of these laws was to strengthen local power and also promote decentralization in the process of development. It was made very clear that consultation was necessary. Agreement 169, established under the framework of the International Labor Organization, is an international binding treaty, and Article 45 of the Constitution of Guatemala states that international treaties transcend country laws. Thus, with the support of these laws, we began the consultations. We started in Sipacapa, San Marcos, and then continued in Huehuetenango, where we fostered six consultations. We have consulted with the people about mining in their communities and, in Huehuetenango, out of the 33 municipalities, 29 have said no to mining. There are documents, there are agreements, and there are municipal accords that have rejected mining.

What are the arguments in favor of and against mining that were presented in the consultations?


The arguments in favor are essentially related to job creation, since there is unemployment and extreme poverty. But the consultations reached the conclusion that the consequences of extractivism are much greater than the benefits. There are a number of other fundamental factors, such as the close relationship that the communities have with water. We are in an area that’s very vulnerable geographically and physiographically; it’s an area of aquifer recharge. So from a technical standpoint, mining is not viable, and it isn’t viable from a social and political standpoint either. It’s not viable for us environmentally or economically, because our laws are written so that corporations can come and take everything. Currently, we have consultations in 85 municipalities nationwide, and everyone has said no to mining. It’s not just here—it has spread to the national level.

What is the procedure that mining companies follow in order to establish themselves in the country?


Here in Guatemala, the Mining Law outlines stages. First, they award an inspection license, which is basically done through aerial photographs. The companies have mapped the country—they know that there are minerals everywhere. Then, the companies request another license for scouting, to run tests and find where the greatest concentration of minerals lies. The third phase is for exploitation, which is when they extract the minerals. Thanks to our community consultations, and the resistance of the communities, the majority of licenses have been stalled in the scouting stage, before they reach the mining stage. Through the promotion of the consultations, not only did civil society start getting involved, but so did the community authorities, the traditional authorities of the towns, and the Ministry of the Earth [Pastoral de la Tierra] of the Catholic Church, which has played an extremely important role.

The ministries [pastorales] have got involved in promotion, organization, and in raising awareness with regard to everything mining-related. The local evangelical churches have also got involved, because there are people of other religions who want to participate. In the indigenous territories, things are managed in a different way. If the community tells you that you are going to assume a responsibility, you assume it, whether you are Muslim or Methodist—it’s a mandate of the community. This is when the Mayan Peoples Board came to be in 2005. In the seven municipalities, we formed the Wuxhtaj Peoples Board. Wuxhtaj, meaning brother, is from our Popti language. Thus, we are the Brothers Board. We are joined together, but we are also organized under the Mayan Peoples Board, which covers seven departments of the Guatemalan high plateau. Through the Mayan Peoples Board, we have gone to the national and international courts. For example, in 2010, we introduced an appeal against the consultation regulations that Álvaro Colom’s government wanted to impose.

Why was there resistance to the consultation regulations?


They wanted to develop consultation regulations from a corporate perspective, in favor of their interests. We said no. How can they develop consultation regulations for indigenous people without the participation of indigenous people? So the rapporteur of the United Nations at the time, James Anaya, who was the rapporteur of indigenous peoples, expressed his unfavorable opinion regarding the regulations, and the Constitutional Court rejected them. In other words, for the first time, an indigenous peoples’ lawsuit was accepted and resolved in favor of indigenous peoples. I thought it was one of the first and most forceful efforts made by the Mayan Peoples Board in terms of political substance and influence.

Later, we identified that the Mining Law was unconstitutional because it was passed a year after Guatemala had ratified Agreement 169, which says that the signing members must adjust their internal rules and regulations according to what is said in Agreement 169. That means that the Mining Law needed to have an article in reference to Agreement 169. Agreement 169 was ratified in 1996 with the International Labor Organization, and the Mining Law was created in 1997.

We argued against the clearly unconstitutional Mining Law because it violated the fundamental right of consultation. But there were adverse reactions to our appeal from the Chamber of Industry, the industrial elite, and the oligarchs of this country. So the Constitutional Court ruled against our unconstitutionality appeal. We brought our appeal before a higher court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [IACHR], which is in Washington, D.C. That’s currently where the complaint that we brought forth two years ago is pending.

What is the status of the complaint at the IACHR?


Right now it’s being processed, but we hope that there will be pressure from the international community on the government of Guatemala to respect indigenous rights. The problem we are seeing now is that this has triggered social unrest in the territories where they are trying to establish mining projects, and the response of the Guatemalan government has been the repression, militarization, and judicialization of social struggles. For example, there are 11 community leaders from this area who are currently in prison.

What have the community leaders been charged with?


They have been accused of terrorism, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, threats, coercion...anything they can try to pin on them. This is a strategy of the corporations and the state of Guatemala in a campaign to delegitimize their struggles. The corporations have a lot of pull in the decisions of state entities. In this case, the influence of the corporations is clear in the agenda and the way the state is being run. Here in Huehuetenango, the institutional framework of the state is not working to defend the rights of the people. Rather, state institutions have become operators for the corporations. That’s why, as the Peoples Board, we are concerned, because instead of responding, instead of assuming its constitutional obligations, the state is looking for another way to silence and delegitimize the demands that the people have been voicing since 2005.

What else have you been involved in besides bringing the lawsuit two years ago?


We continue to insist on respect for consultations. We continue to strengthen our organization in the territories. Now, each person is working in his or her own territory, and the political board meets to see what follow-up needs to be done. We maintain contact with the United Nations, but we are also providing accompaniment and follow-up on these emergency processes for the liberation of political prisoners. And we are encouraging training for community leaders, so that they keep exercising their fundamental rights. The strategic objective of the Peoples Board is to establish the Mayan people as a political subject with rights.

What is your relationship with the churches at this time?


Thanks to Monsignor Ramazzini, the bishop of San Marcos, the Catholic Church has always been supportive of the struggle of the communities. We have collaborated with priests in order to raise awareness within the community through education, or through accompaniment to influential meetings with the local government. We are looking for more institutional ways to collaborate, but we understand that there is a procedure for everything. Internationally, we also have somewhat of a relationship with other peoples and movements that are in the same situation, because extraction is an issue across the continent.

How do you negotiate between your cosmology and the prevalent religious syncretism in Guatemala?


We have always said that the Mayan cosmovision isn’t a religion, but rather, it’s a way of life. We have discussed this more than anything in the framework of the Catholic Church, which has been more tolerant, because some priests have come to recognize the historical transgressions of colonization. Therefore, the Mayan cosmovision is gaining respect, because it’s clear that it’s not a religion, and that it doesn’t clash with any of the religions. Rather, it’s a way of life that complements religion and can act as an alternative. The idea of consultations, for example, complements any spiritual notion of the churches.

Thus, Maya cosmovision can also adopt a system of ethics or religion that can be evangelical or Catholic?


That does happen, but sometimes the opposite also happens, because there are fundamentalist churches that don’t want anything to do with what happens here on earth, and that instead offer paradise after death as a solution to the social problems of the present. We have also identified the presence of a good group of religious sects that are politically well-designed and oriented towards promoting the prosperity gospel model.

Can the prosperity gospel model fit in with your work?


It's a way of making people submit to the new economic order. On a personal level, it individualizes a person’s actions. The Mayan peoples and the native peoples, historically and according to our tradition, have always been peoples for community and community work. The prosperity ideology is highly capitalist and neoliberal; in other words, it’s individualist, egotistical, and egocentric. For us, that is a split from our community duty and our community work. But I think that indigenous people that are members of those sects still have a great deal of respect for the indigenous way of community organization. They participate in the sects, but they don’t try to transform our practices. We have talked with these religious groups and taught them a bit about our practices, so that they are informed, since there is a lot of ignorance among them.

How do you see the future ahead, on both a personal and collective level, as an organization?


We saw that this year there was a strong movement against corruption, especially within the urban middle class. This was positive for us because we are also part of a fight against corruption. The fact that the president and the vice president have gone to prison and that they have resigned out of necessity sends a fundamental message to Guatemalan society, and also to the entire region. That indicates to us that we can mobilize and be influential as a civil society. However, we are very aware of the fact that this political protest was not run by the social movement; there are external forces that influence the organization of these protests. We think that it unfortunately constitutes a re-accommodation of the traditional political class. But that has a lot to do with the lack of political projects by the social movements in the country.

We need to be realistic about this. There is no common agenda among the social movements, and that’s why we can’t sing of victory. For us as the Peoples Board, it’s something that has been very clear, and we are working to change it.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.