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Travel Study Seminar takes Presbyterians to Guatemala and Costa Rica

Climate justice and human rights issues take center stage

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

The PC(USA) delegation participates in the Xinca Invocation Ceremony during a visit with ‘Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas de Santa María Xalapán,’ Jalapa, Guatemala. (Photo by Presbyterian Peacemaking Program)

LOUISVILLE – A group of Presbyterians from across the U.S. recently had a front row seat on the impact of corporate involvement on the environment and human rights in Central America. Approximately a dozen people took part in a two-week travel study seminar to Guatemala and Costa Rica learning about extractive mining, the impact on rivers and streams and the daily struggles of residents who must some times choose between good health and providing for their families.

While in Guatemala, the group visited a half dozen mining communities and listened to residents talk about efforts to resist corporate expansion. Rick and Jo Randolph from Lenexa, Kansas, were among those making the trip. Rick Randolph said the most horrifying things for him were the things that could not been seen.

“We learned the mines were discharging their water right into the watersheds of the community,” he said. “Water is highly polluted with arsenic, lead, cyanide and a number of heavy chemicals and you could see kids walking around with chronic arsenic poisoning with the discoloration of the skin.”

Mary Smarr of Stone Mountain, Georgia, says Guatemalans are very persistent in their fight against the mining industry, but it has created a lot of stress.

“One young woman we talked with said they are under pressure from people working in the mines to stop their actions,” she said. “Despite communities voting no to new mining activity, companies are still coming in and the government is still licensing them.”

The group visited several mining resistance communities including San Juan Bosco, Casillas and Santa Rosa. Casillas is the current site of a peaceful resistance blockade along the highway leading to the El Escobal mine. The blockade seeks to ensure that court-ordered suspension of mining activities is respected and that no mining-related vehicles pass through.

Jeff Geary of White Plains, New York, says he was moved by what he heard in Casillas.

“In 2013, the head of security for one of the mining companies referred to protesters as terrorists and was ordered to shoot with intent to kill. We met with a man whose son had been shot, was hospitalized and had gone through seven surgeries for facial reconstruction,” said Geary. “In January this year, he was finally able to breathe through his nose for the first time. There was sadness in his face as he talked about it, recognizing they had no choice but to continue to do this work for the good of their community.”

“When we go into the villages, it is the women who are on the front line of the resistance and pushing for the government and city officials to do better for the people, their children, their neighbors,” said Jo Randolph. “They are pushing the agenda both in Guatemala and Costa Rica.”

The group saw similar challenges in Costa Rica as they visited farms and talked with the people about the ongoing struggles with large corporations.

Rally at the peaceful resistance in Casillas, on the road to the El Escobal mine. (Photo by Carl Horton)

“Most of the small farms in the region have gone away and the large plantations have popped up with promises of employment and economic growth,” said Carl Horton, coordinator for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. “But less than one percent of the people living in the locality are employed in the pineapple industry and the community is not seeing many of the advantages promised to them by corporations.”

There are three plants that employ residents in the region; one for processing the pineapple, another for boxing and packaging and another that produces food products like Gerber Baby Food.

“We learned the plantations are polluting the water with chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides that run off into their streams and evaporate into the air. Chemical-based mono-crop farming contaminates the soil and leaves the water unfit for consumption,” said Horton. “Households receive truck delivery of drinking water every two days. People take showers and wash their clothes in contaminated water but they just can’t drink it. They told us they tried boiling it, but its not a problem they can boil away. It is surprising that these water protectors fight without the support of their communities. In many cases they are actually ostracized by their neighbors, so it’s a battle.”

The group learned about reforestation efforts in both countries and met with church leaders about ongoing efforts to minister to indigenous communities.

Kathy Mitchell, a Native American from Chinle, Arizona, quickly developed a connection with the people in both Central American countries.

“I shared with them my Navajo heritage and the struggles of indigenous people in the United States. Its been a blessing for me to come and validate the shared struggle of indigenous people as human beings fighting for land, health ad human rights,” she said.

Mitchell says one woman told her she thought Native Americans had become extinct in the U.S.

“I myself, can relate so much to their struggle, especially with respect to their languages, customs and traditions. There are assumptions that indigenous people are naïve and ignorant, but these are some of the smartest people I’ve met,” Mitchell said. “They’ve educated themselves and know what is going on. They just want to be heard, to build awareness and to protect themselves and the environment.”

For the Randolphs, the seminar was just the beginning. Both plan to take what they saw and heard back to their community.

“One of the issues in both countries is the testing of water for contamination,” said Rick Randolph. “I want to do some blood testing for chronic heavy metal poisoning and address the need for further consultation before any mines are reopened.”

Jo Randolph says she wants people back home to realize that the same corporate practices are happening in the U.S. “When you drive through those cornfields in Iowa and wheat fields of Kansas, there’s no difference. Corporations are ruling and controlling our lives and we are the ones who have to call them on the carpet.”

“In the coming weeks, we are scheduled to speak in Greater Atlanta Presbytery about what we’ve seen and experienced. Hopefully, we can get involved with other churches in the area and see what we can do together,” said Smarr. “We’ve built some partnerships within this seminar group and hope to make a return trip with our youth.”

Ann Haspels, of Cortez, Colorado, says the seminar has left a long-lasting impact on her. “I think the entire experience has been tremendously and overwhelmingly intense and rich. As we share our stories and photos, I think we’ll continue to seek wisdom and try to find the best words and ways to describe what we’ve experienced.”


The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program is made possible by gifts to the Peace and Global Witness Offering.

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