Angelica Choc’s fight is our fight too: Mayan widow suing mining company in Canada stands with Wabanaki shale gas resisters

Written by Tracy Glynn on November 5, 2013

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Angelica Choc addresses law and sociology students at the University of New Brunswick law school on Nov. 1st, 2013. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Fredericton – “I am a revolutionary,” Angelica Choc, a Maya Q’eqchi’ grandmother from Guatemala, declared to students, professors, anti-shale gas activists and others packed into Conserver House in Fredericton on Nov. 1st to hear her story and watch the film, Defensora. The film tells the story of Angelica’s family and neighbours who say they have been hurt by HudBay Minerals and before HudBay, Skye Resources and before Skye, Inco — all Canadian mining companies.

The story of why the mother of five and grandmother of four from Barrio La Unión in Guatemala’s nickel-rich region of El Estor is in Canada left many in tears.

On Sept. 27, 2009, Angelica’s husband, Adolfo Ich Chaman, was murdered, hacked with a machete and shot, by the head of the security guards for HudBay’s subsidiary, Compañia Guatemalteca de Niquel (CGN). Adolfo’s son, José Manuel, witnessed his father’s murder. He told his mother that his father was dead. Angelica says that memory inspires her to go on fighting for justice for her husband.

Adolfo was 50 years old when he was murdered. His widow says the time for mourning is over and now is the time to fight. Her fight is making legal history in Canada. On July 22nd, an Ontario Court made a precedent ruling that will allow a case against a Canadian company over actions of one of its international subsidiaries to go ahead in a Canadian court for the first time.

Thirteen Maya Q’eqchi’ from Guatemala are suing HudBay in Canada for actions of its Guatemalan subsidiary. Other claimants besides Angelica include 11 women who say they were raped by the mine’s security guards, police and military, and Germán Chub, a 20 year old man who was shot by the mine’s security guard while playing soccer and left paralyzed from the waist down the same day that Angelica’s husband was murdered.

Angelica, too emotional after the film screening to offer further insights to the tearful audience, said she was not prepared to hear her husband’s voice again. Adolfo, a teacher, often entertained his neighbours with his songs. Defensora includes a recording of Adolfo singing a lively song of resistance to destruction of the land and extermination of their people.

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Angelica Choc spends time with Willi Nolan and Serena Francis in the Mi’kmaq Longhouse on Route 116 on Oct. 31, 2013. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Angelica said it was important for her to visit the Mi’kmaq people and their allies against shale gas during her visit to New Brunswick. At both the Mi’kmaq Traditional Government Longhouse on Route 116 and at the camp in Rexton where the RCMP violently arrested those blocking shale gas thumper trucks on Oct. 17th, Angelica listened to the stories of those facing legal struggles of their own.

Earlier that week, on Oct. 28th, ten people, well-known organizers in the anti-shale gas movement in New Brunswick, as well as John and Jane Doe (placeholder names for other possible organizers), were named in a statement of claim by SWN Resources, the company attempting to explore for shale gas on unceded Mi’kmaq territory in Kent County. They face a variety of charges, including blocking and damaging the company’s vehicles and harassing and threatening bodily harm to the company’s employees.

Serena Francis, a Mi’kmaq elder from Elsipogtog, met with Angelica at the Longhouse. Despite the language barrier, Francis said that they speak with the same heart in defence of the land.

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Angelica Choc with a sign that says, Trick or Treaty, at the camp site against shale gas on Rte. 134 in Rexton on Oct. 31st. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

At the Rexton camp site, Angelica happily held a sign made by young men there to mark Halloween. It read: “Trick or Treaty.” She had a special handshake for the women and men gathered there and with a smile wished them strength, “una fuerza explosiva!” (an explosive force!) She embodies the absolute bravery and resolve found in defenders of the land who are up against powerful mining interests and their armed forces, police, army, security guards, hired hit men, and provocateurs.

HudBay and Inco, like many mining companies, have a history of displacing and harming indigenous and non-indigenous communities not only in Guatemala but also here in Canada. The Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Pukatawagan, Manitoba is currently fighting HudBay’s plans to mine on their traditional lands. On July 1st, members of the Cree community served an eviction notice to HudBay similar to the eviction notice issued by Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock to SWN Resources on Oct. 1st.

Guatemala, like Canada, has a brutal history of colonization. Guatemala has suffered 300 years of severe colonial repression and fear imposed by the country’s oligarchy, its military, the U.S. government, and multinational companies such as American banana king, the United Fruit Company and Canadian nickel giant, Inco.

A popular army overthrew the U.S.-supported Jorge Ubico dictatorship in Guatemala in 1944, marking the beginning of Guatemala’s brief “Democratic Spring.” Juan José Arévalo, elected as president in 1945, abolished forced labour, legalized trade unions and the right to strike, and adopted a constitution guaranteeing free speech and freedom of the press. Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, elected as the President in 1950, implemented land reforms aimed at redistributing wealth. Precisely when peasants were gaining access to land and control over their lives, foreign imperialist interests and the ruling class in Guatemala unleashed a reign of terror that overthrew Árbenz, reversed the reforms, returned land to wealthy landowners, throwing the country into a brutal 36 year civil war that killed 200,000 people, most of them Maya, according to the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission.

The U.S. justified the coup, executed by the CIA and an American-trained and armed militia, by calling Árbenz a communist, asserting that communism required extreme efforts to combat. According to Noam Chomsky, a critic of American hegemony, the U.S. was alarmed by the growing economic nationalism in Guatemala and how this would affect their imperialist interests, which included agri-business, namely bananas, pesticides and fertilizers, and later included cheap labour for its companies.

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Jeremias Tecu, Elizabeth Blaney, Alma Brooks, Wolastoq clan mother, Angelica Choc, Oscar Tecu and Betsy Pocop gather at the Wolastoq Longhouse on Nov. 1st, 2013. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Jeremias Tecu, a political refugee from Guatemala, lives in Fredericton. His two brothers were “disappeared” like countless others whose families were left grieving their loss. “Angelica’s story is similar to other stories of indigenous people affected by big corporations and government. I am honoured to be part of efforts to support Guatemalans like Angelica Choc who are defending mother earth and our water and resisting harms of Canadian mining companies,” said Tecu, an organizer with the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network that brought to Angelica to the region.

The history of Canadian mining in Angelica’s region dates back to 1960 when Canadian nickel giant, Inco, acquired a nickel mining concession on the shores of Lake Izabal. Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio’s American-trained and armed soldiers launched a military assault to wipe out the left-wing guerrillas that had one of their bases in the nickel-rich hills. Arana, known as “the Butcher of Zacapa,” successfully ran for the presidency of Guatemala in 1970.

Weeks before Adolfo Mijangos was murdered, shot in the back in his wheelchair on a street in Guatemala City, the legal scholar, Congressman and critic of the mine project, said, “The army believes that its mission is to pacify the country in the interests of U.S. security… Every time I leave home to go to my office, my wife wonders if it’s the last time we’ll see each other. One hopes for a quick death. That’s all.”

About a month before the nickel mine and smelter officially opened, Mario López Larrave, a labour advisor and former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of San Carlos was shot to death in a hail of machine gun fire in Guatemala City. At the end of July 1976, the dead bodies of two student leaders, Robin García Dávila and Aníbal Leonel Caballeros, were found. The students are not forgotten, banners with their faces hang from the walls of schools where foreigners go to learn not only Spanish but also about the history of American imperialist intervention on Guatemala. Teachers and students sing “Bella Ciao,” a lively Italian revolutionary song about a peasant who must say goodbye to his lover and fight the fascists, on Friday nights when they say goodbye to the graduating students.

General Efraín Ríos Montt was named President by a military junta in 1982. Montt continued the “scorched earth” policy of Guatemala’s countryside, massacring entire villages, raping women and disemboweling children. Montt faced trial for crimes against humanity and genocide in Guatemala City in 2012. A Guatemalan court found Montt guilty in May 10, 2013, sentencing him to 80 years in prison, but ten days later, on May 20, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction.

Many professors and university students, associated with fomenting revolutionary ideas of equality and justice, were assassinated during Guatemala’s brutal civil war. Many of them would drop their studies and career paths for the lucha–the struggle–for a better Guatemala. They fled university campuses for the mountains where they would fight alongside the Maya. Many were kidnapped, tortured and killed. Others survived and are part of building social movements in post-war Guatemala today.

Marlon Garcia Arriaga, an artist and forensic photographer, while in Fredericton in 2007, expressed his anxiety but desire to show his exhibit, Panzos: 25 Years Later, in his native Guatemala City, despite his sister’s protests over fears for his safety. The exhibit, hosted by the University of New Brunswick Art Centre, included stunning paintings and photographs of the Panzós Massacre that was connected to Inco’s interests to mine around Lake Izabal.

Mama Maquín, a 60 year old Mayan Qu’eqhi grandmother from Panzós, led a march of 800 people into the town square to present a petition to the mayor for land reform on May 29, 1978. She was there with her daughter, grandson and granddaughter. Only her granddaughter, Maria Maquín, 12 years old at the time, survived the march. According to eyewitnesses, the Panzós Mayor gave a signal to the military to open fire on the crowd. An estimated 35 people were executed in the village square and another 18 people drowned trying to escape in boats down the Polochic River. Maria, who was standing next to her grandmother when she was struck and killed, played dead to survive. She and many others hid in the mountains years after the massacre to avoid torture and death. Fifty-three people lost their lives that day only a few kilometres from Inco’s nickel operations.

At an anniversary event to mark the Panzós Massacre in Guatemala City on May 27, 2010, Maria Maquín spoke of the impunity and living with the killers of her family and community members. The nearby Pacaya Volcano erupted raining ash on Guatemala City as she bravely called for the masterminds and perpetrators of the Panzós Massacre to be arrested and charged.

An exhumation of the mass graves and forensic investigation of the Panzós Massacre in 1997 confirmed the casualties and found that most victims were young males between the ages of 19 and 29. The body of a seven year old child was also found. A UN Truth Commission report issued in 1999 documented a total of 310 cases of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the Panzós region from 1978 to 1982. Corpses were a common sight floating down the Polochic River. The UN report linked many murders of Guatemalan activists and indigenous community members to Inco’s Exploraciones y Explotaciones Mineras (EXMIBAL) project.

“It was with my feet in a grave, alongside the women of FAMDEGUA (Association of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained of Guatemala), that I made the decision to create an outline for an exposition that would include my photos, paintings inspired by such moments, the testimony of survivors, newspaper clippings from the time of the war, photos from historical archives, and testimonies of intellectuals and activists who had confronted the power of the Guatemalan state and its involvement with the Canadian mining company,” said Garcia, who showed his exhibit in Guatemala City in 2008.

Citing rising oil costs and falling nickel prices, Inco’s subsidiary closed its operations in 1981. The mine left behind leaching and scarred areas with no vegetation. Inco’s promise of 1,200 jobs never surpassed 700. While the nickel mine proponents promised to bring prosperity to the area with their mine, El Estor is the poorest municipality and has the lowest education levels in the Department of Izabal, according to a 2009 report by the Union of Latin American Women.

There was hope that the violence in Guatemala would end with the signing of peace accords in 1996 but that was not the case with the intrusion of militarized mining, oil and hydroelectric projects. Inco sold its El Estor mining rights to Vancouver-based Skye Resources in 2004 but still retained title to the land and 14 per cent of its shares. Skye indicated its interest to restart mining.

Resistance to renewed nickel mining in El Estor heightened on September 17, 2006, when approximately 300 Q’eqchi’ Mayan families took back three separate areas claimed by the nickel mining company. Angelica’s community of Barrio La Unión was violently evicted three times for the nickel project in 2006 and 2007. The neighbouring community of Lote Ocho, with no other place to go, returned to their land to rebuild a few days after they were evicted. The military also returned, finding only women and children, on January 17, 2007. The men were out in the fields. Elena Choc Quib and eleven other women have testified that they were beaten and raped that day. Elena says she was left unable to move on the ground and that she never gave birth to the child that she was eight months pregnant with at the time.

Months after HudBay Minerals from Toronto had acquired the nickel project from Skye Resources in 2008, Angelica’s husband was killed on the lands where their parents had farmed for generations until the 1960s when Inco had acquired the property and forced the people to abandon their lands. Adolfo belonged to La Unión’s Community Committee for Development (COCODE). Six others were wounded in the shooting that killed Adolfo including Germán Chub who remains a paraplegic. The wounded men, all poor with no healthcare, incurred debts for medical treatment. The mine’s security guards, including the head of security accused of killing Adolfo, visited the hospital where the wounded were placed in an apparent intent to intimidate the wounded.

Haroldo Cucul, injured in the attack that killed Angelica’s husband, told Daniel Sosa from Rights Action, a Canadian/U.S.-based Guatemala solidarity group in 2009 that “We are just poor campesinos. Why do they come to harm us? Why do they come to violently evict us from our homes? Would Canadians like to be evicted from their homes by Guatemalans? I don’t think so. But that is what they are doing to us: Canadians evicting indigenous Guatemalans from their own lands.”

Seventy-five per cent of the world’s mining companies are registered in Canada. The Canadian government supports its mining industry through the Canadian Pension Plan, domestic institutions and multilateral development banks. Despite calls to regulate the Canadian mining industry abroad from church and social justice groups and labour unions, a majority of Canadian MPs, including those from the Conservative, Liberal and NDP parties, voted down Bill C-300 in 2010, that would have put sanctions on Canadian mining companies found to have violated certain human rights standards.

Angelica encouraged law and sociology students gathered over the lunch hour at the University of New Brunswick law school on Nov. 1st that their many degrees and diplomas mean nothing if they do not use them to fight for a better world for all. She warned them not to take their education for granted as she comes from a country where many have no access to higher education. She noted that she only has had three years of schooling and only learned how to write her name but it has never stopped her from telling the truth. Angelica’s few but powerful and wise words in Fredericton beg the imagination and creation of a different world that is more respectful and caring of the land and each other.

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