El Estor: Up A Mountain in the Back of a Pickup.

Trip Start Jan 02, 2009
Trip End Jun 29, 2009

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

We got into El Estor Wednesday night. After our 6-ish hour drive from Guate City, our tasty supper was very welcome. And that's not to mention the beautiful Lake Isabel that the town's located on. So, why'd we come to El Estor of all places? Glad you asked.
El Estor is the site of the first mine in Guatemala. Plans for mining go back to the 1960s, with Canadian company Inco acquiring mining license and, therefore, the land. The land, an area far larger than any mine would require, became the problem, an issue of contention. The land, given out as a state concession, was and is inhabited by Achi-Mayans who've been living there for God knows how long. Inhabitants were effectively pushed off the land, creating further landlessness and poverty for the indigenous. Besides land conflict, the mine's environmental record is dreadful for the environmentally fragile region. Luckily, the mine only got going in the mid-70s and shut its doors in 1982. The mine's changed hands a few times (basically the same owners) and would've been back in production over the last couple years if it wasn't for low nickel prices and a global economy in a downturn. Almost inevitably, the mine will one day resume production.
After our supper we had a talk from Dan Vogt. Pastor/Catholic priest by trade, he's been working in the area for years, having started an NGO and working firsthand with indigenous communities affected by the mine and landlessness. As far as I know, he's been involved in some way with almost every human rights issue in Guatemala, and even had a hand in the creation of the Truth Commission Report in 1999. Great guy and very informative. 

Thursday morning we set off for the community of Agua Caliente (aka, Lot 9). Located about an hour outside of El Estor, we set off early, and on the way, stopped at the nickel mine. I'd never really seen a mine before, so the sight itself was remarkable. Also, between 1981 and 1983 (ish), the dormant mine area was apparently used as a clandestine military playground, used for torture, assassination, and the like; one more example of how mining companies and the government/military have colluded over the years. Anyway, the drive to Agua Caliente was literally one of the most amazing things I've ever done. Here's the scene: 10-12 of us standing in the back of a pickup holding onto the side railings, with our bus hand hanging off the back, and like 5 people in the cab; pot-holed dirt roads running through tropical pasture fields, dotted with palm trees, lined by a mountain range; and thatch house communities every few kilometers. At one point, we took a turn into the mountain range, down a notably more rough road, and then up. 

What I didn't know before departing for Agua Caliente was that the community is located on top of a mountain. We just kept going higher and higher. Nobody drives the road, because hardly anyone visits the community of Agua Caliente or any other community off the road. Honestly, it was a mix of seeing my life flash before my eyes and exhilaration (if we tipped over the edge, I can confidently say we would've died). Long story short, we finally arrived in Agua Caliente, and it was something and nothing like I thought it was. If I remember correctly, the community numbers around 300 people total who're spread out over a fairly large area. The pictures, for this part of the story, are probably sufficient in showing you what the community was like visually. I remember just being in total wonder while I was walking around. I couldn't believe that I was really somewhere like that, on top of a mountain in Guatemala, visiting a community of Achi (Mayan) Indians, who speak Spanish when they have too. Shortly after a quick walk around, we had a community meeting with them. Each time I think about this experience, I realize just how rare and incredible this experience was. And here's where I should offer a brief explanation of the history of the community and where the mine comes in.

Some 40 years ago, Mayans were forcibly pushed off their traditional lands because legally the land belonged to mining firm Inco. Again, why didn't the Indians just move somewhere else? Well, it's not that there wasn't enough land to go around, but that land was so concentrated in so few hands Indians and the poor were usually unable to obtain suitable land for themselves (see Jacobo Arbenz and the Land Reform of 1952; US-funded-backed overthrow of '54). Therefore, Indians were either forced into landlessness, precipitating devastating poverty and forced labour, or into far more marginal parts of Guatemala (ie, the tops of mountains). This is, more or less, why Agua Caliente is located where it is, in utter isolation.

As we got settled into their community hall, we began talking (err, it was translated) about the issues of land and "development" in the region. Basically, we found ourselves in an actual, official community discussion that we were welcomed into. Easily one of the most profound things I've experienced here so far; this was real community organization, not something on paper or something from a book. Again, long story short, one of the biggest issues revolving around land in Guatemala is land title. One of the more interesting stories/things to come out of the discussion was that in 1975, the community acquired a "provisional land title", which meant they did not own the land and could, if say a powerful TNC moved in, we booted off. They began paying for the title to their land in 1975 (yeah, paying for the title to their tradition, communally owned lands) and paid off the $5000 CDN title by 1982, acquiring title. When the mine began harassing them to get off the land again, community members went to Guatemala City to demand some answers. What happened next is perhaps more indicative of the Guatemala works than anything else I could say: the land title was ripped cleanly out of the official documents of title for the region of El Estor. Once again, the community was without land title. Currently, they're trying to reacquire it. Another stipulation to their acquiring title is that it must be a "community" title; they, as Mayan people, refuse to divide community land through private ownership. 

I'm sure I could talk for hours just about this experience and this community, but here's a few of the more interesting things. During the meeting, there was a three-way translation going on: Achi to Spanish to English, or English to Spanish to Achi. Community members spoke with consideration to everything that was said, from other members or from us. As much as I thought we'd be learning from them, they learned from us. Being so remote, even the most basic information, like the dynamics of market supply and demand for, say, nickel, was scarce or absent altogether. After the meeting, they very graciously gave us a small lunch of beans, egg and tortilla; shockingly generous, considering it's such a remote, impoverished community, which actually, actually cost them something. Oh, and one more interesting story. Someone brought up a bottle of Coke and gave it to one of the kids. During the meeting, this little boy would take one sip, pass it to his baby sister, who would pass it to her brother, and they would keep passing it until it was finished; all this without prompting from their Mom, who was right next to them. I've never seen anyone share like that. 

There's one thing I need to add. Graham, our guide and employee of an NGO called Rights Action, visits the community once a year, usually, and had only brought a small group up one time before. This community never gets visitors, let alone +30 Canadian students. I think in a way the event was special for them as it was for us.
There are many more things I could say about this one experience, but I should probably wrap this up. The view from the top was amazing, and the pictures really don't capture just how utterly stunning it was. The entire region is like a scene from Jurassic Park or something, where everything's lush and beautiful. 

That night we returned for another great meal (the fish was even better the second night!) and had a presentation from Oscar and Jugo (Jugo romanced us, cough, the ladies like nobody's business). They work for an NGO that fights for environmental protection and conservation across Central America. As I might have mentioned, a massive bio-reserve lies to the west of Lake Izabel, called Biotopo del Quetzal. 
The following morning we piled into a couple boats and had a quick tour of the west side of the lake. It was pretty great, with beautiful birds and vegetation surrounded by mountains, but honestly, something about it just didn't light my fire. We took the boat across Lake Isabel to a town called Mariscos and started our journey to Salama. 

SORRY for not finishing up this recent trip! I'll have it done within a couple days (err I've said that before).
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