We are in the middle of Semana locura, the crazy week. That’s how the volunteers call the week of project coordination. Not quite as crazy as a group relations conference but almost and in many ways similar to it. The official terminology is ‘the week of the project meeting’.
For my non-German speaking readers, and especially for Mobs Timi Biu, who asked for it, I intend to give a brief account of my present life as a human rights observer in Guatemala. Since many of you are part of the group relations scene you will allow me to dwell upon the analogy with a Tavistock event: This week we will meet in plenary sessions, we already worked yesterday on different projects in mixed task groups (… not always right on task) and we all belong to a regional group. These four regional groups, most of them consisting of two persons only, work mainly in their respective regions and travel regularly to the capital to coordinate their work amongst them and with the project as a whole. There is a fifth group with five members to which I belong: the ‘equipo movil’, stationed in the capital. Our territory is the whole country (hence: mobile): We make occasional visits in the regions not covered by the other groups and we cover court sessions in the capital. There is also a staff group, “la coordinación”, made up of five more experienced members The subjects of the coordination week (“Semana locura”) are not only the various themes of our outside work as human rights observers, but also the household matters. You can imagine that they are likely to occur in a collective working and living together in a very restricted space. For example: “We should clean out the fridge, who will join?”, “Who is willing to organize loo-paper, matches, salt and sugar for the next few weeks?” etc. We also meet as volunteers without the staff present (….and they without us) to discuss and formulate our specific interests and – another analogy to group relations – we mandate emissaries – to represent us in staff meetings. And of course the social and political situation of the country is also affecting us: the capital simmering with political tension, with masses of people in the streets demanding the resignation of the president accused with massive corruption and diversion of government funds. This is affecting our work and our security appraisal. We have to balance paranoia and recklessness to find a realistic view of the outside world.
As in similar institutions I sense a lot of micro-politics going on under the surface: the newcomers have to find a way to understand the power game within the system and relate to it. Informal cultural and national subgroups give a sense of belonging and identification, partially overlaid with diverse criteria of gender and age groups. In contrast to a group relations conference there is no group analysis, neither in small groups nor in the plenary. We do some self-reflection on the ways we cooperate but always on a very concrete and instrumental level and not in a sense of a psychoanalytical reflection on group dynamics. Which is good. There is enough emotional challenge and disturbance in our main task as it is, stirring up the darker corners of our subconscious would be too much to bear.
The primary task
So what is the main task you might ask? There are two answers to the question:
A simple one, describing what we do: We accompany victims, their relatives, witnesses and human rights activists on their way to court, in court and in meetings and visit them at home. Most of them are members of one of the 21 indigenous Mayan people living in the country side, backed up by a small and ethnically mixed urban group of human rights activists and lawyers.
The second answer is more difficult to describe: What we try to effect by doing this: We accompany those facing threats, violent attacks, intimidation and criminalization, so that they may not give up their fights for justice and reparation for their suffering during the civil war and genocide (1960 – 1996) and for the new and ongoing violation of the human rights since then. By our accompaniment we enlarge their scope of action so they can continue with their task as human rights defenders. To me our contribution is small and marginal; they carry the real workload and they bear the main risks. As humble our task may be, it is still worth doing it. We often hear from the people we accompany, that they feel not being left alone in their struggle and they are immensely grateful for our regular visits. Sometimes this makes me feel a bit awkward, receiving so much recognition for such a small effort.
Involving an international public
We try to spread information about the victims struggle in our home countries, e.g. in this blog to enhance their feeling of not being left alone. We are quite aware that our friends and colleagues back home are flooded with information about violent conflicts and horrendous stories from all parts of the world. In the world of mass media we cannot compete but on the grass root level we can send subjective and personalized information to our friends, colleagues and acquaintances and share our experiences with them. This is what this blog is all about.
In my German blog entries I have been writing about a visit to a family of coffee planters who are in opposition of a mining project in their community. In April 2014 the father and his 16-year old daughter have been shoot at in their pickup, killing the daughter and wounding the father heavily. They are now asking for our accompaniment because the threats against them are continuing and have been extended to their other children. Despite this hard blow the family has not given up, they are working with their other daughter on an environment awareness project for youngsters in their region. Since the Mining Company is a daughter company of Goldcorp, a Canadian Mining company, there is more English language information available about this case.
It has been a giant step forward that in 2013 a Canadian Judge allowed legal action against another Canadian Mining company, Hud Bay, held accountable for another deadly shooting of a community leader in El Estor. On the same occasion his son was gravely wounded and is now in a wheelchair. We are accompanying the widow to court in Guatemala, where the chief of security of the local subsidiary is tried for murder. And also in this case the threats have not stopped, traveling back from court they have been shot at from another vehicle following them. Luckily without bodily harm.
We can only admire the courage of these people, many of them women, standing up for their rights, and defending their way of living and their dignity in the face of huge and powerful international companies and their local henchman.
What can we do about it?
The Canadians have made the behavior of their mining companies in foreign countries to a national concern of civil society. The Swiss are collecting signatures for an “Initiative” to pass a law, which makes Swiss companies responsible, if their foreign subsidiaries or daughter companies infringe human rights. And you can ask your pension fund, where exactly your money is invested, which ethical standards are applied and how they are monitored. It’s those little actions that can lead to big changes.
I am curious how many English readers I will reach with this blog entry. Depending on the reactions and comments I get, I just might write another one in a couple of weeks.