Hue Hue Don’t Tell Me
So you’ve been to Tikal, Semuc Champey, Atitlan and (for some strange reason…) Antigua. Onya! If you’re looking to step of the beaten track you might want to spare a thought, and a weekend, for the next big thing in Guatemala: Huehuetenango, pronounced “way way tenango.” A hue hue (get it?) from the snazzy organic-falafel-serving hangout you’re probably reading this in, Huehue is the real up-and-coming tourist destination in the Maya heartland. But before you start searching for your trusty North Face jacket, XelaWho has got the goods for you on Huehue’s must-sees and the troubled fortunes of its indigenous communities facing off against a dramatic international mining and hydro-electric expansion.
XelaWho’s hard hitting reporters traveled to Huehue last year to bring you an ear-to-the-ground perspective on the best Huehue has to offer and to have a nice Semana Santa jumping into pristine cenotes (see August 2016 XelaWho edition). There isn’t much in the way of tourism there yet, but boy is there a lot to see. Beautiful cenotes (big holes in the ground sometimes filled with water), lakes, mountains, and the drunkest horse riders this side of Russell Crowe on the set of Gladiator.
The local governments and peoples of Huehue have previously been very anti-tourism due to fears of foreign companies taking over indigenous lands. Recently having warmed up to the possibility of those sweet gringo dollars, Huehue has recently opened tourism offices, welcoming some development and foreign visitors – with the exception of international companies developing massive mining and hydro-electric projects and kicking indigenous folk off their land.
Guatemala has a sordid history when it comes to mining. It goes back a century, but really kicked off at the end of the civil war in the mid-90s with the transition to civilian government under President Álvaro Árzu. Ever the man of the people, Árzu signed Mining Law 1997, which permitted 100% foreign ownership of mining projects and dropped mining taxes from 6% to 1%. Spurred by that and growing demand from Asia, international mining companies rushed to exploit Guatemala’s rich gold, silver and nickel deposits. The mostly Canadian companies (and you thought they were the good guys in North America! tsk tsk) – bumped Latin America’s share of global mining investment from 12% to 30%. They also increased mining permits in Huehue by a 1000% during the 2000s. The results of the vague and unenforceable environmental and indigenous consultation provisions in that law were many indigenous communities persecuted and/or booted from their land.
Lately, hydro-electric dams have become the new development flavour of the day. While supplying green energy, these projects are often located on traditional lands of indigenous Maya. Communities in Huehue, such as Ixquisis, and San Andres, are up in arms to stop the developments and protect their homes and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government-backed developers. During a protest in January, their cronies opened fire on peaceful protesters in Ixquisis, resulting in 2 deaths. In the first half of this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received 5 reports of attacks against community protesters across Guatemala, including the assassination of a community anti mining-activist in Jalapa.
Local Guatemalan law and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which Guatemala signed on in 1996) require consultation with indigenous peoples before any such development. One crafty developer found a neat workaround by just saying that there were no indigenous people in the development area, a conclusion that the government readily accepted. The local Maya Achi’ people, who were clearly in the area, weren’t as pleased with this conclusion.
Community activism against such projects continues, but the prospects for the Mayan communities of Huehue don’t look fantastic as they face off against their own government and powerful international interests. At least you’ll have nickel for that new shiny iPhone and a great time jumping into cenotes, right?
Happy November Xela! There some bad stuff going on in Guatemala but some great stuff too. So read more, get amongst it and enjoy yourself!