Mayan radio station in Guatemala gets fresh start

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Radio Xyaab Tzuultaq’a leaders and volunteers take part in a workshop on protecting ancestral lands, Maya O’eqchi’ history, Indigenous rights, and women’s rights. Photo: Courtesy of the Asociacion Estorena para el Desarrollo Integral 

An Indigenous community radio station in El Estor, Guatemala, is taking a more active role in covering allegations of human rights abuses involving extractive industries in their municipality, an offshoot of a one-year project that included crafting a strategic plan that emphasizes community participation, Indigenous rights, and women’s rights.

With support from WACC and Cultural Survival, Radio Xyaab Tzuultaq’a also organized a series of workshops on women’s rights, protecting ancestral lands and Maya Q’eqchi’ history, which 35 of the station’s leaders and volunteers attended.

These resulted in 17 new radio programmes covering local issues, including the campaign of Indigenous rights activists against a mining company, whose operations, they say, have had a negative impact on the environment and on their health and livelihoods.

El Estor is a major settlement on the northern shore of Laze Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake; it is home to wildlife including sharks, crocodiles and manatees –  large aquatic animals that are on the list of threatened species. The massive lake is also a source of food and income for the predominantly Mayan Q’eqchi’ community who live on the edges of the lake.

El Estor has had a long and difficult history with mining companies since 1965, when the Guatemalan government granted Exmibal, owned by Canadian mining firm INCO, a 40-year concession to operate the Fenix nickel mine site, in the area.

In the 1970s, the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification frequently mentioned El Estor as a place where massacres, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and human rights abuses occurred, according to an Amnesty International report in 2014.

The mine ceased operations in 1980, lay dormant in 2004,  and was later acquired by Canada-based Skye Resources and renamed Compania Guatmalteca de Niquel (CGN). It was subsequently acquired by HudBay Minerals Inc., in late 2008,  and  was sold in 2011 to Solway Investment Group Limited, an international mining and metals group based in Switzerland.

“According to members of the Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ community, the heart of the dispute between the community and the companies is a disagreement over ownership of the land on which the mine is located,” said the Amnesty International report. “A number of Maya Q’eqchi’ families claim ownership of the land, which they consider to be their ancestral lands.”

Amnesty International has documented “violence and serious human rights violations linked to the mine and the efforts by Indigenous people to reclaim their traditional land.” Several lawsuits related to these allegations of killing, abuses and land claims are pending in Canada and Guatemala.

In response to a lawsuit in 2011, HudBay Minerals said that since it acquired an interest in the Fenix project it had “been committed to resolving the ongoing issue of illegal land occupations through peaceful and constructive dialogue.” It also argued that the company should not be legally liable for abuses that occurred before it acquired the mining site.

A recent investigation conducted by Green Blood, a group of 40 journalists from 15 countries, has raised questions about the environmental impact of the mining industry in El Estor. “Many report similar problems: water shortages, problems growing crops, skin rashes and eye infections,” journalists report in an article published by The Guardian.

On its website, Solway says it strives to minimize the environmental impact of the mining site and that its environmental protection initiatives include water canal maintenance, reforestation, and other programs “to monitor the quality of air, water and soil, noise levels, and the status of local flora and fauna.”

According to the Asociacion Estorena para el Desarrollo Integral (AEPDI), which established Radio Xyaab Tzuultaq’a in 2017, the one-year project supported by WACC has helped many community members to realize “the importance of their own culture and the way they need to draw on it to advance development processes.”

Radio  Xyaab Tzuultaq’a leaders and volunteers

The project also included the purchase of a new console, which has improved the signal that people listen to, and increased the station’s reach to about 90,000 people, the report said.

“The station is far better positioned to become sustainable in the future,” said the AEPDI in a report to WACC.

It will not be an easy path, however, AEPDI acknowledged. “As expected, commercial radio stations are against the community radio station model because they are seen as competition.” It said some commercial radio stations have run disinformation campaigns labelling Radio Xyaab Tzuultaq’a as “a pirate radio station that promotes illegal land occupations.”

The AEPDI noted that prior to the establishment of the radio station, there was a “marked lack of media content that reflects the community’s priorities.” Radio Xyaab Tzuultaq’a, which was established in 2017 with support from WACC and Cultural Survival, seeks to promote Indigenous rights, advocate for the right to land, and to provide the community with relevant content.

“WACC is proud to be partnering with AEPDI to strengthen local communication and community engagement processes,” said Lorenzo Vargas, WACC manager for Communication for Social Change. “ El Estor is a community with a rich history of community involvement and civic participation to promote culturally-sensitive, people-centered development. WACC commends AEPDI on the success of their project.”