LA PUYA, Guatemala (CNS) — For more than a year, Modesta Hernandez and some of her neighbors clung tenaciously to a small stretch of dirt road in the mountains of Guatemala, preventing vehicles from entering the site of a proposed gold mine. In May, hundreds of riot police pushed them out of the way. Today, the mine is under construction and vehicles come and go, yet Hernandez still keeps vigil at its entrance.
The presence of the church at her side keeps her from losing hope, said the 66-year old Catholic woman.
“We won’t let hope die just because they knocked us down. We are on the side of Mother Nature and the God of life, and we’ll stay until they stop bothering us. And having the church on our side helps us know we’re not alone. The priests encourage us and give us strength to continue forward,” Hernandez told Catholic News Service.
Hernandez lives in San Jose del Golfo, the closest town to the gold mine being opened by Kappes, Cassiday & Associates of Reno, Nevada. The town’s Catholic priest does not support the protest and has not made an appearance at the mine entrance. The priest in Carrizal, another nearby town, is a bit more supportive. While he has not appeared at the “resistance camp,” last May he let activists ring the church bell to call residents to resist police.
So it has fallen on Catholic leaders from other areas to accompany the protesters, who are concerned about the health and environmental impacts of the mine.
Father Mario Absalon Alvarado Tovar, a Missionary of Sacred Heart priest, comes from Guatemala City once a month to celebrate Mass.
When Father Alvarado celebrated Mass at the mine entrance Dec. 7, he and some 50 faithful were surrounded by an equal number of police, who maintain a permanent presence to ensure the protesters do not block the road again.
Father Alvarado, the provincial for his order in Central America, said he has been coming to the site for more than two years.
“When I first came, I expected to find a bunch of hardened activists,” he told Catholic News Service. “Yet instead I found a bunch of church people, catechists, eucharistic ministers. I found a lot of faith. And they wanted us to celebrate the Eucharist with them.”
Since police won’t let the protesters block the road, the altar is on one side of the road and most of the people on the other. During the Dec. 7 Mass, a police vehicle twice slowly drove through the middle of the Mass.
Father Alvarado says he is unfazed by the police presence.
“That’s where Jesus preached, in the streets, with the police of his time looking on. We’re just doing what Jesus would do,” he said.
The mining issue has divided the church in Guatemala. Three bishops have taken public positions on the side of those who resist the rapid expansion of extractive industries, but the remainder of the episcopal conference has kept relatively quiet on the theme, or issued what Father Alvarado characterized as “sugar-coated pronouncements.”
Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri of Huehuetenango, whose support for environmental activists has earned him death threats, has twice visited the protesters in La Puya.
Jose Angel Llamas, a Catholic activist from San Jose del Golfo, said the protesters are not planning on abandoning their vigil at the mine entrance. He said they maintain several legal actions aimed to force the mine to stop operations.
“Although the transnational corporations and the government are aligned against us, we’re here because there’s a deep faith among the people. It keeps us struggling for the right to have clean water and a dignified life,” he said.
Catholic News Service contacted Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, and its president forwarded queries to the mine manager, who did not respond.
Father Jose Antonio Pacheco, a Jesuit who works with youth under a bridge in a poor area of Guatemala City, also comes regularly to La Puya. He was there May 23, when more than 20 people were injured when police cleared protesters from the mine entrance.
“People had been here resisting peacefully, but the state came with tear gas and riot police. The community was defending their right to water and life, but the state was defending the interests of the mining company,” Father Pacheco said.
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
PREVIOUS: Speaking of families, pope is eager to join them in Philadelphia
NEXT: As nuns face off against traffickers, priests asked to join the fight
Share this story