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Guatemalan visits Montevideo as he uses community media to document the resistance of indigenous peoples

Juan Pablo Guzmán broadcast the community meeting, top, in Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala, via UStream. Guzmán spoke in Montevideo on Tuesday about the role of independent, citizen communicators who are recording the resistance of indigenous peoples in Guatemala. Submitted photo

The YouTube video shows a line of women defiantly linking arms and blocking access to a mine while singing the Guatemalan national anthem. The leader of the miners being denied access can be seen venting his anger through a bullhorn at the young man videotaping the confrontation, allegedly threatening at one point to cut off his fingers and those of the others with cameras in hand.

Carrying the camera to confrontations like these is all done on a voluntary basis, said the man who held the camera, Juan Pablo Guzmán.

The 29-year-old Guatemalan was in Montevideo this week to tell the story of how he and others are using community media to document social resistance in Guatemala by the country’s indigenous peoples. Earlier on Tuesday, Guzmán toured the offices of Pioneer Public Television in Appleton and talked about how relatively low-cost consumer electronics can be used to reach communities where access to the Internet or even broadcast television is limited at best.

The video recordings and audio tapes are placed on the Internet and broadcast on local radio stations in Guatemala. Yet the bigger audience is probably those who pass on DVD recordings of the same, which they can pop into DVD players in their homes.

“It’s more like person-to-person, voice-to-voice sharing of information,’’ said Guzmán through his interpreter, Ellen Moore. She works with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, a non-governmental agency monitoring human rights in the country as it emerges from 36 years of civil war and military rule.

Guzmán has a day job but devotes much of his time and energy to the Center for Independent Media in Guatemala. He is among 15 volunteers teaching others throughout the country how to use community media.

Guzmán has taken on this role for five years now, and has been witness to a wide range of resistance.

He is preparing a documentary on an Oct. 4, 2012, incident when government troops are alleged to have killed six indigenous people blocking the Pan American Highway. Nine soldiers have been charged in the incident.

He is documenting the ongoing resistance of residents north of Guatemala City to the opening of a 5,000-acre gold mine by a U.S. company, Kapper and Cassidy Associates.

He’s also investigating a case dating to the early 1980s when the military government allegedly stole the land of indigenous people near Nebaj, in the district of El Quiché.

Guzmán said that many indigenous communities in the country are resisting large-scale projects for mineral mines, hydro-electric dams, highways and electric transmission lines. In many cases, the people fear they will be displaced from their lands, as happened to many indigenous communities during the years of military rule.

Guatemalan law allows communities to hold referendums on large-scale projects. Yet many charge that the government continues to place the rights of corporations over the collective rights of indigenous people, he said.

The citizen journalists see their role as documenting what is happening, and giving voice to the indigenous people. “People ask for the media to be there with them, to film what’s going on, to document what’s going on,’’ he said.  

The citizen journalists feel they are having an impact. Moore said they brought the mine leader who threatened them with harm for filming to court, and won.

And increasingly, the works they are disseminating as DVDs and as YouTube videos on the Internet are getting attention. Enough so that the privately owned, mainstream media is finding it impossible to ignore what is going on and are covering some of the same events, according to Guzmán.

“The mass media tries to minimize that there are these conflicts going on all over the country,’’ said Guzmán. “They often times say that it’s just a small group of people against development. So the importance of these local media images is to show that is not necessarily true.’’

To learn about the Center for Independent Media in Guatemala:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335