Edited by Catherine Nolin and Grahame Russell. Between the Lines: 239 pages, 2021.
It is an old but wise saying that photographs can be more powerful than words. Keeping this in mind helps when reading the painful Testimonio, with its grim accounts of mass graves, genocide, and forensic archaeology. Its powerful words were carefully assembled in part to curb threats of lawsuits, which discouraged publication until the challenge was taken up by the publisher, Between the Lines.
The cover photo of Testimonio shows Mayan farmer Diodora Hernandez looking for a calf while shepherding her cow. Unknown outside a circle of earth defenders, Hernandez should be one of our planet’s icons. She refused to sell her land to a mining company, Montana Exploradora, owned by the Canadian corporation Goldcorp. On July 7, 2010, she was the target of an assassination attempt. She was shot outside her home near the land she was defending. She lost her right eye and the hearing in her right ear. Since the assault she has never been contacted by authorities in Guatemala to investigate her assailants, nor have any members of her family. Mining has disrupted the springs that in the past provided water to her family’s well. The Marlin open pit gold mine for which Hernandez refused to sell her land is now closed, but the struggle continues to clean up the mess it left behind. After five years of closure, no plan has been revealed. The formerly forested mountain destroyed by the gold mine is now a cesspool of a tailings pond. Slowly being covered by grass, it threatens to contaminate ground water.
In a blockade against the Marlin mine, a Mayan group of earth defenders blocked the Pan-American Highway in 2004. The blockade was ended by about a thousand Guatemalan soldiers and police, which led to the death of a Mayan farmer, Raul Castro.
The failure to Guatemalan authorities to prosecute those who attempted to murder Diodora Hernandez illustrates the significance of the Canadian court case waged by Klippensteins Barristers and Solicitors to pursue those who assassinated Mayan land defender Choc Cuz on March 31, 2018. Not only did authorities in Guatemala ignore his death, but they also unleashed a barrage of prosecution against his relatives. Following her husband’s assassination, his widow, Maria Magdalena Cuz, was subjected to criminal harassment.
One of the most moving testaments in Testimonio was given by Jose Ich, penned to bring justice to his father’s killers. It says:
“Right now, during the criminal trial of my dad, not only was the killer acquitted by the trial judge eight years after my dad’s death, but the judge ordered a criminal investigation into my mom. During the entire trial, my mom was intimidated and threatened in so many different ways—and now he is free and the judge wants a criminal investigation into us. What is this?
“Actually, we were all criminalized. The judge said in her ruling that we—the eyewitnesses to my dad’s killing, including me—had to be investigated for our role in the trial. The government and the legal system work like that in Guatemala, so that is one of the reasons we are looking for justice in Canada. And thank god now we have the lawsuits there in court.”
What is most disturbing in Testimonio is that, despite some victories in Canadian courts, the book portrays a shocking pattern of collusion between the Canadian government and Canadian mining companies regarding human rights abuses in Guatemala. The Canadian embassy in Guatemala has served as a public relations agency for its mining companies. Such attitudes may have impacted the Canadian government’s foreign policy, including its closure of a human rights advocacy agency, Rights and Democracy.
Reviewed by John Bacher, an activist based in St. Catharines.