PBI has been accompanying Multisector Chinautla for 5 years. The residents of the municipality of Chinautla, located about 10 kilometers from the capital city, are organized into different collectives, all of whom are affected by large-scale clay extraction. Clay mining activities in the area have been present for decades, but the form of mining has changed drastically over time. Fifty years ago, clay was extracted on a small scale for the purpose of artisanal production in the area. However, during Arnoldo Medrano's term as mayor (1986-2014),1 he began the process of industrial extraction using machinery and trucks from the capital. The licenses to extract clay on a large scale were granted by the mayor but without consultation with the affected communities. The right to free, prior and informed consent is one of Multisector’s demands.
Another problem which has had a huge impact on the population of this area is the pollution from the rivers that carry waste from the garbage dump in Zone 3 of the capital. As a result of this situation, the communities decided to establish a sit-in at km 12 in June 2022, to call attention to these problems, demand the closure of the clay companies and actions by the municipality of Guatemala City to control the diversion of their waste into the rivers that flow through the municipality.
A series of reports from various state institutions have highlighted that "Chinautla is located on the earth from an ancient landslide in a geologically unstable area due to the existence of several faults, in addition to other anthropogenic activities such as the increase in housing, illegal garbage dumps, deforestation for agricultural use" and the "lack of land use planning." According to a study carried out by Alejandro del Aguila, these reports repeatedly deny, or try to diminish, the relationship between the extraction by the clay companies and the gradual but continuous destruction of infrastructure and housing in the area.
During one of our visits to the Multisector sit-in, Efraín Martínez, a Poqomán authority and one of the community leaders of the Resistance, took us for a walk along the roadside to show us the damage being caused by sand extraction and the constant truck traffic passing. It was even difficult to sustain a conversation with the constant noise.
Listen to some minutes of the background noise of the sit-in:
The residents we visited shared with us how the deterioration of the houses and the road that passes through the clay pits and continues to Chuarrancho began to intensify 10 years ago. The earth broke loose and sank some 2-3 meters, causing the road to break and some of the houses on the side of the road to collapse. Efraín explains that the clay companies originally had permits to dig one meter deep, but in reality they dig to a depth of four or five meters. They also ignore the limits on the number of clay trucks that can enter per day. These activities cause holes in the ground that fill with water and loosen the subsoil. The permanent heavy haulage leads to the deterioration of the asphalt on the road. The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) has made four inspections of the clay companies over the last 25 years to verify that they are complying with the excavation permits, but apparently did not take note of the damage that has occurred. Nor did they react to two reports from the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (CONRED) which confirmed the concerns of neighbors about their homes and land in Chinautla.
Visits to the neighborhood
We pass by the house of Don Juan José, 2 who has lived on the side of the road for 35 years, since he bought the land where he built a house for his family. However, 10 years ago, the land under his house began to collapse, which ended up taking his son's house, built in front of his own, with it. To stabilize his own house he has built a 3-4 meter high hill, made of tires filled with sand, to prevent future landslides.
Going down the road towards the sand pits, we meet Carmen, who invites us to see her land, on which there are two houses made of wood and corrugated iron sheets. "Ten years ago our house began sinking, little by little, within two years our house was completely gone. The place where we’re standing now is filled with earth, but it used to be our house. And we can't make a nice house with bricks anymore, because it's going to be ruined again with the earth movements and from the trucks." She shows us a house three meters away that is almost two meters higher than where we are standing. The house that disappeared used to be on the same height. Carmen, who is 35 years old and was born here, tells us that she has seen many changes over time: "I remember when I was seven years old, there were crops on the river bank, tomatoes, flowers, chilies, herbs, achiote, there grew the grandparents; and beautiful streams where we went to wash clothes." These crops had been enough to ensure the livelihood of the population, but the increase of clay extractions caused a crisis. "Nothing grows on the riverbank anymore, which is full of garbage coming from the capital. Nowadays people have to go to the capital to look for work; women wash clothes, clean houses, or buy and sell different products, that’s the only way to generate income."
Another serious problem that this crisis has caused is the lack of water. "They send us water for an hour every eight days, sometimes every 15, and it can come at any hour, so we have to be attentive to fill the barrels. A barrel for washing clothes and bathing lasts us three days. We have to buy bottled water that cost us between Q10 and Q16 each for drinking and cooking, and we need about three or more a week, just to make fresh coffee and soup."
Doña Manuela’s is a potter and mother. We observe how the roadside in front of her house is broken causing the road to her house to narrow, while the road itself has sunk by about two meters. She confirms the water shortage they are experiencing, because "we only get water every eight days. And when we run out, we have to go to the municipal swimming pool that is two kilometers from here, we have to go by bus, we have to look for water to wash everything, for the clothes and for the family." Pointing to the river that passes in front of her house, about 100 meters away, she recalls how "there used to be water here, there used to be beautiful water. There were tomato and apazote plants. But now you can't find any of that anymore. Everything has been lost because of the polluted water they are sending us. That's why we don't grow anything anymore. The capital sends all its sewage through here, when it rains, the river swells with all the dirt that comes, it’s a horrendous smell, a stench, and we have to put up with it because we live here."
Apart from the smell of the waste, which hangs in the air, the population also has to put up with the noise and dust caused by the trucks that pass by daily from 6:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. "Look at how the streets are, the municipality doesn't clean them. The dust rises from the trucks; we hang out our clothes to dry and after a while one shakes them out and they are full of dust. We're used to the dust, we don't feel it anymore because it's an everyday thing.”
On the way back to the sit-in, Efraín shares with us that the population of the municipality (18,000, mostly Maya Pocomán people) is deeply affected by the pollution. These impacts translate mainly into digestive and respiratory illnesses. "Young people have died here from lung diseases. We are affected by the bad smells, especially when the river rises, because it gives off a very acidic, unpleasant smell that makes you sick to your stomach.” And what does the Ministry of Health say about this situation, which was also pointed out in the above-mentioned CONRED reports? Efrain recalls that in 2008 there were meetings with a doctor from this ministry. "The doctor was very much in agreement with us and said that we had to collaborate more with the Pocomán population, and in fact he had data on the effects of the bad odors from the river basin, because about 10 days after his visit two doctors came to treat some affected people, but they only came twice and from there nothing more; and the doctor from the ministry was transferred to another place. And since then we’ve heard nothing."
On the way back to the sit-in – on a plateau of about 25 square meters sitting next to the road, at a crossing that descends to the river – they show us a video recorded a week ago, in which a clay truck fell into the river, 20 meters from where we are standing; and a few meters further down two houses were being dragged into the river. We also observe that trucks pass by here and dump gravel into the river without any checks.
Martín, a 28 year-old man from one of the 60 families who lost their land and were relocated to the Ponderosa canton, tells us that his grandfather had 32 manzanas of land to farm and all kinds of animals in the Amatitlancito canton. In 2000 their house began to sink and in 2006 the first houses began to collapse. Two years later they were relocated. "The claypits destroyed our land and caused us economic and psychological damage. In La Ponderosa they gave us a piece of land of 10 by 15 meters, nothing more. They gave us nothing for construction. We had to start from scratch and that costs a lot. And now we are here hoping that this forced migration doesn't happen to the other families who are in danger because it’s very hard." We asked him what was left of her grandfather's land: "the deeds, a piece of paper, but the land itself is now like a broken egg and we only have a couple of blocks left. It is split by the river and by land extraction. There has been no compensation for the damages and losses. Now we rent land to plant corn and beans because that’s what we live on, but we don't have enough land to feed ourselves.
The residents tell us that the former Mayor Medrano will not give them land titles for their new homes if they do not vote for his family and allies in the elections.
What it takes to resist
The people who participate in the Resistance have experienced different kinds of reprisals: entire cantons are denied the already scarce access to water; others are threatened with road closures; transporters are denied contracts; potters are threatened with restrictions on access to clay and high charges for using it. Efraín and another companion were criminalized by the clay extraction companies in 2017 when a company's machinery undermined the base of a bridge that then collapsed. "We agreed to no longer let vehicles pass and they accused us of impeding free movement." In 2022, again Efrain and six other colleagues were criminalized. They were accused of the crimes of impeding free movement and threats. The proceedings were stalled by the prosecution, because according to Efraín there were no elements to prosecute them, they only "wanted to instill fear" in them and that this "punishment" would serve to dissuade other people from participating in the social struggle to defend their right to land, water and decent housing.
1Arnoldo Medrano was elected mayor in 1986 and re-elected six consecutive times. In 2015 he was arrested and is being prosecuted in different legal cases and for various crimes, such as embezzlement, falsification of documents, use of forged documents, fraud, illicit association and money laundering. According to investigations by the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP) and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), he established "a family network of corruption" to loot the municipality of Chinautla during the 30 years of his administration (information extracted from several articles of Prensa Libre and elPeriódico between 2015 and 2017).
2Por seguridad, y a petición de los y las vecinas que dieron sus testimonios para este artículo, se utilizaron nombres ficticios, excepto en el caso de Efraín Martínez.