Saturday, February 02, 2008

Guilty gold, and that means yours

Five years ago, I hadn't heard of Tegucigalpa and it's been at least that long since I've played a game of pool, but still I found myself there in October, teaching a group of Guatemalan Mayan men the ropes. Honestly, I wouldn't have been so confident as to teach them had I thought they'd ever played before, because I am a fraud. Knowing only the basic rules, I'm not qualified to be a teacher, but they were eager to learn and I couldn't refuse an opportunity to bond with them outside of the day's more serious agenda.

We were there together, in my most hated city, to learn about the business of gold mines in Central America, how they spray cyanide from sprinkler systems adjacent to the road into town to extract the gold, and how complicated it can be to hold Canadian companies accountable in countries suffering from rampant high-level corruption. Some rules are not meant to be broken, not by anybody, like the ones designed to protect people.

It was nice to relax and shoot some pool after a long days of speaking with locals suffering from heavy metal poisoning, human rights lawyers and doctors.

I was OK, and coming to terms with the effects of environmental ruin and disregard for quality of life, until we met a two-year-old girl with a rigid spine and underdeveloped leg muscles, incapable of walking - a typical result of heavy metal poisoning according to a volunteering Canadian doctor with us. Looking around at her home environment, its steep hills and muddy paths, I knew as well as her mother, that not even a wheelchair will help her. I cried because I was overwhelmed, and so were the Guatemalans.

The group were community representatives had travelled from various areas of the Guatemalan highlands, where the same and more Canadian goldmining companies plan to establish and expand operations. They were here to visit a Honduran community where such a mine has been operating for eight years, and see whether company promises had been kept. For them, everything is at risk, their health, homes and livelihoods. Mining companies have made them lots of promises, touting development and prosperity, but the Guatemalans wanted to see for themselves the reality of the deal on-site in Honduras. So, these few elected representatives travelled by bus from isolated mountain areas, where they live in modest homes, without regular access to phones or internet, to Tegucigalpa. They weren't impressed by what they saw, not at all, and neither was I. They are, however, the ones who'll suffer as they inevitably lose their battle against these major and powerful companies.

I am ashamed that this company is one in which all Canadians are forced to invest through the Canadian Pension Plan and the Quebec Pension Plan, and that I didn't know that before this trip. I tried to communicate that to my Guatemalan companions, when they asked me, an unlikely ambassador, why Canadians allow things like this to happen. Ouch. Apparently, they have more faith in Canadians than I do. The days, hard questions and difficult stories to hear, left me emotionally exhausted, and by the time we shared our nightly meals of overcooked meat, beans, rice and corn tortillas, I just wanted to go to bed.

Limited by our shared vocabularies, we eventually ran out of words for each other. There was nothing more to say but, "godspeed", and we didn't know how. So, we played pool and didn't keep score, instead. We'd shared the human experience, and there were no clear winners.

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