Every national capital has a neighbourhood like Guatemala City’s Zona 10.
There the elite put their wealth on display.
Hotels, shopping centres and a host of franchise restaurants seem to try very hard to overcome any imagined stigma attached to being a Central American republic.
Embassies also gravitate towards the well-lit and patrolled neighbourhoods.
The guard boxes and car bomb barriers draw extra attention towards the US Embassy. Off its location on the main drag, Avenida Reforma, the residential side streets exhibit a similar unease; security walls are topped with broken glass or razor wire.
What makes all the security necessary?
Maybe, just maybe, could it be the enormous disparity that exists between the rich and the poor in Guatemala?
The CIA handbook cites the fact that the top 10 per cent of Guatemalan households had 46 per cent of the country’s recorded income while the bottom 10 per cent had just 1.6 per cent.
Ironically, one other source I came across noted that the USA and Guatemala tied in this income disparity category.
Sipakapa, Guatemala, lays about 150 kilometres north and west of Guatemala City.
However, it’s about as far from Zona 10 as it could possibly be.
Last week, Juan Tema, an indigenous leader from Sipakapa, spoke at the Annual General Meeting of the Social Justice Committee of Montreal.
He was on tour and speaking in Canada about his community’s resistance to the Marlin open-pit gold mine operating near his home.
Tema ultimately hoped to speak to Glamis shareholders at their AGM in Toronto. Glamis Gold Ltd. a US-based and Canadian-registered mining company runs the Marlin Mine.
He looked a little road weary as I sat down with him prior to his presentation.
“We all had great expectations of change when the peace accords were signed in 1996,” he said.
The peace ostensibly ended a 36-year-long war. The majority of the war’s casualties were indigenous civilians.
His community knows that it continues to be left on the economic margins of Guatemalan society. Seventy-five per cent of all Guatemalans slip below the official poverty line.
“Now we have realized nothing has changed,” lamented Tema.
“The mine and the government insist it is real development but we are fighting to say that we need real social programs, he said.
“They say we are ignorant people and don’t understand this development, but we have another view of development.
“We are not fighting over money, but we are fighting for the purity of the environment.
“They are systematically destroying us.”
Tema knows that the cards are stacked against his community.
Powerful economic interests have been buttressed by World Bank loans and government concessions.
“Regardless of the beautiful laws passed, rich people can do what they want,” he said.
Tema’s words mirror development concerns of other First Nation leaders.
Speaking on the pending pipeline development down the Mackenzie 30 years after the Berger Commission concluded, Stephen Kakfwi, former premier of the NWT, noted: “There are no guarantees that things are going to be different this time around.
“We are still fighting to preserve our lands, our heritage, and our future as Aboriginal peoples.
“Economic development has a place, but only on our terms. There must be careful planning to ensure that the land is protected first.”
Beyond the acidic rock drainage, cyanide leaching into ground water and a host of other environmental concerns about the Marlin mine, there is a more basic question for the people of Sipakapa and surrounding communities.
From Bolivia to Nigeria, Venezuela to East Timor the same question is being asked: who are the resources for anyway?