Miriam Pixtun has successfully led the movement known as ‘La Puya,’ a movement of indigenous Guatemalans opposing the construction of the El Tambor gold mine in their homeland. In March 2012, Pixtun led the creation of a blockade of El Tambor. The blockade is manned in shifts 24 hours a day, preventing access to and operation of the mine for more than two years.
Pixtun and La Puya have continued in the face of repeated threats, intimidation and violence, including the attempted assassination of another La Puya leader in 2012. In September 2013, unknown gunmen opened fire in the main street of Pixtun’s hometown, killing 11 and injuring 15. La Puya also faces legal intimidation, and three La Puya members have each been sentenced to nine years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Violent repression of environmental activists is common in Guatemala, and Pixtun has admitted that sometimes she fears for her life. She recognizes the danger of her work, but refuses to be dissuaded, saying, “We know that we could die in this struggle, but it is a just and necessary fight, and no matter what, we are all going to die. It is better to die defending life than not doing anything. At least our grandchildren will be able to say that we fought for something important – life in its many forms.”
In May 2014, the Guatemalan government violently evicted La Puya from the blockade camp it had occupied for more than 2 years, using heavy machinery and approximately 500 police officers. The police used clubs, stones, and teargas and injured 23 people in the eviction. In the face of this violence, Pixtun and the rest of La Puya bravely returned to continue the blockade, even though they are now surrounded by a constant police presence to add to the intimidation.
Despite the massive intimidation she faces, Pixtun did a speaking tour with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in late 2014. She traveled the U.S. sharing the story of La Puya and emphasizing the shared struggle of indigenous communities around the world. Pixtun ended her trip with a day of direct action at the headquarters of Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, the U.S. mining company that owns El Tambor.
During her speaking tour, Pixtun encouraged others to get involved, saying, “I just want to extend an invitation to all of the people here, an invitation to lose your fear. Because when we lose our fear, we will be able to see that we have rights, especially rights to a dignified life. It’s important to lose this fear in order to live this dignified life. And so I invite all of you to join us in the struggle, whether here or in Guatemala, and to understand that today we have the opportunity to do something to make a difference.”
La Puya has also gained international attention. The Nation called it “a national example of peaceful protest,” and La Puya’s camp at El Tambor has been visited by groups from Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and the U.S.
In addition to challenging foreign companies and her own government, Miriam Pixtun has also challenged the machismo that was once predominant in her community. Before her work against El Tambor, Pixtun worked with the Indigenous Women’s Movement Tz’ununja’, where she dedicated more than five years to working for the rights of indigenous women. Tz’ununja’s mission is to bring together indigenous women’s organizations to demand greater participation in decision-making and promote individual and collective rights through policy proposals, lawsuits, and other programs.
In a society where politics, activism, and leadership are the territory of men, Pixtun broke with tradition to take the lead in her community and in the anti-mining movement. Her trailblazing work has led to a significant improvement in relationships between men and women. Women were once loath to speak out, but now, because of Miriam Pixtun, women are able to speak and be heard.
Miriam Pixtun exemplifies the qualities and spirit of the Women Have Wings award. With few resources, she has worked tirelessly for the rights of indigenous people, particularly indigenous women. In the face of violence and oppression, Pixtun has fought passionately and skillfully for indigenous peoples in an environment in which their rights are almost wholly disregarded and their plight largely ignored. Awarding her this prize would honour and support the crucial work that she is doing, work that she does with little recognition, little support, and enormous opposition.