Ph.D Student, Geography
Researching the rights of indigenous Maya communities in Guatemala
By Sharday Mosurinjohn
5th April 2013
While for many PhD students, the cobbling together of a weighty dissertation looms large on the horizon, for Alexandra Pedersen, a second year PhD student in the Department of Geography under the supervision of Dr. George Lovell, her eventual dissertation is, in a sense, secondary to her work. This work began during a Master’s Degree at the University of Northern British Columbia’s (UNBC’s) growing International Studies Program, where the geographer Dr. Catherine Nolin challenged Pedersen to trade her economic development textbooks for firsthand experience of so-called “development” on the ground. Pedersen accepted, and joined Dr. Nolin’s field school to Guatemala in the spring of 2010, beginning what would be an enduring research and activist relationship with the field school’s partner organization Rights Action and Indigenous Maya communities.
In the rural mountain communities of Guatemala, which have for years been under siege from the ecologically invasive and often socially brutal intrusions of mining companies, Pedersen’s whole worldview was shaken up. The local people shared with the Canadian group not just the warmth of their hospitality, feeding them and touring them through the beautiful lands, but also the truth of their experience with Canadian mining companies, whose details are often suppressed by both nations’ governments in favour of maintaining an appearance of positive economic relationships. “We had hiked a long way up to a meeting pavilion with the entire community,” recalls Pedersen. “Through a three-way translation between English, Spanish, and the Indigenous Q’eqchi’ Maya language, the community’s men came forward and spoke of being twice evicted by a mining company, and of the trauma of forced relocation,” then, she recounts “the women came forward. They told us how they had been gang raped by members of HudBay Minerals’ mining security, members of the Guatemalan national police, and members of the Guatemalan military who work to enforce the wishes of Canadian mining companies in resource-rich areas of Guatemala. I don’t even remember walking back down that mountain.”
From that time forward, Pedersen vowed that her research would first and foremost address the needs of the Guatemalan activists together in transnational solidarity. “Mining plays huge role in blocking self-determination of Indigenous communities,” explains Pedersen, “and it’s an unfortunate commonplace that many research development projects go in, capture information, and walk away with it, never to return. This kind of work contributes to the important goal of understanding the economic, political, and social dimensions of these situations, but it does little to benefit the researched.” In fact, when Pedersen brought back all of her research materials – recordings, interview transcripts, fieldnotes, etc. – to her first study population, their response was “we never thought we’d see you again!” Now, working with two communities that have maintained a peaceful roadblock at La Puya for the past year, Pedersen has committed to a collaborative project before addressing the elements required for her dissertation. “Perhaps this project might take the form of a testimonial timeline of events, or something else that captures the affect of the situation. Or maybe they’ll want me to come back and speak on certain issues. However it turns out, it will be directed by members of the community.”
Pedersen’s first round of doctoral fieldwork took place in May 2012, with the same field school that introduced her to the reality of discrepancies between the pursuit of economic “development” agendas and the safeguarding of human rights for Indigenous Guatemalans – a reality that, despite the unwavering commitment to peace from the La Puya roadblock, is only becoming more violent; in the last year one of Pedersen’s key informants was shot because of her anti-mining activism. Pedersen stayed on after the class left to conduct further interviews, including a follow-up interview with the survivor of the shooting, and to volunteer with Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), a forensic anthropology team which is engaged in the long process of exhuming and DNA matching remains from Guatemala’s thirty-six year internal armed conflict (1960-1996). “By identifying victims of the genocide,” explains Pedersen, “we give these formerly anonymous bones life again.”
Peaceful roadblocks in La Puya held by the communities San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayumpac.
While in Canada, Pedersen continues to seek ways to serve the cause. As a member of the Guatemala/Canada Solidarity Network, she does public speaking engagements whenever possible on campus, at local rotary clubs, and in other venues. From her office in Mackintosh-Corry Hall, Room D316, Pedersen also sells delicious Guatemalan coffee whose proceeds go to support Campesino farmers. In her spare time, when she’s not helping to adjudicate ethics applications on her unit Research Ethics Board (REB) or spearheading local Graduate student rights initiatives, Pedersen is also improving her Spanish by taking language courses at St. Lawrence College. You can find out more about Pedersen’s current research by tuning in to an upcoming broadcast of Curiosity Driven (You can also listen to a preview of the interview).