Making Change in Hostile Conditions

A Yukon labour leader and two other Yukoners recently joined forces with two human rights organizations on a mission to help improve conditions in south-west Guatemala.

Steve Geick, president of the Yukon Employees Union, was part of a 12-person team that visited Guatemala from March 21 to April 4, under the auspices of Guatemala’s Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA) and the Canadian-sponsored human rights organization, Education in Action.

Other Yukoners included the husband-and-wife team of Jean-François DesLauriers and Sylvie Léonard, of Whitehorse.

Both the CCDA and Education in Action aim at promoting human rights, nutrition, housing and medical care for lower-class citizens of the Central American republic.

The group, which included an interpreter, flew to the country’s capital before heading to the village of St. Lucas.

“Our goal was to help build roofs for the school and community centre,” Geick says. “We were also there to be more aware of the infringements of basic human rights these people are experiencing every day.”

Although they were there to volunteer, the Canadian visitors were not immune to some frightening experiences, beginning shortly after their arrival.

“When we first landed in Guatemala City, we went to a car rental place. It was night time, and while we were waiting for our car, we wanted to go outside for some fresh air,” Geick says.

“The lady working there stopped us right away and told us that gringos (Caucasians) would get robbed or shot if they stood outside in the middle of the night.”

This wasn’t the only time the group was in fear.

“We were supposed to visit the city of Cobain to help with building a school,” Geick explains.

“When we got there, we were told that we could no longer go. Apparently a neighboring plantation was forcing the inhabitants of the village to leave, and were using 30 armed men to evacuate everyone,” he says.

“The village people were being locked in a church and being threatened to burn if they did not co-operate. What’s worse is that the court prosecutor was the brother of the plantation owner.”

Luckily, Geick says, the CCDA was able to intervene and prevent casualties.

Despite such horrendous scenarios, the volunteers made it safely to San Lucas, where they learned more about the role of the CCDA, including one of its main goals, promoting agricultural sustainability.

Geick also had a chance to experience first-hand the extreme poverty of the region.

“We were put into groups of three and given 14 quetzales, which is equivalent to $2 Canadian. We were told we had to buy food for a family,” he says.

“Well, that was not an easy task, as the bus ride to and from the market eats up one-third of that,” Geick says.

Since the CCDA has been in San Lucas, it has set up fish farms, and gardens for produce. Another area of focus is medical attention for the inhabitants. Geick used his nursing background to assist the local doctors with administering care.

“It was really great to help out where I could. And the people were extremely grateful and spent hours celebrating everything we had done for them. I just wish we could have done more,” he says.

“The entire experience was a huge eye opener to the issues that are taking place there.”

Next month, Geick is scheduled to do a presentation on the trip at the Yukon Convention Centre.

Angela Szymczuk is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer.

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