As I prepare to participate in a human rights and solidarity delegation to Guatemala with School of Americas Watch, I’ve been doing much research on mining and its impact on indigenous peoples. International mining projects have increased dramatically in Guatemala over the last decade, as well as community movements opposed to them on human rights, cultural, and environmental grounds. These movements have often been met with political repression and violence.
Background: In 1997, one year after the signing of the Peace Accords ending Guatemala’s civil war, the government made changes to the mining law in an effort to attract foreign investment. Under the new law, rather than being required to pay 6% of royalties to the Guatemalan government as per the previous law, corporations now were obligated to pay a mere 1%. International companies were allowed to own up to 100% of the concession, and were required to pay no import taxes for machinery and equipment for mining.
These measures, along with a sharp increase in the value of precious metals, low operating costs, and inadequate enforcement of labor and environmental laws by the Guatemalan government have made mining extremely lucrative for foreign corporations.
Impacts of mining on local communities
Residents living in the area of the Marlin Mine, operated by Canadian corporation Goldcorp, have reported an increase in livestock deaths, miscarriages, and skin disorders. Their homes have cracked from the force of the explosions. There is risk of cyanide exposure, heavy metals contamination, and substantial water loss to the community, and numerous other negative effects detailed here.
Due to the non-sustainable nature of mining, there are concerns that the effects of current projects can last generations, resulting in health problems, contamination of land used for farming, and resulting economic hardship. In addition, Mayan community leaders have spoken about the conflict between violent, commercial exploitation of the land and indigenous beliefs which call for a respect and reverence for the earth.
When I discuss this issues with other Americans, often the response is “Wait – aren’t people in these communities impoverished? Don’t the mines bring work and local investment?” The reality is, while international corporations have reaped enormous profits from mining, local communities have seen scant financial benefit. In a study conducted by Tufts University , researchers concluded that “when juxtaposed against the long-term and uncertain environmental risk, the economic benefits of the mine to Guatemala and especially to local communities are meager and short-lived.”
Communities have mobilized in response to the expansion of mining companies. More than 65 community consultations have been held in Guatemala since 2005; most of them have voted “no” to mining projects on their lands. Local activists have engaged in non-violent protests, including blocking the entry of mining companies into their communities, meetings with government officials, and marches to mine sites. These actions have often been met with intimidation and violence by mining security and the Guatemalan government. Protestors have been threatened, injured and killed. A group of 13 Mayan Q’eqchi’ are suing Canadian corporation HudBay for 2009 incidents in which women were raped, one man murdered and another left paralyzed by mine security guards.
In a disturbing trend that has reached into other areas of political protest in Guatemala, activists have been “criminalized” by the state – arrested and then forced to fight spurious criminal charges. In 2013, Yolanda Oqueli, a leader of Frente Norte del Área Metropolitana (FRENAM), was shot as a result of her non-violent activism protesting El Tambor mine at La Puya. She and seven other community members will be in court today to face unfounded charges that include threats, coercion and kidnapping.
In a follow-up post, I’ll take about some of the solidarity opportunities available in the area of mining and human rights in Guatemala. For now, I highly recommend this article for further information, as well as the Rights Action website. Lastly, the 2005 documentary “Sikapa No Se Vende” by Alvaro Revenga, reports on the community resistance to the Marlin Mine. It is available in its entirety on YouTube. Here is Part I: