Undermining human rights: A report back from northwestern Guatemala

Jen Moore Latin America Program Coordinator Jennifer Moore works to support communities, organizations, and networks in the region struggling with mining conflicts.

The Marlin mineDespite repeated recommendations from the international community during 2010 to suspend Goldcorp’s controversial Marlin mine in the northwestern highlands of Guatemala, the open-pit mine continues operating. Its presence in the indigenous municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipacapa has led to allegations of serious human rights violations and social upheaval.

In February, the International Labour Organization (ILO) recommended that the Marlin mine be suspended for having failed to ensure the right of communities to free, prior and informed consent under ILO Convention 169. A few months later, following a visit to Guatemala, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms further reaffirmed that “projects that have a significant impact on the rights of indigenous peoples, like the Marlin mine, should not be implemented without the consent of affected indigenous communities.”

Then on May 20th 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHRC) also ordered the Guatemalan government to suspend the Marlin mine to ensure the safety of human rights and environmental defenders while it investigates complaints. The Guatemalan government agreed, but has not enforced the order.

San Marcos, Guatemala

In the meantime, threats against activists have reportedly increased, while worries over the alleged role of the mine in contamination of local water supplies, dried up wells, skin disease and cracked homes persist.

In November, a delegation of the International Coalition Against Unjust Mining in Guatemala (CAMIGUA) visited communities in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, department of San Marcos.

CAMIGUA works with Guatemalan allies to support mining-affected communities in defence of their territories and human rights. The delegation included representatives from the Network in Solidarity with the Peoples of Guatemala (NISGUA), the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), MiningWatch Canada and Breaking the Silence.

The delegation met with local residents and activists, as well as leaders of the church, local development organizations and legal support groups allied with the local struggle in defence of land and healthy communities.

Delegation meets with Francisco BámacaFrancisco Bámaca lives in the community of San José Ixcaniche, near the Marlin mine. He worked for Goldcorp’s fully owned subsidiary, Montana Exploradora S.A., when it was being built and again once it entered production.

He recalls when prospectors first arrived in San Miguel around fifteen years ago, and says the community was led to believe that it was orchids, not silver and gold, that the newcomers were after. Only years later, after key lands had been purchased and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) had approved the company’s Environmental Impact Assessment was the project’s real objective widely known, says Francisco. Potential impacts of the mine were never openly discussed, he adds, and the community’s consent never adequately obtained.

Francisco says his relationship with the company turned sour when his family refused to sell land to the company. They knew about others that had sold their land and moved away, and who had not done very well.

The delegation views the Marlin tailings impoundmentIt was early 2007, on a day when Francisco was away from work that he was charged with aggravated assault against two security guards at the mine. He denies having anything to do with this and believes that he was charged because the company could find no other reason to get rid of him. “[The company] concluded that my opinions were not aimed at their growth,” he says. He is still dealing with the legal implications of this charge, which resulted in a two-year sentence during which he was prohibited from participating in any local meetings.

Now in its fifth year of operation, the Marlin mine will generate an estimated 58 million tons of waste rock and tailings over the life of the mine. According to the Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) of the Diocese of San Marcos, the mine also uses an estimated 250,000 litres of water per hour or what a typical family in San Marcos would use in 22 years.

Since it began operating, six sources of water have reportedly dried up. Furthermore, a study by the University of Ghent found elevated levels of arsenic in rivers near the Marlin mine, while preliminary results from a study by the University of Michigan and Physicians for Human Rights shows heightened levels of heavy metals in the blood and urine of people living close to the mine.

Crisanta Hernández PérezIn September 2010, MARN made criminal allegations against Montana Exploradora demanding an investigation of an unauthorized discharge of residual waters from the tailings pond at the Marlin mine raising concerns about possible contamination of the Quivichil River, which flows into the Cuilco river and onto Mexico.

“They say this is development for San Miguel, but what they’re developing are cracked homes and social conflicts,” said Crisanta Hernández Pérez.

Our delegation crowds into Crisanta’s bedroom to look at the cracks that zigzag across the adobe walls of her home in the community of Ágel. She points to a crack that runs from floor to ceiling, letting light and air through.

Crack in Crisanta Hernández'' houseCrisanta recalls that she worked hard to save money before she had children in order to pay for her three-room dwelling. She worked on sugar cane farms in the lowlands, where workers toil often for less than minimum wage. “I ate only tortillas and salt to save money,” she recounts. Although it might seem humble by North American standards, she says, “This is a good house for us,” adding, “it was solid.”

Crisanta blames blasting at the nearby mine for the damage to her house. In a study released in November 2009, cracked walls and floors were found in over 100 homes in four villages near the mine. Investigators concluded that mining activity is the most likely cause of the damage, further indicating that the company would have a difficult time refuting local claims given lack of any baseline study prior to operations.

Crisanta also describes deep fissures in the social fabric of communities living near the Marlin mine.

Now a mother of three, Crisanta is one of eight women with a warrant out for her arrest. The warrants were issued when the women demonstrated solidarity for a local activist who shorted out electrical lines to the mine installed on her land allegedly without her consent. “I haven’t done anything against the company to deserve an arrest warrant,” states Crisanta. She believes such criminalization is aimed at silencing her and others resisting the mine.

Tools of democracy - Huitán, GuatemalaIt does not stop her, however, from speaking with international delegations. She urges us to share her message even though being outspoken comes at the cost of relationships with neighbours and, sometimes, family members. She links violent incidents against her family to their opposition to the mine. People in favour of the mine have employed various tactics to intimidate those opposed, including glares and insults to death threats and armed attacks. In July 2010, Diodora Hernández Cinto, another of the women with a warrant out for her arrest, was shot and wounded in one eye.

Distressed by the way that her life is coming apart, Crisanta says, “We would like the company to leave and pay for our homes because this is already too much for us.”

Promoted by the World Bank, the Canadian Embassy, and the mining industry in Guatemala as a model for future mining developments, the Marlin mine has instead become a symbol of what many Guatemalans do not want.

The consulta - Huitán, GuatemalaTo date, forty-seven community referendums have been held across in the country in which roughly 700,000 Guatemalans have pronounced themselves opposed to metallic mining. A public opinion survey carried out by the Association for Investigation and Social Studies (ASIES) in October 2009, further indicates that 57% of Guatemalans living in mining-affected areas reject this activity for the country.

On November 20th 2010, the forty-sixth consultation process took place by ballot in the municipality of Huitán in the department of Quetzaltenango. Our delegation watched voters go to the polls and met with local organizing committees in the town of Huitán and in three smaller communities nearby.

An exploration licence spanning over twice the surface area of the small municipality has been granted to Goldcorp’s Montana Exploradora. It overlaps with the mountain known as Txmuj or “The Foot of the Cloud.” According to local organizers, Txmuj is a source of water for three municipalities, feeding two river systems and numerous springs.

During the day, people from the ages of eight to one hundred were called out to vote. One organizer said it is important to involve children and youth in such a process because “it is their future inheritance that is being decided upon.”

The delegation: Jamie Kneen, Jackie MacVicar, Caitlyn Dunklee, Kris Genovese, Amanda Kistler, Jen Moore, and François Guindon (left to right)Overall, 53% of voters from nineteen communities cast their ballot, with 6,648 against and only thirty in favour of mining, demonstrating growing resistance to destructive mining practices in Guatemala.

Recognizing that “the Guatemalan state's most valuable resources is the life of its citizens” rather than gold, over 100 international organizations signed a letter to President Álvaro Colom on November 15th 2010 urging the Guatemalan government to suspend the Marlin mine according to the precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. While awaiting a response, CAMIGUA will continue to raise concern about the impacts that mining has in the context of such impunity, violence, and deep inequalities, and work toward respect for the rights of affected communities to free, prior and informed consent, and lives with dignity.