“We Have Inherited Our Lands” (6/13/05)

Fifty-one indigenous community leaders, along with the mayor of Comitancillo, San Marcos, traveled to Guatemala City on May 25 to present lawmakers with results of their municipality’s community consultations regarding mining projects in the region.

Local residents of Comitancillo began organizing, raising awareness and coordinating the consultations in response to the Guatemalan national government awarding new mining concessions in their community to Entre Mares, a subsidiary of Glamis Gold (a Canadian/ US company). Glamis is already embroiled in controversy over its World Bank funded, open-pit gold mine (Marlin), which has been met with widespread opposition from local residents and allegations that international law and the rights of the local indigenous population were usurped when the decision was made to build the mine.

The results of the consultation process – total opposition to mining exploration and exploitation – were presented to the Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Jorge García, the Vice Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Juan de Dios Calle, and a few representatives from Congress. Their response was that the people of Comitancillo should not worry, since this was only a license for ‘reconocimiento,’ (prospecting) the first stage of several in Guatemala; however, what good is prospecting unless you have the option to continue exploration and exploitation? The community leaders of Comitancillo were also told that they had been misinformed about the impacts of mining in Honduras. According to the Guatemalan government officials, nothing was wrong in the mining-affected Siria Valley region of Honduras, people are doing great, and one should not turn away from the possibility that mining can reduce poverty (despite evidence to the contrary).

The leadership and dignity of Comitancillo was reflected in the response of one indigenous community leader:

"Why would we accept prospecting when we’re here to reject mining activities? This would only create more problems in the future. I came back from Honduras last night, so I know the situation of the people there and the problems mining is causing them. Insinuating that we are being manipulated is to underestimate us. We are poor, but money is not what most interests us; we have inherited our lands and we want to leave them in good conditions for our descendants."

He had returned just the night before from the "First Community Gathering of Resistance to Mining Exploration and Exploitation", which took place in El Porvenir, department of Francisco Morazan, Honduras, May 21-22. Dozens of community leaders and community-based organization representatives from diverse regions affected and/or threatened by metallic mining in Guatemala and Honduras participated. People shared their experiences, saw first-hand the disastrous impacts of Glamis Gold’s San Martin open pit gold mine, and discussed how they might communicate and coordinate to face the onslught of the global mining industry.

"It’s a horrible role," Siria Valley Regional Environmental Committee members often commented, "but our greatest contribution is being a mirror to show what can happen to other communities, so that they don’t end up in our situation."

Every time I go out to the mine site, it’s a profound shock to see the advancing devastation of the mountain-devourer (tragamontañas), as some refer to the mining company. Medical brigades led by Doctor Juan Almendares in the Siria Valley concluded that aside from the proven contamination of water and land, mental health problems in the area may also be caused by the psychological impact of the environmental destruction.

‘The impact of the mining industry is accumulative in nature,’ explains Juan Almendares in an article written for the event in the Siria Valley. The colonial and neocolonial history of Honduras is the history of export-oriented exploitation. Mining, as well as bananas and other foreign-owned enclaves and industries have controlled the land and people from the arrival of the Spanish to the present.

"The misfortune is that a century later it is not possible to make demands against a company that no longer exists with the same name," wrote Almendares, in reference to the infamous New York and Rosario Mining Company that operated in different parts of the country for decades. "Meanwhile, the contamination continues."

Mártires de Guaymas, one of the participating organizations in the Gathering, also expressed the collective frustration of an economic model that champions the profit motives of transnational capital over communities and peoples.

"The promoters of neoliberalism have reached the extreme of proclaiming themselves the owners of our natural resources, with the right to sell them as if it were all part of their private estate," Mártires de Guaymas wrote in a statement.

Participants discussed the actors and ideas behind the mining legislation and policies in Central America – very much part of a global system of domination and exploitation.

"They will take away our gold and silver and will leave us the misery caused by the poisoning of the water, air and land; thus, what belongs to us will produce many riches for them but for us many illnesses, displacement of our population, destruction of our forests, and ongoing private and public repression."

In exchange for mirrors, comments another participant from Huehuetenango. It’s an old story.

"Three hundred years later our eyes are still closed," remarked teacher and Siria Valley Environmental Committee member Roger Escober. "Puppies open their eyes after five days and we’ve taken 300 years!"

The strategies used by Glamis Gold to install itself in San Marcos (Guatemala), described by Javier de León of the local indigenous development organization Ajchmol, was almost a carbon copy of the company’s tactics in the Siria Valley. Rodolfo Artiaga describes how the community of Palo Ralo was part tricked and part forced into selling their land. One of the only local residents to resist, he was eventually persuaded to leave the community when it became clear that one person could not withstand the pressure of the company. As a result, the community – so much more than the mere houses and land – has been destroyed. What’s more, some five years later local residents still have not received proper documentation for the land and houses, which are located well within the mining concession, close to the mine. He showed the event participants the ‘diplomas’ for their lands and homes, signed by a Glamis Gold representative – documents with no legal validity whatsoever.

Although Glamis Gold was able to install itself in both the Siria Valley and in San Marcos, eyes have opened and resistance is growing. People from communities all over Guatemala and Honduras have learned from others’ experiences and their eyes are definitely peeled.

"It’s not easy," says Roger Escober. "We know that the companies have the entire government apparatus working in their favor." Indeed, the event statement and press coverage had only begun to circulate when the Guatemalan government was already promising to work at all costs against the Central American movement against open pit metallic mining, which the government claims ‘shields’ itself behind ILO Covenant 169.

Far from being a shield, the obligation to consult indigenous peoples prior to any projects affecting their lands or communities, as laid out in ILO Covenant 169 is law, although the right to consultations for all communities in order to decide the path of their own development is a demand heard all over Guatemala and Honduras. While the government apparatus may be working in favor of the transnational mining companies, communities are not standing around wringing their hands.

Shortly after the "First Community Gathering of Resistance to Mining Exploration and Exploitation", an open municipal hall meeting in El Progreso, Yoro decided to ban open pit mining in the municipality. Initially, the municipal authorities tried to shut out any room for public participation. But over a hundred organizations of all sorts, led by the Mártires de Guaymas, fought to raise a motion proposing the resolution. Cornered, the authorities were forced to address the issue, and the resolution was passed unanimously.

The community-driven consultations in Comitancillo and the municipal ban in El Progreso are but two examples of the growing community-based resistance, with more actions soon to follow with similar dignity, clarity and initiative.

The author, Sandra Cuffe, works with Rights Action, an organization involved in activism in North America about global development and human rights issues, helping form north-south alliances of people and organizations working to remedy global exploitation, repression and racism.

For more info: info@rightsaction.org, 416-654-2074, www.rightsaction.org)