Deaf Ear Turned to Local Opposition to Mines in Guatemala

(IPS) – As the mining industry booms in Guatemala, local communities are increasingly opposed to the operations of the mainly foreign companies because of the potential negative effects on the environment and on their villages.

But the firms themselves say the opposition is limited to small groups who are misinformed and manipulated by outsiders.

The latest episode in the increasingly violent disputes occurred on Nov. 19, when local residents of Mataquescuintla, a town in the southeastern department or province of Jalapa, set fire to five vehicles belonging to the Minera San Rafael, a subsidiary of Canada’s Tahoe Resources Inc.

Since 2008, the company has run the El Escobal mine in San Rafael Las Flores, in the southeastern province of Santa Rosa, which borders Jalapa. For 25 years, starting in 2014, the mine will produce silver, lead, zinc and gold.

“The worry is that the mine will pollute the Los Esclavos river, which runs through the department of Santa Rosa, the Ayarza lake, and the underground aquifers,” Moisés Divas, the representative of the Diocesan Council for the Defence of Nature, told IPS.

Minera San Rafael plans to invest 325 million dollars in the mine, which is to create 800 jobs. But local residents overwhelmingly expressed opposition to the mine in four local referendums held in its area of influence.

“In 2011, the first three votes were held in the municipalities of Nueva Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa de Lima and Casillas, in accordance with what is established by the municipal code, and this year another was held in Mataquescuintla, and 99 percent of the people voted against it,” Divas said.

The company has forged ahead nonetheless, drilling enormous tunnels and challenging the results of the referendums in court. “That has upset people, who see it as going against the will of the people,” the activist said.

Canadian companies are predominant in the industry, whose total earnings soared from 8.6 million dollars in 2005 to 935 million dollars in 2011.

But the state only took in 9.2 million dollars in royalties and taxes from the mining industry last year, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

That represents a mere two percent of GDP, partly because the royalties are limited to one percent of gross sales, in accordance with the country’s mining law – an aspect that exacerbates the anger of local residents and activists.

But while the industry is growing year by year, so are the conflicts.

The El Tambor gold mine began to operate in 2011 between the towns of San Pedro Ayampuc and San José del Golfo, 28 km northeast of Guatemala City.

“There is not one single mine anywhere in the world that has not been destructive for the local communities,” Antonio Reyes, who lives in San José del Golfo, told IPS. “And things are even worse because of Guatemala’s mining law, which authorises companies to use the water and the chemicals they need, without any controls whatsoever.”

Since Mar. 2, local residents have been blocking the entrance to the El Tambor mine, operated by Exploraciones Mineras de Guatemala, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Kappes, Cassiday & Associates and Radius Gold Corp of Canada.

“Our resistance is not based on a whim; it is in response to the historical manipulation and utilisation of the people,” Reyes said.

Villagers in the area are asking for support for development alternatives to mining. “We are focusing on diversification in sustainable crops which, rather than degrading the soil, repair, preserve and protect it,” Reyes said. “We also believe in ecotourism projects.”

But instead of alternatives, what have come are attacks. Yolanda Oquelí, a leader of the resistance against the El Tambor mine, survived an attempt on her life on Jun. 13. Although the crime has not been solved, Reyes said it is clear that the attack was motivated by the activist’s fight against the mine.

Yuri Melini, director of the non-governmental Legal, Environmental and Social Centre of Guatemala, told IPS that “we have had a series of governments spellbound” by the mining industry, “but all they have done is foment negative social and environmental impacts.”

Since 2005, 1.25 million people in this impoverished Central American country of 15 million have voted against mines in 65 local referendums held around the country – all of which were ignored, he said.

“This is a time bomb, and the government refuses to understand that the opposition of local communities is based on the knowledge of the severe damage caused by mines, especially to the surface and groundwater,” José Cruz, an activist with the local NGO Madreselva, told IPS.

In May 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanded that the Guatemalan government suspend operations at the Marlin gold mine, owned by Montana Exploradora, a subsidiary of Canada’s Goldcorp Inc.

The IACHR ruling stated that the mine was polluting rivers and the water supplies of 18 indigenous communities in the western province of San Marcos.

But Marlin is still operating.

A study titled “The economic dimension of mining activity (the case of the Marlin mine)”, conducted by the public University of San Carlos, questions the economic benefits of the industry.

“In 2009, Guatemala sold each troy ounce of gold to Goldcorp Inc. at Q550.25, equivalent to 69 dollars, and the company received Q8,064 per troy ounce of gold, or 1,008 dollars…The mine keeps the earnings while the poverty of the local population” and the social and environmental conflicts are growing, the study says.

Magaly Arrecis, a researcher at the University of San Carlos institute that carried out the study, told IPS that the mining law should be reformed to “increase the compensation for communities around the mines and to address environmental issues.”

But the mining companies see things in a very different light.

“The mining industry is probably the most highly regulated in the world in the areas of the environment and workplace safety,” Regina Rivera, a representative of the Gremial de Industrias Extractivas, the industrial association that represents the mining companies, told IPS.

“And all international companies are governed by the strictest environmental and worker safety standards,” she added.

Rivera said she did not believe there was “fierce” community opposition to the mines. “What there is,” she argued, “is a great deal of misinformation and many interests that have managed to manipulate small vulnerable groups, to turn them against the industry.

“In most cases, the conflicts are brought to the communities from areas or communities completely outside of the companies’ areas of influence,” she said.

“The companies generally have good relations with the communities where they operate and with their real leaders, always making an effort to keep up a positive dialogue pointed in the direction of the development of the communities,” Rivera added.