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Chilling Gold Fever in Guatemala

Section: Accounts Geography: Latin America Guatemala Topics: Mining, social movements

September 5, 2005

Chilling Gold Fever in Guatemala

Indigenous resistance to Canada's Glamis gains momentum

by Cyril Mychalejko

[This article originally appeared in UpsideDownWorld, a website about activism and politics in South America.]

sipacapa-photo_web.jpg
Residents of Sipacapa held a community meeting in mid-July in their ongoing organizing efforts against the mine. They have been meeting at least twice a month. photo: Cyril Mychalejko
Indigenous communities in the western highlands of Guatemala who are organizing against an illegal gold mine in the face of violence and repression are beginning to see the fruits of their labor.

The Canadian/US mining company Glamis Gold operates the World Bank-funded project. Construction of the open-pit gold mine is nearly complete, and the company is eager to begin drilling.

Local community members claim the World Bank and Glamis Gold violated international law when they failed to consult them and gain their consent for the "Marlin" mine project. But Glamis counters that it consulted with the community, that the project has broad support, and that international NGOs and a few individuals are solely responsible for orchestrating the "small" opposition to the mine.

"Support" for the Gold Mine

Marcelo Etequiel Lopez, a resident of Tres Crues, Sipacapa said the deception used by the mining company was both very strategic and upsetting.

"That's what hurts the most," said Lopez. "Thank God we have figured out what's going on. Now we are going to defend our rights."

Siapacapa is next to San Miguel, where the open-pit mine is located. Water resources are expected to be taken from the large farming community, and contamination of the water supply is likely.

Lopez and other residents of Sipacapa decided to conduct community consultations with the intention of voting in a referendum concerning present and future mining in their communities.

Both Glamis and Guatemala's Ministry of Mines immediately filed lawsuits to stop the consultations once they were announced. Guatemala's Supreme Court ruled against them. The company then targeted individual community leaders with lawsuits, alleging threats and violence against Glamis employees. People in Sipacapa unequivocally reject the charges, and suggest that this is another tactic of intimidation and repression.

Glamis and the government blame the consultations on a small group of private individuals and NGOs. Grahame Russell, co-director of Rights Action, said this reveals a lot about how the Guatemalan government and Glamis regard the country's indigenous citizens. Rights Action is a community development organization based in Canada with an office in Guatemala City.

"I think it has to be fundamentally racist and derogatory towards poor people and in this case mainly indigenous," said Russell. "It's a classic allegation used when people educate and organize themselves. It takes attention from the real issues of poverty, oppression and the fact that they have a different vision for what they want."

One local resident who has been an outspoken opponent of the mine and consequently a target of a recently filed lawsuit by Glamis said, "The World Bank was supposedly created to alleviate poverty in communities and they give money to this mining company. Why don't they give money to alternative development instead?" He asked that his name not be printed.

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The "Marlin" mine project. photo: Cyril Mychalejko
Glamis stated that the consultations are illegal and unconstitutional and that the whole process is "corrupt." NGOs and Guatemalan lawyers contend that the referendum complied with rights established by Guatemala's constitution, the country's municipal codes, as well as International Labor Organization Covenant 169, which Guatemala ratified in 1996.

Another concern raised by Glamis representatives was that "suggestions that third parties be permitted to monitor the referendum process for fairness have reportedly been rejected by the referendum organizers."

On June 18, thirteen indigenous communities in Sipacapa voted overwhelmingly to reject mining in their lands. Oxfam issued a press release with the results, stating that 2486 people voted against the mine, 35 voted in favor. 32 abstained and one blank vote was cast.

According to Sandra Cuffe of Rights Action, the level of participation in the consultations was comparable to that of the last municipal election. Cuffe has been monitoring events in Guatemala since the project began.

Glamis Senior Vice President Charles Jeannes responded to the vote in an interview with Business News Americas by saying, "The private interests went ahead and held something—I don't know what you call it—a referendum or non-binding, non-sanctioned vote if you will."

Seventy-five national and international observers of the consultations and voting disagree with Jeannes' assessment. They concluded in a communiqué that the consultations "unfolded normally in all of the communities, according to traditional indigenous customs…[and that local residents] freely and democratically participated in the consultation process, expressing their decisions regarding mining activity."

Remarkably, Jeannes insisted to Business News Americas that the open-pit gold mine remains popular and "the majority of the residents in the vicinity of the mine support our activity."

Truth and Consequences

The consultations in Sipacapa dealt a thunderous blow to Glamis' project, even though opposition to the mine is not unanimous. This is especially the case in the divided community of San Miguel, where the mine is located and where some residents have been employed by Glamis. But all signs point to changing tides.

According to Cuffe, a month after the vote in Sipacapa the community of San Miguel announced that they would also have consultations regarding mining activities in their municipality.

Russell, who works with Cuffe, said these consultations are empowering the communities.

"They are taking it upon themselves to educate themselves, debating the issues and voting. [But] the importance goes deeper," said Russell. "They are voting to take political control over their lives, something that's never happened in the country."

Recently, many of the claims made by local residents of malfeasance (if not criminal activity) on the part of Glamis and the World Bank were validated—by the World Bank. The Financial Times (FT) received a draft copy of the World Bank's Compliance Adviser Ombudsman's response to a formal complaint filed by the Guatemalan NGO Madre Selva regarding the mining project. The FT reported that the Ombudsman "charges that the bank failed adequately to consult the local community or properly evaluate the environmental and humanitarian impact of the mine."

The article even mentions the results of Sipacapa's "illegal" referendum in which 98 percent of the residents rejected mining.

It's Not Over Yet

For those fighting Glamis, the World Bank report is a positive step. A source within the World Bank apparently thought the report, which according to news reports was supposed to be confidential, should be released. However, many have expressed concerns with the World Bank's oversight procedures, saying that it is dangerous to rely on international law (such as ILO covenant 169) because there are no tangible enforcement mechanisms.

"Impunity is the norm in how the global community works," said Russell.

However, the conditions in Guatemala point to the possibility of an exception to this rule. Indigenous communities in Sipacapa continue to meet on a regular basis in their organizing efforts against the mine, and San Miguel is readying itself for its own referendum while the mine's popularity continues to dwindle. Increasingly, northerners are becoming aware of the situation as a result of solidarity work by activists, NGOs and others.

The Guatemalan government has used violence to protect Glamis' interests. In January, the military killed a protestor and injured dozens of others. Most expect Glamis to continue with its lies and repressive tactics, with the support of the Canadian government.

The international and Canadian press still has not found the story of Siapacapa and San Miguel to be sufficiently newsworthy to merit thorough coverage.

Despite these obstacles, community members, along with a growing supporting network of activists, solidarity groups and NGOs, believe that the mine can be shut down.

Cyril Mychalejko is the assistant editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about activism and politics in Latin America. He recently traveled to Guatemala.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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