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Good As Gold?

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Issue: 49 Section: Photo Essay Geography: Latin America Guatemala Topics: Mining, corporate

August 17, 2007

Good As Gold?

"There is nothing to negotiate!" Guatemalan community wants Canadian mining company out.

by James Rodríguez

Goldcorp's Marlin Mine Photo: James Rodriguez/www.mimundo.org

Three years into its existence, the Marlin Gold Mine has produced a long list of social problems for the local communities in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán. The mining project belongs to Montana Exploradora de Guatemala, a subsidiary of Canadian-based Goldcorp Inc. According to members of the Association for the Integral Development of San Miguel (ADISMI), “all the damages which the experts warned us of before the arrival of the mining project have come true: the deforestation, extreme dust, the contamination of water sources, dry wells, the competition for water usage and the accumulation of dangerous waste products from the mine.”

Besides the mentioned environmental and health problems, the current year has also witnessed a dangerous escalation of social tensions due to other side-effects. The explosions carried out to destroy entire hillsides in the Marlin Project have caused significant crevices and fissures in over 59 homes, particularly in the villages of Ajel and San José Nueva Esperanza, which are only a few metres away from the mine. Crisanta Emitaria Hernández Pérez, resident of Ajel, states: “The cracks began when the company placed bombs, or explosives. We felt the earth shake and little by little the fissures have turned into large crevices.”

In this photograph, Mrs. Hernández Pérez shows how the fissure extends from the wall to the floor of her single-room home. “They have caused us great damages because before the company came we never had any problems. We had simple homes, but never anything like this...For me, well, I am scared, because sometimes I think the house is going to collapse over our heads...It is the only home we have. We have nowhere else to go.”

Towards the end of 2006, a number of residents came together to complain to Montana about the fissures. According to Mrs. Hernández Pérez, “they sent one of their engineers who claimed the cracks were due to poor construction work or the shaking from vehicles, but that it was not the company’s fault.”

On January 10 of this year, 28 community members asked for a meeting with the company to discuss the numerous issues affecting their communities, as well as the extremely low economic compensation many of them received for their lands sold to Montana. After the meeting, however, Fernando Basilio Pérez was hit by the general manager of Montana and other community members were threatened with guns by the company’s private security. Soon after, nearly 650 disgruntled community members formed a roadblock to the mine which stopped the company’s operations for 13 days.

As retribution for the roadblock, Montana managed to issue arrest orders for seven local leaders, accusing them of use of force, threats, light injuries and heavy injuries on the basis of a supposed confrontation which occurred after the January 10 meeting, even though some of the accused, such as Pedro de León, were not even present at the meeting.

In this image, the wife of Fernando Basilio Pérez points out a fissure near the entrance to their home.

On February 13, 2007, members of the National Civil Police stormed the home of Fernando Basilio Pérez at 5:20a.m., forcibly detaining and blindfolding him. Later on that day, Mario Bámaca was also forcibly detained. The two community leaders spent three days in jail until a lawyer from the Diocese of San Marcos managed to release them on conditions of house arrest as well as managing a habeas corpus for the remaining five leaders with orders of arrest. The case remains open to this day.

This image displays a fissure along the wall of an evangelical church owned by Mario Bámaca.

The escalation of tensions due to the selective repression of community leaders in addition to the displacement and mistreatment of indigenous communities at the hands of Guatemalan authorities opting for the implementation of internationally funded mega-projects is comparable to the tragic events that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s during the construction of the Chixoy Dam in Baja Verapaz as well as the EXMIBAL Nickel mine in El Estor, Izabal. Both cases concluded with a number of massacres and even the complete extermination of communities who resisted the projects.

Juana Valentina Bámaca, wife of Mario Bámaca, states: “The mine is bad. We want it to leave!”

The competition for water between the mining project and local communities is another issue which has heated tensions in the region. The Marlin Project uses 250,000 litres of water per hour, while a typical family in San Marcos uses 30 litres per day. This means the gold mine uses in one hour the same amount of water a typical family uses in over 22 years.

Crisanta Hernández Pérez states: “Our wells have dried up. Before, up to 40 people could bring water from that well, but now it is dry. It has been a year since it dried. We have six wells which have gone dry.”

Inside the mining project, the development of an extensive lake filled with dangerous wastes has also raised concerns. “Towards the end of 2006, Italian analyst Flaviano Bianchini carried on a water study from the Tzala River in Sipacapa. The results indicated that mining activity has indeed contaminated the river due to acid drainage. The waterway presents 80 times the normal levels of copper, 13 times the normal levels of aluminum and 2.5 times the normal levels of manganese. The health of approximately 5,000 local residents could be directly affected. In high quantities, copper can cause DNA mutations, liver failure and a number of skin, teeth and hair disorders. Aluminum can harm the nervous system, cause dementia, loss of memory, apathy and severe uncontrolled shaking.”

The direct links between Montana Exploradora de Guatemala and current President Oscar Berger, from the GANA political party, have been widely documented. Furthermore, the current municipal mayors of both Sipakapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacán, who came to power under the clout of other political parties four years ago and have continually argued in favour of the mining project instead of the wellbeing of their communities, now seek re-election with the GANA. In San Miguel Ixtahuacán, the current mayor’s re-election slogan states: “In order for Peace to continue, vote for Mayor Oswaldo.” Taking into account the high social tensions and with only 40 days before the elections, it is difficult not to interpret the slogan as a threat.

In several communities throughout the municipality, Montana proudly displays the large sums of money it contributes to the development of Guatemala. In San Miguel Ixtahuacán, the company boasts the 7.5 million Quetzales ($1 million US) which the municipality has received since the inception of the project in 2004.

Most of the communities in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, however, have not benefited economically in any obvious way. A large number of the local population, whose majority are indigenous Mayas of the Mam ethnic group, continue to live in conditions far below the poverty line.

In the village of Maquivil, only a couple of kilometres from the mine, Elena cooks dinner for her family using candles for lighting and peeled corncobs as firewood. Meanwhile, Goldcorp recorded record profits in 2006 of $408 million.

Javier de León, member of ADISMI, concludes: “Is this the kind of development we want? What are we to negotiate? There is nothing to negotiate! Can you negotiate life? I do not think you can negotiate life. Health can not be negotiated. In this case, human lives are at risk. Mining is not the model of development we need in our communities. There are other ways to create development in the communities of San Miguel.”

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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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