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Mining the Island: An International Perspective

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Section: Opinion Geography: Latin America, Atlantic Guatemala, Cape Breton Topics: Mining

December 27, 2008

Mining the Island: An International Perspective

Struggles in Guatemala harken back to Cape Breton's mining boom

by Rebecca MacDonald

The tailings pond at the Marlin Mine. Photo: Andrea Boccalini

SYDNEY, NOVA SCOTIA-Cape Breton Island has been the site of labour struggles since the early 19th century, when mining and steel production dominated the market, the workforce and the island in general.

Struggles for the basic rights for workers – rights many take for granted in Canada today, such as eight-hour days and weekends – were met with a heavy hand from mining companies.

In Cape Breton, the mines tunneled down not far from people’s houses. The Dominion Coal Company and the Dominion Iron and Steel Company (DISCO) owned the houses the miners lived in, the stores they bought their food in, and the pharmacies where they purchased their medicine. Travelling through Whitney Pier and many areas of Glace Bay you will still see company houses, some inhabited and some condemned, that were built by DCC and DISCO for their workers.

Living conditions were bad and deteriorating in the company houses, with overcrowding and no sewer or water systems. Low wages and seven-day work weeks prevented workers from making any efforts to improve their situations. DCC and DISCO sent spies into the mines and the steel mill to ensure that workers were not organizing in the only place they could; if it was found that people were making efforts to unionize, these workers would be fired and blacklisted.

The “Cape Breton Radicals” fought for worker rights and the right to bargain collectively, and eventually, despite the conditions they were working under, they helped bring us to the point of having eight-hour work days, weekends off and safer workplaces.

Every year on April 11, Cape Bretoners who live in what were once mining communities celebrate this struggle by closing town halls and taking a half-day off of school in remembrance of William Davis, a miner who died in a conflict that was caused by an unbreakable strike.

Workers were cut off from the stores, their power and water was cut, and the company’s oppression was severe.

On Davis Day, company police forces clashed with workers for the sixth time, firing indiscriminately and killing Davis, father of nine. The ability to “stand the gaff,” which the company was sure the workers could not do, is the reason we have the workers rights that we have in Nova Scotia today, and the reason Cape Bretoners still honour Davis Day.

Taking our memory south

As a Cape Bretoner, I took the memory of these struggles with me on a recent visit to Guatemala, to see the Marlin open-pit gold mine, operated by Goldcorp Inc. The visit was organized by solidarity organization Breaking the Silence, who run delegations to Guatemala on a regular basis.

In Guatemala, the narrative woven through many of our conversations with people was reminiscent of the experience of miners on Cape Breton Island. The Guatemalans who live in the area of the Canadian-owned Marlin Mine face less visible, yet momentously strong, oppressive forces.

The Mayan people opposing the Marlin Mine in Guatemala's highlands claim to have been threatened by workers of Montana Exploradora, the Goldcorp-owned subsidiary in the country, in a number of ways.

When the company began purchasing land, residents told us, they had been threatened. Seemingly, they were told that if they didn’t sell, the company would own all the plots around their land and it would become worthless.

Although those in the community of San Miguel Ixtahuacan eventually sold their land, either out of fear or out of hope for development, the prosperity they’d been promised did not come with the opening of the mine.

The company had people believe that with a hugely prosperous mine operating in the Mayan Mam municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, the standard of living for those who had to uproot their lives would begin to rise. But in 2008, a year in which Goldcorp saw profit margins rise up to 42 per cent, residents of communities within San Miguel Ixtahuacan saw few benefits.

In May 2008, we sat with community members in a colourful church in Agel, a village in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacan. The testimony of the people painted a picture of Montana Exploradora as the intimidator, forcing people from their lands. People in this community have no choice but to endure life next to a dusty dirt road, with the constant roar of huge company trucks hurtling by.

We went to a number of houses that were cracked, where residents said that they had not seen any cracks previous to the Marlin development. It is believed the cracks are caused by vibrations from passing trucks and explosions at the mine site. As we went from house to house, we had to avoid the bucket of a large backhoe which was widening the road. These were only the most apparent disruptions that the company was causing.

Once we’d travelled into even closer proximity to the mine, to a community called San Juan, we saw more obvious effects.

“People near the mine report suffering from strange skin conditions. In other areas affected by this type of gold mine, these conditions have been the first sign of contamination by heavy metals,” wrote Rick Grylls from the Sudbury Canadian Auto Workers, after a union member visited the same area.

Despite these connections, the CEO of Goldcorp, Kevin MacArthur, maintains a positive attitude. Responding to the record profits Goldcorp has seen, he notes how pleased he is with the success Marlin Mine has enjoyed in “containing costs.”

With less costs abroad, stockholders here in Canada enjoy rising investments, but these benefits come at a major cost to those who reside around the Marlin mine.

In addition, there have been a handful of killings of known opponents of the mine over the last five years.

In Cape Breton, Davis Day celebrates the struggle for human rights by mourning one miner; how many will be mourned in San Miguel Ixtahuacan before these communities are permitted to determine their future without interference from corporate interests?

Rebecca MacDonald is a recent graduate of Cape Breton University. She is a freelance writer and works at Sydney Airport.

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