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FOCAL Blasted for Ties to Mining Industry

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Issue: 55 Section: Foreign Policy Geography: Latin America Guatemala Topics: Mining

November 18, 2008

FOCAL Blasted for Ties to Mining Industry

Indigenous leaders pull out of mining workshops in Guatemala

by Anthony Fenton

Goldcorp's Marlin mine in San Marcos, Guatemala, has been a motor for conflict since land acquisition started in 2000. Photo taken in early 2008, three years into the mine's 10-year life. Photo: Andrea Boccalini

METRO VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA–Last winter, indigenous Guatemalan community organizers declared their intention to boycott the "Economic Opportunities and Indigenous Development" workshop sponsored by the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), calling the workshops a "public manipulation."

According to a statement released in English through the Toronto-based group Rights Action, FOCAL informed the participants that the workshop was being funded by two Canadian mining companies, Goldcorp and Skye Resources, as well as two Ottawa-based lobby groups, the Mining Association of Canada and the Prospectors and Developers' Association of Canada.

According to the indigenous groups' statement, upon reviewing the "content and the intentions of the workshop" they were concerned by “the fact that the workshop was financed by the entities responsible [for] the damages to and exploitation of our natural resources."

The activists further decried "permanent attempts by the state and transnational companies to publicly manipulate our struggles."

The presence of foreign mining companies in Guatemala is a source of continual tension between the Guatemalan government, indigenous people, and the organizations that have attempted to mediate between them.

The workshop was organized in order to address the "lack of participation of Indigenous Peoples in the decision-making processes that affect their territories and development," said FOCAL in a statement prepared for The Dominion.

According to FOCAL, the aim was "to create the necessary conditions for a tripartite dialogue between indigenous representatives, government and the private sector." The group added that "the private sector should help finance these types of events as a show of commitment to their learning process regarding these issues."

"FOCAL respects the decision of some indigenous participants in Guatemala to withdraw their participation from the event. However, we feel that those who withdrew lost the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with governments and the private sector – a dialogue that could have served to highlight the importance of indigenous rights and the necessity for the private sector to consult with Indigenous Peoples."

"The whole purpose of this workshop was to bring stakeholders together, to discuss the issues in a constructive, transparent manner [and] it's disappointing to us that any group would choose to avoid that kind of opportunity," said Goldcorp spokesperson Jeff Wilholt in a telephone interview with The Dominion.

Wilholt referred to the boycott as a "disturbance" and claimed, "There was some doubt as to who walked out, and why."

Juan Tema, a community member from Sipakapa, San Marcos, was invited to the workshop by the Indigenous Development Fund of Guatemala (FODIGUA), an NGO that works closely with the Guatemalan government and who partnered with FOCAL for the workshop.

Tema rejected assertions that FOCAL was only seeking to create a space for dialogue. He boycotted the workshop along with the other indigenous participants, who numbered close to two dozen.

"FOCAL is not making space for dialogue," he said. "FOCAL is attempting to open inroads for transnational companies by trying to create the mentality in indigenous people that our economic growth and development will come from mining. FOCAL works for the transnationals, convincing the people that mining is good – saying that they are facilitating ‘dialogue’ is a lie. In order to open real spaces for dialogue here in Guatemala, we don't need FOCAL – FOCAL just makes our struggle more complicated."

Tema questioned the motives behind FOCAL's supposed mediatory role.

"They are trying to convince communities that are threatened by mining exploitation not to say no to mining projects, using a discourse that makes their objectives totally obvious to anyone present," he said. "FOCAL is not an independent organization, as they claimed. That is a lie. FOCAL is dependent on transnational companies."

Rolando Lopez, from the Association for Integral Development Maya Ajchmol,(ADIMA) in San Pedro Sacatepéquez, San Marcos, was also invited to the workshop by FODIGUA. In an e-mail sent to The Dominion, Lopez echoed Tema's remarks.

"For us, leaving the conference was not losing an opportunity, it is a demonstration of our non-conformity with the attitudes of the institutions and functionaries of the government, for their failure to respect the decisions of indigenous peoples and communities," he wrote.

Tema called on all actors to "respect the position of the people as represented through the consultas." In a consulta – a community referendum – entire (often indigenous) municipalities vote for or against mining activities in their territories. Thus far, there have been 29 consultas in Guatemala, in which an estimated 550,000 people have participated. All of the consultas have strongly rejected mining activity.

Goldcorp's Wilholt called the consultas "very old, recycled kinds of charges that we've addressed time and time again in the past."

Consultas have been declared legal but are not binding by the constitutional court in Guatemala, a ruling which leaders from Sipakapa are fighting at the Interamerican Court on Human Rights in Washington, DC.

Why FOCAL decided that last winter was an appropriate time to initiate dialogue between communities that clearly reject mining activities and mining companies who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of indigenous decision making processes is unknown.

Goldcorp “has already been violating our individual and collective rights as indigenous communities for many years. Communities have come forward with petitions and proposals to the government and the company but we have received no answer from either. For this to come from them is really too late... It is only to suffocate our struggle," said Lopez.

Since its establishment in 1994, FOCAL's chief funders have been the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). In 2004, an internal evaluation conducted by the two agencies observed that FOCAL is seen as "the right arm of the government...rather than a truly independent, non-governmental organization."

This was not the first time that FOCAL has found itself in the middle of controversy. In 2004, FOCAL supported the overthrow of Haiti's democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide, an event which led to the murder, arbitrary arrest, and disappearance of thousands of Aristide's supporters during two years of interim government rule and UN occupation.

FOCAL has also carried out controversial work in Venezuela funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, a group which attorney Eva Golinger has suggested was complicit in an attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002.

Anthony Fenton is a researcher and writer who lives near Vancouver.

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