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Disputed Property Sale in Guatemala Results in Death Threats, Charges

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Issue: 61 Section: International News Guatemala Topics: Mining

July 5, 2009

Disputed Property Sale in Guatemala Results in Death Threats, Charges

Canada's Goldcorp agrees to negotiate; police, military arrive instead

by Valerie Croft

Goldcorp's Marlin mine borders the village of Agel, where the company has been trying to convince locals to sell their land for nearly eight years. Photo: Valerie Croft

TORONTO–The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received an urgent request this month that precautionary measures be taken to protect Guatemalan families as Goldcorp, the Canadian gold mining company that owns the controversial Marlin mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, expands its operations in the mostly Indigenous Western Highlands.

The Association for Integral Development of San Miguel Ixtahuacan (ADISMI) filed the request on June 12, 2009, following a confrontation between residents concerned over water resources and Goldcorp, acting through its Guatemalan subsidiary, Montana Exploradora.

In an effort to protest what they see as an illegitimate property sale, residents of Saqmuj, a community in the village of Agel, occupied the land on June 10 in hopes of negotiating with Goldcorp.

Company officials returned to the site on June 11 and signed an agreement stating their intention to address community demands, to withdraw their equipment, and to return the morning of June 12.

According to reports from the region, six national police units and two special anti-riot troops arrived in Saqmuj, allegedly to protect Goldcorp officials. When company representatives did not return on June 12, anger at having been stood up and increased tensions among the protesters led some of those occupying the property to set fire to company equipment.

The Guatemalan police and military (10 police units, two micro buses and five or six pickups—50 to 75 individuals in full), along with District Attorneys and Montana Exploradora officials, arrived in the region on June 15, surrounding the offices of ADISMI, while Goldcorp filed charges against seven local leaders.

This is not the first time Goldcorp has laid charges against individuals opposing mining activities. In 2007, the company filed charges against seven men for their involvement in organized opposition, followed by another set of charges in 2008 against eight women.

Tensions have been high in the area since 2005 when Montana Exploradora began extracting minerals from the Marlin mine without the full, prior and informed consent of residents. In accordance with Article 169 of the International Labour Organization, which was ratified by Guatemala, international companies wishing to participate in resource extraction must first receive consent from those affected by the proposed operation.

Various democratic referenda have been organized since 2005, but neither Goldcorp nor the Guatemalan government has accepted as legitimate the near-universal community opposition to the mine. Since then, those living nearby claim an increase in sickness, water contamination and damaged houses due to the gold mine’s mainly open-pit operations.

As Agel borders Goldcorp's Marlin mine, residents of Saqmuj are gravely concerned about the company’s plans for further mineral exploration in the area. According to reports from the region, Goldcorp has used intimidation tactics to convince local landowners to sell and one community member has sold his land to the company.

Families of Saqmuj assert that because its operations will negatively affect the entire community, the mine proposal must have community consent before it can operate. They claim the community as a whole does not support the presence of the mine and therefore Goldcorp does not have exploration rights.

According to a call to action sent to national and international solidarity networks, released by the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) and Collectif Guatemala: “The families fear that selling this land puts at tremendous risk the integrity and access to at least three water springs on which families in Saqmuj depend.”

Despite reports of disagreements within the family that sold its land and significant opposition in the community, Montana Exploradora moved company equipment onto the property on May 19 to begin exploration.

Since the June 15 confrontation, locals have witnessed further intimidation, while some have received threatening text messages and phone calls. In particular, Javier de Leon, Director of ADISMI, has received four death threats, including threats against his wife and children.

The events in Agel are not isolated; rather they are part of a larger pattern of conflict when extraction companies begin operations on claimed lands. In 2005, a man was killed while taking part in a blockade of mining equipment destined for the Marlin mine (then owned by Glamis Gold). A Goldcorp-funded development committee in Agel cut off running water to the home of one opponent to the proposed mine in Saqmuj. Organized resistance is frequently met with militarized oppression, while local leaders are threatened and others intimidated.

Valerie Croft is a freelance journalist living in Toronto. She worked as an International Accompanier in 2008, in the region of San Miguel Ixtahuacan.

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