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MONTREAL—New developments in Guatemala have continued to put pressure on Canada's Goldcorp, a mining company whose controversial Marlin mine has kept churning out the gold. As some of the mine's opponents continue in land-based struggles, others are channeling resources into courts and official proceedings—with mixed results.
On May 3, Canada’s National Contact Point (NCP) released its final statement on the case brought before them by the San Miguel Defense Front (FREDEMI) in November 2009. An interdepartmental committee, the NCP's mandate is to ensure that Canadian enterprises abroad are operating in compliance with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multi-National Enterprises. The NCP is also one of the few venues at which residents of less-developed countries where Canadian mining companies operate can pursue legal complaints. The FREDEMI case was a request for review, charging that Goldcorp’s activities were causing ongoing human rights abuses around the mine. The case was closed without any investigation or resolution by the NCP.
In a joint press release, MiningWatch Canada and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) called the NCP ruling “the end of a process that was both procedurally and substantively deficient, and provides yet another example of Canada’s failure to ensure that its mining industry respects human rights around the world.”
When the NCP closed its file on the Marlin mine in May, the problems on the ground were no closer to resolution. An article from Oxfam America on June 13, 2011, reiterated that surrounding communities face “problems with access to drinking water and pollution, displacement from farming land, and threats and intimidation directed at people who openly criticize the mine.”
The mine itself has been in production since 2005, and has been a source of conflict from the very beginning. However, with the company expecting to produce an estimated 400,000 ounces of gold in 2011 with a market value of over $640 million at today's gold prices, there are strong incentives for Goldcorp to keep the mine in operation.
The May 2010 ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calling on the government of Guatemala to suspend operations at the mine has also gone unheeded. The IACHR is a body of the Organization of American States responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights among its member states. Local communities succeeded in getting a petition heard before the Commission that granted them precautionary measures. These measures ordered the temporary suspension of activities at the Marlin mine while the IACHR completed an investigation into the alleged abuses.
However, after more than a year of inaction, the government of Guatemala announced in June that it had completed its own investigation and found no cause to suspend operations.
“After all the studies, analyses and participation of various [governmental] actors involved, we conclude that there are no grounds for the suspension of the mine,” said Ricardo Pennington, vice-minister of Energy and Mines, summarizing the Guatemalan government’s response to the IACHR. Its statement was followed by a formal resolution on July 8 from the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM).
In what Magali Rey Rosa of Savia Guatemala called "a sign of the government’s cynicism," the government's announcement obscured the fact that it was never the state’s role to investigate the ruling, but instead to suspend operations while the IACHR itself investigates.
“The IACHR ruling is clear in ordering the temporary closure of operations while the complaint is investigated,” said Yuri Melini of the Guatemala City based Center for Legal Environmental and Social Action (CALAS).
Just days after the government's announcement that mine operations would not be suspended, the company discharged from its tailings pond into a local river. While the release was supervised by MEM as well as the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), local residents from the Agel and Caserio Siete Platos communities who were present when the tailings were released expressed concern.
“As the population is not informed of the results of monitoring done by the attending institutions such as MARN or AMAC, there is no guarantee that the discharge is actually made so that the concentration of pollutants in the water are below permitted levels,” according to the Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) in San Marcos.
Such discharges at the mine are relatively common and have been cause for concern in the past. Last September, a similar discharge prompted Minister of the Environment Luis Ferrate to file legal action against the company for failure to advise the Ministry. Goldcorp has denied any wrongdoing.
"On June 6, 2011, the Environmental Attorney issued a final dismissal of the claim stating that the discharge was in compliance with the permit issued to the Marlin mine, was not a violation of the law, and that there was no environmental contamination as a result of the discharge,” the company wrote in an email to interested stakeholders.
It is not explained, however, why legal action was initially filed by MARN if the the discharge was in compliance with the law. Nor is it explained how anyone could know whether or not there was environmental contamination since MARN was not present at the time and no other data has been made public. And it seems that local residents’ concern over these discharges is justified. A study released in August 2010 by E-Tech International, a New Mexico-based non-profit, found that levels of copper, cyanide and mercury in the tailings pond were respectively three, 10 and 20 times greater than international guideline levels.
While the company claims that tailings water is further processed before being discharged, the lack of publicly-available data or water studies from the company or the government on this (or any other) discharge leaves many observers skeptical.
Concerns linked to water at Goldcorp mine sites have arisen elsewhere as well. In 2007, Goldcorp and the Honduran government measured levels of heavy metals found in the blood and urine of villagers living close to the company’s (now-closed) San Martin gold mine. The results were withheld until April of this year but revealed “dangerously high levels of heavy metals poisoning in their blood that would have required immediate and sustained medical treatment back in 2007, let alone today,” according to Grahame Russell and Karen Spring of Rights Action.
The San Martin mine was in operation between 2000 and 2008, though only acquired by Goldcorp in 2006. While not as rich as the Marlin mine, the San Martin gold mine produced over 185,000 ounces of gold between 2005 and 2007.
Those making money from the illness and controversy surrounding Goldcorp's operations in Guatemala and Honduras include such institutions as the Canadian Pension Plan, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, and the BC Investment Management Corporation (responsible for public sector investments in BC). As of March 31, 2011, the CPP was holding 3.665 million shares worth $198 million at Goldcorp's current stock price. But even under pressure, the CPP has shown the same level of indifference as others when it comes to asking hard questions about Goldcorp’s operations and the situation on the ground at the Marlin mine.
In response to a letter calling on it to support a resolution at Goldcorp’s Annual General Meeting in May—a letter that asked the company to voluntarily close the Marlin mine—the CPP stated that its “engagement objectives [do] include improved standards and disclosure related to operations in high-risk countries, including human rights practices.” But its commitment to responsible investment ended there, and it fell in line with the majority of Goldcorp shareholders in voting against the resolution.
Recently, some communities have even turned to the Canadian judicial system to seek redress. Two cases were filed in a Toronto court by communities in El Estor, Guatemala, charging Canadian HudBay Minerals with accountability in a murder and a series of gang rapes during evictions around their planned nickel mine. While the plaintiffs hope their case will be precedent-setting, the Canadian courts system remains a largely untried venue when seeking justice for crimes committed in other countries.
As struggles against these mining projects drag on without justice or closure, Canadian and other solidarity activists have the responsibility to ask ourselves how best we can support grassroots activists: in courts, AGMs, or in the fields and the streets.
Andrew MacPherson has been involved in international accompaniment work in Guatemala and currently lives in Montreal.
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.