Silver mine on frontline of battle between land rights activists and corporate profits
Deep underground, buried in the lush hills of southern Guatemala, lies a veritable treasure trove: silver, tonnes of it, one of the largest deposits in the world. But it’s above ground where the really dangerous activity goes on. About 50 peasant farmers stand praying in a circle, a makeshift roadblock intended to stop trucks reaching the mine. They have been violently dispersed by police teargas. Now they fear the army might move in.
The contrast couldn’t be greater: the mine extracted more than $350m worth of silver last year. The protesters, men, women and children turning out for 12-hour vigils, eke out a living by farming coffee, maize and small herds of cattle.
This is the frontline in a deadly battle fought by land rights activists against corporate interests in Guatemala, a clash of interests that has made the country one of the most perilous places in the world for environmentalists, according to the human rights organisation Global Witness.
Since 2010 at least 41 people have been killed – including eight at the Canadian-owned mine, Escobal. Though a handful of hitmen have been prosecuted in connection with the killings, none of the masterminds has been detained.
Some argue that the current pattern of oppression has links to Guatemala’s past. During the civil war, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings were used to subjugate poor rural communities in order to preserve land rights for the elites.
Now, says Ramón Cadena Rámila, Central America director of the International Commission of Jurists, the repression is more subtle but the end results are similar: rural communities forced to defend their land. “The three organs of the state – the courts, Congress and executive branch – work together to authorise forced evictions, states of siege, false charges and arbitrary detention in order to generate terror and kill rebellion in communities opposed to extractive industries,” said Cadena.
There are at least 307 active mining licences in Guatemala, mainly in rural indigenous regions, according to Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) figures. Almost 600 more are under consideration. At least 32 hydroelectric dams are operational, with dozens more under construction.
Yet about 2 million people have participated in plebiscites since 2010, voting overwhelmingly against environmentally destructive projects such as mines, logging and dams. Their voices have been largely ignored.
The pattern of repression linked to the Escobal mine, 65km south-east of the capital, Guatemala City, provides an insight into the murky world of extractive industries in the country.
The deep mine, acquired by Canadian company Tahoe Resources in 2010, is thought to hold the third-biggest silver deposit in the world. But it is situated in the middle of Guatemala’s southern agricultural heartlands.
Tahoe was granted a 25-year licence to exploit a 20 sq km area in San Rafael las Flores – almost a quarter of the municipality’s territory – in April 2013 despite numerous community votes against the mine.
Its environmental impact study was flawed and should not have been approved, according to independent experts, whose assessment Tahoe rejects. The company insists that all licences were obtained legally, and that most community members support the mine.
Days after the Escobal licence was granted, seven protesters were shot outside the mine. Luis Fernando Monroy, now 23, was shot three times at close range in the face, leaving him with permanent loss of smell, and breathing complications.
Fernando, who leads a youth environmental group, refuses to cower despite a regular stream of abusive, defamatory and threatening messages via social networks and WhatsApp. Thugs have threatened his family at their home; his younger siblings were forced to abandon school. “The harassment is constant, the fear is there, but I will resist until death,” he said. “We have a right to a healthy environment and clean water; this is a struggle for life.”
Another victim of the violence in Guatemala was Topacio Reynoso, just 16 when she was shot dead as she climbed into her father’s car in 2014.
“She went through a political awakening and educated us about the dangers of mining,” said Irma Reynoso, 41, sitting solemnly in front of the picture montage of her daughter that decorates the facade of their home. Topacio’s father, Alex, was also shot, but survived. Three years later, no one has been charged.
Impunity breeds violence, according to Jorge Santos from the NGO Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala. “The Guatemalan state is designed to guarantee private interests and ensure impunity for the most powerful.”
Tahoe sees the violence differently. “There are a small number of vocal opponents who foment intimidation and violence in the region,” said a spokeswoman, Edie Hofmeister. “This has led to a number of violent incidents which sometimes creates a general environment of impunity that violent activists foment.”
The human rights prosecutor’s office in Guatemala City is analysing patterns of violence against activists, and investigating possible criminal wrongdoing by authorities approving licences and environmental impact studies. On 6 July Guatemala’s supreme court confirmed a preliminary suspension of Tahoe’s Escobal mining licence, citing violation of indigenous people’s rights to be consulted. The company is appealing the decision.