Sil­ver mine on front­line of bat­tle be­tween land rights ac­tivists and cor­po­rate prof­its

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Nina Lakhani Casil­las, Gu­atemala

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.

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