Rights at Risk in Guatemala: One year on, concerns about mining and human rights remain

By Tara Scurr, Campaigner, Business and Human Rights  


Community members in San Rafael Las Flores pose with copies of AI's report on mining in Guatemala. September 2014One year ago, Alex Neve and I were sitting in the Hotel Continental in Guatemala City, waiting for reporters to turn up for our press conference. We were about to launch a new Amnesty International report on mining and human rights. We’d been warned by our experienced Guatemalan media handler not to expect many reporters to show up. Imagine our delight when our press conference began and we saw that the room was packed with radio, print and TV reporters, NGOs, and human rights defenders from  communities affected by mining. It was standing room only.

Days earlier, we had visited two of the communities to give them copies of the report and talk with them about our findings. Yolanda Oqueli, a woman who was shot and seriously wounded in 2012 for her opposition to a Canadian gold mine, spoke to the media in support of our research. We were glad to see reporters in the room make beelines for courageous human rights defenders like Yolanda and Oscar Morales to capture their stories and reactions to the report. Newspapers printed and reprinted the story. 

Communities from all over Guatemala have raised the alarm about mining projects they say have been forced onto their communities.  For more than a decade, communities opposed to mining say they have been ignored, lied to or worse, their leaders have been attacked. Despite what companies tell their Canadian and international shareholders, affected communities say that these projects do not have broad support, or what companies call a ‘social license to operate’. They also say that current mining laws do not protect their rights.

While we were in Guatemala to present our report, a special congressional committee had just wrapped up several weeks of hearings on proposed amendments to the 1997 Mining Code. Civil society opposed the amendments, as did we, warning that implementing them would deepen existing human rights harms. The reforms could put mining-affected communities at further risk. Reforming the Mining Code was a political hot potato for which no one in government wanted responsibility. 

Amnesty Activists Respond

Over the last year, thousands of Amnesty members around the globe took action. They wrote letters to the Guatemalan President and asked him to halt the flawed reform process.  They asked him to initiate a new one based on genuine consultation with Indigenous peoples and civil society. They urged him to respect the right to free, prior, informed consent. In addition, Amnesty staff in Europe and North America met with Guatemala’s Ambassadors to discuss our report and share our concern that Guatemala is not living up to its international human rights obligations under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or its own court rulings.

Amnesty members also raised the alarm about attacks against human rights defenders. Activists have paid a heavy price for their outspokenness. They have been threatened, attacked, and criminalised for their work. Some activists are in jail and others have been forced into hiding. Women activists have faced sexual violence and gender discrimination. In 2013, Margaret Sekaggya, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders noted that activists working to protect land and territories from development face significant human rights risk. She named Guatemala as one of the most dangerous places for such work.

Some communities have made the link between the militarization of their communities – such as the opening military bases– and the government’s attempts to crush community resistance to mining. They are speaking out against the use of special procedures, such as issuing a State of Emergency, to crack down on anti-mining dissent. It is dangerous and stressful work for activists and their families.

But the work continues.

Knowledge is power

Being well-informed is crucial to a meaningful and fair consultation process. Communities point out – and evidence obtained by Amnesty shows –that mining companies often give very one-sided presentations about the potential benefits of proposed mines (ie jobs). They share very little about the well-documented, inherent risks of large-scale mining. The long-term consequences of mining – such as dried up wells, desertification, or acid mine drainage – are ultimately borne by communities and by extension, national governments. This is often the case in Canada, too. Since neither companies nor the Guatemalan government have been very forthcoming about the long-term risks they are asking communities to bear, local activists have taken matters into their own hands.

Some communities have begun to map out mineral licenses in their territories. Canadian company Tahoe Resources holds tenure to over 2000 square kilometers of land in Santa Rosa, a fertile farming region of Guatemala. The data from the community’s mapping helps them understand how existing mineral tenures may alter their access to, and use of, their lands and waters. This in turn helps them anticipate what risks a particular mining project poses to the environment and whether those risks are acceptable to them.

With this knowledge, towns and hamlets in Santa Rosa have held their own community consultations on mining. Companies have tried to portray these consultations as ‘illegal’ and illegitimate. There have even been serious criminalisation campaigns against leaders who support these consultation efforts.  Criminalisation can take the form of made-up legal charges against activists, which are later thrown out by judges. It can also involve police surveillance and searches of activists’ homes. Activists have told Amnesty how such campaigns cause them psychological stress, cost them their reputations and sometimes their jobs. However, despite this, the result of dozens of community-led consultations all over Guatemala on industrial development has been a resounding ‘no’.

The Guatemalan government says it does not have to respect the results.

Guatemala at a cross-roads

Guatemala has experienced major changes over the last eight months. Most strikingly, the country’s President resigned. General Otto Perez Molina is currently in prison awaiting trial for his role in a multi-million dollar customs bribery scandal dubbed ‘La Linea’. Like him, his Vice-president and many of his former Ministers and their deputies stand accused of bilking millions of dollars that were meant to go into public coffers. Otto Perez Molina was considered a close friend and supporter of the mining industry and in particular of Goldcorp and Tahoe Resources. Minister of Energy and Mines, Erick Archila and his deputy minister were also forced to resign amid the allegations.

General elections were held in early September. A run-off election for President will be held on October 25 and the new government will take power in January 2016.

While Guatemalans deal with this dramatic corruption scandal, the legal proceedings that will follow, and the establishment of a new government, the country’s weak Mining Act remains in force and serious problems persist in the mining sector. Some community leaders live under harsh conditions in prison while they wait for their trials, their families suffer economically, socially and psychologically, and the militarization of communities such as San Rafael las Flores continues. And, there are currently four legal cases against Canadian mining companies before courts in British Columbia and Ontario alleging human rights violations at mine sites in Guatemala. 

The recommendations of our 2014 report are still relevant today.

• Justice for human rights defenders like Yolanda Oqueli
• A moratorium on any new mining licenses until the Mining Code is reformed in a manner fully consistent with Guatemala’s national and international human rights obligations
• Fully funded and resourced mining reform process, in close consultation with Indigenous organizations and civil society
• Consultation with affected communities must take place BEFORE mining licenses are granted and mining activities begin.
• Respect the right to free, prior, informed consent of Indigenous communities

There is so much work to be done.

Please join Amnesty International Canada’s campaign on mining and human rights in Guatemala: Don’t Undermine Our Rights! For more information, contact Tara Scurr at bhr(at)amnesty.ca or 1-613-744-7667 ext 102

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