Tahoe AGM: will investors reject ‘business as usual’?

By Tara Scurr, Amnesty International Canada Business and Human Rights Campaigner

“We have faith that Amnesty International’s campaigning will inform investors in Tahoe Resources about our suffering in Guatemala.” Resident of San Rafael Las Flores

When Alex Neve and I visited San Rafael Las Flores, Santa Rosa province, the site of Tahoe’s Escobal mine, in September 2014, it was to present the findings of our report, Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk and seek feedback from local grassroots activists. We hoped that community members, activists, legal experts, investors and governments would find it useful in untangling some of the problems with Guatemala’s mining regulatory framework and outline how the government and companies are failing human rights. It was clear from our research that current mining regulations and corporate practices are stoking conflict in Guatemala, leading to serious human rights violations, and that change is desperately needed. 

During that meeting, the very people who had been living through several years of frustration, fear, criminalisation, militarization of their towns, threats and incredible stress, told us they had faith in us to carry their message of suffering and resistance to decision-makers and investors in Canada. It is a message we have taken to heart.

Since October, Amnesty International Sections throughout the world have met with their Foreign Affairs departments, Guatemalan Ambassadors, investment banks and shareholders in companies operating in Guatemala to share the findings and recommendations of our report. In these meetings, we reiterated the message given to us by residents, like the man who said, “We want to take part in these decisions about our future, but those in power don’t want and won’t let us participate. Instead, they criminalize us”.

Mine critics under threat

Since 2011, over 90 activists in the province of Santa Rosa have found themselves facing charges ranging from uttering threats to femicide (a special law in Guatemala against violence directed to women) to hiring hitmen to killing political opponents.  All of these charges were later dropped by the courts due to lack of evidence. But the financial, psychological and reputational cost to the people facing these charges has been unimaginable.  Still, people told us in September: “We will continue to oppose the mine because of the impacts on our environment and our food sources”.

In 2012, the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office of Crimes Against the Environment launched an investigation into a legal claim that the company’s activities were causing water contamination. In April 2015, Carlos Roberto Morales Monzón, the Administrative Manager and Legal Representative to Tahoe’s subsidiary, Minera San Rafael, , was arrested and denied bail by a Guatemalan judge in relation to the case. The trial date is set for June 12. Tahoe issued a press statement on April 14 saying they would appeal his detention. He is not the company’s only current or former employee in custody.

The company’s former head of security, Peruvian national Alberto Rotondo, has been in preventative detention since his arrest in April 2013 while attempting to leave the country. On April 27, 2013,  residents allege that he ordered guards under his command to fire rubber bullets and tear gas at unarmed protestors. According to documents filed in an ongoing civil claim in BC Supreme Court, Rotondo wanted to prevent protestors from establishing a permanent protest camp near the mine, such as the La Puya protest camp just outside Guatemala City, which was set up in protest against another Canadian gold mine.

“It’s with bullets they learn,” Alberto Rotondo

Wiretap surveillance of Mr Rotondo was ordered by the Attorney General prior to the April 27 shootings. The recordings reveal how Mr. Rotondo ordered his underlings to break shields to make it look like they were attacked, pick up shell casings, collude with police on a version of events (“the protestors attacked us”), and how he arranged to flee the country. In a press release issued after the shootings, Tahoe down-played the attack, saying that guards shot protestors with rubber bullets in self-defence. One man, however, required reconstructive facial surgery and lost the ability to smell as a result of his injuries.  Last month, the company was in BC Supreme Court asking Justice Laura Gerow to decline jurisdiction to hear the civil claim against it. The 7 men who launched the civil suit against Tahoe for negligence and battery do not believe they will receive justice in Guatemala and have argued the case should be rightly heard in Canada. A decision by Justice Gerow is expected in June.

Tahoe’s practices questioned in several countries

Norway’s Council on Ethics, which advises Norway’s Government Pension Fund – Global, investigated the allegations and came to the conclusion, after research and an exchange of letters with the company, that the company’s operations pose risks to human rights and that Tahoe Resources should not be eligible for investment. They are not the only investor questioning their relationship with the company.

The company has run into other kinds of trouble. In April 2015, the Guatemalan courts suspended the company’s preliminary environmental impact study for its Juan Bosco exploration licence application. Juan Bosco is a new project located within the company’s more than-2000 square kilometer concession. Residents say they are very worried about the potential impacts on their water supplies. Neighboring Xinka Indigenous communities who believe they would be adversely impacted by the mine say they have not been consulted nor has their consent been sought by the company or the Government. The Xinka leadership has been clear that it opposes mining in the region.

Tahoe investors need to raise questions

None of this can be good news for Tahoe investors meeting in Vancouver today. Earlier this year, Tahoe Resources merged with another Vancouver-based firm, Rio Alto Mining Limited. In his letter to shareholders in the company’s Management Circular, outgoing CEO Kevin McArthur, who will remain as Chairman of the Board, assured investors that, “Escobal is a model of environmental excellence and corporate social responsibility”. The record seems to indicate otherwise, or at the very least, raise troubling questions about the company’s commitment to environmental excellence and, perhaps more appropriately, corporate accountability.

While in Guatemala in September, Alex and I delivered a copy of our report to the powerful business lobby, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF). Committee members were visibly alarmed to learn that investors are growing increasingly concerned about the risks associated with mining investments in Guatemala. It is our hope that today, in Vancouver, Tahoe investors raise the important questions that need to be raised with the company’s board of directors and senior management.

The men, women and children we met with in San Rafael Las Flores last year expect investors to open their eyes and ears to the suffering they have experienced and to refuse to allow business to continue as usual. As long as Guatemala continues to ignore its human rights responsibilities to mining-affected communities and companies refuse to meet at a minimum the human rights responsibilities set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the potential for further violence is real. Investors need to question whether they wish to be part of it, or if they wish to use their leverage to bring about much-needed change in corporate policies and practices. We sincerely hope it is the latter.

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