In the Central American country of Guatemala which recently emerged from decades of devastating civil war, indigenous peoples are now facing another assault on their lands and their rights. The threat comes from powerful multinational mining companies, backed by the Guatemalan government and the World Bank.
In the last five years, the Guatemalan government has granted over 250 mining concessions, covering roughly ten percent of the country. Ninety percent of this land is occupied by indigenous peoples, who are demanding immediate cancellation of the mining permits.
In April 2004, the National Council of Indigenous Peoples (CNPI) condemned the “negative effects that mining activities represent to human and natural life.” The organization accused the government of violating its commitments under International Labor Organization Convention (No. 169) Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (see box). Guatemala ratified ILO 169 in 1996 as part of the Guatemalan Peace Plan. But CNPI and many Guatemalan human rights and environmental organizations charge that the government did not carry out a legitimate consultation process with indigenous populations before granting mining concessions on their lands.
The first showdown is underway in Guatemala’s dry western highlands, home of the indigenous Mam and Sipacapa peoples. Montana Exploradora, a fully owned subsidiary of the Canadian company Gold Corp, has started carving out a huge open pit where it plans to extract gold and silver over the next 10 years.
In this semi-arid region where water is a scarce and critical resource for subsistence farmers, the Marlin mine will use 250 cubic meters of water per hour.
Ore will be sprayed with cyanide to leach out the gold, risking downstream contamination with cyanide and other toxic chemicals. Scientists warn that acid mine drainage is very likely to be a long-term problem. As the sulfide-rich ore is exposed to air and water, acid will be released into the environment, affecting water and soil quality for generations to come. What purpose will this destruction serve? The only sure products are jewelry, a small cut for the Guatemalan government and profits for Gold Corp.
Local indigenous associations, national organizations and the Catholic church charge that the Guatemalan government and the IFC (International Finance Corporation, the private lending arm of the World Bank) rushed to authorize permits and loans for the Marlin mine without adequately informing local communities of the risks they face and hearing their views. In February 2004, a regional coalition (COSAM) asked the Guatemalan government to cancel the Marlin project – to no avail. Military force has been used against protesters.
At the same time, local and national organizations urged the IFC to delay loans to the project until environmental and social concerns could be addressed. The IFC went ahead and approved a $45 million loan last June, and it continues to maintain that there is widespread community support for the Marlin mine – despite a survey reported in the Guatemalan press on November 4, 2004, which found that 95 percent of people in the affected communities oppose the Marlin project.