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Guatemala: Opposition to Mining Operations

A recent BBC story reported on skin infections showing up in several indigenous communities in Guatemala. Many from the community and other activists are placing blame on the Canadian open-pit mining company, Goldcorp for the health problems. These new findings are the latest in a series of arguments about the negative effects of mining. Bloggers have joined the online debate that say that mining is damaging and dangerous for local communities and the environment.

The blog of the Guatemala Solidarity Network writes about mining in San Miguel Ixtahuacán in Conflict and Criminalization :

Experts often consider open-pit mining to be the most destructive industrial activity in terms of environmental depletion, social and cultural impact… In San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa, San Marcos, intensive mineral exploitation has already left its mark. Local residents from Agel, Nueva Esperanza and San Jose Ixcaniche remember fondly a gorgeous mountain, famed for its diversity, where one could find various species of birds and butterflies. Today, the only thing left of that place is an enormous crater with contaminated rubble.

This debate dates back to 2007 where Alejandro of Un Chapín en Japón [es] had been questioning mining regulations in Guatemala and analyzed the pros and cons of mining and the uneven conditions of the laws:

1.- El estado de Guatemala recibe el 1% de regalías producto de la actividad minera. (da risa la verdad, entre otras cosas no compensa el daño que se pueda causar no solo en el ambiente sino consecuentemente en la población). Esto es debido a que así esta establecido en la Ley de Minería aprobada en 1997, aprobado por el gobierno del Presidente Alvaro Arzú.

2.- Poco o escaso beneficio de las áreas en las que se realiza la minería en comparación con el impacto que se produce. De manera directa la minería genera empleos directos e indirectos, pero en términos generales no mejora la calidad de vida de la población. Una pregunta importante es ¿Qué pasará cuando las minerías terminen sus operaciones en esé lugar?.

1. The State of Guatemala only receives 1% of royalties from the mining activities (it really makes you laugh, because it does not compensate for the damages on the environment and the people. Such regulations were approved under the government of Alvaro Arzú.

2. Little or limited benefit in the areas where the mining activity is taking place when compared with the impact it causes. It might provide direct and indirect employment, however, in general terms it does not improve the people's quality of life. There is an important question to ask What will happen when the mining companies end their operations there?

Mining companies are well aware of the vocal opposition to their operations. They often counter it with arguments that they are contributing development, jobs, progress, and stability for the country. Some of these companies are taking their message directly to the public through public relations campaigns to tell their side of the story. James Rodríguez of Mi Mundo describes how the Goldcorp mining company is trying to improve their image:

Towards the end of 2008, in an attempt to improve its image at the national level, Goldcorp (Montana Exploradora's Canadian-run parent company) has launched an intense propaganda campaign by strategically posting billboards throughout Guatemala City and along principal highways. In this image a gigantic billboard, located just meters outside the main exit of La Aurora international airport, reads: “Development = work = better quality of life. For us at Goldcorp, development is what counts.”

Photo by James Rodríguez and used with permission http://mimundo-jamesrodriguez.blogspot.com

Photo by James Rodríguez and used with permission http://mimundo-jamesrodriguez.blogspot.com

Despite the campaigns from the companies, citizen mobilizations are also highly visible. The blog Foro Mundial de las Luchas del Agua [es] (World Forum of the Fight for Water) describes one of these protests by the Continental Council of Elderly Indigenous of America, which called for the government not to allow mining in their communities and that their water had been contaminated with cyanide. Pluriculturalidad Juríca [es] mentions that there have been approximately 20 community consultations where mining operations were rejected on the basis of health and environmental issues.

Health problems are also being seen in community members. The blog Guatemala Contaminada [es] describes the sad situation of Emeterio Pérez on their post Goldcorp kills:

Picture by RightsAction/Grahme Russell and used with permission http://guatemalacontaminada.blogspot.com

Picture by RightsAction/Grahme Russell and used with permission http://guatemalacontaminada.blogspot.com

Emeterio es un hombre de 73 años de la comunidad de San José Ixcaniché en San Miguel Ixtahuacan. En menos de un año, la salud de Emeterio se ha deteriorado. Empezó a tener dolores en sus pies que lentamente se expandieron por todo su cuerpo.

Después apareció el sarpullido seco que picaba y se extendió por todo su cuerpo. Como muestra la foto, su estomago empezó a hincharse, alcanzando un tamaño enorme, mientras que él se debilitaba. Durante esta entrevista, Emeterio nos indicó que otro hombre en la misma comunidad se había muerto por los mismos síntomas.

Emeterio is a 73 year-old man from the community of San José Ixcaniché in San Miguel Ixtahuacan. In less than a year, Emeterio's health has deteriorated. He started to experience pain that started in his feet and slowly spread throughout his body.

Then, dry, itchy rashes that first appeared on his feet spread to his entire body. As the photo shows, his stomach started to swell, reaching a large size, while he became weaker. During this interview, Emeterio said that there was another man from his community who had died with the same symptoms.

Communities in the area are facing a lot of problems as a result of the mine, and in addition, their leaders are being criminalized as described by the blog Breaking the Silence [es]:

The mine is located in Mayan Mam and Mayan Sipakapense territory. Communities in the area have begun to suffer the adverse consequences of the mine, which, according to local organizations such as ADISMI (The Association for Integral Development in San Miguel Ixtahuacán) and the representative governing body of the communities include loss of water sources (over 40 wells have dried up), skin diseases, especially amongst children and the elderly, death of animals and an increase in miscarriages, large cracks in homes creating unsafe living condition, increased militarization, the presence of private security, and social conflict between communities and insufficient compensation for land sold to the company by community members as well as pressure, threats, and coercion by the company in the acquisition of this land.

Despite the claims of development for the country and local communities, bloggers are demonstrating that there is a strong opposition and mobilization based on visible effects on the health of citizens caused by damage to the environment.

8 comments

  • […] Global Voices Online » Guatemala: Opposition to Mining Operations "A recent BBC story reported on skin infections showing up in several indigenous communities in Guatemala. Many from the community and other activists are placing blame on the Canadian open-pit mining company, Goldcorp for the health problems." (tags: blog latinamerica capitalism environment workers) […]

  • Robert King

    Until competent medical authorities identify the sores and rule out poor sanitation, unhygienic conditions, malnutrition, infestations of fleas, rodents, etc. the accusations against the mine are premature.

  • Dear Robert, our problem is the lack of “competent and impartial” authorities, medical, environmental… The accusations against the mine may be premature, the message to the State is not. It is urgent to act.

    • Robert King

      I agree- it’s not just competent authorities but very brave ones who are needed to force an investigation

      From Goldcorp’s website:
      “The mill is designed to treat a minimal 1.82 million tonnes per year of ore. Ore is fed through a crusher prior to being introduced into the grinding circuit. Milling is conducted in a semi-autogenous grinding mill/ball mill circuit. The pulp produced by the milling is subjected to tank leaching with cyanide. After leaching the ore in the large tanks, the pulp is ‘washed’ in a series of settling units (counter-current decantation). This effectively produces two products: a clear gold and silver bearing solution and also a pulp without precious metal values. The gold and silver solution is sent to the refinery where the metals are precipitated out of solution through the addition of zinc. The precipitate is filtered and smelted….. to produce bars”

      Quoting from this site:
      http://www.lenntech.com/periodic-chart-elements/Zn-en.htm

      Although humans can handle proportionally large concentrations of zinc, too much zinc can still cause eminent health problems, such as stomach cramps, skin irritations, vomiting, nausea and anaemia. Very high levels of zinc can damage the pancreas and disturb the protein metabolism, and cause arteriosclerosis. Extensive exposure to zinc chloride can cause respiratory disorders.

      In the work place environment zinc contagion can lead to a flu-like condition known as metal fever. This condition will pass after two days and is caused by over sensitivity.

      Zinc can be a danger to unborn and newborn children. When their mothers have absorbed large concentrations of zinc the children may be exposed to it through blood or milk of their mothers.

      END OF QUOTE

      Evidence of zinc contamination would show up in cattle also- and very likely before humans showed symptoms. If there are livestock symptoms of any kind it would provide another way of ascertaining if there is contamination from the mine.

      Perhaps agricultural inspectors would be more willing to call attention to a problem concerning cattle rather than simple Indians.

      But you are absolutely right about the authorities. It would take a very brave doctor or official to stand up to very powerful interests.

  • Jackie

    Dear Renata, thank you for this blog roundup about effects of the Marlin Mine in Guatemala. The organization I work for has been supporting efforts to assert the rights of the affected communities for 4 years or so, and unfortunately what everyone feared– devastating health effects that appear to be linked to the mine– are now coming to pass. Thanks for covering the situation, and for helping to get the word out.

    • Gail

      Hello Jackie,
      I am a PR student at Boston University and am covering a feature story on illegal open-pit mining in Guatemala. Would you be willing to do an e-mail interview with me so that I can gather first-hand experience about what is going on there?
      Thank you, and please feel free to e-mail me if you are interested.
      Gail,
      gbsmith@bu.edu

  • Jackie

    Interesting that the types of health problems being experienced practically did not exist prior to the mine entering into operation. It couldn’t possibly be that the ENORMOUS GOLD MINE operation, which uses TONS AND TONS of TOXIC chemicals, may somehow be linked to the sudden appearance of health problems consistent with exposure to these chemicals.

    The people whose health is suffering would give anything for access to \competent medical authorities.\ Could you make that happen for them? B/c their government utterly neglects them, and the several organizations working in defense of their rights are pretty humble operations. So perhaps you could pitch in a few tens of thousands of dollars, and they’ll get those competent medical authorities up there right away.

  • GailPR

    I am a PR student covering a feature on this topic. I am very familiar with many stories of the mining industries injustices toward indigenous peoples. If anyone is an expert on this topic or has seen first-hand the negative influence open-pit mining has on indigenous cultures, I would love to speak with you. Would anyone be willing to contact me for an interview?
    Message back, if yes!
    Thank you!

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