President forced to act in Guatemala mine fight | Globalization | DW | 03.05.2013
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President forced to act in Guatemala mine fight

Opposition to a new mine in Guatemala's southeast is ongoing, with locals wary of environmental impact. Now, following scuffles between the mine's security personnel and residents, a state of siege has been declared.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has declared a 30-day state of siege in four municipalities around the controversial El Escobal silver mining project in the southeast of the country.

The measure was taken after private security guards working for Tahoe Resources, the company running the mine, shot and wounded several local residents on April 27, 2013 along the road that passes directly in front of the Escobal mining site.

A 'state of siege' declaration allows authorities to restrict mobility and public gatherings for the next  month in San Rafael Las Flores and Castillas, Santa Rosa province; and Xelajpan and Maraquescuintla, Jalapa.

The mining company’s head of security has now been arrested while allegedly attempting to flee the country.

Locals angry

Voters in San Rafael Las Flores

Voters have said no to the new mine

Oscar Morales is a farmer and cattle breeder in San Rafael Las Flores. For the last few years, he and his fellow residents have been trying to stop the Escobal silver mine, the leading project of Tahoe Resources, a joint venture between Canada and the United States.

For support, Morales and his fellow residents approached the municipal government of San Rafael Las Flores.

"For three years we have been asking for a municipal referendum and we have been denied," says Morales. "The company has criminalized us. They put forth appeals seeking the annulment and revocation of the process so that we couldn't carry out the referendum."

In response, Morales started the 'Committee in Defense of Life and Peace', a locally organized community referendum. Not official under Guatemalan Law, the referendum provided ballots to locals who could vote 'yes' or ‘no' to mining in their municipality.

"The process of community referendums began precisely because there was no consultation process held in our territory, for our people, in order to carry out the San Rafael mining project," says Morales. "They never consulted with the population."

Community referendums

A general view of the San Rafael minery, a subsidiary of Canadian firm Tahoe Resources, is seen in San Rafael Las Flores municipality, Jalapa departament, 105 km southeast of Guatemala City, on January 12, 2013. Two security guards were killed during a protest of neighbors against the exploitation of silver. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Escobal mine project in San Rafael Las Flores

Four community referendums have now taken place in the municipalities of Casillas, Santa Rosa de Lima, Nueva Santa Rose and Mataquescuinta. So far, more than 35,000 people have rejected chemical metal mining on their territory. But not everyone is against the mining project. Morales explains that the mine and the revenue it generates have created tensions among members of the community.

"Division exists. You are either for it or against it," he told DW. "And there is a whole process of criminalization, defamation and identification of the people who are resisting the mining company."

Fernando Castellanos, General Director of the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines, told DW in a statement that the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores will receive around six million US dollars (4.6 million euros) annually thanks to the mine, more than ten times what is usually available to the community in municipal budgets.

But as the mining project expands, violent clashes and social unrest are escalating in San Rafael Las Flores. On April 12, the National Police used force to evict a group of demonstrators who were camped out on private land to protest Tahoe's license. At least 26 people were detained and dozens were injured.

Accusations of murder

At the beginning of April of this year, Tahoe received their license to mine. This, just weeks after four indigenous Xinca leaders were abducted while returning from a community referendum in El Volcancito, San Rafael Las Flores. One of those kidnapped, Exaltacian Marcos Ucelo, was found dead the following day.

A cameraman records images of a vehicle burned during a protest of neighbors against the exploitation of silver, where two were killed, in San Rafael Las Flores municipality, Jalapa departament, 105 km southeast of Guatemala City, on January 12, 2013. The two killed were security guards working for the San Rafael minery, a subsidiary of Canadian firm Tahoe Resources, said an official source. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In one protest by locals in January of this year, two security guards working for the mine were killed

"The kidnapping and death of Exaltacian Marcos Ucelo, we can't say for certain that the mine is behind it, but this type of violence only began with the arrival of Tahoe," says Morales.

Guatemala is a country still healing from a 36-year civil war, from 1960 into the mid-90s. Poverty is widespread and deeply entrenched, particularly in its rural areas, which make up 51 percent of the population. According to Rob Mercatante of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, Guatemala has seen a rise in human rights violations over the past year and a half.

"Unfortunately this government has been very much pro-business, and most of these businesses are foreign, mostly Spanish, American and Canadian," explains Mercatante. "They've received such a warm welcome from the administration that some feel the justice system is now being used to punish community leaders for upholding their rights."

Economy versus environment

But, Tahoe Resources say that local landowners have received compensation for their land. Tahoe are also providing hundreds of jobs, they say.

"We currently employ 600 people, 96 percent of whom are Guatemalans. So when we say that we are investing in the people of Guatemala, we certainly can back that up," Ira Gostin, Vice President of Investor Relations at Tahoe Resources, told DW.

Guatemala's Ayarza lagoon Quelle: Lizenz: creative commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Locals are especially concerned about pollution entering the nearby Ayarza Lagoon

But farmer Morales argues that the mine has raised the market value of San Rafael Las Flores and priced out locals, especially regarding the cost of basic goods and land. Locals are also worried about the environmental impact the mine will have on the land.

They are mainly concerned about contamination of the Ayarza Lagoon, a volcanic body of water located just a few kilometers downstream from the Escobal site. The mine is likely to produce acid drainage, which could filter through the thin layer of bedrock at the bottom of the lagoon, potentially contaminating the underground water reserves.

"In our opinion, the environmental assessment that Tahoe presented was very weak and does not consider the social interests of Guatemala," says Yuri Melini, director of the Center for Environmental and Social Legal Action (CALAS).

'Our work comes at a price'

Just hours after the announcement of Tahoe's mining license, three gunshots were fired at the CALAS office, while the home of its legal consultant, Rafael Maldonado, was ransacked for the second time in two weeks.

"Our work is to support communities, for them to be able to exercise their rights, but it comes with a price, and we're aware of that," Melini says.

Melini says the government has granted Tahoe access to almost a quarter of the land in San Rafael Las Flores. It's an action that Melini sees as not illegal, but also irresponsible.

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