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Blood Gold: Mining and Indigenous Genocide in Guatemala

By Millaray Freire-Archer
Published 2018-12-12

The role of development and its varied approaches are dynamic debates that are being brought to the forefront of global issues as development discourse increasingly comes to terms with the legacies of colonialism and ongoing global power imbalances. Present Western development policy is rooted in neoliberalism, with features of Human Development Theory increasingly being incorporated into the discourse. The focus of this paper is Guatemala – a nation unique in its establishment of developmental policy due to the strong US intervention in the 1950s and its abundance of natural resources. These factors led to development policies shaped by foreign corporate interest, which would bolster mining enterprises in the early 21st century. Thus, Guatemala is an interesting case study for the effects of development policy rooted in neoliberalism, especially with respect to its connection to the extraction industry and the human rights abuses with which it is frequently associated.

After WWII, much of Latin America underwent socialist reform, in part related to its adoption of Dependency Theory ideals. This was largely in response to lagging economies and income inequality that had created extreme poverty. Guatemala was one of the first countries to pursue this reform, when, in 1951, President Jacobo Arbenz instituted land reforms that would return privately owned land to the poorest citizens. This was a clear detriment to corporate foreign interest and set off a chain of events that culminated in a CIA-backed military coup led by Castillo Armas in 1954. What followed was a brutal civil war that lasted from 1960-1996, taking the lives of over 200,000 people, and was later described J.T. Haines’ documentary Gold Fever. The legacy that the civil war left on the country was compounded by the unique demographic of Guatemala. As of 2007, 60% of the population identified as indigenous, which is the second highest indigenous population density in Latin America. When the civil war ended, it was estimated that 83% of the lives lost were Mayan; and the war is now largely considered a genocide. This complex history of policy development and sociocultural unrest was instrumental in what is one of the biggest barriers that development of Guatemala currently faces: the systematic inequality and oppression of indigenous peoples by mining corporations.

The theme of indigenous systemic oppression is very clear when seen in the context of the extraction industry and development in Guatemala. Systemic oppression refers to institutionalized discrimination; this includes legal, cultural and social aspects. In Guatemala, all these conditions are thoroughly met. The military coup and resulting trade policy changes allowed for corporations to exploit the land with little regard for indigenous land rights, while the genocide ingrained cultural oppression of indigenous groups through their systematic elimination of entire communities. Finally, the ongoing, divisive debate on the ability of mines to contribute to development contributes today to social oppression and silencing of activist indigenous groups.

This specific development issue of systemic oppression of indigenous groups is vital to our understanding and further progress in development policy because of its global relevance and its underrepresentation. Indigenous rights have been consistently overlooked in human rights discourse in part due to the ongoing legacies of colonialism, genocide and culturecide. Indigenous populations make up 5% of the world population, yet according to the World Bank they make up 15% of those who are in extreme poverty. Indigenous genocides have occurred repeatedly, even into the late 20th century– its clear that indigenous peoples are not afforded full human rights even today. Besides the importance of recognizing the rights of all humans equally as a broad social goal, indigenous oppression is especially important in legal research. How state law and indigenous law interact is exemplified in Guatemala’s mining issue, but (according to Imai et al.) also in North America. Indigenous land claims are ongoing legal negotiations in Canada, and there are currently 50 being negotiated in Ontario alone. The Dakota Access Pipeline in the US has also been an ongoing source of controversy for its plans to cross Sioux land near the Standing Rock reservation. These sources of legal conflict between indigenous custom, law and state law are another important reason for studying systematic indigenous oppression. Determining a standard for indigenous law and state law to interact will be vital to furthering development policy that will encompass the rights of all peoples.

One of the most infamous mines in Guatemala is the Marlin mine, which borders towns of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipacapa in the San Marcos province, and is owned by the Canadian mining company Goldcorp (See McGill’s MICLA research team). The Marlin mine is an open pit gold and silver mine, which separates its gold using large amounts of water and cyanide. It has systematically breached indigenous peoples’ legal rights, and endangered their land and their lives.

Lack of consultation and subsequent violation of community decisions are the best examples of institutionalized legal discrimination. By most international legal standards, and by international indigenous rights conventions, the peoples indigenous to the land have certain land rights. This includes, in the International Labour Organizations Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention, the right to be “consulted whenever consideration is being given to their capacity to alienate their lands or otherwise transmit their rights outside their own community.” The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples echoes this standard, with an emphasis on “free, prior and informed consent” whenever rights to land, territories and resources are involved. The Marlin mine and Goldcorp subvert these standards. According the 2010 Human Rights Impact Assessment of the Marlin Mine issued by Goldcorp, there is “no documentation of any meetings held within the communities or what was discussed” despite the company having reported meetings regarding potentially developing a gold mine between 2000 and 2002. If consent prior to the installation of the mine was ambiguous, a breach of rights was evident in the immediate aftermath. Gold Fever portrays how in 2005, the community of Sipacapa held a consulta de buena fé – a vote. The result was a 98.5% rejection of the mine, but both Goldcorp and the Guatemalan government overrode the decision, saying the consulta was not state-sanctioned. That is to say, indigenous law was undercut by the Guatemalan government, and subsequently exploited by Goldcorp to maintain operations of the Marline mine.

The environmental degradation caused by the Marlin mine is another form of repression of indigenous voices. There are three major health and safety concerns directly related to mine operation: water scarcity, water pollution and illness. The mine has used billions of liters of water in its 11-year operation to sieve and wash collected gold, to the point where it is causing droughts in the nearby communities (Ibid). The water that is available is often dangerously polluted with cyanide and heavy metals, and has been known to cause death in cattle and serious illness and lesions among the people who live in Sipacapa and San Miguel. This is a direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, where “in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsidence.” Clean water is essential to survival. By depriving communities of this basic right, not only do the mining companies breach their human rights, but also, they silence indigenous voices and systematically degrade entire communities.

The key factors that contribute to the issue of systematic oppression of indigenous peoples in Guatemala have been outlined in part above: the colonial history of Central America and instances of indigenous genocide, along with US intervention and molding of trade policy. Also, the resource exploitation industry plays a large role. One key effect on Guatemalan society is the murder of activists, which has been happening regularly since Guatemala became a destination for mining corporations. In 2010, two men broke into the home of Diodora Hernandez, a Mayan-Mam activist, and shot her in the face. She miraculously survived, and recounted to J.T. Haines how she had been approached many times by Montana Exploradora (the Goldcorp subsidiary that operates the Marlin mine) to sell her land, which she refused to do. The men who shot her were identified as locals, one of which was a former employee of Montana Exploradora according to Rights Action. The persecution of activists continues even as recently as 2014, when 16-year old Merilyn Topacio Reynoso was attacked and killed. She and her father were prominent vocal activists and community leaders. These activities lead to the oversight, and indeed, the silencing of indigenous voices as well as their allies. Other significant effects are the ongoing violations of the right to self-determination, land and livelihood as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). While the government rejection of the Sipacapa vote was in 2005, before Guatemala voted in favour of UNDRIP, violations of these rights have been ongoing. In fact, according to Public Radio International “Since 2005, more than one million people in more than 75 community referenda have voted overwhelmingly to reject mega projects in their territory, but the results have been ignored by the government and companies alike.”

There are several unique problems facing development efforts in Guatemala with respect to mining and indigenous groups. The first is the ongoing influence of foreign corporations in government, as well as in development planning. This is exemplified both by the continual rejection of indigenous law in favour of the interests of mining corporations, as well as by the push to link development with business and neoliberalism. As Coumans writes “The global industry is actively promoting a positive association between mining and development, by emphasizing the provision of jobs, taxes, and royalties... But the messaging effort is only part of a more substantive effort to counter local opposition and achieve a social license to operate by channeling ‘benefits’ to the local level.”

Mining is largely a form of unsustainable development – it may bring short-term benefits in the form of jobs, but the environmental and social damage seem to outweigh the benefits. In Guatemala, the job creation and economic boosts often cited as benefits are even more difficult to assess. According to Public Radio International “Mining companies pay the government only one percent in royalties — the lowest rate in Latin America – making it extremely attractive to foreign investors.” The monetary returns from the extreme exploitation of Guatemalan land and people are not a legitimate form of development. This issue contributes to another development dilemma: how objective can North American development actors be when they stand to gain so much? Foreign corporate interests complicate the role of countries like Canada in the development of Latin American countries, especially when in Guatemala, where Canadian companies are involved with 90% of all mining projects. Clearly, a top-down approach to protecting indigenous rights is riddled with biases. However, a participatory approach faces its own challenges, namely, the internal conflict between pro-mine and anti-mining communities. Even among locals, opinions remain somewhat divided between largely indigenous community groups that oppose mining, and those who have benefitted from company jobs and firmly support mining. The dissonance among local populations has been violent from the start – many activist deaths are attributed to locals who were past or present employees of mining corporations. According the Bretton Woods Project, in 2005, Alvaro Benigno Sánchez López was killed by two security guards working for Montana Exploradora. Sánchez’ father was a community leader protesting Goldcorp. Diodora Hernandez’ story also evidences this trend. This internal community conflict is an obstacle for developers using the participatory approach, because a divided community is not able to participate fully.

How to develop effectively in response to mining and indigenous oppression in Guatemala is a complicated and layered question. The issues of foreign corporate interest, local division and violence, violations of the right to self-determination, environmental degradation and the fixation on neoliberal development all create difficulties in implementing development policy. Thus, the solution must be multi-faceted and all encompassing. Development should be founded in participatory approaches and human development, in order to ensure the affected parties are given a voice, and the final decision on how their land and communities should be developed. Main goals should include provision of clean water, shelter and investigation into human rights abuses suffered by the affected communities (as demanded by local activist groups). Also, awareness and enforcement of indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination and to land and resources should be a priority, especially in a country where the majority identifies as indigenous. Similarly, development goals should include giving a platform – including funding and media coverage – to indigenous activist groups like the Asociación Para El Desarollo Integral San Miguelense (ADISMI), a Mayan-Mam organization dedicated to the sociocultural, socioeconomic and sociopolitical development of the community of San Miguel. While these would be initial steps to addressing indigenous discrimination and mining in Guatemala, future steps should also include regulation of mining corporations in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and with environmental standards. In this way, the conflicts and violence that are ongoing in San Marcos with the Marlin mine could hopefully be avoided. The people of Guatemala deserve better than what modern ‘development’ has imposed on them thus far, and the global community has an obligation to support the peoples speaking out in a non-directional but unfaltering manner.


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