Guatemala’s Mayans Defeat Goldcorp in Court*
By Christin Sandberg
A Guatemalan court ruled in favour of the indigenous people of the municipality of Sipacapa. The court says the Guatemalan government must respect the right to information and consultation with the local population before granting any kind of mining permits, according to international conventions. As a consequence the mining permit named ”Los Chocoyos” is illegal, and should be withdrawn.
”This judgment states the obligation of the Guatemalan government to respect the indigenous people’s right to information and consultation before granting mining permits in indigenous territories, in accordance with both United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and International Labor Organization Convention 169. Otherwise they are illegal,” said Esperanza Pérez, from the Mayan Council of Sipacapa during a press conference held July 23.
In April of 2012 the General Director of the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) granted the local company Entre Mares de Guatemala S.A., a subsidiary of Canadian mining company Goldcorp Inc., a prospecting permit, ”Chocoyos” in Sipacapan territory. The permit was given without prior information or consultation with the local people. Since then, Entre Mares has had the permission to study, analyze and evaluate any metals such as, gold, silver, nickel, cobalt, lead and zinc within the region.
On March 24, 2014, the Mayan Council of Sipacapa claimed their collective rights and demanded the cancelation of the mining permit “Chocoyos” in a public hearing in an appellate court in Guatemala City.
On Friday, July 18, 2014 they were notified of the judgment. Maximiliano Ambrosio from the Mayan Council of Sipacapa commented on the court’s decision at the press conference on July 23: “We filed the petition considering the devastating consequences mining activities bring both on community level and to our environment and daily lives. And now, we have received a judgment in favor of the people of Sipacapa which means our territory belongs to us.”
The judgment also claims another important point for the local people, which is the court’s recognition of the Mayan Council of Sipacapa representing the people of Sipacapa as a legal part in the case, explained Deny de Leon, legal attorney at Comisión Paz y Ecología (Copae), an organization who has accompanied the petition. ”It is a historical and an important political moment when the state of Guatemala through this judgment recognizes the proper organization of the indigenous communities, a collective right, and in this case represented by the Mayan Council of Sipacapa,” said Deny de Leon at the press conference.
Located in the northwestern highlands, 300 kilometers from Guatemala City, Sipacapa counts with 18,000 inhabitants and a property title guaranteeing the collective ownership of their territory.
However, “Chocoyos” is not the only mining project in this area. Already in 1998 the Marlin Mine, which is the biggest goldmine in Guatemala, was discovered by Montana Exploradora de Guatemala S.A., a subsidiary to the same Goldcorp Inc. In November 2003 the permit for exploitation was granted and shortly afterwards the production process was started, according to information on the company’s website.
The Marlin Mine project is located in a vast territory in the two municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, populated by Maya mam people and Sipacapa. Both mining projects extend approximately 20 square kilometers. The Marlin Mine brings in high revenues to their shareholders, being Goldcorp’s most cost efficient mine worldwide.
In 2005, as the Marlin Mine was preparing to open, the Sipacapan community organized one of the country’s first referendums on whether to allow mining in their communities and collective territory. The answer was a resounding no from 99% of the population. Yet their decision was ignored. In a context of impunity, no international conventions protected the people from continuing state violations of their rights as indigenous communities.
Ever since, a peaceful resistance against mining activities based out of the local Catholic church has been constant, but perhaps less visible as time has passed. Due to threats and oppressive acts against individuals who denounce violations of human rights related to the situation around the mining project, sometimes involving workers and security personal from the mining company, people are scared of expressing their views. The mining company has also worked non-stop on promoting their local community projects aimed at contributing to social development.
The expectations on the recent judgment are great. ”In practical terms the legal implications of this judgment include that all preparatory mining activities in the area must stop,” said Deny de Leon from Copae. “The next step for the people of Sipacapa is to bring the results from the 2005 referendum, according to ILO Convention 169, to the General Director of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, for him to take into consideration. Thereafter the permit shall be suspended and the territory returned to its proper collective land holder, the local Mayan Sipacapense people.”
Mining permits and resistance
According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines there are currently 107 permits for exploration and exploitation of metallic minerals in the country. A recent study made by The Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (Icefi) and the non-governmental organization Ibis shows that 78 percent of the Guatemalan municipalities with a high concentration of mining licenses have reported social conflicts.
About 2 million people have manifested their discontent with the ongoing mining politics in 75 local referendums that have been carried out throughout the country since the first that was held in Sipacapa in 2005.The Guatemalan government has not recognized any of them, which implies violation of the international convention, ILO 169, that was ratified by the Guatemalan government in 1996.
The popular rejection is not so much against all types of mining and hydroelectric projects per se as it is against how the projects are approved without consulting the affected communities. Furthermore, the transnational companies do not take into account the interests of the people, the way of living and local culture in the area where they establish mega projects. More importantly, the percentage of profits that the population gets access to is incredibly small.
On the other hand the Guatemalan government has no right to violate both the Municipal Code and ILO Convention 169 as well as the UN declaration on the rights of the indigenous people as they do when granting mining permits without consulting the local indigenous communities. The ultimate consequence is the surrender of control over the land, ground water sources and rivers into the hands of international companies. Altogether it is a severe violation of the indigenous people’s collective right to self-determination within their territories.
Peace accord and trade agreements
When a Peace Accord was signed in 1996 after 36-year civil war, the Guatemalan state committed to respect and strengthen human, political, social and cultural rights. However, most civil society organizations agree this has not come to pass. On the contrary the shortages and weaknesses, such as extremely high levels of impunity within the legal system, have remained. The same accounts for the prevailing exclusionary and unequal social policy model.
The Peace Accord coincided with the economic opening and globalization of the Central American region in the 1990s. And as the journalist Karin Slowing writes in her column in the national newspaper Prensa Libre this July 23rd, this was not aimed at ”creating a more inclusive production matrix but rather privilege the expansion of the capital of the most powerful economic groups in the region.”
Today the communities live the consequences of the economic opening as they witness how more and more of their ancestral territories are reduced as transnational companies enter to buy vast extensions of land for monocultures, and installations of hydroelectric and mining projects and social services are privatized often with high costs to citizens as a result.
Considering this development, Eliu Orozco from the Mayan People’s Council comments on the judgment in favor of the community of Sipacapa: “This judgment is an important success in the process of legal actions taken by local communities articulated through the Mayan People’s Council. Taking legal actions is a strategy to ensure that international conventions, both United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and International Labor Organization Convention 169 are respected in Guatemala.”
The mining company Entre Mares de Guatemala S.A. has not been available for comment.