Guatemala: Gold and Conflict
If the Guatemala government were to suspend operations at the Marlin Gold Mine, it would set an important precedent and allow for real dialogue with the community.May 19th, 2011 | by Keith Slack
This Friday marks the one-year anniversary of a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights calling on the government of Guatemala to suspend operations at the Marlin Gold Mine, a large “open-pit” mining operation in the western part of the country. The ruling is unprecedented: never before has an international human rights body taken such a strong action on human rights problems related to a large-scale resource extraction project. As such, the ruling was a major victory for human rights activists who have been documenting human rights violations in the extractive industries for years. Unfortunately, however, Guatemala’s government has largely ignored the ruling and the mine continues to operate, contributing to further tension and violence as local communities – mainly indigenous peoples — raise concerns about the mine’s impacts on the land and water that they depend on for their survival.
The Marlin Mine has had a troubled history since it began operations in 2005. In January of that year, one person was killed and 16 injured when police broke up a highway blockade set up to prevent shipment of mining equipment to the mine site. Since then, there has been a pattern of conflict and violence near the mine site. Respected international organizations, including the International Labor Organization(pdf), the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the European Parliament and even the US Congress have raised concerns about the mine’s impacts on local communities. Independent studies have pointed out human rights, environmental problems, and poor consultation processes with indigenous peoples. Concerns have also been raised about the weaknesses of both the national legal framework and national institutions (Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) to properly regulate and monitor mining.
The problems at Marlin are unfortunately not unique. Around the world, mining projects have engendered violence, conflict and even torture. Mining is in many ways a symbol of unchecked globalization. Under pressure from institutions like the IMF and World Bank (which invested initially in Marlin), developing countries began twenty-five years ago to open up their economies to foreign investment. In many of these countries, natural resources were the only thing of real interest to the private sector given the lack of infrastructure, endemic corruption, civil unrest, and other problems that made these countries less than attractive investment environments. So, the investment in mining and oil extraction came into countries like Guatemala, but the ability to manage that investment effectively did not. The inevitable results are the conflict, contamination and corruption that have characterized many post-globalization natural resource exporters. Peru is one example.
The problems at Marlin raise some broader questions about the appropriateness of pushing resource extraction in countries like Guatemala that clearly lack the ability to handle it effectively. (Even in the US, these industries are not particularly well-managed). At a more local-level, the Marlin experience suggests a need for the global mining industry and its backers in institutions like the World Bank to increase the importance of what might be called “social viability” in determining which projects to develop. The problems at Marlin could have been foreseen by anyone remotely familiar with the country’s recent history of brutal civil war, which resulted in genocide against the country’s indigenous population. The area where the Marlin Mine is now operating was an epicenter of that atrocity. Is it any wonder, then, that the indigenous populations that live there are suspicious of outsiders who have come to take their gold away?
Opposition to mining is increasing in Guatemala, in part because of what has occurred at Marlin. So what happens there is critical for the future of industry in the country. If the Guatemala government were to implement the IACHR’s ruling and suspend operations at the Marlin Mine (something that we’re calling for here), it would set an important precedent for these kinds of large-scale extractive industries projects. It could create a “time-out” and allow for the establishment of a real dialogue involving key members of the local community — including the mine’s critics — to work out a plan for protecting the long-term interests of the communities who live there. After all, they will still be there long after the gold is gone.