When Guatemalans elect a new president in September, he or she will face a truly daunting set of problems. The country is, by any objective measure, a mess, overrun by Mexican drug traffickers and afflicted by one of the highest murder rates in the world. Guatemala’s murder rate is three times higher than Iraq’s. The […]
When Guatemalans elect a new president in September, he or she will face a truly daunting set of problems. The country is, by any objective measure, a mess, overrun by Mexican drug traffickers and afflicted by one of the highest murder rates in the world. Guatemala’s murder rate is three times higher than Iraq’s. The scars of Guatemala’s brutal thirty-six year civil war (which only ended in 1996) haven’t healed. The genocide that was prosecuted against the country’s Mayan majority remains an everyday presence in the minds of these communities. Last year Foreign Policy magazine put Guatemala on its “watch list” for failed states.
As if these problems weren’t bad enough, Guatemala’s government continues to aggressively push development of the country’s mining sector. The government has handed out more than 250 concessions to mining companies in recent years. Ninety percent of these concessions overlap with areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. As I noted in an earlier post, the push for mining development on indigenous lands has already contributed to violence and killings around mine sites. This has occurred at the country’s largest current mining operation, the Marlin Mine. The problems there have raised such concern that in May 2010 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the Guatemalan government to suspend operations at the Marlin Mine until human rights issues there are addressed. On the other side of the country, 11 indigenous women were gang-raped by security forces and police near the site of Canadian mining company Hudbay’s project. The company now faces a lawsuit in Canadian courts brought by the victims.
Last week in Guatemala City, Oxfam partner organization CALAS convened a forum among the country’s leading presidential candidates to debate the role of mining and other extractive industries in the country’s future. This would have been an important opportunity for the candidates to clarify what they will do to ensure that, if the country’s mining sector is to be further developed, the basic rights of affected communities will be respected. Unfortunately, only one of the candidates turned up. Thus far in the campaign, none of the major candidates have articulated a clear position on mining, although the leading candidate Otto Perez Molina, does not inspire much hope for more enlightened government policy. Perez Molina is a former head of Guatemalan military intelligence and has been implicated in human rights abuses. Nobel Peace Prize winner and Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu is also a candidate, but is unlikely to garner significant support.
The tensions around Guatemala’s natural resource sectors were made further evident this week when CALAS Director Yuri Melini and Legal Director Rafael Maldonado received death threats via mail to their office. They believe the threats are related to their work to expose corruption around a natural gas plant in Izabal department in the eastern part of the country. See our e-action on this case.
To address the problems in Guatemala’s mining sector (which are also afflicting neighboring Honduras and El Salvador), the new president should take two important initial steps. First, he or she should commit to implementing the Inter-American Commission’s ruling and suspend operations at the Marlin Mine. This would demonstrate that the government is genuinely concerned about the rights of affected communities and would provide an opportunity to lessen tensions around the Marlin project and around mining more generally in the country.
Secondly, the government should support passage of new mining law that would enshrine legal protections for the right of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples to grant or withhold their free, prior and informed consent to mining projects on their land. This is a right that is increasingly recognized under international law, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Guatemala, Canada, and the US have ratified. It is also part of the new policies issued this month by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, which funds many large-scale mining projects in developing countries (and initially financed the Marlin project).
The new government should refrain from approving any new mining projects until the problems at Marlin are addressed in a meaningful, transparent, and participatory way and a stronger legal framework is established for protecting indigenous rights. These steps alone won’t resolve all of Guatemala’s problems, but they can help ensure that mining doesn’t make them any worse than they already are.