For more than three years, communities in the departments of Santa Rosa and Jalapa, in southeast Guatemala, have been resisting a proposed silver mine operated by Minera San Rafael, a Guatemalan subsidiary of Canada's Tahoe Resources.
But on April 3, the Guatemalan Minister of Energy and Mines (MEM) granted Tahoe Resources the permit necessary to begin mineral exploitation for their flagship Escobal project, located approximately 45 miles southeast of Guatemala City in the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores.
The license comes less than two weeks after four indigenous Xinca leaders were abducted while returning from a community referendum in El Volcancito, San Rafael las Flores, in which more than 99 percent of people voted against the Escobal project. One of those kidnapped, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, was found dead the following day.
Tahoe Resources is a Canadian-American joint venture headed by Kevin McArthur, former President and CEO of Goldcorp Inc., one of Guatemala’s most controversial gold mines in San Miguel Ixtahuacan. Goldcorp is the minority owner of Tahoe, with 40 percent of the shares.
Against numerous attempts, the municipal government of San Rafael Las Flores has rejected a community request for an official referendum under Guatemalan law.
“For three years we have been asking for a municipal referendum and we have been denied,” said Oscar Morales from the Committee in Defense of Life and Peace of San Rafael Las Flores. “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.”
Without the support of the San Rafael Las Flores municipal government, the residents have organized their own referendums, forming four community consultations in the municipalities of Casillas, Santa Rosa de Lima, Nueva Santa Rose and Mataquescuinta, in which more than 35,000 people have rejected chemical mineral mining on their territory.
But the arrival of the Escobal project has prompted social unrest and escalating violence. “Division exists, you are either a person that is for mining or you are a person who is resisting the mining project,” said Morales. “And there is a whole process of criminalization, defamation and identification of the people who are resisting the mining company.”
More than 4,300 individuals from 43 countries have signed a letter to Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, requesting her office involve the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to carry out a robust investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Exaltación Marcos Ucelo. The letter also urges the government to protect human rights and environmental defenders as they exercise their rights to live in a safe and healthy environment and to free, prior and informed consent.
“That this license was issued at all is a miscarriage of justice,” said Kristen Genovese, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law. “The context of escalating violence only highlights what any impartial observer can see: the Escobal project does not have the social license to operate. Thus far the Guatemalan government has prioritized mining interests over justice and the protection of human rights.”
Tahoe Resources, on the other hand, says they are providing hundreds of jobs. Currently they employ 600 people, 96% of whom are Guatemalans, plus over 500 construction workers. Local landowners have also received monetary compensation for their land.
But Oscar Morales argues that the company created a false expectation of the value of the land, thereby increasing rents for natives and the cost of goods. Employees of mine have a greater purchasing power than the rest of the population.
Most threatening to the residents of San Rafael Las Flores, however, is the potential environmental impact the mine will have on the land.
In 2010, the Catholic Church contacted the Center for Environmental and Social Legal Action (CALAS) over concerns about the environmental impact in northern Santa Rosa, in regions where Tahoe Resources is interested in mining.
For the last two and a half years, CALAS has been providing political and legal support to the resistance. According to CALAS, Tahoe Resources will file legal complaints against anybody that objects to the mine.
Yuri Melini, director of CALAS, claims that the construction of the Escobal processing plant has polluted a creek that provides water to San Rafael Las Flores. Based on field tests that detect solids in the water, CALAS is filing a lawsuit against the municipality of San Rafael for industrial pollution, which is being investigated by the Public Prosecutors Office .
“The first thing we need to take into consideration is that Guatemala’s legislation around environmental impact assessments is very weak,” said Melini. “The topic of mining is considered a high priority for economic development in the country. Our environmental authorities are very weak, but our ministry of mining is very strong.”
Another environmental concern is the possible contamination of the Ayarza Lagoon, a volcanic body of water that is located 1.5 miles downstream from the Escobal site. Acid drainage that will undoubtedly be produced by the mine could contaminate the underground water reserves by filtering through the thin layer of bedrock.
“In our opinion, the environmental assessment that Tahoe presented was very weak and does not consider the social interests of Guatemala,” said Melini. “It was simply performed as part of the process to acquire the exploitation license.”
Just hours following the announcement of Tahoe’s exploitation license, three gun shots were fired at the CALAS office while the home of its legal consultant, Rafael Maldonado, was ransacked for the second time in two weeks.
In response, CALAS stated, “Instead of feeling threatened and scared, this type of actions encourage us to continue on the path of what is truthful, just, honorable and dignified. We hold Minera San Rafael, subsidiary of the transnational Canadian-American Tahoe Resources Inc., responsible for these actions.”
Melini claims that “the government illegally and irresponsibly issued 19.99 km2 (equivalent to 23.79 percent of the land covered by the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores) to Tahoe, even though there were administrative objections in process.”
To date, the strategy of CALAS has been to present the Guatemala government with over 180 legal oppositions to the mine, each of which would have to be reviewed before approving an exploitation license. In response to the recently granted license, Melini says CALAS will file legal actions against it.
Jackie McVicar, a coordinator with Breaking the Silence, a solidarity network based in Canada and Guatemala, says it’s no secret in Guatemala that corruption runs deep.
“The capacity of the government to monitor mines, this has been a primary concern of the communities that are affected by mining in other parts of Guatemala. There is no one to monitor the company,” explains McVicar, “The Guatemalan business elite have a lot of power here.”
With $326.6 million invested, Tahoe is planning for mill commissioning by mid-year, and commercial production in early 2014.