Guatemala: Lives and livelihoods at stake in mining conflict

June 21, 2012

Guatemala: Lives and livelihoods at stake in mining conflict

A short drive north-east of bustling Guatemala City, a battle line is drawn in the mountains surrounding the gold mine in El Tambor.

Since March, activists and members of the local community have held an ongoing protest against the mine’s development by Radius Gold, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, and its wholly owned Guatemalan subsidiary, Exploración Mineras de Guatemala (EXMIGUA).

Some community members claim that they were not consulted about the opening of the mine and fear it will pollute their water supply and damage land in San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc municipalities.

On the evening of 13 June events took a decidedly sinister turn.

Outspoken anti-mining activist Yolanda Oquelí was driving home from taking part in this ongoing protest when two gunmen on a motorbike cut across in front of her car and fired four shots. Yolanda was hit and a bullet lodged close to her liver: she is currently recovering from the attacks and is in a stable condition despite the seriousness of her injuries. 

When Amnesty International met Yolanda Oquelí in May, she spoke about her work with FRENAM (North Metropolitan Peoples in Resistance Front) – a local group calling for a proper community consultation on the mine.

“When I met Yolanda last month, she told me that she knew her work put her at great risk, but that she carried on for the sake of her community and her children’s future,” said Gabriela Quijano, Business and Human Rights Legal Adviser at Amnesty International.

“Yolanda has been working to raise awareness of the possible effects of mining on her community’s land and livelihood, despite the dangers she faced.”

Yolanda also told Amnesty International about the death threats she had received.

Because of her work to defend her community’s human rights, she has suffered ongoing harassment, including threats on her life, threatening phone calls and her house being vandalized with paint.

Yolanda has filed several complaints with the Public Prosecutor’s office, including as recently as 11 May, about such threats against her and other activists. But to date nothing has been done to protect her and her family.

“The attack on Yolanda Oquelí must be a wake-up call for Guatemala’s authorities – the lives of these activists are at stake simply for trying to ensure that the human rights of their communities are not violated when mining companies and other extractive industries begin operations,” said Sebastian Elgueta, Central America researcher at Amnesty International.

“An independent, impartial investigation must be carried out to bring her attackers to justice, and appropriate protection must be offered to all activists working to defend their communities’ human rights in the face of extractives projects,” said Tara Scurr, campaigner from Amnesty International Canada.

“Canadians from coast to coast are disgusted by the attacks and ashamed that yet another human rights defender who has spoken out against the potential impacts of a Canadian mining company’s operations has been attacked.”

Frequent targets

Across Guatemala, human rights defenders working on social, economic and cultural rights are harassed and attacked on a regular basis.

Amnesty International has documented a number of other communities that have come under threat after mining projects – often run by local subsidiaries of foreign corporations – moved into the area.

In February 2011, protesters in north-western Guatemala’s San Marcos region were attacked after speaking out against the local Marlin Mine, owned by Canadian company Goldcorp Inc. Community activist Aniceto López, was taken to the local mayor’s office, where officials allegedly beat him and threatened to kill him if he failed to stop speaking out against the mine. 

In July 2010, another grassroots activist in San Marcos, Deodora Hernández, was shot at close range in her own home by two unknown men. She had spoken out to defend her community’s right to water amidst fears that mining had polluted the local water supply.

International obligations

All of these cases illustrate how Guatemala fails to live up to its international obligations – not only to stop violence against peaceful protesters and human rights defenders, but also to ensure meaningful consultation is held with communities who are likely to be affected by mining operations.

When James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples visited Guatemala in June 2010, he received allegations that the Guatemalan government had repeatedly granted licences for the exploration of natural resources in indigenous territories without consulting with local indigenous peoples – or receiving their free, prior and informed consent.