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Communities reject open-pit mining
Louisa Reynolds
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Critics say community decisions are “non-binding.”

The highland town of Ixchiguan, in the northern province of San Marcos, was buzzing with activity on June 13 as the community prepared to hold a popular consultation or plebiscite on open pit mining.

Some villagers faced an arduous journey on foot along dusty dirt roads from nearby towns but all were eager to cast their vote at the town hall that morning.

Shrouded by mist in the Guatemalan highlands, Ixchiguan is a predominantly Mayan community of around 20,000 inhabitants spread across 46 villages. Ninety-eight percent of the population is Mam speakers.
The community became concerned last year when it heard that the Ministry of Energy and Mining had granted Canadian mining corporation Montana Exploradora SA four exploration licenses in the area and that an additional three licenses were pending Ministry approval.

Since then, community leaders came together to organize the consultation. The town hall together with four local nongovernmental organizations — the Land Workers Movement, the Ajchmol Association for Mayan Development, the Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology and the Guillermo Toriello Foundation — held a series of meetings in which the community expressed their fears and debated the potential effects of open-pit mining.

Rolando López Crisóstomo, of the Ajchmol Association, explained that villagers were keen to learn more about the pros and cons of opening the doors to a large multinational corporation: “People had many doubts. Some had heard that the mining corporations offered development projects to help people out of their poverty and they asked whether or not this was true. But they had also heard that other communities, such as Sipakapa, had rejected open pit mining because it destroys the environment.”

Ixchiguan’s mayor, Gerónimo Navarro Chilel, explained that people were particularly concerned about the environmental effects of open-pit mining, especially since the important Suchiate, Grijalva and Coatan rivers begin in Ixchiguan. “The mining industry would pollute the upper and lower basin of these rivers,” he said.

Overwhelmingly rejected
Finally, a date was set for the consultation. On June 13, community leaders and elders addressed the town about the issue and then a vote was taken by a show of hands. Both children and adults voted, as under customary law, many indigenous communities allow children to vote and their vote counts.

When the mayor asked the community who approved of the exploration licenses, the hall was silent. Then, a second question was asked: Who opposes open-pit mining? Hands went up and followed by cries of, “No to mining!” Then, one by one, people filed onto the stage to sign a community statement.

According to the Guatemalan Municipal Code and International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169, indigenous people have the right to their say on any issues affecting their welfare and that traditional forms of organization and decision-making must be respected. However, in May, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that community consultations were “non-binding,” a verdict that has been strongly contested by indigenous communities.

“Popular consultations are legal. A mining project must be approved by the people and our customary law must be respected,” insisted Gregorio Ramírez, 45, a community member.

After the people of Ixchiguán unanimously rejected open pit mining, the vice minister of energy and mining, Jorge García Chiu, told Latinamerica Press: “I was unaware that this consultation had taken place. It’s OK for people to express their opinion but it’s important to remember that these plebiscites are non-binding and have no legal basis.”

García Chiu added that “people have been deliberately misled and have been told that mining projects are detrimental to their communities, which is not the case.”

Villagers have no say
Meanwhile, in San Juan Sacatepéquez, in the province of Guatemala, where 12 communities carried out a popular consultation in April this year with no support from the municipal authorities, thousands of campesinos from at least 16 different villages held a protest outside the town hall and demanded that the mayor support their stance against mining.

After the demonstration, the National Front Against Metal Mining issued a defiant statement rejecting the Court’s ruling on popular consultations: “No matter what the Constitutional Court says, the people of San Juan have clearly stated their opposition to metal mining. Democracy means respecting the will of the majority. Therefore, to ignore what people have said during peaceful demonstrations and legitimate forms of organization makes a mockery of the whole concept of democracy.”

Environmental organizations have also taken a strong stance against metal mining and have supported indigenous communities’ right to be consulted on the issue, enshrined in ILO Convention 169.

On May 22, the International Day for Biological Diversity, the Center for Legal, Environmental and Social Action, or CALAS, lodged an appeal against the Mining Law, hoping the Constitutional Court will declare eight of its articles unconstitutional.

Yuri Melini, director of CALAS, explained that the Guatemalan government is constitutionally bound to protect the environment. However, loopholes in the Mining Law allow licenses to be granted without appropriate environmental impact studies and make it possible for mining corporations to get away with polluting rivers with toxic waste. The Mining Law also includes tax exemptions for transnational corporations, which are unconstitutional.

According to Melini, the appeal was lodged “in order to keep the mining issue on the national agenda and to create a sense of uncertainty among foreign investors.”

In October 2006, Honduran environmental organizations scored an important victory after that country’s Supreme Court declared the Mining Law unconstitutional and Congress will now have to draft a new law with more stringent environmental clauses and no tax exemptions for transnational corporations. CALAS hopes that the same could happen in Guatemala.

Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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