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Community fights mine for water
Louisa Reynolds
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Water Tribunal recommends mining corporations to pay compensation for environmental damage.

When the Latin American Water Tribunal announced its verdict against Montana Exploradora on Sept. 12, Maya communities of Sipacapa and the Mam of San Miguel Ixtahuacán could barely contain their joy.

Since 2005, the Mayan Sipakapense community has fought tooth and nail against Montana Exploradora SA, a subsidiary of Canadian corporation Glamis Gold Ltd.

Montanta has drilled on 142 hectares (351 acres) of rocky ground from its Marlin mine, in the northern department of San Marcos, nestled between Sipacapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacan municipalities, to extract gold and silver. In the process, it is expected to destroy 289 hectares (714 acres) of forestland and heavily polluting the Tzala River with the detritus.

During the hearing, in the colonial city of Antigua, the Sipakapense community, one several plaintiffs in the case, told the Latin American Water Tribunal their wells have dried up, depriving 10,000 indigenous people of this vital resource as a result of the mining activity.

“Everything the experts had predicted has come true: deforestation, air pollution, the contamination of water sources; the wells have dried up, water has become scarce and disposing of the waste material generated by the mine is a major problem,” said Javier de León, of the San Miguel Association for Development, or ADISMI.

According to environmental organization Colectivo Madreselva, the Marlin mine uses up 250,000 liters of water per hour, whereas a local peasant family in San Marcos uses just 30 liters a day. This means that the mine uses in one hour what a local family would use over 22 years or more.

“Our wells have dried up. Before up to 40 people could obtain water from this well but now it´s completely dry. It´s been dry for a year now. Six wells have dried up,” says Crisanta Emitaria Hernández Pérez, of the Ajel village.

Waste produced by the mine is also a major cause for concern. In late 2006, Italian biologist Flaviano Bianchini, conducted a study on the pollution of the Tzala River for Colectivo Madreselva.

His findings were shocking. The samples he took showed that the river, which provides drinking water for the entire municipality of Sipacapa, had been polluted with acid. The water contained 80 times the level permitted by the World Health Organization of copper, 13 times the permitted level of aluminium and 2.5 the permitted level of magnesium, a severe health hazard for some 5,000 people who rely on the Tzala River as their only source of potable water.

Copper, in particular, is especially toxic and can cause DNA mutations, cirrhosis, skin diseases, memory loss, nervous fits and other serious disorders.

Study shadowed by threats
In January 2007, Bianchini gave a press conference to publish his findings and shortly afterwards he began to receive death threats and was followed by an unmarked vehicle with tinted windows.

Another major problem is the explosions carried out in the mine, which have caused huge cracks to appear in the houses of nearby villages. Fifty-nine families in the villages of Ajel and San José Nueva Esperanza, located only a few meters away from the mine, have been particularly affected.

“The cracks began to appear when Montana began to place bombs. We could feel the earth shaking and little by little the cracks began to grow. This company has really done us great harm. Before they came here we never had any problems. Our houses were humble but we never had this kind of problem. I´m scared because sometimes I feel that the house is going to collapse. It´s the only house we have; we don´t have anywhere else to go,” says Hernández Pérez.

In late 2006, a group of residents complained to Montana about the damage caused to their houses but the company dismissed their claim.

“They sent an engineer but he said that it wasn´t the company´s fault and that the damage was due to heavy traffic and the fact that our houses were shoddily built.”

Rights violations
The Latin American Water Tribunal, an independent international organization of environmental justice created to solve water conflicts in the region, ruled that Montana has violated indigenous people´s right to prior consultation on the use of natural resources on their communal lands enshrined in ILO Convention 169. The tribunal stated that: “the Marlin mine poses significant environmental, social and health risks” and held Montana responsible for “damage caused to the environment as well as the populations of Sipacapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacan.”

Montana Exploradora refused to attend the hearing and have declined to comment on the tribunal´s verdict. When questioned by the press after the hearing, Douglas González, CEO of the Guatemalan Association of Mining Corporations said: “We reject this resolution and we simply don´t give it any credit. But we do abide by what the Attorney General´s Office and the official Guatemalan courts said when they ruled that there was no evidence of pollution that could be blamed on Montana´s activities in the area. We are permanently monitoring the quality of the water in the Tzala River and these studies are backed by the University of San Carlos.”

But even though the tribunal´s verdict is not legally binding, the Sipacapense community feels it has been vindicated. After three years of struggle, members say that a fundamental human right, such as access to safe drinking water, has been upheld over the interests of greed and profit.
—Latinamerica Press.


The Marlin mine uses in one hour what a local family would use over 22 years or more. (Photo: Colectivo Madreselva)
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