Guatemalans Challenge Open-Pit Mining
MANAGUA – Managua’s InternationalAirport could suffer a lowered security ratingby the U.S. Federal AviationSAN MARCOS, Guatemala –Undaunted by threats against his life fromunidentified “occult sectors,” BishopÁlvaro Ramazzini led thousands ofGuatemalans in a recent protest againstopen-pit gold mining in this northernmostCentral American country.Joined by other Catholic Church leaders,Ramazzini led demonstrators on amarch through the streets of San Marcos, innorthwestern Guatemala, chanting: “Miningis bread for today and hunger for tomorrow,”and: “Our country’s minerals are for theGuatemalans, not the multinationals.”The protestors’ skull-and-bone placardstargeted Guatemala’s first moderngold-and-silver mine, owned by Canadiancompany Glamis Gold Ltd., 30 miles outsideof San Marcos.Construction on the combined openpit/underground mine (known as theMarlin Mine) is already under way in thesearid, poverty-stricken highlands.THROUGHOUT the rest of the country,opposition to the project has spurred alarger, national debate on mining.Boosters maintain that mining wouldbring much-needed jobs, cash and infrastructureto rural areas. They criticizeopponents to the mining project as being“anti-development.”The government, however, seems tobe taking critics’ concerns seriously, andhas accepted the Church’s demand for amoratorium on new mining permits. Thegovernment has also asked Church leadersto sit on a joint commission to discusschanges to mining policies.“We would not do anything that thepopulation doesn’t want to be involved in,”said Guatemalan Vice-President EduardoStein. “So we might be facing a temporarypostponement of the development of themining industry in Guatemala.”The commission, made up of governmentand church leaders, environmentalistsand academics, will discuss reforms tothe country’s mining law and methods forconsulting the indigenous people on developmentprojects.Bishop Ramazzini said he is pleasedwith the government’s willingness to talk,but said the real negotiation is yet to come.RAMAZZINI said the Church willseek a permanent ban on all open-pit,metallic mining and cyanide-leachingtechniques, as well as stricter standards forevaluating environmental impact.Open-pit mining and cyanide use forleaching minerals from rock have broughtincreasingly harsh criticism from environmentaland social activists around the world.Contamination of water sources fromopen-pit mines and chemical spills havedamaged the environment and humanhealth in areas of Indonesia, Peru, theUnited States and other countries.Gold mining, in particular, has been therecent target of an international campaign byEarthworks/Mineral Policy Center andOxfam America, which have dubbed it:“One of the world’s dirtiest industries.”Ramazzini said: “We must follow theexample of other places that have prohibitedcyanide use in this type of activity.”Some want Guatemala to follow theexample of Costa Rica and the U.S. statesof Montana and California – all of whichhave passed recent bans on open-pit metallicmining.GUATEMALAN activists argue thatthere is a high risk of environmental contaminationat the Marlin Mine.Colorado-based consultant and hydrogeologistDr. Robert Moran recentlyreviewed the project’s environmental impactassessment, at the request ofGuatemalan environmental group MadreSelva, and found that it “fails to discussmany of the most fundamental issues thatconcern the public.”These omitted issues include surface groundwaterrelationships and the potentialfor contamination from acid-rockdrainage, he wrote.“The (impact study) wouldn’t beacceptable in a developed country,” Moransaid during a recent telephone interview.ANTI-mining activists, and even Guatemalanenvironmental officials, claim thatthe government doesn’t have the resourcesavailable to properly monitor compliancewith environmental-protection laws.Critics also argue that mining – inorder to be a viable development model –should provide greater economic benefitsfor local communities, and the country as awhole. Currently, mining companies operatingin Guatemala pay 1% in royalties,half of which goes to the municipalitywhere the mine is located, and half to thecentral government.“Mining is not an option for eliminatingpoverty in Guatemala,” Ramazzini said.IN addition, some indigenous peopleliving near the mine say they were neverproperly consulted about the project, asrequired under Convention 169 of theInternational Labor Organization.The convention, ratified by Guatemalain 1996, requires governments to consultwith native peoples about projects andpolicies that affect them.Juan Tema, who lives near the mine,said the government informed the peopleonly after the project was approved. Hecalled this type of consultation “a joke”and “a lack of respect (for the indigenouspopulation).”THE mining company, meanwhile,insists it carried out ample consultation, andthat mining foes are using fear tactics to winover poor, uneducated Guatemalans.Company representatives also sayconcerns about sloppy environmentalmonitoring are completely unfounded.“As a company, we follow the samerules and regulations in any country wework in,” said Steve Baumann, vice-presidentof Glamis Gold in Central America.“We’re following generally accepted NorthAmerican or World Bank standards everywherewe operate.”Baumann said the company is bringingneeded jobs and development to theregion, where 97% of the people live inpoverty. The company will employ some1,000 locals during the construction phase,and around 360 throughout the mine’s 10-year life span, he said.In addition, the cash-strapped Guatemalangovernment will receive around $60 millionin taxes and royalties from the mine,according to Baumann’s calculations.Vice-President Stein cautioned thatcanceling the contract with the miningcompany would have dire economic consequencesfor Guatemala, because the governmentwould have to shell out millionsof dollars in compensation.
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