By Grahame Russel
Increasingly, over the past few years, information has been published about serious human rights violations and health and environmental harms being caused in Guatemala by (mainly) Canadian mining company operations: Goldcorp Inc., Radius Gold Inc., Tahoe Resources Inc., Hudbay Minerals, and others.
It is not possible to understand how these violations and harms occur, and will continue to occur, without understanding the political context. Impunity, corruption and lack of accountability are the norm in Guatemala. This is happening aside from widespread rhetoric of wealthy elites and global mining companies about respecting the sovereign democratic will of the duly elected officials of Guatemala and about abiding by the laws and regulations that govern the country and the mining industry. The roots of these issues go back five hundred years to the European invasion. In recent history, the impunity and corruption are rooted in the 1954 military coup, and in the State repression and genocide of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.
MILITARY COUPS & MINING
Most Guatemalans refer to 1944 to 1954 as their only time of real democracy, when successive governments came to power and actually started to bring about positive reforms as to how the country operated. This “democratic spring” was ended brutally in 1954 when the U.S. government orchestrated a military coup against the elected government of President Arbenz. The North American media played its role supporting this illegal intervention using the “cold war” propaganda of “fighting communism” to justify the unjustifiable. U.S. allies, notably Canada and western European nations, turned a blind eye to yet one more U.S. led intervention.
Soon after the 1954 coup, global nickel companies—notably the Canadian mining giant INCO (a leading international nickel company)—began operations in eastern Guatemala, in the Mayan Qeqchi territories of El Estor (department of Izabal) and Panzos (Alta Verapaz). The INCO received its concession and purchased large amounts of land directly from the post-military coup regime.
Since INCO’s arrival in Guatemala, these concessions and purchases have been challenged as illegal by the Mayan Qeqchi people who have lived in this region for hundreds of years. This has been largely to no avail; the post-1954 military regime did not respect the democratic will and human rights of the Guatemala population, particularly of the Mayan majority.
Ignoring that it acquired its concessions and land from a post-military coup regime, INCO (and other nickel companies since then, including Skye Resources and Hudbay Minerals) have always referred to the local indigenous populations as illegal squatters (see this 2009 video for an example).
GENOCIDE & MINING
Flash forward twenty years. The same military and oligarchic sectors that collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the 1954 military coup, and were thus brought back to power, collaborated with the U.S. government in the worst years of State repression and genocide in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. The justification (of the unjustifiable) was the “war on communism”.
In 1999, the United Nations Truth Commission published its Memory of Silence report about the atrocities committed in Guatemala during the “cold war” years of repression and genocide, concluding that at least 250,000 mainly rural indigenous people were killed or disappeared and that in certain Mayan-dominated regions of the country, genocide was planned and carried out against the local Mayan populations. While the Truth Commission did not go into depth examining the role of other governments and international actors in supporting or participating in the State repression and genocide, it did conclude that INCO (via its Guatemalan subsidiary EXMIBAL) collaborated with the Guatemalan military in the El Estor region in the 1970s and early 80s, in the carrying out of human rights violations, including killings and disappearances, against the local Mayan Qeqchi population. No justice was ever done for these crimes; INCO was never held accountable, neither in Guatemala nor in Canada, for its collusion with successive military regimes in Guatemala.
Once again—while cloaking its operations in the rhetoric about democracy, the rule of law and helping bring development to Guatemala—INCO was acting with absolute impunity while directly partnering with military regimes that were brutalizing their own population. (After several name changes, INCO is now known as Vale Canada Limited).
The current wave of mining related harms and violations begins in the mid-1990s. The majority of Guatemalans were still reeling from two decades of extreme military repression and genocide. Most Guatemalans barely began to talk publicly about the years of repression and genocide. And Mayan communities were just beginning the process of exhuming (digging up) mass graves to give their massacred loved ones decent burials. Meanwhile, Guatemala’s Congress—undemocratic by just about any definition—reformed the country’s Mining Law. It did so in favor of global companies and investors, and the Ministry and Mines and Energy—equally undemocratic—handed out hundreds of mining concessions to mainly Canadian mining companies.
Most Guatemalans had no knowledge of or participation in the mining law reforms. In violation of national and international law, the government of Guatemala never carried out any transparent consultations, asking for and getting the permission of local populations, before giving mining concessions to international companies.
It is important to note that through the 1990s and into the 2000s, Guatemala’s ostensibly democratic governments were dominated by the same military and oligarchic elites that were brought back to power by the 1954 military coup; the same individuals that were in power during the worst years of repression and genocide in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s—when global mining companies acquired most of the ill-gotten concessions—the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) was the dominant political party in Guatemala. Former general Efrain Rios Montt was the president of the FRG and the most powerful politician in Guatemala.
Rios Montt is well known, internationally, to have been one of the main intellectual authors of Guatemala’s worst years of repression and genocide. In fact, as was recently reported by the New York Times, he is on trial for being an intellectual author of Guatemala’s genocide in the Mayan Ixil region. During these years, other governments and the international business and investor community had no qualms, whatsoever, doing business with a regime led by Rios Montt.
Today, the government of Guatemala is led by former general Otto Perez Molina. Although he has always denied his involvement in the atrocities, human rights groups widely accuse Molina of being one of the intellectual authors of Guatemala’s genocide and state repression. Today, no government, let alone the international business and investor community has expressed any concern about doing business with a government led by Perez Molina.
Added to this dismal and undemocratic political reality, every national and international human rights group that reports on human rights violations in Guatemala concludes that impunity remains the norm in Guatemala. Vast majority of all crimes never get resolved let alone even investigated. According to official figures quoted in a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, there was 95 percent impunity for homicides in 2010.
In this context, global mining companies predictably violate human rights and cause health and environmental harms in their operations, knowing full well they will not be held accountable in Guatemala.
But this is narrowly a “Guatemalan” problem; it is profoundly a “Canadian” problem. The mining operations and struggles playing themselves out in Guatemala are examples of the global economy at work. It is a north-south business, by definition, and a profoundly unequal, unjust one. As the vast majority of profits flow north to company directors, shareholders, investors and tax payments, all the harms and violations occur where the mines operate.
Given the reality of historic repression, impunity and corruption in Guatemala, it is extremely difficult and dangerous for Guatemalans to demand accountability from their own government and powerful economic sectors. This is despite the fact that their rights should be protected through the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—legally-binding instruments that have been ratified by Guatemala. These oblige actors to obtain “free and informed” consent from indigenous persons prior to decision-making that will impact their land and well-being. And yet, the people keep on struggling, peacefully, in defense of their community well-being, water sources, forests and lands, for real democracy and a functioning and fair legal system. Repression—including shootings, killings, illegal forced evictions, jailings on trumped up charges—continue unabated.
Unfortunately, this is a familiar story across Latin and even North America. Similar tails of human rights violations, illegal child labor and criminal environmental damage regularly surface from the tin mines of Bolivia, goldmines of Peru, lead-smelting plants of Argentina, glacial hydropower projects of Chile, and mountaintop coal removal mines of the United States. People and the environment are suffering at the hands of international companies seeking to exploit these countries’ natural wealth. Most suffer with the complicity of the states and governments that are supposedly in place to protect them.
Ultimately, it is the Canadians, the Americans, and the Europeans—the direct and indirect beneficiaries of these mining operations—who have as much, if not more, responsibility to challenge and change these relationships of mining operations, harms and violations, and unjust enrichment.
Do you think that consumers in advanced countries have a responsibility to hold companies that operate on their behalf accountable for human rights, environmental and child labor violations? Please leave a reply below.
Grahame Russell is a non-practicing Canadian lawyer, author, adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Columbia and, since 1995, co-director of Rights Action.
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Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those held by INESAD or its staff.