Monday, November 26, 2007

Mining Misery: Guatemala is one of many countries that has attracted the investment of Canadian Mining Companies – but at what cost to its people?

MUST SEE VIDEO: Watch Canadian Skye Resources mining company evict an entire village of indigenous Mayan Indians in Guatemala.

The town of El Estor
, on the shore of Lake Izabal in eastern Guatemala, was founded at the time of the conquistadores. The lake's strategic location on the Río Dulce, the gateway to the Caribbean, allowed its denizens to prevent pirates from entering the country. Today, it is an area dominated by banana plantations and cattle ranches.

The road to Chichipate, one of the traditional Q'eqchi' Mayan villages surrounding El Estor, is lined with majestic conacaste trees, their massive crowns sprawling sideways. Boys on bicycles carry bundles of firewood gathered from the mangle tree. Women in güipiles, colourful woven blouses, carry infants strapped to their backs. Some seven kilometres from Chichipate, an abandoned nickel mine looms. Now a ghost town, the vast complex once included a smelting plant, administrative offices, employee housing, a school for the children of employees, a golf course and a movie theatre.

Outside Chichipate, Martín Col Caal, a 21-year-old subsistence farmer, is cobbling together a makeshift shelter, using tree branches and palm leaves, for his wife and two young children. About 200 other indigenous families are here in the grassy valley, dubbing their new home Barrio de la Revolución -- Neighbourhood of the Revolution. Today, a steamy day in September 2006, more than 3,000 indigenous people from Chichipate and El Estor have set up similar households on five different sites, defiantly claiming the land as their own, land they say was stolen from their grandparents in the 1960s.

Skye Resources, a Vancouver-based junior mining company, which bought the land from Canadian mining giant Inco in 2004, has different plans for the site. With the price of nickel at a 19-year high, Skye intends to re-open the mine in 2009, with construction slated to start this year. The indigenous occupants say they are not here to protest the mine--they simply need the land to subsist. But one of the five groups is sitting on a nickel deposit. Either the mining company or the squatters will have to go.

History is repeating itself in Chichipate. The families of the protesters have been living in the area since the 1930s, but in 1965 the government of Guatemala sold the land to Inco. When community leaders found out, they demanded the government give back the land. In the early 1980s, after much bloodshed, the government ceded an area smaller than the actual size of the village to the community; people living outside its confines were forcibly relocated. But now, with the community burgeoning and a shortage of arable land, Chichipate is not enough. "We just want a patch of land that we can leave for our children," says Col Caal. "We want the company to negotiate."

When the police arrived on a Sunday afternoon two months later, shooting 12-gauge shotguns in the air, the women and children began to cry. Using loudspeakers, the men asked the police under what legal authority they were acting. Police responded by lobbing canisters of tear gas. Col Caal's wife picked up their two small children, aged one and three, and ran in to the mountains. "The company talks to the president and to the mayor," says Col Caal. "Why doesn't it talk to us?"

Despite its history of intercepting plunderers, El Estor has been less successful fending off the latest fortune hunters.

Events like those in Chichipate have played themselves out across Guatemala as the government, strapped for cash and anxious to lure foreign investors, has sold off mining concessions -- tracts of land from which companies can extract mineral resources -- at a bargain U.S. $120 per square kilometre. As of December 2006, according to Guatemala's Ministry of Energy and Mines, there were 356 mining licenses granted and an additional 250 concessions in the process of being granted. Andrés McKinley, the Oxfam America extractive industries person, estimates the concessions cover more than 10 percent of the country, and that Canadian companies own 80 percent of them.

Read the full article here.