Background: Mining and Indigenous Rights in Guatemala

A disturbing pattern of violence and intimidation of human rights defenders opposed to mining developments is emerging in Guatemala. Amnesty International has documented threats, shootings, sexual assaults, and killings of human rights defenders who have raised concerns about several Canadian-operated mining projects. Canadians have called for laws to regulate the human rights performance of Canadian transnational mining companies, yet the Canadian government has chosen instead to encourage companies to adopt lighter, voluntary initiatives.

Canada is a global mining heavy-weight and strong promoter of Canadian mining interests abroad. Canadian overseas mining revenue in Latin America has been estimated at US$18.7 billion. The Canadian government recently shifted Canada’s foreign aid policy to help Canada’s mining sector maintain a competitive global advantage in foreign markets. While acting as headquarters to more than 75% of the world’s mining and exploration companies, the government of Canada has been weak at enforcing international human rights standards pertaining to corporate activities.

Canada is by far the greatest foreign contributor to Guatemala’s mining sector, accounting for an estimated 88 per cent of the country’s mining activity. Canadian company Goldcorp Inc. operates the only active gold mine in the country and four other Canadian projects are top of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s list of mines that may soon receive exploitation approval.

Mining for construction materials, metals and non-metallic minerals is the foundation of Guatemala’s economic development plan. To date, the State has granted 382 mining licenses and another 657 license requests are pending. Total mining production in the country was valued at nearly US $1billion in 2011.

However, there is widespread opposition to metals mining in Guatemala.  A recent national poll estimated that 2/3 of Guatemalans oppose mining in the country. Nearly one million people have participated in legal municipal plebiscites on whether to allow oil, gas, mining, or large-scale mono-crop or hydro-electric projects in their communities and have overwhelmingly voted to reject it.

The main concerns those opposed to mining cite are:

  • the failure by the Guatemalan state to consult with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in areas of mining operations, and where required, failure to obtain the consent of affected Indigenous peoples.
  • the Guatemalan state has continued to grant licenses to mining companies despite inadequate consultation processes, fuelling conflict throughout the country.
  • potential environmental damage as a result of mining operations and the corresponding impact on right to health and livelihoods.
  • threats and attacks against human rights defenders or Indigenous community leaders opposed to mining.

The rights of Indigenous peoples in Guatemala are especially at risk. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern that, “indigenous peoples’ right to be consulted prior to the exploitation of natural resources located in their territories is not fully respected in practice,” and called on Guatemala to establish regulations in line with the country’s international obligations to consult and obtain the free, prior, informed consent of affected Indigenous communities. The UN Human Rights Council made recommendations that Guatemala protect indigenous peoples from mining companies and guarantee effective consultation processes.

The CERD has called on Canada to establish laws to prevent Canadian transnational companies from carrying out activities that harm the rights of Indigenous peoples outside Canada and to hold these companies to account when they do commit harms.
There are many reasons why Canadians should be concerned about this situation. Public funds are used to support the Canadian transnational mining sector through trade missions, aid and development projects, diplomatic support to Canadian companies in Guatemala, and global promotion of investment in the sector. Individual Canadians make contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, which are invested in many Canadian mining companies, including companies operating in Guatemala.

The government of Canada is a powerful backer of Canadian transnational mining companies, and it is crucial that it uses the measures at its disposal to prevent these companies from further harming human rights in Guatemala. An immediate first step would be for the government of Canada to adopt the recommendations of the 2007 National Corporate Social Responsibility Roundtable Advisory Group, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and various UN bodies to enact legislation to hold Canadian oil, gas and mining companies to account for human rights in their overseas operations and to prevent them from carrying out activities that harm the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Pressure from concerned Canadians is crucial to ensure that: Guatemalans risking their lives in to defend their rights are protected; the government of Canada enacts legislation to hold companies to account for human rights; and Canadian companies respect international human rights laws and standards.