Canadian Mining in Guatemala: Human Rights at Risk

by Tara Scurr, Business & Human Rights Campaigner, Amnesty International Canada – from Guatemala City

“It’s been hard, because it’s not easy to bear being spat at in the face, being pushed and shoved, the tear gas, the tussles with the police, and we women having to throw ourselves on the ground. That is tough. It’s tough and it’s not easy to bear it, but we do it because we believe in our struggle and in asserting our rights.” – Yolanda Oquelí

Yolanda Oquelí, a leader from San Jose del Golfo in Guatemala, shared those words with me last year, describing her community’s ongoing struggle to compel the Guatemalan government to respect their rights in the context of a Canadian-initiated mining project.

Canada has a large stake in Guatemala’s mining sector, accounting for 88 per cent of all current mining operations. The country’s mining production was valued at over US $600 million in 2012.

How could anything be wrong with Canada playing such a huge role in the country’s growing mining sector, one could wonder?  It is all about human rights.

I am back in Guatemala to take part in the launch of a new Amnesty International report looking at the impacts of Guatemala’s mining sector on human rights, including the rights of Indigenous peoples.  The country’s current mining regulation falls far short of international human rights requirements and is in fact fuelling tensions between rural, mostly Indigenous, communities and mining companies by failing to ensure meaningful consultation prior to the awarding of mining licenses. In several cases mining companies have failed to adhere to international standards on business and human rights.

New Amnesty report shows Guatemala’s mining laws are stoking the conflict

The report looks at four situations, all involving Guatemalan subsidiaries of Canadian companies: Goldcorp Inc.’s Marlin gold mine; the US/Canadian company Tahoe Resources’ Escobal silver mine; a gold deposit for which Radius Gold had an exploitation licence until selling it off to a US company in 2012; and the El Estor nickel mine which was operated by a number of Canadian companies beginning with INCO in 1965, through to HudBay Minerals and the Cyprus-based Solway Investment Group more recently.

All involve turbulent histories of inadequate or non-existent consultations, protest and conflict.  The violence will inevitably continue if a fair and reliable consultation process is not instituted in the country.

Guatemala’s Congress is currently reviewing a package of mining reforms. Unfortunately, the reforms ignore crucial issues around consultation and the rights of Indigenous peoples, the underlying causes of much of the tension and violence that surrounds Guatemala’s mining sector.

It is not too late to change that.  And Canada should play a role, pressing for mining regulations that meet international human rights standards.

Guatemala’s legislation must establish transparent, accessible and culturally appropriate procedures to ensure the rights of Indigenous peoples

New mining legislation must ensure full and adequate information is disclosed to potentially affected communities before mining begins.  Critically, that must include full information about possible negative, as well as positive, impacts a mine may bring.  Legal reform must also provide for meaningful consultation before mine licences are awarded and at all stages of the mining project.

Very importantly, Guatemala’s mining legislation must establish transparent, accessible and culturally appropriate procedures to guarantee Indigenous peoples their right to free, prior and informed consent, in keeping with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international human rights instruments.

Companies do boast of corporate social responsibility initiatives in the communities where their subsidiaries operate. Certainly some community members welcome those projects.  But companies generally show much less concern about being part of meaningful consultations and complying with human rights norms than with promoting these community development projects.

In 2005, protesters blocked the Pan-American Highway for 40 days to prevent mine equipment from reaching a mine site.  A protester was shot and killed by government security forces. Then-President Oscar Berger candidly reacted by declaring that “we have to protect investors”.  Almost a decade later, it is a view point that is sadly still current. Guatemala’s weak mining regulations appear designed to serve the interests of foreign mining investors rather than upholding the rights of the country’s citizens.

The violence and repression that has taken root around mining in Guatemala cannot continue.  The key to doing so is for the Guatemalan government to adopt legislation that meets international human rights standards, such as those dealing with respect to consultation and consent.

Other governments must step up as well. Home governments of companies doing business in Guatemala must establish and implement effective regulatory frameworks for holding their companies accountable for the human rights impact of their activities.

In Canada that once again highlights the pressing need for legal reforms to adopt binding human rights standards for companies operating abroad, ensure Canadian courts are accessible to individuals who allege human rights violations associated with Canadian company operations, and establish an extractive sector ombudsperson.

I have visited with Yolanda again.  Her courage and determination has not waned. It is time now for her own government and foreign governments, certainly including Canada, to show that same commitment to human rights. – Tara Scurr

Originally published in Embassy Magazine 24 September 2014