We know that our struggle is legitimate and that as human beings we have the right to defend our lives. 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 Oqueli, community member and leader of the Frente Norte del Área Metropolitana, FRENAM – Resistencia La Puya. Yolanda was shot and injured in 2012.
The tourist postcards of Guatemala’s volcanoes, elusive Quetzal birds and marketplaces bursting with colour hide a disturbing reality in Guatemala: human rights defenders are paying an increasingly heavy price for saying no to industrial development projects such as mining and hydro-electric projects. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has noted that Guatemala is one of six countries with the highest number of communications about threats to human rights defenders and that,“[t]he risks faced by human rights defenders working in the context of development projects are extremely serious. Very often, defenders receive threats, including death threats that are then followed by attacks. Moreover, defenders working on these issues are arrested and detained and their activities are criminalized, including when they are carried out in accordance with the exercise of fundamental rights, notably the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression”.
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.
Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples stated in 2011 that, “currently in Guatemala, the business activities under way in the traditional territories of the indigenous peoples have generated a highly unstable atmosphere of social conflict, which is having a serious impact on the rights of the indigenous people and threatening the country’s governance and economic development”.
I could fill my house with gold, but I couldn’t eat it. Without land, trees and water, I can’t live. Gregoria Crisanta Perez, human rights defender living near the Marlin mine in San Marcos province
As of January 2014, there are 100 metals mining licenses in operation in Guatemala and total mining production in the country was valued at US $600 million in 2012.
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. According to the Government of Canada, more than three-quarters of all minerals exploration and mining companies in the world are headquartered in Canada. Canadian overseas mining revenue in Latin America has been estimated at US$18.7 billion.
However, there is growing evidence that rather than safeguarding human rights, Canada is turning its back on human rights. The Government of Canada actively promotes the involvement of Canadian-registered companies in resource development around the world by offering these companies a comprehensive package of material, financial, and diplomatic support and often with the backing of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Canada’s 2013 Global Markets Plan and accompanying economic diplomacy strategy directs diplomatic staff around the world to prioritize Canada’s economic interests over other foreign policy considerations.
“Under the plan, all diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector in order to achieve the stated objectives within key foreign markets.” From Canada’s Global Markets Action Plan, page 11
With this support, Canadian companies operate in regions of the world previously untouched by intensive development projects. In some communities in Guatemala, major Canadian mines operate mere metres from homes and crops and draw heavily on local water sources.
The Government of Canada relies almost exclusively on the national laws, regulations and enforcement mechanisms of the host countries - even when there is reason to believe that those laws are not enforced - to ensure that companies respect human rights and do not contribute to human rights abuses. Rather than establish mandatory human rights regulations for Canadian companies operating overseas, as recommended by civil society and industry experts in a ground-breaking 2007 report, the Canadian government has chosen instead to encourage companies to self-regulate through a variety of voluntary initiatives.
However, despite these voluntary initiatives, very little has changed on the ground for communities facing unwanted Canadian-operated mines. Reflecting on the evidence that Indigenous peoples everywhere are struggling to protect their right to have a say in what kind of development takes place in their traditional territories, 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.
Opening its doors to foreign oil, gas, mining, agro-industrial and hydro-electric companies has also exposed Guatemala and foreign companies to legal and other challenges from within and outside of Guatemala. A successful legal challenge to Guatemala’s 1997 Mining Law has allowed claims against specific mining licenses to move forward, locking companies and the Guatemalan government into potentially lengthy legal proceedings. In Canada, two civil lawsuits against Canadian companies HudBay Minerals and Tahoe Resources are currently before provincial courts in Ontario and British Columbia.
The days since my husband was killed have been very hard. There has been no justice. The man who killed Adolfo remains free. And the mining company has not been held accountable. My five children have lost a father; I have lost my husband; and our community has lost a leader. We need justice for these losses. Angelica Choc, widow of murdered school teacher and community activist, Adolfo Ich, in her Statement of Claim.
International and institutional investors, such as the Canada Pension Plan, are being warned by activists that legal cases involving Canadian mines in Guatemala could expose investors to significant financial, legal and reputational risks.
Canadians are speaking out in favor of regulating Canadian companies’ overseas activities and to bringing Canada in line, at a minimum, with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Amnesty International calls on all Canadians to insist that the Guatemalan government live up to its human rights obligations and protect its citizens from corporate human rights harms. 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 Canadian companies to account for human rights abuses; and victims of Canadian corporate harms have access to Canadian courts in order to seek effective remedy for the harms caused them.