Published 2 October 2014
“The Guatemalan government is fueling the fires of conflict by failing to consult local communities before awarding mining licences to companies, effectively raising the risk of bloodshed and bulldozing over the rights of its people,” stated Amnesty International.
The Guatemalan government and Canadian mining industry are responsible for violent conflicts and repression against predominantly indigenous communities in Guatemala, a country just 18 years removed from a 36-year internal conflict that resulted in genocide, a report released in September stated.
Amnesty International’s (AI) report entitled “Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk,” notes that the Guatemalan and Canadian governments, and mining companies from Canada, have failed to properly consult and gain the consent of affected indigenous communities and have thus violated affected populations’ human rights. Furthermore, impunity in both Guatemala and Canada has perpetuated state and corporate violence against communities and individuals resisting mining projects, resulting in murders, assassination attempts, rapes, land grabs, displacements and other forms of violence that were also prevalent during Guatemala’s bloody internal conflict.
“Motivated by fears that mining will contaminate their environment and/or negatively impact their livelihoods, and the enjoyment of their human rights, protests and disputes over such projects have erupted. Years of threats and violence, including injuries and deaths, and division and resentment within communities have been the result,” the report states. “Community leaders protesting against mining are often targeted with threats, acts of intimidation or attacks. In the majority of cases the perpetrators of such acts have yet to be held to account.”
The Amnesty International report commended the Guatemalan government’s 2013 decision to put a moratorium on awarding new mining licenses and emphasized the need for the government to pass legal reforms that enshrine indigenous communities’ rights to free, prior and informed consent.
“The proposed moratorium and the intention to reform existing laws present a window of opportunity for the government to strengthen human rights protections while bringing current mining regulations in line with Guatemala’s international obligations,” the report states.
However, there are criticisms about the effectiveness of Amnesty’s focus on legal reforms.
“The problem in Guatemala is not the laws, per se, nor the structure of the legal system itself, but rather impunity,” said Grahame Russell, director of the Canadian and U.S.-based NGO Rights Action.
Russell, whose community development, environmental and human rights defense solidarity organization has worked with communities highlighted in the report, said what Guatemala needs is not so much mining law reform, but “a fundamental transformation in its lack of democracy, its lack of rule of law, and its corruption.”
He added, “It borders on being counter-productive to urge for legal reform, while ignoring that Guatemala is fundamentally an undemocratic country and impunity and corruption are the norm. Expecting the powerful sectors, national and international, to respect people’s human and territorial rights and protect the environment in a country like Guatemala, is like expecting a tiger not to eat meat.”
No Justice, No Peace
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina serves as an example of the impunity, which Russell mentioned, that operates within Guatemala. Molina represents the country’s bloody, racist past and its disappointing present.
Perez Molina is a former general and head of military intelligence who was trained at the infamous School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Fort Benning, Georgia. He served under former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who was convicted last May in a Guatemalan court for genocide and other war crimes that include “1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.” However, Montt’s sentence was overturned on a technicality by the country’s constitutional court just two weeks later.
Victoria Sanford, author of “Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala,” wrote in the New York Times last year immediately following the Rios Montt conviction, “There is serious evidence that the current president, the former military commander Otto Perez Molina, who took office in January 2012, may have been involved in the same mass killings for which General Ríos Montt has now been convicted.”