On April 19th, we arrived in El Estor, a town on the shore of Lake Izabal. The municipality of El Estor has been entangled in mining struggles for almost 60 years. Dan Voigt, a local priest, shared much of the history of mining in the region with us. He explained that in the mid 1950s, immediately following the second US-sponsored coup in Guatemala (which put an end to the country’s “10 años de democracia” from 1944 to 1954) the US Geological Service mapped out the country and its mineral deposits. American companies were given exploration rights and discovered large nickel deposits in El Estor.
The visible traces of INCO’s exploratory activities.
Inco, a Canadian company, was invited to be a partner in the project, and ultimately took over operations after 1960. In 1965, Inco obtained the license allowing it to mine nickel in El Estor. (Unknowingly, a few other members of the delegation and I had swam earlier that afternoon off of an old Inco dock, the first industrial dock built in the region.) It took until 1977 to get the mine up and running, at which point it covered only a small fraction of the concession actually granted to Inco.
The old processing plant
At the same time, Inco attempted to evict the indigenous village of Chichipate, where a strong resistance movement emerged. A number of those who spoke critically of the mine were disappeared, and Dan noted that it was well-documented that Inco participated actively in this.
Ultimately, during the 1980s the mine was closed, ostensibly because of a drop in nickel prices. Inco nonetheless retained control of the land and, in fact, entered into an agreement with the Guatemalan government asserting that they would be responsible for its protection.
To the distress of a number of communities around El Estor, the Guatemelan government renewed Inco’s license, which had been set to expire, in the early 2000s. The mine was quickly sold to Skye resources, a company formed by former Inco employees. They proceeded to set up CGN (la Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel) a local, wholly owned, subsidiary. Hudbay later acquired the subsidiary (and the mine) when it combined with Skye Resources in late 2008.
CGN is the Guatemalan subsidiary of Hudbay. This sign announces that they practice “RESPONSIBLE MINING”
In 2005, the first meetings in communities were held by the company, during which they sang the praises of the mine and all the benefits it would bring. Dan remembers telling the company at the time that, before even beginning to plan for the mine, they’d need to ensure that local indigenous communities had land title, and had received reparations.
“Everything here that is not Q’eqchi’ is because someone took it from them.”
He explained that this includes protected areas as well as cattle ranches and mining-affected land. Indeed, much of the land used for cattle around Lake Izabal was formerly land seized from indigenous groups to be used for banana plantations. The whole question of land title is incredibly complicated in this region. While some indigenous groups do have land title, many do not, and it is not always clear exactly what area these titles cover. The borders of the land conceded to Hudbay are equally in question.
The past ten years have been marked by periods of building tension, in which communities were evicted and much attention was paid to the mine, after which the tension would die back down for a few years. In late 2008, in line with a drop in nickel prices, the company announced it was suspending the mine. Nonetheless, exploration has continued and there have been a number of clashes with local villages.
One such clash occurred last year, on the 27th of September. Company officials and security guards, accompanied by the Governor of the region, entered the town of Las Nubes around 3:30pm to exhort a number of families living just outside the town to do as the company wanted and to move elsewhere. Dan explained that the community was frightened by the arrival of this convoy and weren’t sure they understood what was being asked of them. Community members phoned friends in nearby villages, letting them know that the Governor was trying to evict them. They quickly organized and succeeded at blocking the road by 4pm, such that the convoy, upon leaving Las Nubes, was met by activists. They intended to peacefully protest the eviction and to have a discussion with the Governor. She had already found out about the road block, however, and had left by boat, while the rest of the convoy reached the road block. The whole situation quickly degraded into a direct and violent confrontation, ultimately resulting in the death of one activist, Adolfo Ich. While it is hard to determine exactly who killed him, many assert that, regardless, the company holds ultimate responsibility for its attempt to convince the community to move when they had no legal obligation to do so. For more information on Adolfo Ich and the circumstances surrounding his death see this article published by Rights Action, and this photoessay by James Rodriguez.
Dan explained that, over the past few decades, the towns around El Estor have become very well organized and represent a united resistance movement. Accordingly, he believes that the project could only go forward if accompanied by extreme repression. Unfortunately, Guatemala’s history reveals a strong pattern of such violence. One can only hope that this history will not repeat itself in El Estor.
On April 18th those of us on the delegation, as well as some other activists currently in Guatemala, met Jennifer Harbury. A courageous lawyer and activist, she has worked for many years in the movement to bring about justice for the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who have been murdered by the state, including her husband Efraín Bamaco. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so brave and dedicated in the face of such enormous danger and opposition.
Above, a poster of Jennifer’s husband, one of many of those disappeared, constantly being put up (and taken down, and put up again) around Guatemala City. Top – “Your example guides our steps.” Bottom – “Fell in combat, detained and disappeared by the state of Guatemala”
“Most of the people I knew in 1990 are not around now,” Jennifer told us.
Hearing her speak was incredibly moving, but I’m not going to write what she shared here, as there are already many versions of her story out there, including the few books Jennifer herself has written.
One thing I was struck with, however, was the comparison she made between her struggle and that of Maria Rosario Godoy de Cuevas. Maria was a courageous Guatemalan who participated in founding the Mutual Support Group, or GAM, in 1984. It was formed in order to seek information on the whereabouts of those who were being disappeared and to seek redress by petition and publicity. It was one of the only groups engaged in civil disobedience at the time. On April 4, 1985, Maria, her twenty-one-year-old brother, and her two-year-old son were picked up, tortured, and murdered. Her two-year-old son had had his fingernails pulled out. They all showed signs of having been severely beaten and mutilated.
Jennifer sees Maria as her counterpart. She knows very well that if not for being white, (and possibly for being a lawyer) she would likely not still be here.
I was also struck with her – albeit cautious – sense of hopefulness. It appears that a small window is opening that may allow for charges to proceed against some of those responsible for the killings and violence of the civil war.
You can find background information on Jennifer’s struggles as well as a letter Jennifer recently wrote with an update on the legal battle she’s facing here.