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.
(I have edited this post to reflect the changing nature of this blog)
I originally created this blog to share the stories others shared with me, as well as my thoughts, while traveling around and living in Guatemala.
I am no longer living in Guatemala, but hope to continue to stay connected with movements based there, and remain dedicated to continue to support resistance to the Canadian extractive industry over here in Canada.
I began my first trip to Guatemala on a Human Rights Delegation with Rights Action.We traveled to various parts of the country investigating environmental and health harms as well as human rights violations caused by large-scale development projects, particularly in the extractive industry. This served as a lens through which to look at broader issues of impunity, colonialism, exploitation, and development in Guatemala and, more broadly, the Americas.
Following the delegation, I remained in Guatemala for a month to further explore these issues. At the time, I wrote: “I am not here to help anyone, but to listen, learn and attempt to understand. Above all, I am recording people’s stories and testimonies. These highlight particular ways in which the actions of my government and Canadian companies (especially mining companies) are negatively impacting people in Guatemala. They will not amount to a systematic overview of the social and environmental harms inflicted by Canadian entities, but will instead offer a small glimpse of a complicated bigger picture. Some of these stories will already have been told, often by Canadian NGOs, but I think all bear repeating until real change happens.”
I was fortunate to be able to return to Guatemala the following year, to work for much of a year with Ceiba, an amazing Guatemalan organization engaged in land struggles at local, municipal, national, and international scales. They have been a strong part of the mining resistance (and other mega-project resistance) movement that has become a major force in Guatemala.
For an overview of some of the negative impacts the Canadian extractive industry has had around the world, and some of the recent resistance efforts see this article.
Knowingly or not, we are all complicit in these harms, whether through our or our pension plans’ investments; the actions of our elected politicians; the jewelry or electronics we buy; or our tacit acceptance of systematic racism, colonialism and other oppressive, violent forces. This is our problem as much as it is that of Guatemalans, though, while we reap the benefits, it is they of course who are suffering the harms.
I hope that this blog can continue to be a place for sharing stories, information, and urgent actions, and that it will support people in joining with others in denouncing the role we and our country(ies) have played and continue to play in exploiting and harming individuals and communities beyond our borders.