Canadian mining in Guatemala: This land is your land, this land is mine land

This land is your land, this land is mine land

Panzós, 25 years later
Photo: Marlon García Arriaga

Eighty per cent of metal mining in Guatemala is Canadian, and that's nothing to boast about

Last March 25 at about 11:45 p.m. in Tablón, in the San Marcos region of western Guatemala, villagers alerted police to a burning vehicle. It belonged to the Fundación Maya, a local indigenous rights group, and was driven by staff member Carlos Humberto Guarquez. Near the burning hulk lay five written death threats directed at Guarquez, stating, "The same will happen to you Mr. Carlos Humberto for interfering in these stupid social issues… Every pig eventually gets slaughtered."

The "stupid social issues" in question are otherwise known as the defence of human rights in the face of formidable economic power exerted by mining companies in Guatemala.

Guarquez is among five indigenous people (including local mayor Dominqa Vasquez) thought to have organized a January 11, 2005, protest against the Vancouver-based mining company Glamis Gold which turned violent.

"In January, villagers grouped together to block an access road that was being used to transport a large piece of equipment needed to extract [ore] from the mines," explains Nathalie Brière, co-ordinator for Projet Accompagnement Québec-Guatemala (PAQG), a Montreal organization that defends Guatemalan human rights. "During that protest one of the men was shot dead by the police forces and the army, which were deployed by the government to break up what was a pacifist protest."

This event – also resulting in two-dozen wounded – is significant for Guatemala, which is no stranger to bloody protest. Nearly 30 years ago, on May 29, 1978, in what has since become known as the Panzós Massacre, hundreds of Quechuan villagers gathered before the town of Panzós’s mayoral office to protest governmental wrongdoing in matters of land distribution and the effects of mining by the Canadian company that was then the country’s largest excavator, Inco. (Inco has been associated with military regimes in Guatemala since the early 1970s – the inauguration of their first factory in 1977 was attended by General Kjell Eugenio Laugerud Garcia.) The military intercepted that protest too, and showered the crowd with bullets.

"The government admitted to 34 deaths on the day of the massacre, and then a day later another person died, so the total was 35," says Marc Drouin, project manager for PAQG. "Those 35 were buried in a common grave. But then there are people who drowned in the river as they tried to escape the scene… the conclusion by the Commission for Truth [headed by the United Nations] was that 53 people were executed extrajudicially by the Guatemalan army, while there was an attempt to extrajudicially execute 47 others who were wounded."

The 35 bodies were exhumed and buried ceremonially in their village in 1997, when a committee of widows brought a complaint to Guatemalan judicial authorities. The massacre has since been deleted from official records. This burial process was recorded by the artist and photographer Marlon García Arriaga, whose work, Panzós, 25 ans plus tard, will be exhibited in Montreal from May 18 to 29. He will speak to the public on May 19.

Canadian business still dirty

Though Inco halted use of its 400-square-kilometre nickel mine in Guatemala in 1982 due to high production costs and low profits, the mine has been kept on "care and maintenance" status ever since, retaining a staff of 30 in charge of an annual budget of $400,000. One might question the motives behind this expenditure, but Drouin thinks he can explain it: "They had a contract with the government in 1971 [stating] their obligation, among other things, to rehabilitating the land once the mine was closed, through reforesting, so that the economic development of the area would be equal or superior to what it was before the mine."

Rather than close the mine and own up, Inco maintained it until they sold it to another Canadian company last December, Skye Resources (whose vice-president, Colin McKenzie, is an ex-Inco man). With nickel prices now at considerably higher levels than in the 1980s, Skye is preparing to resurrect the enterprise and produce a yearly 45 million pounds of nickel, reported the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, March 8. "Skye is in the midst of finagling a process using chlorine, a process that’s never before been used in industrial proportions," warns Drouin. "They also use phenomenal quantities of water in the cooling process." This water comes out contaminated and is then dumped in local rivers.

It is understandable, then, that indigenous communities, who live off the land, are protesting. In the face of widespread popular opposition – led in many instances by activist Catholic Church officials like Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini and Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruño – the Guatemalan government promised in February to freeze issuance of any new mining permits. This doesn’t help in the case of Skye, which resurrected Inco’s old permits, or Glamis Gold, already well entrenched and "committed to its project in Guatemala," according to the Globe. These remain the two biggest mining projects in the country.

"Eighty per cent of all metal mining in Guatemala is in Canadian hands," says Drouin. "Gold, silver, nickel, cobalt. The majority of the land surrounding the village of Panzós is owned by Canadian businesses."

Meanwhile, since the beginning of 2005, 44 defenders of human rights in Guatemala have received death threats in an attempt to discourage them from their work, while in the month of March alone, 587 cases of human rights violations were recorded.

Panzós, 25 ans plus tard
At the Belgo building (372 Ste-Catherine W., suite 306), May 18-29
Artist’s talk May 19, 5:30 p.m.

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