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"We don't like Canadians."

Tale of indigenous-led resistance in Guatemala provides lessons for anti-fracking struggle at home

by Stephen Law

Resistence to industrial encroachment in Guatemala. Author Stephen Law sees similarities to the Maritime situation. (Photo: NISGUA - Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala)
Resistence to industrial encroachment in Guatemala. Author Stephen Law sees similarities to the Maritime situation. (Photo: NISGUA - Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala)

“We don’t like Canadians."

It was a surprising admission to hear at a small dinner party in Halifax.

Celeste Guttierez, a Guatemalan woman visiting Canada, shared this perspective with a group of guests who tentatively began to pick at their salad. Celeste was visiting as part of a tour by a group of Guatemalans who fanned out across the country to bring their message to the homes of Canadians.

Not so much that they don’t like us, but why.

And upon hearing her story it was hard not to correlate what she was experiencing with what my own community, in Kennetcook, has been facing in Nova Scotia.

On the surface, fracking in Nova Scotia and precious metals mining in Guatemala would have little in common. Guatemala, located in Central America, has a primarily indigenous population. The economic disparity is stark - the country ranks 133 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. (Canada is listed as #11, with Norway garnering the top spot).

Nova Scotia is primarily a white province, where after hundreds of years of extermination policy, only 10% of the population comes from Aboriginal, Mi’kmaq, origins. And though it’s a small province, it’s the second most densely populated in the country.

Though not on the level of poverty of Guatemala, Nova Scotia tracks one of the lowest GDP rankings in Canada, only slightly above Newfoundland, and the Northern provinces and territories.

So the surface doesn’t offer much for comparison, but once we dig a little underneath and discover the methods used by governments, companies and investors of the extractive industry (call it fracking in Nova Scotia or Silver mining in Guatemala), they are the same. Thereby, it might be wise for us to shine some light on the experience of people from Guatemala.

Celeste comes from the small community of Nueva Santa Rosa, located in the southeastern part of the country, less than 70 km from the capital city.

It’s a community Celeste refers to as “tight-knit, close neighbours, a beautiful place.” It also sits on one of the largest mineral reserves on the planet. Reserves that consist of silver, gold and other rare minerals, used in everything from adornment to cell phones to components for NASA satellites (and many are forged into bars for safekeeping).

And it is a community that has been wracked with controversy, struggle and resistance since Silver mining giant, Tahoe Resources, came to town.

Tahoe Resources is a publicly traded Canadian Silver mining company with its corporate headquarters in Reno, Nevada. Their only project is the Escobal mine located near Celeste’s community.

Most of the management team and directors of Tahoe Resources, including their CEO, Kevin McArthur, are alumnus from Goldcorp, one of the largest mining companies in the world, and another brethren company with a tainted past in Guatemala. The company receives the support of the Canadian government through our embassy, and is financed through contributions of everyday Canadians via the Canada Pension Plan (the money they take off your paycheque) as well as other investment and mutual fund vehicles which we may be part of. Goldcorp currently owns 40% of the shares in Tahoe Resources.

“We didn’t even know what they were doing, or what they wanted at first.” Celeste recalled. “But when we began to become aware, we organized.”

Along with support from environmental organizations and a priest from the local Catholic Church, Nueva Santa Rosans used their constitutional rights to organize a referendum on the mine. The “Consultas” are one of the few forms of resistance that communities impacted by extractive industries have to oppose, slow down or prevent the activities of large multinational businesses.

When Celeste spoke about the efforts of her neighbours and community members, her face alit with pride. “In our consulta," she said, “over 98% of the community voted to oppose the mine.”

But that wasn’t enough.

Not for the company. According to MiningWatch, a non-profit organization that monitors mining activities in Canada and abroad, “To date, fourteen referenda have been held in which tens of thousands of people in the five municipalities closest to the project have voted against the Escobal mine given their concerns over actual and potential environmental and social impacts.”

It was those impacts which have been Celeste’s greatest concern.

According to Celeste, the company has used intimidation tactics, sought out arrest warrants for the leaders, and portrayed them as terrorists.

Celeste recounted how she has been followed and harassed for the work she has been doing. She shared the story about the phone call she received on March 13, 2013. “I had left just 10 minutes before them,” she began. Celeste and other leaders had participated in another local referendum, in a nearby town. Her colleagues who had trailed after her, had been forced off the road after leaving the community where the referendum took place. Two of the men managed to escape from their vehicle which was pushed down a ravine. A third, Exaltacion Marcos, was found murdered and the forth man, the president of a local indigenous organization was held captive.

According to Celeste, he was only released “because five thousand members of our communities shut down a major highway in the country and refused to budge until he was freed.” He was later found, having been bound and gagged.

Celeste spoke of another leader, a young, single woman who took care of her special needs sibling, who was forced into hiding when the police and military surrounded her house, accusing her of being involved in agitating against the mine. For the past 7 months, she has continued to live underground, unable to visit her family and friends and unable to defend herself from the accusations that have been thrown at her.

The communities have faced harassment, kidnappings, intimidation and murder. Given all that, only a lone security manager from the company has been arrested and he is awaiting trial for allegedly ordering security guards to fire at protesters outside the mine on April 27, 2013.

All this needs to be understood within the context of a country that until recently had experienced an over 99% impunity rate. Guatemala suffered a civil war from 1960 through to 1996, a war in which the United Nations declared that the government orchestrated a campaign of genocide against the indigenous people. After decades of painful persistence, community members were able to bring former President Rios Montt, one of the intellectual authors of the genocide, to trial.

His conviction, however, has been threatened to be overturned and annulled by a politically appointed judge who works in collaboration with the military and political elite to prevent justice from being served.

And yet, judicial processes against those oppose mining projects seem to have a high rate of success. According to MiningWatch, “Since September 2012, some 70 people have been slapped with unfounded criminal charges and have had to endure legal processes causing them distress and hardship. Several spent months in jail.” All of this acts as a clear indication of the attempt to silence the voices of dissent.

“They call it development,” Celeste told our gathering once we had cleared the table of dishes and dessert and retired to the living room. “But, what are they developing? We are still poor, our roads are terrible, there is no health care and our schools have no funding.”

So, how is fracking in Nova Scotia related to the tyranny faced by Celeste in Guatemala?

The scale of impact and violence are in no way comparable. However, the tactics employed by those who support and advocate for mining or fracking are similar. As Celeste was speaking, I was reflecting on what took place this past summer up in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, where people were opposing SWN Resources Canada for undertaking seismic testing as a precursor to fracking development.

The intimidation against the peaceful protestors, the portrayal of the protestors as violent agitators, all rang true. The mining industry, fracking companies, investors, business and economic development proponents are all using the same playbook. In Guatemala, it has had tragic consequences.

Celeste was grateful for having the opportunity to come to Canada and speak to Canadians about what is happening. She also acceded, that “it was nice to know that there are some good Canadians, that all of you are not like those from the company.” But, she reminded us, lest we were too comfortable, “Your money is tainted, in our blood, and in our tears.” she said.

Here are the lessons we can take from Guatemala:

The extractive activities will take place in poor remote communities:

  • Nueva Santa Rosa – in Guatemala
  • Kennetcook, Nova Scotia or Rexton, New Brunswick

Regulatory bodies are unfit to respond to or deal with challenges:

  • According to MiningWatch: The Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines dismissed some 250 formal community complaints without a proper hearing shortly before granting Tahoe's exploitation licence on April 3, 2013. In July 2013, the plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of a complaint and won, putting the validity of the licence in doubt. A final decision from Guatemala's Constitutional Court is expected soon.
  • Kennetcook was fracked in 2007 by Triangle Resources. A tailings pond was built with improper regulatory, oversight and monitoring procedures and toxic, radioactive and hazardous chemicals have been held in the containment ponds awaiting effective and safe disposal procedures for the fracking wastewater.

The opposition will be demonized and vilified and the leaders will be arrested:

  • In Guatemala, in addition to the accusations they made against community leaders, the government also enacted a state of siege just weeks after the final project license was granted in April 2013 – and branded community members as figures of organized crime and drug traffickers.
  • Images of the Elsipogtog protests this past summer depicted mostly burning vehicles and snipers crawling through the woods – in effect demonizing the protestors as violent agitators. Charges against Indigenous leaders in Elsipogtog could not be sustained in court and were dropped though slapsuits have been issued against leaders to try to continue to muzzle them.

There has been a failure to consult with indigenous communities:

  • Communities in Guatemala that have opposed mining do so using ILO Convention 169 (International Labour Organization Agreement on Free, Prior and Informed Consent) which states that Indigenous communities must be consulted prior to exploitive development on their territory.
  • The Maritimes are un-ceded territory. What that means is that any exploitive development that takes place in this region, must undertake a consultative process with the Mi’kmaq communities of this territory. The Federal government’s website admits as much and states, that “Under the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1760 and 1761 in the Maritimes, the Mi’kmaq and the Maliseet signatories did not surrender rights to lands or resources.” Therefore, consultation is something that must occur according to both federal and international law.

Economic benefits are reaped by investors and not by the community affected nor with any appreciable economic spinoffs to the country as a whole:

  • Tahoe Resources is “voluntarily giving” royalties to Guatemala amounting to 4.5% of international stock exchange value. (Substantially below that of royalties paid by companies in Canada).The communities themselves may end up with a tiny unfunded health clinic that gets splashed on the investor social responsibility webpages, but little tangible benefit. According to Celeste, “all we get in return is a wounded community.”

A lesson for those of us in the Maritimes indeed.

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