Guatemalans protest Canadian mines in their backyard

Republished from Embassy Magazine. November 13, 2013

GDressed proudly in their traditional colourful clothing, Angelica Choc and Maudilia Lopez Cardona travelled from their Guatemalan villages to Parliament Hill to draw attention to what they say is an inexcusable price paid by their communities to Canadian mining companies.

For Sister Lopez, a Catholic nun from the village of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, that price includes contaminated water, blasting that shakes the ground so hard that houses crumble, and growing tensions amongst members of the community. These are all claims that Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc., whose subsidiary Montana Exploradora owns the nearby Marlin mine, has vehemently contested.

For Ms. Choc, the price has been even steeper: the alleged murder of her husband Adolfo Ich. At the time of his death, he was an indigenous leader and an outspoken opponent of what was then a mine owned by Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals Inc.

Her husband was allegedly shot and killed while intervening in a forced removal of protesters by Hudbay-hired security. The Ontario Superior Court has ruled that her claim may proceed, a rarity in lawsuits alleging a Canadian company’s complicity in human rights violations abroad. Hudbay has stated that it doesn’t believe its personnel were involved in the death.

The two women are also lending their voices to a new Amnesty International Canada campaign calling on the Canadian government to create an extractives ombudsman and to legislate better access to Canadian courts for foreigners who have grievances with Canadian mining companies.

The campaign is run in collaboration with the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability. The groups split the costs of the women’s trips to Ottawa.

Meanwhile, at a time when the Canadian government is seeking to partner up mining companies with international development projects, Hudbay and Goldcorp say corporate social responsibility and local economic development have never been higher priorities for them.

The Marlin mine

Ms. Lopez and Ms. Choc sat down with Embassy on Oct. 23 to describe what it’s like for their rural communities to live in the shadows of Canadian mining operations.

“In the year 2000, when the company was just arriving, nobody was against it,” said Ms. Lopez, with the use of a translator.

“Nobody in San Miguel knew what [large-scale] mining was. The company did not explain that it was going to get gold out of the ground…they just said ‘We come here offering a project that’s going to help you…you people are not going to be poor anymore.’”

Ms. Lopez said that the Marlin mine has contaminated local water supplies, and blasting has caused homes to crumble.

Locals have developed painful rashes on their skin as a result of pollution from the mining, she added.

None of these issues were present before the Marlin mine, she insisted.

“Not for a job are we going to let them contaminate our water, destroy the land, or…our way of living together,” she said.

Ms. Lopez said that Goldcorp tells its locally hired employees to convince other community members to support the mine. If the staff can’t convince their neighbours to stop protesting the mine, their job security is threatened, she said. This causes internal conflict.

Despite the fact that Goldcorp committed in 2012 to spend more than $30 million for mine clean-up, Ms. Lopez argues that the damage cannot be fixed with a cheque.

“It’s not going to repair community conflict, it’s not going to repair people’s health,” she said. “They’re not going to take the contamination out of the water, and they’re not going to put the mountain back.”

Goldcorp’s response

But Brent Bergeron, the senior vice president of corporate affairs at Goldcorp, painted a very different picture of the company’s history in the region-one of genuine interest in bettering nearby communities and becoming a “good corporate citizen.”

Although relations with community members were rocky at first, Mr. Bergeron says they’ve become quite positive over the years.

The company holds frequent meetings with community members to listen to concerns and to update the local populations about mine developments, he said.

Goldcorp also pays an annual royalty directly to the nearby communities, which isn’t required by Guatemalan law. Last year’s royalty payment amounted to about $3 million, he said.

Before the mine started, many people in the region relied on agricultural harvesting and had to migrate with the seasons, Mr. Bergeron said. The mine offers stable job opportunities close to home, which also means that children don’t have to move around and can attend school.

The company funded the construction of a health-care facility in San Miguel that treats priority concerns like malnutrition and water-borne illnesses, and also provides maternal and family care.

Mr. Bergeron said the mine reuses about 97 per cent of its own water supply, and discharges small amounts.

Discharging is always witnessed by the Guatemalan government, and is tested by several stakeholders including community associations, he said.

“The issues with water have always been there,” he added. “We’re actually working on a plan with the [Guatemalan] government right now looking at the different communities [to] be able to provide infrastructure to give them access to potable water.”

In response to claims of skin rashes, Mr. Bergeron said there has been evidence that suggests that the irritation is a symptom of malnutrition or improper ventilation of indoor cooking stoves.

The housing ministry conducted an investigation into the cracked houses, which indicated that a lot of the damage is due to poor construction, said Mr. Bergeron.

Nevertheless, the company wanted to help, he said, and established a program to assist with rebuilding homes that are falling apart.

A Goldcorp-commissioned human rights assessment was conducted by a Vancouver-based consulting group and found that, generally, the company had maintained admirable standards in monitoring environmental effects, but did not do enough consultations with nearby populations, and did not take into consideration the concerns of residents.

It identified that mine workers were not allowed to form unions and were pressured to spread positive messages about the mine within the community.

Deadly confrontation

In Ms. Choc’s community, the tension exploded into large protests and violent clashes between residents and mine personnel.

Hudbay bought Guatemalan mining company Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel and CGN’s mining rights to the Fenix mining concession near El Estor in 2008, according to Hudbay’s website. It sold the project in 2011.

Angela Choc said the company began forcibly removing tenants from their homes to use the land.

The company maintains that the land rights had been granted to CGN before Hudbay took ownership, and that no evictions were conducted when it was running the Fenix site.

According to Hudbay’s website, the mining site had a long history with “illegal land occupations” and “when the illegal invaders refused to vacate the property and to engage in discussions with CGN, CGN sought a remedy through Guatemala’s legal system.”

When the company took over the nickel project in 2008, “all necessary environmental and construction permits had already been granted by the Guatemalan government,” wrote John Vincic, Hudbay vice-president of corporate communications, in an email to Embassy. It was during a disagreement between protesters and the company over land rights that Ms. Choc said her husband was murdered in September 2009.

“He was a spokesperson for many communities in defence of his land, and for that reason the company was pursuing him,” she said with the use of a translator. “At one point, when they were violently moving people off their land…he fell defending our land with dignity.”

She said her husband was trying to move people out of danger, but was shot and killed by the head of security.

She, along with two others, have filed lawsuits against the company in the Ontario Superior Court over various human rights allegations connected to the mine.

Mr. Vincic wrote that “based on internal investigations and eye witness reports, Hudbay believes that CGN personnel were not involved with his death.” He said that three of four alleged eyewitnesses recanted their earlier statements and said they were intimidated into lying about the circumstances.

The company’s website states that a group of illegal protesters had occupied the company’s land in September 2009, and had attacked the local governor after a meeting about the occupation on the day that Ms. Choc’s husband was killed.

Throughout the incident, CGN security “showed extraordinary restraint and acted only in self defence” Hudbay stated.

Mr. Vincic said the case is expected to go to trial in Toronto in 2015 or 2016.

Both Ms. Choc and Ms. Lopez said they want the Canadian government to have greater oversight into the actions of Canadian mining companies abroad.

Amnesty International Canada wants there to be more opportunity for disputes such as Ms. Choc’s to be hashed out in Canada’s courts.

Canadian solutions

“In the few cases where people from other countries have come to Canada to seek justice for human rights violations caused by Canadian corporations, they have not succeeded,” reads a post on Amnesty’s website.

“This is because the existing mechanisms available in Canada to address corporate human rights violations overseas are inaccessible and ineffective.”

Caitlin Workman, a trade spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development responded to questions about Amnesty’s campaign by highlighting the Canadian government’s establishment of the Office of the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor. The office was established in 2009, and according to Ms. Workman, has received six cases. Marketa Evans, who has held the counsellor job since it was created, resigned in mid-October “to pursue opportunities outside government,” according to a government spokesperson.

Critics called the position ineffective, as companies couldn’t be compelled to participate in the dispute resolution process.

Ms. Workman wrote that the government expects “the office to continue to play a constructive role through promotion, creative problem-solving and dialogue because we believe independent facilitation and mediation services can contribute positively to the resolution of disputes.”

Questions about whether the Canadian government would consider creating a more powerful ombudsman, as well as improving access to Canadian courts for foreign complaints against Canadian mining companies were not answered in time for publication.

afoster@embassynews.ca

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