On July 4 2012, community leader and coordinator of the K’iche’ People’s Council (CPK), Lolita Chavez, escaped an attack by a large group of armed men following a peaceful protest in Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala.
Only a month ago, another indigenous community leader, Yolanda Oquely Veliz—after having received multiple death threats—was shot three times when leaving a nonviolent resistance blockade near the entrance of El Tambor gold mine in San José del Golfo, which is owned by Canadian company Radius Gold.
These are only a few in a series of attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala, particularly those defending the rights of indigenous groups to self-determination and the protection of their natural resources.
Mining has been present in Guatemala well since the colonial period, and has been on the rise in the past few years as demand for minerals increases. Even after the 36-year civil war—named a state genocide against the country’s indigenous people by the United Nations, where 200,000 of them perished between the mid- 1950s and 1993— oppression continues in the form of land exploitation. After signing the peace accords in 1993, Guatemala allotted significant mineral concessions to multinational corporations, making the country rely on foreign markets for revenue.
When the country’s successive governments granted exploration and exploitation licenses—many to Canadian mining companies—Guatemala, much like other Latin American countries, enjoyed a mining industry boost due to rising international mineral prices. These companies claim to have brought significant development to the country’s regions. However, none of its fourteen million indigenous people reap the benefits, while foreign companies continue to destroy their environment.
Domingo Hernández, a member of the umbrella group of indigenous organisations Convergencia Nacional Maya Waqib’ Kej, told news source Inter Press Service (IPS) that “the transnationals don’t do a thing to help a country develop; all they do is plunder the resources of the state, while the indigenous population continues to be poor.”
According to the World Bank, Guatemala is one of the poorest countries of Latin America, with an estimation of seventy-five percent of the population living under the poverty line, and more than ninety percent of the indigenous population lives on an income that is lower than the poverty line.
Mining activities do very little to help indigenous groups, rather, it damages their health as well as their environment. The mining process involves engaging in open-pit mountaintop removal and using a cyanide leaching process to extract gold and nickel from ore, which severely contaminates waterways.
Most notorious of the corporations is Canadian Goldcorp Inc., which has been accused, since before going into operation in 2005, of extracting rare natural resources and destroying the environment in its Marlin Mine in San Marcos.
Multiple human rights bodies have pushed for its suspension as it failed to obtain the consent of the affected indigenous groups. In its first year of operation, residents of the community created a blockade where one person was killed and sixteen others were injured. Many activists received death threats and survived assassination attempts in the following years.
In 2010, members of the the international community including the International Labor Association (ILO), Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) all took notice and issued a statement recommending the mine suspend its operations until all concerns were addressed. In June 2010, the government responded and said it would begin the process of suspending the mine. Ever since, little progress has been made, and the mine is still in operation.
In response to frustrating instances such as these, on March 19, 2012 approximately 10,000 indigenous farmers took to the streets of Guatemala City to peacefully protest their cause. The march, organized by the Comite de Unidad Campesino (CUC), lasted nine days. Some walked more than 200 kilometers to the city to meet with the president and demand a government settlement over land.
This forceful mobilization pushed President Otto Pérez Molina to consider their declaration, which consists of demands that are longstanding grievances of the Indigenous population of Guatemala. They include a termination of forced relocation, an end to the persecution of indigenous people fighting for their rights, and the cancellation of concessions for mining, petroleum, hydroelectric agriculture, among many others.
Not much progress has taken place as abductions and attacks such as the ones suffered by Chavez and Veliz still occur. In addition, the administration of Pérez Molina is still granting mining concessions, many still on indigenous territory.