Original article: http://mondediplo.com/blogs/gold-flows-as-the-wells-run-dry
by Robin Llewellyn
When Canadian gold mining giant Goldcorp holds its annual general meeting in the northern Ontario city of Timmins on Thursday it will face calls from shareholders for the company to take on the costs of the scheduled 2018 closure of its controversial Marlin Mine in Guatemala.
The company currently provides a $1 million surety bond to the Guatemalan government for cleaning up and closing the mine if the company were to suddenly withdraw, but a study commissioned by two church groups calculated the real cost as $49 million. In February the company announced record revenues of US$1.5 billion for the fourth quarter of 2011, with the company's profits significantly boosted by gold from the Marlin Mine.
Local resident Francisco Bamaca used to work as what he called a 'promoter', directed by Goldcorp to build support for the mine in local communities. Sitting outside his house in the rugged mountain community of San Jose Ixcaniche about a mile from the mine, he recalled how in 2006 the mine's tailings pond was built, a large man-made lake that catches the spent cyanide and heavy metals produced by extracting gold from the rock.
"Twenty-eight birds were found dead having been in contact with the lake," he said, "and I was going to communities telling them how the mine wouldn't hurt them, but then they asked about the birds and I didn't know what to say."
The company argues that it contributes to the local community through wages and a non-profit foundation, and that it tests water and air quality regularly and finds them to be within internationally acceptable levels. The International Labour Organisation had called for the suspension of the mine in February 2010, shortly before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also ordered its suspension, citing environmental and human rights concerns. Last December however, the IACHR revised its precautionary measures from suspension to ensuring the quality of drinking water in local areas, a move that the Center for International Environmental Law claimed was due to political pressure. A Tufts University study published in September 2011 concluded that the mine's "environmental costs are likely to swamp economic benefits in the long-term" for the local community, and that environmental risks "will greatly increase over the remaining life of the mine and in the post-closure phase."
Bamaca said that local people no longer use surface water in the region downstream of the mine to bathe as it gives them skin problems, sickness and hair loss. The Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology is based in San Marcos, administrative centre of the municipality of the same name that includes the mine, and it found arsenic in surface water 2.7 times US drinking water standards, while a University of Ghent study found a 400% increase of arsenic in the area's ground water between 2006 and 2009.
The state of the tailings pond is now a focus of health concerns in the area. A study commissioned by the company found that it was "expected to be filled by mid 2011", and Goldcorp has since admitted discharging water from this pond into the surrounding environment. E-tech International tested the water in the tailings pond in 2006 soon after the mine began working, and found that "maximum concentrations of cyanide, copper, and mercury were over three, ten and 20 times higher than IFC standards."
Allegations that the mine is also secretly releasing water from the dam on a frequent basis are rife in the communities surrounding the mine, but they are not the only complaint about Goldcorp's activities. Javier de Leon, an activist with local development organisation ADISMI (Association for the Integrated Development of San Miguel Ixtahuacan), says ten wells have dried up in the area and 200 buildings been damaged due to the use of explosives in the surface and subterranean working of the mine. The company says it is developing the mine below ground to reach the bonanza grade Delmy Vein of gold, and de Leon says workers mention a large body of water now passing through the tunnels.
The well of San Jose Ixcaniche served 62 families, and Francisco Bamaca recalled how the village started constructing its water project back in 1983, and that by 1987 it was delivering running water to people's homes. "People were so overjoyed to have water coming out of the living rock."
But in spring last year the water's flow was dramatically reduced, and in 2012 it stopped altogether. The community bought and rerouted another spring to supply water. "But this only provides water for us for a short time at midnight", he said, pointing to four containers behind him that were filled with the day's water. A rising tide
Goldcorp has 13 exploration licenses across the department of San Marcos through its subsidiaries Montana Exploradora and Entremares, and it may be that these and other exploration projects across indigenous areas of Guatemala suffer more from the dry wells and cracked houses than the Marlin Mine itself. The municipality of Sipacapa borders that of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, and was the first municipality to hold a 'consulta' or referendum on the issue of mining proposals in its area, rejecting such projects in 2005. Since then more than 60 communities involving over 700,000 people have held referenda on mining and dam projects, through processes based on national law and principles of indigenous human rights protected by ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Guatemala signed ILO 169 as part of the peace accords that ended the country's civil war which included acts of genocide against the Maya people, and together with UNDRIP it guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples to exercise 'free, prior, and informed consent' over projects directly impacting them. Developments such as the Marlin Mine should thus only occur through a process of open negotiation and agreement, whereas Francisco Bamaca says the Mayan Mam community surrounding Marlin were informed that the company buying the land on which the mine now sits was planning to grow orchids.
The neighbouring department of Huehuetenango has the highest number of licenses for mining exploration, and all non-capital municipalities there have voted against major mining projects. Francisco Mateo represents the CPO (Council of the Peoples of the West) which has been a key organization in the wave of referenda against mining in the area. "We've had the opportunity to do preventive work." he said, "As Marlin has established itself it's given an example of the dangers of mining".
The referenda have been organized through the structures of established municipal authorities, but the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled that while these referenda were legal they were not binding, leading to a contradiction in the country's legal system. Mateo sees this ruling as "irresponsible" and evidence of "institutional racism":
"When the state signed indigenous rights treaties they never thought we as indigenous people would use those rights to hold the government to its commitments. We are asking for the state to comply with ILO 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and all we are working for is the free determination of the questions affecting our community."
The rapid proliferation of mining licenses is taking place with the full support of new Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, but it is facing opposition beyond the municipal level. On 11 April the country's Constitutional Court ruled that a challenge to the mining law could proceed, on the basis that Congress passed the law without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.
Udiel Miranda is coordinator of the CPO's legal commission and the lawyer leading the challenge. He described the two principal arguments behind the case:
Despite the majority of exploration licenses being on indigenous land "the Maya, Xinca and Garifuna peoples were never represented effectively in Congress, thus the lawmaking processes took place without those most affected being represented. Secondly, ILO 169 became law in Guatemala in 1996; therefore it was necessary to have a consultation process" before passing the law.
What would a constitutionally acceptable mining sector look like?
"The only thing the Maya people are pushing for is that their rights guaranteed in the legislation be respected; that the exploitation of the strategic resources of our country takes place with full respect for our peoples and for the sovereignty of our country. Extraction should take place respecting the primordial function of the state: to take care of the wellbeing of the country."
Goldcorp argue that they are "tireless advocates of human rights and maintain a principled, conscientious approach to corporate citizenship" and that the company works in partnership with indigenous groups. That assurance currently rings hollow along the avoided rivers and the dry wells of the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, but the referenda and court case may persuade the company that their genuine engagement with relevant legal conventions is necessary for the future of Goldcorp's Guatemalan operations.