Environmental activists receive death threats

By Oxfam America

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Members of the environmental group Association of Friends of Lake Izabal in Guatemala (known by its Spanish initials ASALI) have received death threats from groups critical of their work with indigenous people opposing mining projects in the region. A pro-mining group known as the "Neighborhood Watch Committee of El Estor, Izabal," sent letters to the government of Guatemala naming Eloyda Mejia and other members of ASALI, accusing them of being "enemies of the people and of the state." It said that the law of "an eye for an eye" would be used to deal with them.

The Izabal region, which is located in northeastern Guatemala, along the borders of Belize and Honduras, is one of the country's richest in natural resources. It is home to the country's largest lake—Lake Izabal—which has a unique ecosystem that includes hundreds of animal species, some of which are endangered. The people who live around the lake give it a rich cultural mix—they are ladinos, Garifuna and Maya Q'eq'chi indigenous people. Their livelihood is based on fishing, planting corn, beans and cardamom, and ecotourism. The region's unique resources give it great potential for sustainable development.

Among the natural resources in the area are oil, gold, silver and nickel. The government has granted mining concession to foreign companies, including the Guatemalan Nickel Corporation (known as CGN in Spanish), which is a subsidiary of Skye Resources of Canada. CGN received a license to mine nickel in Izabal in 2005 and will begin operations in 2008. CGN has wrongly accused Eloyda Mejia and other members of ASALI of squatting on company property.

Critics of the mining project say it endangers the abundant natural resources in the region and offers little in the way of local development because companies pay only one percent of their profits in royalties and only half of that—0.5 percent—goes to the municipality where the mine is located.

ASALI was created to defend the lake, its surrounding areas, and its indigenous culture. In 2002, ASALI was successful in its bid cancel a license to drill for oil under the lake. Since then it has been educating and informing the local population about the consequences and problems that mining can cause in the region and about the alternatives for sustainable development that existing natural resources can provide. Oxfam America had been helping to fund the work of ASALI since 2006.

The case of Eloyda Mejia and ASALI are not isolated incidents. In recent years, those who have opposed mining in their communities—principally indigenous communities—have received threats and suffered acts of repression. In January of 2007, there were incidents in numerous communities in Izabal in which people were driven from their homes or in which their homes were destroyed by security forces and police.

"Communities and local organizations, which in Guatemala are largely indigenous, should have the right to express whether they are in favor or against mining, based on objective information about its probable impact, without suffering retaliation," said Oxfam America's program officer Andres McKinley. "These opinions should be taken into account by the government and the mining companies."