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Guatemala's president proposes 2-year mining moratorium

By Chris Hufstader
The Marlin Mine sits in Guatemala's western highlands.

In early July Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina announced he is requesting the congress approve a two-year moratorium on hard rock mining in the country, in an effort to reform mining laws and reduce conflicts around mining sites.

“For the first time in this administration, the president and some members of his staff have publicly recognized that there is strong opposition to mining,” says Juliana Turqui, a program coordinator for Oxfam in Guatemala. She added that there are numerous cases of both indigenous and non-indigenous communities objecting to mining projects out of concern for the environment and because they are not consulted when the government grants concessions to mining companies.

Turqui notes that some civil society organizations are skeptical about the president’s proposal, and that they have been advocating for new laws with stronger requirements for community consent and environmental protection for more than five years. Oxfam’s partner CONIC, an organization of indigenous people, followed up the president’s request with a proposal to modify the current mining law with new requirements for community consent and an increase of mining royalties from one percent to 35 percent. CONIC’s representative Juan Tiney says that “The moratorium must be extended, two years are not enough because of the complexity of the issue;  speaking on behalf of CONIC, I believe that organizations must participate and make their proposals for a law that really contributes to development.”

Violent climate

Communities affected by mining in Guatemala are frequently areas of conflict. According to press reports, the government of Guatemala declared an emergency in four towns where villagers were protesting imposition of a mine run by the Canadian company Tahoe Resources. Oxfam called on the government of Guatemala to investigate the kidnapping of four community leaders, one of whom was found dead in the following days. There has been ongoing conflict around the Marlin Mine, owned by the Canadian miner GoldCorp, in the western highlands. Following recommendations from two international human rights bodies, Oxfam called for the suspension of operations at the mine while the government and company investigated a variety of violent acts in the area since the mine was established in 2005.

There are currently 107 metal mines operating in Guatemala, and there are another 359 requests for licenses. Mining comprises roughly two percent of Guatemala’s $50 billion economy, but the high degree of inequality in the country means very few citizens benefit from this industry. Guatemala is not part of the international Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, and there are no public records of mining industry payments to the government and how these revenues are spent.

The Maya indigenous majority living in areas near mines is adversely affected by water and air pollution, and object to the environmental damage as a violation of their cultural values.

Turqui says she hopes that the moratorium will be approved so that there will be an “open, transparent, and inclusive space where people affected by mining and technical experts can engage in dialogue.” However she also says that although President Molina is open to such discussions, she says “There will also be pressure from powerful international corporations, political opposition, and national companies… After more than 10 years of mining in Guatemala, we know that the current mining law is not profitable to Guatemala, neither economically nor in terms of sustainable development.”