No silver lining in Guatemala conflict

By Chris Hufstader
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Farmers work on land next to the silver mine plant in San Rafael Las Flores, Guatemala. Photo: James Rodriguez/Oxfam America James Rodriguez/Oxfam America

Farmers, defenders of human rights and critics of silver mine are unjustly accused of false crimes, persecuted by state.

Community leaders and activists in the area around San Rafael Las Flores, Guatemala, are enduring a campaign of misinformation and persecution at the hands of their own government designed to silence their opposition to the expansion of a US- and Canadian-owned silver mine.

According to Oxfam’s partners and allies watching the case in San Rafael, these local leaders have called for formal consultations in the form of a vote over whether the silver mine should be allowed to operate and expand. They have also organized peaceful protests and spoken in the media about the rights of the local people to be consulted about the presence of the mine. In response, they have been accused of a variety of violent crimes, and denounced as terrorists by the government.

“These are people whose daily work is very linked to the church and the community,” says Yuri Melini, the founder of the Guatemalan human rights organization called the Center for Legal, Environmental, and Social Action, known by its spanish acronym CALAS. He’s now a candidate for the presidency in Guatemala. “These are not terrorists, these aren't the people who are threating the security of the state or others... The only thing that they are doing to threaten the company, government, and powerful groups in Guatemala is that they are demanding their rights.”

The center of the contraversy is the El Escobal silver mine, owned by Tahoe Resources (which is partly owned by the Canadian company GoldCorp. After the government awarded an exploration license to the company in 2013, local citizens have protested. They have held a variety of informal votes in which 98 percent of voters have rejected mining.

The area has also seen conflict between local people and mine security forces. In May of 2013 the government sent in a well-armed miliary force, and simultaneously issued arrest warrants for 17 individuals, accusing them of attempted murder, arson, kidnapping, and other crimes. Investigations by CALAS showed these were all false charges; in some cases they were able to prove that some of the unjustly accused people were 50 kilometers away from the location of the alleged crimes.

Oxfam is supporting the work of CALAS and other organizations in Guatemala that are helping people unjustly accused of crimes to defend themselves and their community’s rights to be consulted, and have a voice in decisions about mining projects that may affect them. This work is part of Oxfam’s global program to help communities affected by oil, gas, and mining projects protect their rights and the environment.

False charges against farmers

One of those unjustly accused is Guillermo Carrera, a coffee and corn farmer who serves as the president of the community development committee in his village, Las Casitas. He says villagers asked the mayor of the San Rafael Las Flores municipality to hold a consultation, and when he refused and the government awarded mining permits to the company, Carrera and others organized protests. “Everything we’ve done has been in favor of those in need, to defend the poor; because there have been human rights violations here,” he says outside his home, after being held in jail for three months. “People’s right to demonstrate peacefully against what they think is wrong has been violated.” Carrera was released when it became clear that a special prosecutor for organized crime was not presenting any evidence; in fact a prosecutor never came to any of his hearings.

Guillermo Carrera: Imprisoned for months on false charges. Photo: James Rodriguez/Oxfam America.
Rudy Pivaral is an outspoken critic of the mine, and helped organize protests against it. He learned of the false charges against him the day after his wife gave birth to their son. The vegetable farmer fled as the police came to search his home, and was on the run for seven months.

“The company is committing injustices, but I think people here are clear about us, they know we are not criminals, and we are defending the land,” he says; now back at his home with his wife and 17-month-old son. The government dropped the charges against him. “The problem is that people are afraid to speak out because of the way the state has acted. The state treats us as criminals. Now it’s clear it is all slander. We are not criminals. We are trying to defend the country.”

Rudy Pivaral: “We are not criminals. We are trying to defend the country.” Photo: James Rodriguez/Oxfam America.

Resisting mine expansion

Expansion of the Tahoe mine will not be easy. The company says its concession encompasses an area covering 2,000 square kilometers (about 800 square miles).  Local farmers were against the establishment of the existing mine, and resistance to the proposed expansion is growing. If you ask farmer Oscar Morales why he does not want the silver mine to expand, he’ll tell you that the Tahoe mine is already operating illegally because the government did not allow any consultation with the community. “The license in San Rafael is not legally valid, but it was granted by the state and we are appealing it,” Morales says in a meeting with farmers in Juan Bosco, one of two areas into which Tahoe Resources wants to expand. “The court accepted our appeal and said that there had not been due process.”

“That means that for the last year they have been running an illegal mining operation.”

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