Sipacapa, Guatemala—In a dramatic demonstration of indigenous communities exercising their right to self-determination in the matter of land, traditions, and livelihoods, 13 indigenous groups in the municipality of Sipacapa, Guatemala, voted overwhelmingly last month to protect their lands from open-pit mining.
In a June 18 referendum, Sipacapa residents cast 2,486 votes against open-pit mining in their municipality, 35 votes in favor of it, 32 abstentions and one blank vote. Despite attempts to halt the referendum, the Supreme Court of Guatemala ruled in favor of the right of the municipality to conduct public consultations "when the nature of the issue at hand affects the rights and interests of indigenous communities of the municipality," as established in Guatemala's municipal code. The ruling was based on:
- Guatemala's Law of Urban and Rural Development Councils, which establishes role of the Councils in promoting citizen participation and consultation,
- Guatemala's Municipal Code, which specifies the rights and responsibilities of municipal governments,
- Guatemalan Constitution, articles 66 and 67, regarding the responsibility of the State to defend the patrimony of indigenous peoples,
- Peace Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and, most importantly,
- International Labour Organization's Convention 169, articles 6-15, ratified by Guatemala in 1996, the convention clearly states that indigenous peoples have the right to determine the type of development that occurs on their lands, and be consulted prior to any project that may affect their livelihoods, in particular, natural resource extraction projects. This forms part of international law and takes precedence over national laws, when conflicts arise.
Additionally, the right of indigenous peoples to grant or withhold their "free, prior and informed consent" to oil and mining projects is increasingly recognized under international human rights law.
Critics of the referendum continue to attempt to discredit the process by claiming that local Governments lack authority to conduct consultations around mining concessions, and alleging that local residents were threatened or intimidated into voting against mining projects. Oxfam America has seen no evidence to support this contention. To the contrary, over 70 independent observers signed off on the referendum as a legitimate democratic and legal process.
Although Oxfam America takes no position on the oil, gas, and mining industries, we seek to ensure that development projects respect the rights of the poor and contribute to the long-term reduction of poverty. We also believe that to protect and help their poorest citizens, countries should pursue environmentally and socially responsible forms of development.