Canadian mine strikes lode of unrest
The debate over the presence of a gold mine in Guatemala has resulted in a call for 'urgent action' by Amnesty International.
The Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Violence over a Canadian gold mine is threatening the fragile peace in Guatemala, which is still reeling in the aftermath of its 36-year civil war.
Clashes over Glamis Gold Ltd.'s fledgling project 130 kilometres northwest of Guatemala City have escalated recently, with a car bombing and two killings.
Amnesty International issued a call for "urgent action" last week after three opponents of the mine received death threats. Anti-mining activists have in turn menaced Glamis staff, the company says.
Conflict over the mine has split the country, with indigenous people and church groups facing off against the government. Much of the civil war was fought in the same highlands, where the suppression of insurgents by the U.S.-backed army left about 200,000 dead or missing, mostly Mayans.
The Catholic Church has been so vocal in its opposition to the Glamis project that the Washington Post recently speculated the conflict could rekindle the long-dormant "liberation theology" movement, in which priests took on authoritarian governments throughout Central America. Observers say the movement is gaining momentum with the recent death of Pope John Paul II.
"If we don't evangelize to help poor people, it's not the evangelizing of Jesus Christ," Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, a prominent anti-mine campaigner, told the Post.
Now under construction, Glamis' $140-million U.S. project is widely seen as a test case for the government's commitment to peace with the Mayans.
The Canadian firm stands to reap 225,000 ounces of gold and three million ounces of silver annually for the 10-year life of the mine.
The stakes are especially high because Guatemala is poised to aggressively pursue mining: In recent years it has granted exploration permits for almost 10 per cent of its territory -- much of that on Mayan land, and much of it to Canadian companies, according to the watchdog group Rights Action.
Indigenous leaders say they have not granted permission for these concessions, and are adamant that they were not consulted about the Glamis mine.
The government has imposed a six-month moratorium on all new exploitation permits, while a commission of government and church leaders meets to resolve the issue.
Under the 1996 peace deal that ended the civil war, indigenous people must consent to any venture affecting their land.
Steve Baumann, vice-president of Glamis' Latin American projects, insists the company did just that. In a phone interview, he said it held 177 public meetings, attended by more than 11,000 people, from 2003 to 2004. About 3,400 people came out to site visits as well, he added.
But critics say the meetings were really promotional sessions: "People thought these were information meetings," said Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada. "They were quite surprised to see their names on the documentation saying they had been consulted."
Critics are also concerned about the environmental impact of the mine, which will use cyanide to leach out the gold, and which will use about 760 litres of groundwater per minute, even in the dry season. Hired to review Glamis' environmental assessment, independent U.S. consultant Robert Moran blasted it as "very simplistic and optimistic." Last week, both he and Bishop Ramazzini were refused entry to the mine, according to the Guatemalan group MadreSelva.
But Mr. Baumann says the mine will easily meet the environmental standards of the World Bank, which is backing the project with a $45-million loan. He says the cyanide will be safely contained, and the mine's 300-metre-deep well won't affect any other sources.
He says the mine has already brought benefits: 800 locals now work at the mine; all will be kept on, some to work on the mine, others to do community projects. Glamis also chips in $400,000 a year to a local aid agency.
In addition to a 31-per-cent tax on its profits, Glamis must give one per cent of the value of its ore to local and central governments, he adds.
But many are convinced the mine will spell disaster over the long term.
In December, protesters blocked a convoy of mining equipment for 42 days; on Jan. 11, police fired on protesters, killing one and injuring several more.
Two weeks later, Bishop Ramazzini led 3,000 people in an anti-mine protest in the provincial capital. He is now under government protection after receiving death threats.
And last month, a guard for the mine's security force allegedly shot 23-year-old Alvaro Sanchez in the street. Glamis says the incident resulted from a personal conflict, adding that the guard, who has since disappeared, also stole a company vehicle.
Also last month, a vehicle belonging to a Mayan leader was torched, and death threats issued against him and two other anti-mine community leaders.
Mr. Baumann says mine employees have got letters "saying, basically, 'If you work for the mine, we are going to kill you.' "
Last week, the mine condemned the use of violence and threats by any faction.
Ambassador James Lambert has made speeches and written a newspaper piece promoting Canadian mining. The embassy also helped organize a conference showcasing Canadian mining.
Mr. Lambert says the embassy has a mandate to promote both Canadian interests and Canadian values such as sustainable development, and "the two are not mutually contradictory."
"Far from being damaging, the fact that we have real interests at stake in Guatemala enhances our credibility locally."