San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Department of San Marcos, Guatemala – Carmen Mejía walks two hours to work everyday. She works for an organization currently under attack for its support of indigenous communities affected by the Canadian-owned Goldcorp Marlin gold and silver open-pit mine located in the Western Guatemalan highlands.
The 25-year-old daughter of campesinos and mother of a five-year-old learned about the dangers of mining from a friend when she was studying to be a secretary. Today, she passes along this knowledge but she says, “we are not heard because we are women, we are indigenous and we are campesinas.” She says women are never consulted and in some cases it is their inherited land that is being sold by their husbands for the mine.
The San Marcos highlands like the rest of the country of Guatemala are almost entirely covered by mineral claims and concessions. According to the Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) of the Diocese of San Marcos, the Marlin mine, which opened in 2005, uses 250,000 litres of water per hour, which is equivalent to what a Guatemalan family uses in 22 years. Goldcorp is required to pay only 1% in royalties for the minerals they extract in an area where 97% of the people live in poverty and 79% live in extreme poverty.
Mejía’s work with the Association for the Integral Development of San Miguel Ixtahuacán (ADISMI) has made her a target for persecution.
This past Earth Day, April 22, 10,000 people marched in Guatemala City while more marched in communities facing mega projects such as mining and hydroelectric dams across Guatemala. Stops during the marches included the gates of the Marlin mine and the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala City. The Maya Mam and Maya Sipakapan people, mostly peasant farmers, living near the mine are concerned that the mine is depleting and contaminating their water supplies, deforesting their land and destroying the natural world that is fundamental to the Maya worldview.
Mejía and several others were charged on Earth Day in an incident following a peaceful demonstration at the mine’s gates. A man in favour of the mine provoked some demonstrators taking shelter from the rain, which resulted in rocks being thrown. The man later laid charges against five people including Mejía.
“If the mine would leave, it would leave us in peace and we would live as before, happily. No more women would be persecuted and criminalized,” says Mejía.
In 2008, eight indigenous women known as the Goldcorp 8, were charged with “obstructing the mine’s operations.” The most serious outstanding charges are against Gregoria Crisanta Perez, who is alleged to have damaged a power line to the mine that was placed on her property. She initially agreed to allow poles on her property but she maintains that she did not agree to the amount of damage that was done to her property with the power installations.
The trumped-up charges against community leaders are seen as a strategy to burn out the community resistance. Seven men were charged in 2007 following a demonstration at the mine’s gates. Five of the seven men were acquitted while two were convicted. The two men are currently appealing the sentence. Goldcorp laid charges against five people after mining machinery was burned in July 2009. This action was taken after mining machinery was moved onto the community’s land without their permission.
One woman living near the mine was told in early May 2010 by a man from CONRED, Guatemala’s emergency prevention and disaster team, that her house could fall in at anytime and that they would relocate her and the other eight dwellers in the household immediately. There are large cracks in her home and the back of the house is sinking and could slide down a mountain at anytime. She says, “we do not know where they want to put us. We don’t want to leave. We can fix our house but we still want the company to leave so we can have peace in our house.”
Goldcorp and the authorities deny assertions that at least 100 houses are damaged by the explosions at the nearby mine. They blame rain, poor construction and loud music from the churches.
One of the Goldcorp 8, in tears, speaks of verbal abuse and the mine’s toll on her family. “The day before yesterday, my brother was drinking and he threatened to kill me if the mine ever left. He said ‘you are just a woman and you shouldn’t be doing this.’ He said if you keep doing this and the mine leaves, I will find people and we will kill you.” Many say the mine has pitted wives against husbands, mothers against sons, and brothers against sisters. The women live in the small community of Agel, where many local labourers at the mine live.
Adelia Macaria Mejía, a teacher, says that she and the principal at her school were fired for raising concerns over peculiar skins rashes they were observing on children. Her family have moved because of cracks in her house. She refused to sell her land for the mine but the company has taken over the land around it and now she cannot access her land. She has gone to Congress to try to stop drilling on her land. She says people are afraid to get their blood tested for fear of appearing to be critical of the mine.
On May 18th, 2010, scientists from the University of Michigan announced the results of blood and urine samples taken in people near the mine. They found higher levels of potentially toxic metals in the people living near the Marlin mine than in people living further away from the mine. “Little is known about the cumulative and combined health impacts on humans especially children following chronic exposure to complex, real-world mixtures,” said Dr. Howard Hu of the Univerity of Michigan’s School of Public Health and co-author of the environmental health study. The scientists recommend epidemiological and ecological follow-up studies be done.
Women raising concerns with the Goldcorp mine say San Marcos was a peaceful place before mining and now the community is full of fear and tension. At least two violent deaths are linked to the mine. There have been noticeable increases in: public drinking; the number of bars; prostitution (including the opening of a brothel); and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Many organizations have joined forces as the San Miguel Ixtahuacán Defence Front to organize consultas – community referenda on the subject of mining in their communities. About one million people have already participated in 44 such consultas and said no to mining. With more consultas about to happen, will the government of Guatemala and Goldcorp respect the results?
Tracy Glynn is a member of the Fredericton committee of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.