The Guatemalan government’s decision to authorize a mine has led to violent protests, leaving two people dead, at least 16 community leaders captured, and causing the government to declare a state of siege in the departments of Jalapa and Santa Rosa.
Hoy Épale reported on May 9 that the government has deployed 8,500 soldiers and police in the area. The protests began escalating at the end of April.
The government approved Minera San Rafael’s El Escobal project in San Rafael Las Flores municipality. The company has been granted a 25-year concession, one of the longest in the country’s recent history, according to Argenpress newspaper.
The fatalities in the conflict included a resident of the area and a member of the National Civil Police. Ten police officers were also injured, and protestors sacked and burned houses of mining personnel.
There have been four similar incidents since November 2012, Argenpress reported. In January, two mine guards and an attacker were killed in an armed conflict.
Another local newspaper, Siglo 21, said that there has been conflict in the area since 2007, when a license was granted to Canada-based Tahoe Resources to extract 20 million ounces of gold and silver annually.
Activist group The Indigenous, Farmer, and Popular March released a statement calling the government’s action terrorism and repression, and expressing solidarity with the victims.
The group blamed the government for the violence, saying residents had been exercising their right to peacefully protest to defend their land, territory, water, and communities.
Juventino Gálvez, Director of the Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment Institute at the Universidad Rafael Landívar, said the issue is complex and is not only driven by concern over environmental impacts. He argued that it is the sum of a series of historical conflicts, augmented by mistrust of government authorities.
The process for approving licenses is flawed, and does not allow for measurement of environmental impact, Gálvez said.
These projects cause environmental damages, such as loss of forest cover and water contamination, he added.
He said investigations have uncovered there is public-private collaboration in favor of mining activities at the cost of the common good.
Ivanova Ancheta, vice minister of Sustainable Development for the Ministry of Energy and Mines argued that the conflict has arisen out of misinformation and propaganda. She did not name groups, but said there were non-governmental organizations and communities that always take positions against mining companies.
She highlighted the economic benefits of mining, noting that with the El Escobal project, the municipality is receiving 11 times more than the constitutional allocation to cover its needs. She said mining companies are obliged to carry out social projects in areas like education, health, culture, sports, economic development, water, sanitation, and roads.
The conflict could have a negative effect on future investments in the country, she warned.
Ancheta insisted that miners carry out many measures to mitigate environmental damages; for example, the plan in San Rafael Las Flores includes reforestation. The ministries of Environment and Energy and Mines will check the mine plan and conduct inspections, which include water sampling, she said.
The vice minister also denied that mining was growing in the country; only two new licenses for mines have been authorized by the present government, and only one was authorized during the previous administration, she said.
She said El Escobal mine could start producing in July or August of this year, although that is uncertain now in the wake of the conflict.
A May 2012 report by Industrial Info Resources said that the El Escobal mine could become one of the top silver mines in the world, at which time Tahoe resources announced a $500 million USD investment to extract the 300 million ounces estimated at the site.