Guatemala: Canadian-owned mine suspended for human rights violations, health hazards

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Indigenous anti-mine activists face death threats

(News Release issued by MiningWatch Canada and the Center for International Environmental Law, June 24, 2010)

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom announced yesterday that he is suspending operations at the Marlin mine, operated by Vancouver-based Goldcorp, Inc. According to the Guatemalan government, the process to shut down the mine might take months. The Center for International Environmental Law and MiningWatch Canada are calling on the government to complete the administrative process in a timely fashion.

The decision comes amid intense criticism that the mine has caused widespread human rights violations and endangered the health of the surrounding indigenous communities. Last month the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an independent body of the Organization of American States (OAS), called on the Guatemalan government to suspend operations at the mine.

“We applaud the decision of the Government of Guatemala to honor its international human rights obligations and suspend operations at the Marlin mine,” said Kristen Genovese, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law. “The Marlin mine has always been the source of conflict in the communities. At this critical time when tensions are running high, we urge the government to take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of all involved.”

The Marlin gold mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Guatemala, has been plagued by controversy ever since it began operating in 2005. The Mayan communities affected by the mine have asserted that they never gave their consent to the mine, a right protected under international law. Precautionary measures included in the IACHR’s May 20 decision requested the Government of Guatemala to suspend operations at the Marlin mine until the commission could consider the complaints by the communities. A delegation from the IACHR is expected to visit Guatemala in July.

Evidence of the harmful impacts of the mine has mounted over the last several months. Just last week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, James Anaya, visited the Marlin mine and urged the government to comply with the IACHR decision.

In March, the International Labor Organization (ILO), called for suspension of mining activities at the Marlin mine until the consultation and studies required by ILO Convention No. 169 were conducted. Last month, a study released by Physicians for Human Rights and scientists at the University of Michigan found that a sample of residents living near the mine have higher levels of mercury, copper, arsenic and zinc in their urine, and of lead in their blood, than a sample of persons living seven kilometres away.

“We are encouraged that the Guatemalan government is taking the Commission’s decision seriously,” said Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada. “We also ask that the government acknowledge the communities’ concerns and investigate, for example, where exactly the contamination is coming from and what can be done to improve the current situation.”

Goldcorp’s own Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) released last month recommended that Goldcorp “[h]alt all land acquisition, exploration activities, mine expansion projects, or conversion of exploration to exploitation licenses.” The HRIA, which was conducted without the widespread support or participation of the communities affected by the Marlin mine, found widespread human rights abuses at the mine, including the right to consultation, right to property, right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and failure to create effective grievance mechanisms for its employees and community members.

“The communities affected by the Marlin mine applaud the Government’s decision to comply with the Precautionary Measures of the IACHR,” said Javier de Leon, President of the Association of the Integral Development of San Miguel (ADISMI). “Nevertheless, we are worried about the threats that we have received. We have been told that there will be consequences for defending our rights. We call upon the international community to monitor the situation.”

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) is committed to strengthening and using international law and institutions to protect the environment, promote human health, and ensure a just and sustainable society. CIEL is a non-profit organization dedicated to advocacy in the global public interest, including through legal counsel, policy research, analysis, education, training and capacity building.

MiningWatch Canada is a pan-Canadian initiative supported by environmental, social justice, Aboriginal and labour organisations from across the country. It addresses the urgent need for a co-ordinated public interest response to the threats to public health, water and air quality, fish and wildlife habitat and community interests posed by irresponsible mineral policies and practices in Canada and around the world.