From Socialist Voice, December 2008


Canada’s role in the brutal exploitation of Guatemala

On 8 and 9 January of last year the Mayan Q’eqchi’ inhabitants of several villages around El Estor were forcibly and violently evicted from their homes by heavily armed Guatemalan police and military.
     El Estor is a town in north-east Guatemala, near the shores of Lake Izabal. The area is rich in resources, with oil, nickel, and other minerals. In 1965 the lands that the indigenous communities were living on were given by the Guatemalan military to a Canadian mining company, International Nickel Company (INCO), under its Guatemalan-controlled company, EXMIBAL. INCO was granted a forty-year lease on the indigenous land, which has been seen as historically Mayan territory.
     As the mining project developed, EXMIBAL increased its area, forcibly evicting more people. The part played by the Guatemalan army is well documented in the report of the UN-sponsored Truth Commission (1999). The mines operated only briefly in the late 1970s and closed in 1981. While they were in operation there were many protests against what people saw as the sale of non-renewable resources for political gain.
     In November 1979 a professor from Universidad San Carlos, the country’s leading university, was murdered and another injured by unknown gunmen. Both were investigating EXMIBAL. Local protests culminated in the notorious massacre of more than a hundred Q’eqchi’. On the same day protesters travelling to El Estor were fired on by gunmen in EXMIBAL trucks.
     Blaming the fall in nickel prices, EXMIBAL ceased its operations in 1981. Between 1981 and 2004 the mines lay dormant, though the installations on the land became notorious for torture and murder carried out by the military.
     Now the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CNG), a subsidiary of another Canadian mining corporation, Skye Resources, claims the land and the Fenix mine as theirs, having bought the mining rights from INCO. While Skye claim that the evictions were peaceful, a nine-minute video recorded by witnesses shows what really happened. There were no court orders for these evictions, making them unlawful.
     With the military and police backing them up, the company’s workers burned people’s homes while women and children looked on, watching their homes and belongings go up in flames.
     The part played by the military was illegal under the Guatemalan Peace Accord of 1996, which outlaws the involvement of the military in internal policing.
     In these most recent evictions, many doubts have been cast on the legality of the claim by Skye Resources to the land. The company has been unable to produce property deeds and never consulted the local people, as required under the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, covering indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries, which Guatemala ratified in 1996. The communities have consistently and repeatedly said they don’t want their land mined.
     During the 36-year genocide in Guatemala, in which 250,000 people were killed or disappeared, Canadian mining companies played a bloody part. The activities of INCO were supported and facilitated by brutal and repressive military dictatorships, which massacred and brutalised indigenous populations. Numerous human-rights organisations, including a United Nations commission, found INCO to be complicit in grave violations of human rights, including threats and assassinations.
     The Canadian ambassador to Guatemala, Kenneth Cook, played an outrageous role in actively spreading misinformation about what was happening. He claimed that videos and pictures showing the heavy-handedness of the evictions were falsified. He even went as far as to claim that actors had been used in the video, which was recorded by witnesses.
     Cook and the Canadian embassy in Guatemala have attempted to discredit and undermine the legitimate protests and voices of the Q’eqchi’ Maya. Many different sources, including leaders of the Guatemalan church, have confirmed that Cook is attempting to discredit the exposure of the horrendous complicity in human rights violations by Canadian companies.
     This aggressive mining has already degraded El Estor’s fragile ecosystem. Mountainsides have been deforested, causing landslides.
     The Government of Canada must be made to explain and apologise for the behaviour of Canadian mining companies abroad. They must explain the treatment of local communities by these companies.
     There must be dialogue with the local people, who are willing to talk. However, CGN and Skye refuse direct dialogue. There must also be independent investigations into the evictions. The investigation so far is being carried out by the prosecutor who ordered the evictions.
     There must be transparent mechanisms for dealing with the historical land conflicts in the area. The Guatemalan government must live up to its international commitments to the human rights of the indigenous Mayan people and their land and resources.

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