San Marcos Department, Guatemala
San Marcos, the far west of Guatemala. In the lowlands of this department one notices rich coffee plantations. In the highlands the Maya population is concentrated on poor land that is difficult to be farmed. On the border between the villages of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipacapa, the Marlin mine has been present since 2005.
The notorious gold company is owned by the mining giant Goldcorp. It is the first large mining project in Guatemala after 36 years of civil war. The armed conflict, with unequal landownership as its main cause, left the issue mostly unresolved. After a bloody war, the Guatemalan population accepted in 1996 a status quo. Almost one year later a new mining law had been passed, which meant that the royalties on the value of gold bars for export sank from 6% to 1%.
Foreign mining companies saw an opportunity. By 1998, foreigners suddenly appeared in San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipacapa with a special interest in ‘useless’ lands and the location of springs in the area. Rumours spread quickly. Nobody had ever been interested in these remote highlands before. Why this sudden interest? Without an answer to these questions, the lands were quickly sold at double or threefold of the market value. Did they know that the Ministry of Mining had granted these highlands with mining licences? Did they know that 250 000 litres of water an hour were being pumped in order to remove gold from the rocks in a mixture with cyanide? Did they know that the explosions of the open pit mining hole would tear apart their houses?
”Investments are development.” There is no lack of grotesque commercials in the Guatemalan media. Every hour of the day the Marlin Mine is loathed. There are enough means to defend the strategic interests of the extractive industry. But is it all about development?
No one will deny that the mine guarantees financial proceeds. Between 2006 and 2010, 1,5 billion dollars were extracted from the ground. A recent study revealed that, through proceeds, loans and projects, only 5% of this amount actually stays in San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipacapa, whereas they account 100% for the environmental and health risks.
‘Pachamama’ (Mother Earth), a holy notion for the Maya population, would have to be sacrificed for just a fraction of the proceeds. At the start of the mining project, Sipacapa decided to hold an internal referendum which revealed that 97% of the participants did not agree with the imminent exploitation. The authorities ignored them and approved the project anyway.
In San Miguel Ixtahuacán there are also protests. Nevertheless, it is better not to raise your voice in order to prevent a legal marathon session. This has been the destiny of seven “campesinos” who blocked the entrance of the mine. After months of several different summons, they eventually ceased their fight. Today the community still prevents the police from arresting eight mothers by order of Goldcorp.
Along with opponents, the mine also has supporters. You cannot blame a miner for fighting for his wage. Goldcorp chooses these privileged very carefully, though. In the first place, it is about people who have something to say in the community, the political leadership. In this way the mine infiltrates very quickly within the communities. The absence of the state is now eagerly filled by Goldcorp. Do you want the street to be reconstructed or a school to be built? Then don’t even mention notions such as “Pachamama”. Otherwise the money goes to the neighbouring municipality. So, the leaflets of Goldcorp are plenty of ‘charity’ and the germ of the conflict is planted again short after the end of the civil war. And sometimes the situation gets out of hand. In 2010 Doña Diodora was hit in the eye by a bullet. In the same week the house of Don Miguel Angel was riddled with bullets. Both are outspoken opponents of the mine. The teacher Adilia was harassed outside of her school after she testified about skin disorders of her pupils. Opponents were kidnapped and received death threats. Because of a lack of legal order in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, the system in which only the strongest survive is applied. Obviously intimidated by the rising violence, many hide in silence.
The social damage can be measured by the sale of strong drinks, the increasing domestic violence and the brothels that suddenly appeared in San Miguel Ixtahuacán. Families are splitting up and brothers and sisters often become each other’s opponent.
The scenario of the Marlin mine serves as a clear warning towards the rest of Guatemala. There have been already 59 plebiscites in the whole country, during which a million of people pronounced themselves against the mining industry in their habitat. Whereas San Miguel became divided, the rest of the country united themselves in the protection of their natural resources.