Indigenous Xinka March Against Guatemalan Silver Mine

On Tuesday, hundreds of indigenous Xinkas marched through Guatemala City to protest the contravention of a Constitutional Court ruling regarding the operation of a local mine. Last September, the court found that the establishment process of the mine in 2013, 75km Southeast of Guatemala City, failed to meet its obligation to consult with local indigenous communities and was therefore in violation of domestic and international law. The mining company was ordered to undertake community consultation and in the meantime the mine’s operations were suspended.

According to the protesters, the ruling is being violated because the consultation process is not being carried out in good faith. They also claim that the company, now owned by Canadian Pan American Silver, has been lobbying local communities, which is an activity also suspended by the court order. The Xinka have filed a motion with the Supreme Court to obtain a ruling on whether state institutions and the mining company are compliant with the ruling of the Constitutional Court. Regardless of the outcome of the consultation, the ruling does not prevent the mine from resuming operations once the consultation is completed. The Xinka claim the mining activity threatens their water sources, which could also affect their agricultural activities and food security.

Siren Fisekci, Pan American Silver vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, has stated that the company is “fully aware of the Constitutional Court ruling and welcomes the consultation process it sets out”, later adding that the company is “fully compliant with the requirements set out in the ruling”. However, Alex Reynoso, a local coffee farmer, said markets are not willing to buy produce grown near the mine because they are fearful they may be contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, which are part of the mining process; he claimed “the country’s most important markets flat-out avoid buying our products”. A protester and local farmer called Misael Martinez also stated “what we want is for them to pay for the harms and to leave”.

The mining company should never have been given permission to mine without community consultation. The state institutions which allowed them to mine, and the mining company which likely influenced them to do so, bear the responsibility of the conflict which has risen out of this issue. The Xinkas and the regional community have done extremely well to utilise the peaceful legal routes of conflict resolution available to them. Their success in halting the mining and their tenacity in continuing to hold power to account are an example of how grassroots community organising can be used to protect the rights of indigenous communities and the environment. The affected communities should be compensated for the lack of initial consultation and for any damages which have been caused by mining so far. The current consultation process should be undertaken in good faith and the will of the communities deserves to be respected.

Peaceful protests against the mine beginning in 2013 were initially met with violence. Security forces hired by the mine used rubber bullets and live rounds – seven protesters were shot, but all luckily survived. The mine’s security manager, Alberto Rotondo, was later recorded saying “I gave the order to kill some of those sons of b*****s.” Rotondo later faced trial for ordering the attack on the protesters, but he escaped custody and remains fugitive; several police officers were convicted for assisting his escape. According to Aljazeera, over the last 6 years of the conflict, community activists have been killed and others have been caught up in criminal proceedings for what human rights groups claim are trumped-up charges. In 2017 local mayors set up checkpoints on roads leading to the mine to block the transportation of supplies and equipment needed for mining – this had effectively stopped the mines operations even before the Constitutional Court ruling.

If the courts do not provide the support the protesters need, then other tactics like road blocks and greater protests will likely be used to continue to protect their community. Hopefully violence is not again used to counter these tactics. The road ahead for the protesters appears long, but if they can successfully force the mining company out of their region it will be a landmark victory; their achievement might inspire many other communities and indigenous groups around Latin America facing similar issues.

Edmund Pollock