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ENVIRONMENT-GUATEMALA: Mines Bring No Benefits to Local People

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jul 21 2009 (IPS) - The new draft law on mining before the Guatemalan parliament does not strictly regulate water use and environmental protection, does not provide for community consultation, and sets royalties payable to the state at too low a level, say environmental and social organisations.

“We oppose the approval of the draft law by the congressional Commission on Energy and Mines because it did not take into account the process of dialogue that we had been carrying out,” activist Gabriel Valle, head of the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (Fundaeco), told IPS.

The text about to be debated in plenary sessions of Congress is the draft approved in December 2008, without the social and environmental amendments adopted by consensus by a high-level negotiating committee that included environmental organisations.

The draft law, to reform a mining law that came into force in 1997, does not stipulate that indigenous peoples must be consulted about planned activities in their territories, even though Guatemala agreed to this guarantee when it adopted International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, nor does it contain clear regulations on water use and environmental protection, Valle said.

Furthermore, it provides tax breaks for mining companies, and sets royalties payable to the state at between one and seven percent, when royalties should not be less than 10 percent of the value of the resources extracted, according to social and environmental organisations.

A number of demonstrations have been held to protest the draft law. The latest took place on Jul. 15, when thousands of people blocked the highway to the Atlantic ocean and the Inter-American Highway to the Mexican border.

In the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, 35 kilometres from the capital, thousands more protested against the planned construction of a cement factory near the capital, for fear it will use too much water and cause pollution.

In Valle’s view it is essential that the draft law be revised, because mining in Guatemala “is a dismal problem. The country has all the disadvantages when it comes to managing this industry.”

“There is no monitoring capability for mining, and there is no water law. Municipalities have neither the staff nor the resources to deal with land use planning, let alone run an environmental management office,” Valle said.

The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) has issued 170 permits to mining companies, three of them for mineral extraction, three for reconnaissance, and the rest for exploration, according to the Savia School of Ecological Thought.

The fast-growing mining industry in Guatemala produced minerals worth 223 million dollars in 2007, an increase of 67 percent on 2006, according to the MEM.

But in spite of the wealth generated by the mines, the local communities where they are located have not seen any positive development. On the contrary, their water sources have been polluted and their environment harmed, according to Uriel Miranda, a legal adviser to the Roman Catholic Church’s Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE).

“We believe this draft law is a gift to foreign corporations, which only want to exploit our natural resources to rake in the profits,” Miranda said.

In his view, it is essential that the new draft law establish the right of local communities to be consulted. “In order for our country to become more democratic, its riches must serve the common interest and not the interests of the few,” he said.

COPAE is based in the northwestern department (province) of San Marcos, where the operation of the open cast gold and silver Marlin mine, belonging to the Montana Exploradora company which in turn is wholly owned by the Canadian mining giant Goldcorp, has given rise to vigorous protests.

In 2005 a community referendum was held on the mine, located in the municipalities of Sipacapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacán. Eleven out of 13 villages voted against the project, but two years later the Constitutional Court ruled that the vote was non-binding.

To date, 36 community votes have been held in the provinces of San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Quiché, Zacapa and Sacatepéquez. Over 500,000 men and women have expressed their opposition to mining, according to the Coordination of International Accompaniment in Guatemala (CAIG).

Concerns about environmental destruction due to open cast mining are also growing. According to Julio González, head of the environmental group MadreSelva, the damage may be irreversible.

“All mining causes a great deal of water pollution because it takes place near rivers. The local people who depend on these water sources are affected by the chemicals used, including cyanide. The damage caused will last hundreds of years, and no price can be set on it,” González told IPS.

The negotiating committee on mining, made up of MadreSelva, COPAE, the Centre for Legal, Environmental and Social Action (CALAS), Fundaeco and Ceiba, among others, requested strict regulation of water use and environmental preservation.

The organisations proposed that mining companies be required to pay for the water they use, and not be permitted to alter its quality nor local people’s access to it. They should also remove all pollutants from their waste water before discarding it, the committee said.

The groups also want stricter regulation of the transport and handling of toxic chemicals, environmental impact studies, and regular compulsory monitoring.

The negotiating committee recommended an audit of everything extracted from the subsoil, in order to guarantee transparency and access to information.

Several of these demands were proposed as amendments to the draft law in June by opposition lawmaker Rosa María de Frade, a member of the Commission on Energy and Mines, but to no avail.

De Frade told IPS she will carry on lobbying, although she said there was scant interest in parliament. “There is a lack of political will in Congress to have a broad, serious and in-depth discussion about mining,” she said.

Since Jan. 14, 2008, the MEM has been under instructions not to issue any mining concessions until the negotiating committee has reached a consensus on the draft law to reform the regulatory framework, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom told a delegation of protesters on Jul. 14.

Douglas González, head of the Gremial de Minas y Canteras, the industry association for mines and quarries, said “the current law has been in force for too short a time to be changed now. More time is needed to evaluate its performance.”

Civil society organisations are planning to hold an international conference on mining Aug. 3-5.

The next parliamentary session begins Aug. 1.

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