The Gold That’s Worth Its Weight in Water: The Marlin Mine

mina-marlin-guatemala (1) copia

 By Iker Ugalde y Richard Brown – Correspondents for EntreMundos

The debate over whether the Marlin mine is contaminating the water of Sipacapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacán in San Marcos took another turn in February. The Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance (MPSAS), which does not usually handle water quality studies, presented the results of its new scientific investigation that concluded that there are no heavy metals in the water of the 18 communities near the mine. The investigation was undertaken to identify the causes of the neurological, gastrointestinal, and skin diseases that affect a high percentage of the mine’s neighbors. The MSPAS said that these diseases have to do with the presence of fecal matter in the water, given than 70% of drinking water samples contained fecal coliform bacteria and 30% contained E. coli. The MSPAS also blamed overcrowded living conditions (more than five people living in a single room) and the presence of animals in the homes.

The conclusion about the presence of heavy metals contradicts a 2013 scientific study by the National Institute of Forensic Sciences, and another in 2014 by the Catholic Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) of San Marcos. The former found concentrations of arsenic 900% higher than the maximum permitted by Guatemalan law, as well as concentrations of lead and nitrogen that also exceeded maximums. The latter found concentrations that exceeded international and Guatemalan maximums of aluminum, iron, copper, manganese, sulfates, nitrates, nickel, and cadmium.

In 2003, the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) accepted the environmental and social impact study (ESIS) of the multinational corporation Montana Exploradora, of American and Canadian capital, and granted it a license to mine for gold and silver in an area of 20 square kilometers for 25 years. The majority of the local population lives in small villages and depends on subsistence agriculture. A large percentage is indigenous.

Agreement 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), approved by the Guatemalan Congress in 1996 in the context of the process to end the 36-year armed conflict, establishes that indigenous people must give their full, free, and informed consent to any major decision that affects the use of natural resources in their territory. Since the government generally does not recognize this obligation to consult with communities affected by megaprojects, Sipacapa organized its own community vote on the mine in 2005. In just the second such vote in the country, Sipacapa voted almost unanimously against. The government refused to recognize the vote.

“Since the government generally does not recognize this obligation to consult with communities affected by megaprojects, Sipacapa organized its own community vote on the mine in 2005.”

In 2010, an independent American consultancy, E-tech International, analyzed the mine’s ESIS and other information about local water resources. Its report found that the ESIS was incomplete and poorly conducted. For example, it lacked “information on groundwater flows” that made it “impossible to know the potential for the migration of contaminants from mine sources to receptors.” Further, the report cited problems with the mine´s operation, including:

“The mine wastes have a moderate to high potential to generate acid and leach contaminants to the environment…  Water in the tailings impoundment does not meet IFC [International Finance Corporation, of the World Bank] effluent guidelines. Maximum concentrations of cyanide, copper, and mercury measured in 2006 were over three, ten, and 20 times IFC guidelines, respectively…  Seepage may be migrating to the drainage downstream of the tailings dam… Arsenic and sulfate concentrations in one of the wells have been increasing over time… and neither the source nor the potential downgradient receptors are known.”

Also in 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) answered a petition from affected communities that sustained that the mine had violated their rights established in ILO Agreement 169, that various wells and springs had dried up, and that there were heavy metals in their drinking water. The IAHCR requested that the Guatemalan government ensure the absence of heavy metals in their drinking water and ensure access to clean water for the 18 local communities.

View of the mine

View of the mine

Even according to the MSPAS’ own report, the government, five years later, has still not complied with the second request. Even if we believe that there are no heavy metals in the water, it is clear that after 12 years of mining, the communities near the mine suffer extreme poverty. The “overcrowded living conditions” and the rates of illiteracy among the sick (89% in San Miguel Ixtahuacán and 74% in Sipacapa, according to La Hora) lay bare the reality of an extreme lack of basic services next to a mine whose royalty payments are supposed to bring the country more well-being. According to a 2014 report from the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), Guatemala only receives 12% of the profits of the mines in its territory, a rate far below that of other Latin American countries, and this income represents only 0.3% of the government’s total income. In other words, for every 100 quetzales that the government receives, only 30 cents come from the mining sector.

If you google the MSPAS report, you’ll find  only two news articles, one from El Periódico and another from La Hora. El Periódico calls its article an “advertorial” (an advertisement that appears like a news article) and La Hora calls its article a “corporate composition.” The “advertorial” concludes, “That is to say, it all has to do with education levels, traditions, customs, and ambient factors like hygiene and health standards.” The “corporate composition” sums it up, “(The presenter of the results Juan Pablo) Velásquez was emphatic in asserting that the majority of the illnesses are due to cultural traits and the presence of fecal matter in water sources.” The writers are anonymous.

To blame the communities’ illnesses on “cultural aspects” before the lack of basic services and the structural causes of poverty in the area is to join a 500-year-old chorus that still uses racism to justify exploitation and underdevelopment.

An article on the MSPAS website, “A Cooperation Agreement is Signed,” says that in April, 2014, the MSPAS, the Municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, and Montana Exploradora agreed that the MSPAS would give Q3,209,834 ($428,000) and that Montana Exploradora would give Q2,059,247 ($275,000) to “strengthen the actions for Health and Health Standards, including improvement of… service for the consumption of water safe for human use.” An apparent error informs us that “with these actions the MSPAS strengthens the prevention of Health through the promotion in this municipality…” A year later, the water the people drink is still not safe.

It’s our responsibility to look towards the pedestal where the ruling caste resides and to ask them if they will care for the people or if they will put our water, forests, health and future up for auction. But we can also lower our gaze to our own navels and ask ourselves, “What can I do to use water efficiently, keep it clean, and take on the responsibilities of and act like a conscious citizen?” The small acts that can add up to change are possible, and are in our hands.