Water, Land, Defenders and Mining: The CGN case in El Estor, Izabal
By: Carol Ixtabalan
What can’t we take out of nature that isn’t useful in our life? All of the products that we consume come from mother earth, from the food that we consume to cell phones, whose purchase is demanded especially by those who like to acquire the latest technology models to be in fashion. Throughout their production, these devices use a variety of minerals to be crafted, and mining is here whether we want it in our lives or not.
Mining is a sensitive subject, and from it comes environmental and social damage. And although everyone “benefits” from mining, not everyone suffers its consequences in the same way, for what explains to an average individual, whose dwelling and area of movement are found far from what happens around the mining companies, is so difficult. There’s no shortage of voices that defend mining to the hilt, alleging that it brings great economic benefits to the country.
However, the “common citizen” isn’t the only obstacle to seeing not only the pros but also the cons of this activity. In business we see political interests and elitists involved, which makes it a matter even more difficult to deal with. One of the more controversial cases has been the CGN Pronico mine, who are in charge of the Phoenix project to carry out the extraction of nickel. According to Moises López*, a community communicator from Estor, Izabal, this project not only extracts nickel but also so-called rare earths.
And what are rare earths? Well in reality they aren’t earths but rather minerals whose symbols are located in the lower part of the periodic table of elements. These are minerals difficult to extract and separate from themselves, but that represent new opportunities for technological development. This is the reason for which raw volcano soil is sent by sea to Asia and Europe. What are these earths exactly? Well there’s no concrete information due to the lack of strict controls; not even the Ministry of Energy and Mines knows.
All these mining activities, from exploration to transportation have serious consequences in towns neighboring the mining sector. Natural resources, mainly the water resource, the springs, are affected by mining exploitation. In Barrio Neuvo, in Estor, people have voiced opposition to the extraction activities that are getting closer each time to the springs, from which they draw their water supply. In addition to that, the hills surrounding the communities lose their forest cover and are now no more than piles of dirt, lifeless. For example, a famous hill known as “the clouds” considered as sacred by the community, was completely lost. This situation worsens the availability of the vital resource: potable water isn’t a constant resource in this town.
It’s ironic that Estor, a place surrounded by the splendor of Lake Izabal, lacks potable water. This situation is currently even more prolonged and exacerbated now that the availability of this liquid is irregular and there is no specific time for its availability for the families of several communities. This severely affects their daily activities, given that, during times when it’s of vital importance to have water available to take hygiene measures to avoid COVID-19 infection. This is why the situation is so difficult for people who live in these places. This distress has caused many of the residents, with the support of some entities, to organize to bring attention to their dissent and advocate for their needs.
Activists defending natural resources and human and indigenous rights are allies in these movements. Their purpose is to support and acompanny residents in reporting anomalies, problems in their communities, injustices and environmental crimes; so, since this interferes with the interests of some businessmen, they are intimidated, criminalized and threatened. For example, last year there was a raid at the offices of the Association for Development in El Estor (AEPDI) and the community radio Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a, carried out by the Guatemalan army, the National Civil Police and the Public Ministry, still under Calamity State. Both AEPDI and the radio have played an important role as communicators and defenders of the people of El Estor in the face of mining abuses.
Last month and once again, both the association and the radio station received threats by workers suspended by CGN, who were removed from their functions due to the fact that the mining company couldn’t transfer raw materials to continue operations. The transfer was blockaded by workers previously fired, who were asking for better working conditions. Outside of the AEPDI facilities, this group of ex-workers gathered and threatened to burn the place down, yelling the names of radio announcers and association workers, blaming them for the firings and suspensions by the mining company. The CGN statement explained that one of the reasons for the contract suspensions was the “conflict with the municipality”, without responding directly to its responsibility to the workers.
Undoubtedly, mining is present in many of the products that we use in daily life. But certainly, mining companies have found fertile ground in Guatemala to get profit, no matter how it affects communities that live in places where they are installed. There are many reasons for which we should protect the natural resources and fight for the human rights of all Guatemalan people. The fact that mining activities are carried out in a department or town far from ours doesn’t avoid it affecting us at some point. Supporting the affected communities through the sharing of information, legal support, or any type of help is a way to take care of ourselves and become defenders, not only of our natural resources, but also our human rights.
* The name of the communicator has been changed in order to protect his physical integrity.
Cover photo: CGN mine by Diego Alvarado