Bulldozers and Blasphemy In Latin America, Catholics are standing up to those who covet their gold and timber by Marilyn Berlin Snell
Sidebar: Standoff in the Highlands
Guatemala's Mayan descendants battle foreign-owned mines
The Marlin mine concession, above, occupies nearly 250,000 acres in a mountainous area of Guatemala almost entirely populated by indigenous people. Cyanide, below, is mixed with water and used to process the gold.
TENSION, WROTE CHILEAN NOVELIST ROBERTO BOLAÑO, is "the alternating current of tragedy." In the steep mountainous realm of western Guatemala, tension describes the relations between the indigenous population and the nation's largest gold mine.
To get to the highland villages, my Guatemalan interpreter, Carlos, and I bounced several hours up tracks better suited to goat hooves than a four-wheel drive. Over a couple of days, we visited two village churches. In one, we sat in a circle of chairs with a raggedy dog sleeping in the middle, rain pounding the tin roof overhead, as indigenous villagers told how a gold-mining company had pressured them to sell their lands.
In the town of Sipakapa, I spent the night in Catholic Church quarters, in a room with a bed, a roughly hewn cross on the wall, and a baseball bat by the door. "
Is the bat for protection?" I asked Carlos.
"Maybe it's just a bat for baseball," he said.
I wasn't so sure. Most of the townspeople would like operations halted at the Marlin gold mine they accuse of bullying its way into their lives, and our host, Roberto Marani, is one of the leaders of the environmental opposition. An Italian whose uncle had been the village priest, Marani manages the church and does virtually everything for the parish except preach and perform sacraments.
Most people in the village had never heard of open-pit mining in 2003, so when representatives of the multinational corporation Glamis (now Goldcorp) began poking around, Marani and two indigenous leaders, brothers Juan and Mario Tema, went to the company for answers. (Executives at Goldcorp's Guatemalan operations did not respond to interview requests.)
"They gave us lunch, beer, a video presentation, and said the mine would be a good development," Marani said, smiling. "We left really happy. But then we started doing our own research."
Not only did the men discover the less pleasant details of open-pit mining, but they also found that other indigenous communities were fighting similar operations. Activists from Argentina and Peru visited Sipakapa and the surrounding villages. In late March of this year, Juan attended a cumbre, or summit, in Guatemala. Three thousand indigenous leaders from all over Latin America showed up. For the first time, mining, logging, and water privatization topped the grievance list.
Many nations, including Guatemala and Honduras, are signatories to the International Labor Organization's Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. The convention requires companies that have designs on indigenous people's natural resources to consult beforehand with those who might be affected. Marani and the Temas said that didn't happen here, so in 2005, Sipakapa and neighboring towns held a series of educational gatherings and a consulta, or referendum, on Goldcorp's project.
"We used indigenous methods," said Mario. "We didn't vote with paper. We raised our hands."
Eleven villages voted to oust the mine, one abstained, and one voted in favor. The mine opened anyway.
The World Bank had loaned the venture $45 million to help build the Marlin mine, so in late 2005, Mario and others from the community flew to Washington, D.C. Armed with proof of the widespread opposition, they met with representatives of the organization, including then-president Paul Wolfowitz.
"We went to explain to him what happened in our democratic process," said Mario. "And we asked him to recognize the legitimacy of our consulta."
World Bank representatives agreed to send a letter doing just that. It had yet to arrive when this story went to press.
Marani and others I spoke to acknowledged that much of the progress indigenous groups have made against foreign mining companies wouldn't have happened without support from powerful church leaders. The combined strength of the people and the pulpit can be formidable.
"Sipakapa is the point of the arrow," said Marani. "We are now organized, but we were late. The company had already bought land and started operations. Yet because of our efforts, consultas are happening in places where mining concessions have been granted but the project has not yet begun. It won't be so easy for those mining operations to open."
By this point in the evening, we were drinking a home-distilled, bitingly strong anise, and the Italian, who'd seemed gruff when we first met, was beginning to open up.
I asked Marani about a photo on the refrigerator in the church kitchen. It shows him sitting on the roof of the church compound beside a huge, hand-lettered sign. He smiled and explained that Goldcorp planes routinely fly over the church, so he and the villagers painted a message the company executives couldn't miss: "Sipakapa is not for sale."
That may not matter. Despite Convention 169, Goldcorp sought injunctions to stop the consultas in 2005, arguing their illegitimacy. At first, Guatemala's Constitutional Court ruled that the consultas could proceed. But in another ruling just after my visit, the court declared that the consulta results aren't binding. In effect, indigenous people have the right to speak up, but no one has to listen to them. --Marilyn Berlin Snell
Photos, from top: Flaviano Bianchini, Marilyn Berlin Snell; used with permission.