MAC: Mines and Communities

The Defense of El Estor

Published by MAC on 2003-05-16

The Defense of El Estor

May 16, 2003

By: Betsy Rakosy, Oxfam America

Oxfam partner AEPDI (The Assocation for the Integral Development of El Estor) works for the defense of the Maya Q'eqchi. AEPDI is drawing on UN treaties and other international documents ratified by Guatemala to protect indigenous communities from extractive threats.

In northern Guatemala, the intrusive operations of nickel mining companies are posing a serious threat to Mayan communities. In the face of increasing pressure to yield to their demands, one organization won't give an inch.

The town of El Estor, in northeast Guatemala, lies at sea level on the shore of Lake Izabal, the country's largest freshwater lake. The Dulce River flows out of Izabal and hosts Guatemala's most extensive area of aquatic biodiversity, as well as rich petroleum deposits which beckon beneath the lake's surface. In the surrounding mountains, a thin layer of topsoil covers rich nickel reserves, adding value to an already resource-rich territory. The indigenous Maya Q'eqchi, who inhabit this land, are frequently beset by extractive corporations who seek to profit from oil, nickel, and other invaluable resources; operations that pose serious threats to local communities.

Rigorous strip mining has already degraded the fragile El Estor ecosystem, eroding the thin topsoil in mountain passes inhabited by Mayan communities. The mountainsides have been deforested, causing landslides and a litany of environmental hazards. In addition to the environmental threat, there is a long history of political violence between the mining companies and the indigenous communities who resist them.

The Guatemalan Truth Commission, part of the 1996 peace agreement that ended the Guatemalan civil war between government paramilitaries and leftist insurgents, required that indigenous communities be consulted about the use of their land. The Commission also asserted that these communities, with a historical claim to their land that preceded the modern system of legal land titling, have the right to decide the use of their land.

AEPDI is campaigning to ensure that these rights are recognized and enforced. They are organizing the Q'eqchi into a unified front to help the Mayans gain sovereignty over their lands. AEPDI seeks measures to protect communities from the effects of pollution, discrimination and politically-motivated violence that they have suffered in the past.

The Full Scope of AEPDI's Mission

Extractive industries is just one facet of AEPDI's overall campaign. AEPDI also:
Strengthens the Guatemalan justice system by monitoring the formal legal system, influencing public opinion and policy at local and regional levels.
Supplies legal interpreters (Q´eqchi´- Spanish) and trainers for elders in rural communities, teaching conflict resolution and other useful skills.
Sponsors artistic projects to promote justice issues, presenting plays dealing with justice and cultural themes in rural communities, using Mayan legends and myths for their inspiration. The project is composed of students and teachers on school vacations.
Focuses on the educational development of the Q'eqchi population with a focus on young people and adults through a distance education program. The program offers an accelerated education track, focusing on literacy. This program teaches an awareness of environment, culture and language and seeks to build the self-esteem of the students.

A Legacy of Victimization The EXMIBAL Story

EXMIBAL processing plant, closed since 1981, but hazardous waste remains.

By: Betsy Rakosy

Nickel mining in El Estor began in the 1950s when a local rancher sent highly promising soil samples to the Hanna Mining Company. After allowing mining executives to virtually rewrite the national mining code in 1965, the Guatemalan government granted a 40-year nickel mining concession to EXMIBAL, a subsidiary of the Canadian International Nickel Company (INCO Limited of Canada).

The concession covers 385 square kilometers in the El Estor area, with an initial investment of $238 million. The mine, constructed in the mountains in indigenous Q'eqchi territory, included a residential complex of 700 houses, numerous offices, a hospital, a small strip mall, a school, a golf course, and a large industrial processing area.

Popular protests soon erupted in response to the concession. An ad hoc commission of lawyers and university professors began investigating the circumstances around the concession, opposing what they felt to be the governments' sale of non-renewable resources for political gain. The protests grew, and the government declared a state of siege and eventually occupied the Universidad San Carlos in November 1979. Professor Julio Camey Herrera was killed that day, and his colleague Alfonso Bauer Paiz was later severely wounded by machine gun fire by unknown assailants, in the presence of witnesses. Both were on the commission investigating the actions of EXMIBAL.

Protests continued on a local level and culminated in the notorious massacre of more than 100 Q'eqchi during a peaceful protest. The same day as the massacre, protesters traveling from El Estor to Panzós by foot were fired upon by men in EXMIBAL trucks.

Citing rising oil costs and falling nickel prices, EXMIBAL ceased its operations in El Estor in 1981.

AEPDI's president has personally visited the head of INCO, the parent company, to ask that INCO allow members of the community to use the land which currently houses the ghost town from the mine. AEPDI has also looked into the environmental rehabilitation of the land, which is now significantly scarred by the strip mine. They have two primary concerns: getting indigenous people access to their former lands, and making the land useable again.

AEPDI and the Atlantic Petroleum Company (APC)

In 1998 the government of Guatemala granted an area of 320,000 acres, including Lake Izabal, to the Atlantic Petroleum Company (APC) to drill for oil for a period of 25 years. The negotiations with APC were carried out in a closed forum without the consultation or participation of local authorities or local communities who would be affected by the deal.

AEPDI invoked international covenants on indigenous rights and the recommendations left by the Guatemalan Truth Commission to form a strong legal argument for the rights of local communities to keep APC off their lands. Working with a network of environmental, indigenous and local organizations, they joined together and were able to bring enormous political pressure to bear against the operation.

On May 23, 2002, Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo revoked the oil concession which had threatened the municipality of El Estor. The decision was a victory for the thousands of people who would have suffered from oil extractions in their communities, and for the preservation of precious biodiversity.

New Threats in El Estor

A sign on road leading to mountains outside of El Estor reads "Attention: This highway is property of EXMIBAL, constructed for the extraction of minerals and for use by EXMIBAL. It is subject to rules put in place by the company."

By: Betsy Rakosy

In February 2003, INCO announced a sales agreement of the EXMIBAL concessions to another Canadian company, Geostar Metals Inc. which is preparing for a new phase of nickel mining in El Estor. According to company sources, mining would be conducted by opening several small strip mines over a large area, threatening the environment and livelihoods of thousands of Q'eqchi.

APC's concession for the area along the Río Sarstún, a Q'eqchi area on the border with Belize, remains intact. AEPDI is hoping to win the support of President Portillo for the overturn of the concession, citing the same arguments which won the revocation of the Izabal concession.

On another front, Minera Maya América, a new nickel mining subsidiary of Chesbar Resources, Inc., has several active mining operations in Guatemala, and is looking to expand.

AEPDI met with Tom Koenigs, the head of the United Nations Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) and succeeded in obtaining a declaration from MINUGUA that the oil concessions were in violation of international treaties that Guatemala has signed. They are also in conversations with James Lambert, the Canadian Ambassador to Guatemala, who has committed to meeting with the companies' representatives, and is insisting compliance with Guatemalan and international laws and treaties.

The people of El Estor are significantly more equipped and better trained to confront these threats to their community than they were when EXMIBAL first arrived in 1965. However, the situation in Guatemala continues to deteriorate. MINUGUA departs this year, leaving behind its declaration that the country has failed to implement the peace accords. Unemployment stands at nearly 40 percent, common crime and drug trafficking are on the rise, and political corruption is rampant. Now more than ever, the work of AEPDI is crucial to preserve the rights of the Q'eqchi people, and the fight against extractive industries is a key part of that battle.

Read the full article at Oxfam America

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info