By Lindsay Palazuelos, Project Coordinator
This blog post is the third in a series of Partners In Health’s supported project in Guatemala—Equipo Técnico de Educación en Salud Comunitaria (ETESC, Technical Team for Education in Community Health). Read Lindsay’s previous post.
If you’ve ever visited New York, you’ve probably heard this story: the Dutch bought the entire island of Manhattan from the indigenous Lenape for a tiny sum, estimated at about $1,000 in today’s currency. As tourists, we might chuckle and shake our heads as we ascend the Empire State building or walk down Broadway. Yet, in many ways, indigenous people in Guatemala today often feel they are being asked to make just this sort of lopsided bargain.
Guatemala has granted over 400 mining concessions to foreign companies. For the privilege of using national resources, mining companies pay only a 0.5 percent donation to the nation, while the remaining billions in profit benefit investors mostly outside its borders. In the meantime, as I’ve heard firsthand from people living near mines here, mining can have negative impacts for local people, in terms of health as well as socio-economics.
First off, people often live and farm above the minerals that companies wish to mine. All too often, they are forcibly evicted or not compensated fairly for the loss of their property. Once mining is underway, it requires a great deal of water, and in already stressed local water systems, this can leave local families’ supplies dry. In addition, extraction typically requires large quantities of chemicals, such as tons of cyanide to leach gold from crushed rock heaps. With little or no independent environmental oversight, communities are concerned about contamination, and often complain of diseases in fish, animals and humans. Companies argue that they are providing well paying jobs to the local community as miners. While this may be true, the jobs are also dangerous and time delimited: the economic benefit will disappear as soon as the mine’s work is complete. Ultimately, these impacts can contribute to poor health outcomes in the local communities. Which is why ETESC and its team of community health workers and advocates decided to get involved.
In 2005 ETESC helped found a statewide effort to educate and consult with communities about mining. “ETESC is trying to prevent damage from mining before it has begun,” explains Santiago Pablo Lucas, ETESC coordinator. Under the International Labour Organization Convention 169, Guatemala is obligated to obtain the consent of indigenous communities before allowing mining and other projects to move forward. As a founding member of the coalition State Assembly for the Defense of Huehuetenango, ETESC has brought together thousands of citizens to take a town square vote in favor or against consent to mining activities. 28 of the 32 municipalities in the state have held a consult, with the vast majority of municipalities voting against. Santiago says that this process is in line with many indigenous traditions of decision making. “My grandfather told me that whenever there was a problem about land or resources, the tradition was to present the problem and consult with the whole community,” he explains. “[However] for many laws in this country, we indigenous people are not taken into account, and not able to give our opinion.”
While the consults are not yet legally recognized, they are a powerful way to make the voice of local people manifest in the absence of any other mechanism. The UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya recently made a special trip to Huehuetenango to discuss the consults. “These initiatives are valid and have relevance in that they constitute a reflection of the legitimate aspirations of indigenous communities to be heard in relation to all projects that may have a potential impact over their traditional territories,” he states in his preliminary result.
Speaking out in Guatemala can be dangerous. Members of the State Assembly have received written threats, which unfortunately must be taken seriously. Already this year 8 human rights defenders have been murdered in the country, on top of 29 in 2009. With no arrests in 97 percent of all murder cases, the murder of a human rights defender has almost guaranteed impunity. Despite this, ETESC, the Assembly and local communities courageously continue to advocate for local people’s voice in development.
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