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Why oppose metal mining?

Why oppose metal mining?

By Camilo Salvadó

To understand the motives of communities and organizations to oppose metal mining, we cannot do it only from the logic of the capitalist economy. Therefore, an attempt will be made to address the question of mining from the field of political ecology, which in our opinion integrates economic, environmental and political elements.


Economic reasons

It is common to find in the media, expressions of doubt and distrust in the face of the active opposition that many peasant and indigenous communities, and their allies in the social movement, have maintained for years, against mining and oil exploitation, the construction of large hydroelectric plants and mega-projects mega plantations, superhighways and others.

Focusing on metal mining, we can see how in many cases - not all - it is a speech manufactured by groups linked to companies, which see their investments and profits "in danger." These interest groups do not want to understand the reasons of the communities and their allies for opposing "wealth generation"; and they only see "eco-hysterics" with hidden agendas or peasants "manipulated" by them.

Interested advocates of mining (and megaprojects in general) are so closed-minded that they can only understand opposition to these projects, stating that so-called "eco-hysterics" are "getting rich" by it. Nor can they accept that the communities mobilize by themselves, without manipulation, when they see their rights violated or when they perceive with their own eyes the damage caused to the natural environment.

To understand the motives of communities and organizations to oppose metal mining, we cannot do it only from the logic of the capitalist economy. Therefore, an attempt will be made to address the question of mining from the field of political ecology, which in our opinion integrates economic, environmental and political elements.

The majority of positions in favor of mining - for example the recent CIEN report "Contribution of the mining industry to the development of Guatemala" - only see this activity from the point of view of the wealth it generates, and argue that mining, for the mere fact of their existence has a "spillover effect" on the rest of the population (say through jobs or private investment).

This argument is false, since the wealth generated from the extraction, processing and sale of gold and other strategic metals (such as uranium), is and will be only for the miner. The "spillover effect" does not exist, unless we call like this: a) the investments that every company makes to develop its activity, such as the few jobs for foreign specialists. b) the spill of dollars that only reaches shareholders, but not the affected communities, or c) the potential spill of cyanide in water sources.

These statements are not based on prejudice or lies, but rather on the observation of the mining reality past (El Estor, San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán) and present (Sipakapa, San Miguel Ixtahuacán), which clearly shows that private investment has never become a better standard of living for populations close to the farm, while companies see increasing profits: an ounce of gold exceeded $ 1,100 this month.

The position that favors mining only from economic arguments, also has a wrong position on environmental impacts. In the worst case, they deny them and in the "best" case they consider them "externalities", which must be assumed by the communities but not the mining company. It is even stated that "all human activity has impacts on the environment" (which is true, but the environmental impact of a family milpa cannot be compared with that of a large mining or oil company).

Even within positions opposed to mining, it is common to find arguments that are equally focused on economics (especially on the issue of royalties). Of course, this question is crucial. From no point of view it can be considered fair that the mining company keeps 99% of the profits and the remaining 1% is divided between the central government and the local government, without a drop reaching the poorest communities.

But even increasing royalties (and even if the "spill-over effect" lie were true), metal mining continues to have serious environmental impacts that do not enter into any economic calculation. To focus the debate only on the perspective of "profits", "wealth" and "gold" (still positioning itself in favor of the communities) is to limit the discussion to the same terrain in which the defenders of mining want to place it.

It must be seriously debated whether it is better to prevent environmental and health impacts, or to give a small monetary compensation to those who suffer them. These are issues that could be addressed in a new mining law. A law that, even increasing royalties (say to 50%), does not focus only on the economic issue, and that does not look only for companies but also, and above all, for communities and nature.

Finally, it is also urgent that the government provide alternatives for production and survival to the communities so that they do not fall into the trap of false "jobs". Or in any case, if you consider that this is not your role or that you do not have enough income for it, you should leave space and provide facilities for the communities to build their own economic alternatives to mining.


Environmental reasons

When we talk about the environmental impacts of mining, we are not referring simply to "ruining the landscape" (21st century 07/16/09), but to much more serious issues, which in turn have implications for the economy , the health and nutrition of the communities near the mines. Such is the case of Valle de Syria in Honduras, where many harmful effects on the health of nearby populations have been reported.

In Guatemala, spokesmen for the Marlin mine continue to deny that its activity has any kind of environmental impact, despite the fact that its effects on the health of the inhabitants of nearby communities and mine workers have already been proven (eruptions on the skin due to contamination of the blood with copper and arsenic), as well as the fact that 40 community water wells have already dried up (Diario de Centroamérica, 03/11/09).

On the other hand, there is the deforestation associated with this type of industry (which is undeniable), since the mining company requires, firstly to cut down the trees in the area, and secondly to literally "grind" the mountain, to separate the land of metals, using heavy machinery (open pit mining) and poisonous chemicals (leaching with sodium cyanide), which implies the destruction and toxic contamination of the soil.

By this we mean that the soils where open pit metal mining has been practiced, as it is practiced today, cannot be used for crops or reforestation, having long-term impacts on the nutrition of the communities. Let us also consider that to obtain the gold necessary to make a single 18-karat ring, it is necessary to generate up to 20 tons of solid waste.

Another very serious environmental impact is undoubtedly in the water. Let us remember that the drive for mining occurs especially in the upper basins, where, for geological reasons, there are the largest deposits of gold and other metals with strategic value. But it is also in the upper basins where the majority of water sources are found, so deforestation, over-exploitation of water sources and the destruction of the soil interrupt the water recharge process.

As indicated, the water exploited by the Marlin mine is poisoned with cyanide and other chemicals during the leaching process; then it is dammed in a hole pompously called the "tailings dam", which does not prevent the filtration of chemicals into the groundwater. In Honduras and other countries, accidents due to spills and ruptures of these "dams" have been documented. In Guatemala, there have already been several truck spills with cyanide, which has also been introduced into the country without paying taxes. (Free Press, 06/30/09).

The question of water is not only worrying from the point of view of its environmental impacts, on the health of living beings and on food. It is also clearly unfair that mining companies can exploit up to 250,000 liters of water per hour for free, the same amount that a peasant family could consume in about 22 years (in theory, if they had access to potable and piped water ).

When discussing the subject of metal mining, there is a need to pay at least the same attention to the environmental issue that is given to the economic issue. After all, let's remember that the pro-mining stance generally denies such environmental impacts.

Among the groups opposed to this extractive industry, there are many criticisms focused only on the ecological (ignoring or superficially taking into account the economic issue). This position, although it can be sustained from the point of view of the ethics of life, often tends towards an idealized vision of nature and peasant communities, ignoring the conditions of poverty and exploitation in which they daily survive.

Similarly, criticisms focused solely on the economic issue lose sight not only of the direct links between the environment and the economy, but also that the environmental impacts themselves are compelling reasons to oppose metal mining. Criticisms should not only focus on the issue of royalties, because even if these were to increase, this would not eliminate environmental impacts.

Political reasons

When taking a position for or against metal mining, it is generally done from economics or ecology. Another point of view not yet fully explored is political. With this we are not referring to the ideology of the current government, since from the openly neoliberal PAN, GANA), to those who sailed under other flags (DCG, FRG, UNE) have given their open or veiled support to mining and have used –With different nuances- its discourse as a “motor of development”.

The current government does not go to the neoliberal extreme of denying the environmental impacts of mining. However, by arguing that these can be minimized, he hides the fact that they are not due to "errors" or "excesses" of the companies, but are part of the normal process of mining extraction.

It seems that the government only cares about the needs of companies but not of the communities impacted or threatened by extractive activities. Only in this way is it explained that the transnational Goldcorp (owner of Montana Exploradora and the Marlin mine) can continue with its activities, paying the same 1% of royalties, despite the indications of communities, organizations and the Ministry of the Environment itself about the negative impacts environmental and economic.

The apostles of "free market", "job creation" and the "spill-over effect" surely felt a lot of "investment security" when Marlin mine personnel prevented access to the Mayor of Sipakapa, who wanted to take samples of the water of the tailings dam (Prensa Libre 03/17/08), or when the Ministry of the Environment was forced to reverse its actions due to the entry of cyanide free of taxes and environmental controls (Prensa Libre, 06/30/09 ).

As expected, in the face of community consultations against mining and oil extraction, mega-hydroelectric plants and other similar activities, the current government adopted the same position as the previous one. Like the GANA, the UNE has not recognized the validity or complied with the results of the 24 community consultations carried out during its administration, and replicates the discourse of the "opposition to development", the "manipulated indigenous people" and "ungovernability" .

But community consultations cannot and should not be viewed only through that lens. Rather, we must ask ourselves: if we really live in a democracy (weak and insufficient, but democracy nonetheless) why have the results of the 51 community consultations carried out since 2005 not been respected? Could it be that more than half a million votes (600,800) against mining and megaprojects have no political value or weight? Do democracy and voting only matter in electoral season but don't count on a day-to-day basis?

The issue of community consultations is also related to the controversial ILO Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. This agreement, signed by the government of the neoliberal PAN, in 1996 (only to approve the current Mining Law one year later) obliges, among other things, the government and companies to inform and consult the communities before granting concessions and starting projects, which has never been accomplished.

Given that Convention 169 establishes information and prior consultation processes for the communities, and that community consultations have been held many times after the projects were awarded, some analysts have argued that the consultations would not only be illegal but would also violate themselves. the aforementioned agreement (XXI century 09/25/09), an argument that is not only clearly interested, but even absurd.

First, the community consultations held are a form of peaceful protest against the violation of human rights contained or not contained in the aforementioned agreement. In this sense, several UN rapporteurs have clearly indicated mining extraction as a cause of serious violations of the specific rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples, and peasants in general (for example, the right to food and land). .

Second, the consultations defined in Convention 169 are not similar to the breakfasts with advertising video included practiced by companies. On the contrary, consultations with the communities must be carried out “in accordance with their own customs and traditions, in a participatory and free manner” (Article 6). The consultations carried out by the communities are an evident and living sample of said “customs and traditions”; that is, they are the way important community decisions have been made for centuries.

Third, it is true that the community consultations have invoked Convention 169 (with the exception of Río Hondo, mostly mestizo), but they are also based on current articles of the Political Constitution, the Municipal Code and the Decentralization Law. Beyond the legal issue, there is a moral obligation to respect the results of these community processes of dialogue, consensus and decision-making.

Finally, with or without Convention 169, with or without specific regulations or laws for its application, community consultations must be understood and abided by as valid, democratic and peaceful forms of resistance, and as a clear message to the government, companies and society. : "WE DON'T WANT MEGAPROJECTS IN OUR TERRITORIES" Is it such a difficult message to understand?

Camilo Salvadó - Researcher of the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences -AVANCSO-, Guatemala. The parts of the article were editorials of the Noticierto Maya K’at of the Guatemalan Federation of Radio Education -FGER- of December 16 and 22. 2009 and Jan 19. 2010 www.fger.org


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