Mayan Q’eqchis communities demand to be consulted. Government decrees state of siege and defends interests of Russian-Swiss corporation.

As of 24 October, a state of siege has been in effect in the northeastern municipality of El Estor, Izabal, for a period of 30 days. The measure, approved by the government and ratified by Congress, will limit freedom of action and mobilisation, the right of assembly and demonstration, and allow arrests without warrants. It was taken after more than twenty days of resistance by the Maya Q’eqchis communities against the Fénix mining project.

The project is operated by Compañía Guatemalteca de Niquel (CGN) and Compañía Procesadora de Níquel de Izabal (Pronico), subsidiaries of the multi-million-dollar Russian-Swiss corporation Solway Investment Group.

According to the digital media Prensa Comunitaria[1], this is the largest mining licence in Mesoamerica, with an extension of almost 250 square kilometres (municipalities of Cahabón, Panzós, El Estor and Senahú), i.e. an area of exploitation twelve times larger than what is permitted by Guatemalan law.

Two years ago, indigenous authorities and residents of El Estor appealed to the Constitutional Court, which ordered the suspension of the mining licence granted by the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) to CGN-Pronico. The ruling was made final by the judges one year later (June 2020).

In its ruling, the Court considered that, by failing to carry out the free, prior and informed consultation established by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation, the MEM had violated “the rights of indigenous peoples to participate in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of economic, social and cultural development plans and programmes that directly affect them”.

Furthermore, the environmental impact study of the Fénix project was carried out on only a very small portion – 6.29 square kilometres – of the total territory to be mined, which is 247.9 square kilometres. In this sense, the judges ordered the MEM to delimit the territorial space of the licence “only in the 6.29 square kilometres that have the environmental impact assessment study”.

Finally, the Constitutional Court ruled that a process of pre-consultation and consultation with the peoples settled in the area where the Fénix project is to be developed should be carried out within a maximum period of 18 months.

Sixteen months later, the Court’s decision has remained practically a dead letter: the subsidiaries of the Russian-Swiss transnational never stopped their activities and the MEM refused to take into account and involve the legitimate Q’eqchi authorities in the pre-consultation process.

Faced with this situation, the communities began a peaceful protest with the aim of preventing CGN-Pronico’s trucks from passing through, forcing compliance with the Court’s ruling and, above all, defending their territories from the destructive impacts of the mining project.

Brutal repression

On Friday 22 and Saturday 23 October, hundreds of police and military personnel attacked the peaceful protest of the Q’eqchi communities, using excessive force. Several journalists who were covering the events were assaulted by agents.

The brutal repression was condemned by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH), which called on President Giammattei and the head of the Ministry of Energy and Mines to “strictly comply with the ruling of the Constitutional Court”.

Attorney Jordán Rodas denounced, through social networks, that CGN-Pronico continues to operate illegally, that the government is guarding company trucks and that security forces are repressing the population and journalists. It also condemned and rejected the use of tear gas bombs against peaceful demonstrators.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Guatemala also expressed its concern and called for dialogue, reminding the Guatemalan state that it has a responsibility to “protect human rights, including the right to life and to facilitate free and peaceful assembly”.

The Convergence for Human Rights expressed its support for the dignified resistance of the Q’eqchi’ people “in the face of the imposition of extractive and predatory industry by a company that destroys life in Lake Izabal and in the municipality of El Estor”.

The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Guatemala (Udefegua) expressed its solidarity with the Q’eqchi’ communities and population “who are resisting the imposition of a project that has been temporarily suspended (…) The lack of compliance with the provisions of Convention 169 is the express cause of the demands of the population”.

Udefegua called on Guatemalan society to express “its repudiation of these acts of violence and its solidarity with the resistance in the municipality of El Estor”.

“What is happening in El Estor is shameful. We are very concerned about the repression they have unleashed and now with the state of siege, an extreme measure that borders on a state of war,” said Carlos Barrientos, director of the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC).

“The Court’s ruling is not being complied with, the communities and sectors of the population that filed the injunction are being excluded from the pre-consultation and consultation process, and the interests of the transnational company are being imposed, allowing it to continue operating and opening the way for its trucks with blood and fire,” he added.

Barrientos also recalled that this serious situation is taking place in a very conflictive territory, where in recent decades the national oligarchies and transnational capital have been promoting the uncontrolled expansion of monocultures and the accelerated implementation of energy and extractive projects.

It is also a very delicate moment for the country, where the so-called “corrupt pact” has taken almost total control of the institutions and is legislating and taking ultra-regressive measures to increasingly criminalise human rights defenders and social protest.

“We are facing a government that, in the face of social unrest, prefers to declare a state of siege, repress and silence rather than seek dialogue. Serious human rights violations are taking place.

It is important that the international community speaks out and rejects the manipulation of the consultation, the repression against the communities and the state of siege in El Estor. It is also important to show solidarity with all those who are suffering from the violence”, concluded Barrientos.

Guatemala is bleeding to death

According to Global Witness’ latest report “Last Line of Defence”[2], Guatemala remains one of the deadliest countries on the planet for those defending land and the commons. Last year, 13 defenders were killed and Guatemala had the fourth highest number of defenders killed per capita worldwide.

Between January and December 2020, which corresponds to the first year of President Giammattei’s term in office, 1055 cases of aggressions, 15 murders and 22 attempted murders against human rights defenders were registered in Guatemala.

Between January and June 2021, Udefegua registered 551 aggressions. “If this trend continues, this year will become the period with the highest number of attacks against human rights defenders, organisations and communities in Guatemala”.

Of all these attacks, 45% were against defenders, 42% against women defenders and 14% against organisations and communities. Udefegua emphasised the increase in attacks against women defenders, which, in an unprecedented way, reached the same rate of violence as men.

After the repression of 23 and 24 October and the declaration of a state of siege, several sources denounced the raid on the premises of the community radio station Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a and the Q’eqchi’ Ombudsman’s Office, as well as police harassment and persecution against members of the anti-mining resistance and journalists.