Canadian Firms Develop Guatemala by Exporting its Riches

Alta Verapaz Police respond to a protest demanding reparations for genocide survivors; © David Golding
Alta Verapaz Police respond to a protest demanding
reparations for genocide survivors; © David Golding

On September 27 of 2009, Adolfo Ich Chaman approached a group of well-armed security officers, prepared to represent his Maya Q’eqchi’ community in rural Guatemala. His family was one of many affected by a nearby mountaintop removal nickel mining operation owned and operated by HudBay Minerals of Toronto. Adolfo Ich Chaman was a schoolteacher whose community, along with many others from the region of Izabal, had survived harassment, forced eviction, and murder at the hands of police and private security forces. Although he was welcomed by HudBay Minerals’ security personnel to engage in discussion, the officers promptly beat him, slashed him with a machete, and shot him in the head as his family and friends watched. Today, HudBay Minerals faces lawsuits in Canadian courts for Adolfo Ich Chaman’s murder, other shootings at the hands of private security forces, and multiple rapes during violent evictions of the communities. Mining operations are planned to be resumed by the Cyprus-based Solway Group.

The use and misuse of natural resources has long been a concern of the Maya people. According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred text of the Maya, there once was a demon named Seven Macaw whose egoism and greed prevented the gods from creating humankind. From his gilded throne, laden with precious metals, he declared that due to the brilliance of his wealth, he was the sun and the moon. Seven Macaw had deluded himself into believing that he was the source of all light, although in reality, “his vision did not reach beyond where he sat.” The gods knew that “people cannot be created where only gold and silver are glory.” They took away Seven Macaw’s material riches and struck him down.

The Maya religion’s belief in the danger of natural resource extraction, however, seemed to be of little concern to the Canadian corporations mining nickel from the hills of Izabal. Like many transnational mining firms, they promised to local communities jobs, health clinics, schools, and electricity.  If these failed to convince the populace, violence was seen as the next step. When the mine was first established by Canada-based International Nickel Company, before it was sold to HudBay Minerals, the firm’s leadership was confident in the ability of physical force to ensure that the project remained feasible. “The military will continue to rule Guatemala for the foreseeable future,” one executive promised. “It is the only base of stability, really. It will rule even with a civilian government in power…the political prospects are good… [The military is] one of the best prospects in terms of realism and pragmatism regarding foreign investment.” Should the promise of economic development fall short, communities could be persuaded by a military presence.

In addition to state forces, paramilitary death squads have not hesitated to contribute to the social feasibility of the project in Izabal. In March 1980, gunmen fired from two motorcycles and a car upon Julio Alfonso Figuerora Gálvez, professor of economics at Guatemala’s most prominent university, killing him and injuring his wife. His assassination was allegedly conducted because of his research and publications critical of the nickel mine in Izabal. According to Carlos Figuerora Ibarra, who was a professor of sociology at the same university during that time, Figuerora Gálvez and multiple other professors had received death threats from the Secret Anti-Communist Party, a paramilitary organization that discourages dissent “related to land titles, union organizing drives or economic development projects by killing or intimidating those they oppose.” Figuerora Gálvez and his colleagues, by questioning the mine’s impacts upon local communities, threatened its legitimacy as a “development” project. His murder helped steer debate surrounding the operation back to its supposed economic benefits. In Guatemala, economic development is never complete without its military component.

Alta Verapaz, Guatemala; © David Golding
Alta Verapaz, Guatemala; © David Golding

Despite the threat of violence, Maya communities in Izabal continue to voice their opposition to the project, sometimes in the form of folklore. One Q’eqchi’ man from Izabal told Indiana University researcher Hilary Kahn that when the International Nickel Company “arrived to build its nickel-mining plant in El Estor, the gringos (for the Q’eqchi’, any pale-skinned foreigners) went to a big serpent in the hills to ask permission to mine the ore. The serpent denied their request. Since gringos will do anything to earn money, the foreign bosses gathered up Q’eqchi’ people, took them to the hill where the snake lived, and threw them into a hole. With his great hunger satisfied, the serpent granted permission to the gringos to build their factory and dig deep into the earth.” Like Seven Macaw, the serpent who gave the mine to the gringos valued precious metals more than human life. Kahn later reflected that “…instead of paying with ideological reverence or candles, the gringos, ironically, pay the mountain spirit with local indigenous bodies… Therefore, Q’eqchi’ people make the ultimate sacrifice when they are consumed by the hungry power of the mountain, paying with their lives for the assumed ‘development’ of the community.” For many in Izabal, the nickel mine represents human and cultural loss rather than progress and development.

In the Popul Vuh, Seven Macaw claimed that the beings on earth needed him to show the way forward. “I am their sun. I am their light. And I am also their moon,” he said. “By the brilliance of my [precious metals] I light the walkways and pathways of the people.” Like Seven Macaw, developed countries display their material abundance as evidence that they are fit to guide the rest of the world into the future. The human costs of such splendor, however, are often forgotten when discussing and implementing economic development projects like the mine in Izabal.

This is the first article of the series “By the Light of Seven Macaw”.

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