For centuries, the indigenous Q’eqchi people of El Estor in Guatemala have relied on Lake Izabal fish for food and income for their families.
Fishing is so critical to the community that they celebrate a god, Chac-Uayab-Xoc, known as the Great Demon Shark, whom they believe protects the lake’s fish and those who fish them. But since the 1960s, when nickel prices were on the rise, the government has granted licenses to multinational companies eager to mine and sell the metal on the international market. The lake—and the surrounding communities—suffered.
The first mine in the region, Fenix, opened by the Canadian International Nickel Company (INCO) only stayed open as long as nickel remained profitable. When global nickel prices went down in the 1980s, INCO abandoned Fenix, but not before allegedly dumping contaminated wastewater into Lake Izabal, threatening the local fishing industry.
Nickel prices rose again in early 2000s, leading to new mining sites and a rash of conflicts with local communities. In addition to continued pollution of the lake, locals not only reported eviction from their homes to make room for new mining operations, but also alleged rape and harassment by mining security guards.One of the alleged companies responsible for committing these and other atrocities was the Canadian company Hudbay Minerals, which had acquired the license to re-start up the Fenix mine operations in 2004.
The mine changed hands again in 2011. The Swiss company Solway Investment Group started operations of it through a subsidiary called Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel (Guatemala Nickel Company).
Tensions between mining operators and surrounding communities, driven by the government’s lack of response to the protestor’s claims, came to a head in May 2017, when local fisherman in El Estor organized a peaceful protest against the contamination of the lake.
On May 27, 2017, as many as 150 protesters blocked the access to the mine in protest, and 30-50 anti-riot police moved in, firing tear gas. Confusion ensued and the police allegedly fired on protestors, killing 27-year-old Carlos Maaz Coc, a father of one who relied on fishing to put food on his family’s plate. Two years after, no one has been held accountable for his death.
According to a statement by UN experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, the killing of environmental defenders in Guatemala is not unusual. 26 human rights defenders —many of them indigenous—were killed in Guatemala in 2018. Many of them were seeking to protect their communities from human rights abuses carried out by businesses.
“We are concerned that the frequency and severity of these attacks could have ripple effects throughout the population, sending a message that there are dangerous consequences for defending human rights, especially given that these crimes often go unpunished”, the UN experts said in the statement.
Following Carlos’ death, the community demanded that the government and the owner of the mine take responsibility. Their demands were met with imprisonment.
Four members of the fishing association, and six other locals, including two local reporters, were accused of instigating violence and illegal demonstration. Two of those arrested were freed after spending several weeks in prison, but one fisherman has been in jail, awaiting trial since July 2018.
In January 2019, a Guatemalan judge decided to prosecute three of the fishing association members and one of the journalists. He offered little explanation for his decision, and ruled in favour of the company, despite the fact the office of the Public Prosecutor had requested the case to be dismissed due to lack of evidence.
There was a small victory in February for the fishermen when the country’s constitutional court decided that the mining company’s license was initially obtained illegally because they had failed to consult impacted communities. The company is now required to consult with them, which will likely lead to more tension and new disputes.
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