A transnational mining conglomerate is refusing to comply with a court order to shut down construction at a controversial and emblematic gold mine project in Guatemala, saying the mine is already complete and operating.
The once quiet rural communities an hour north of the busy streets of Guatemala City had won a major victory last month against a US-based mining company. Since 2012, a non-violent resistance movement known as La Puya had protested the arrival of a gold mine project by US mining firm Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, and its Guatemalan subsidiary EXMINGUA.
A Guatemalan appeals court judge on July 15 ordered the suspension of all construction at the group's mine, called Progreso VII or El Tambor. Both companies were given until July 30 to comply with the order and leave the area, but the companies quickly appealed the decision on July 16.
As of last Friday, the day after the deadline, the company continued operations at the site.
"The company is refusing to respect the decision of the court and the orders of the municipality to stop construction," Antonio Reyes, a member of La Puya, told VICE News.
Long-standing tensions between the firm and the community were reignited this weekend with the arrival of more construction equipment and materials to the site. Early on Monday, anti-riot units from the Guatemalan National Police were deployed to protect the construction materials.
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But in an interview with VICE News, Dan Kappes, CEO of Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, said the court order was irrelevant because the infrastructure construction at the mine has already ended and the mine is already producing.
"The construction license is a moot point," Kappes told VICE News. "The construction ended in 2014."
Kappes confirmed that the mine is already working at extracting gold, but is still limited in its production because of the continued blockade by La Puya at the entrance of the mine. He did not say how much gold had already been extracted.
"We've had problems at the gate with the protesters blocking operating supplies," Kappes told VICE News. "I guess the protesters think that if they are obnoxious enough, the mine will go away."
'I guess the protesters think that if they are obnoxious enough, the mine will go away.'
Kappes also reiterated the KCA's lawyer's argument that a consultation had occurred with the consent of the communities. "We went to the communities and showed them a model of what the mine was going to be," Kappes told VICE News.
But in the court's ruling, this is exactly what the judge said cannot be considered a consultation "in good faith."
La Puya in resistance
The El Tamblor mine has been at the center of the campesino struggle since 2012, when communities organized into La Puya, spurred by what locals call a threat to their environment.
The judge's decision came after finding evidence of the mining firm's illegal operation, since it received no permits or authorization from the Municipal Advisory Council of San Pedro Ayampuc.
The mining firm has shown little intention of complying with any court order in Guatemala. The company has continually tried to forcibly enter the mine with more machinery to continue the project. Each attempt has brought tense standoffs with La Puya.
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La Puya group maintains a 24-hour presence at the entrance of the mine.
The encampment began shortly after Yolanda Oqueli, a resident of the municipality of San Jose del Golfo, came across the delivery of construction equipment to the site in March 2012. She made the quick decision to block the entrance with her car.
Since then, the resistance has endured threats and intimidation by the mining company, and repression by the police.
Tensions reached a breaking point in May 2014, when the members of the movement were violently evicted from their encampment by Guatemala's National Police, deployed by the Ministry of Interior, to ensure construction equipment could enter the site.
'This struggle isn't over.'
Communities first filed a complaint against the firm in October 2014, accusing the government and the San Pedro Ayampuc municipal advisory council of failing to stop construction at the mine, and failing to defend the community's interests.
"This is a confirmation that people have a reason to protest peacefully," Reyes told VICE News in the days following last month's court's decision. "This also confirms for us that there are good people in the judicial system of Guatemala. […] But this struggle isn't over."
Kappes and KCA have argued they are bringing "development" to the community, and that those who are protesting are being manipulated by outside influences, including the lawyers from Centro de Acción Legal-Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS), and Madre Selva, another group. To them, the criticism of the mine doesn't grow from local concerns.
"The resistance is not coming from the local people," Kappes told VICE News. "There are those who go along with the resistance, but they are being manipulated by outside influences."
But La Puya did grow from the local communities' concerns over the mine, and began with locals organizing themselves in the years prior to the beginning of the encampment at the entrance in 2012. Many had joined the movement because of their Catholic faith, and because of their concerns over the environmental impact of this form of development on their lands.
"They say that they are bringing development to our communities," Cristobal Díaz, a campesino from the neighboring community of San Jose del Golfo, told VICE News. "But these projects only benefit a small group of people, the investors. It does not represent development for us. Instead, our water is polluted, our land is taken from us, and our community is divided."
The shadiness behind the mining firm's operation adds up to a series of corruption scandals that have unfolded in Guatemala since April. All too often, multinational companies contribute to the culture of corruption by either ignoring laws, or by the peddling of influence at the highest levels of government.
Several government officials were forced to resign after the national corruption scandal went public, including Erick Archila, Guatemala's former Minister of Energy and Mining. His vice minister took over his post, but was then also arrested on charges of conspiring to participate in influence peddling and money laundering.
'It is going to produce contaminated water.'
The communities in resistance in La Puya have denounced the corruption in the issuing of exploitation permits for the El Tamblor mine since the beginning. They point to a mine-friendly environmental impact report that US-based mining expert Rob Moran referred to as "the worst" that he had seen in 42 years of analyzing environmental impact reports for mining.
"The environmental impact report was intellectually insulting to both the regulators and the general public," Moran, an American hydrologist and geochemist with over 40 years of experience in the mining sector, told VICE News.
"If you want to show that there isn't going to be an impact on the water, [the mining firms] must do some drilling, testing, and taking of samples to prove it. I didn't see anything significant about this in their report," he said. "In addition, what rock data they did publish told me very clearly that it is going to produce acid; it is going to produce contaminated water."
Kappes defended the report. "Moran has said that about every mining project," he said.
For Moran, the fight over El Tambor is a sign of a broader global shifts toward extracting resources in developing countries, and asking questions later.
"The regulatory climate has gotten weaker around the world, especially with all this push for globalization," Moran told VICE News. "Everyone is competing with the lowest common denominator when it comes to regulation."
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Follow Jeff Abbott on Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo