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Meet the Woman Taking on Canadian Mining Companies

70 percent of the world's mines are owned by Canadian companies, many of which have left a trail of destruction in indigenous communities who have protested their presence. We interviewed Rachel Small, a member of the Mining Injustice Solidarity...

by Angela Hennessy
May 16 2014, 2:43pm

Rachel, left, in action. Photo via Allan Lissner.
By now most Canadians are at least mildly aware of the damage that mining companies can do to the environment and the indigenous communities who live close to the site of a mining project. But in lesser known news, Canadian mining companies are causing massive travesties in other parts of the world and currently own over 70 percent of the world’s mines. For example, in Guatemala, Canadian mines have the largest presence and are causing problems in the environment for communities who live there. One company, Hudbay, is facing criminal charges for their actions in Guatemala and another, Goldcorp, is being asked to take responsibility for severe human rights infractions, including the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old girl.  

Canada has activists acting in solidarity with some of Guatemala’s resistance groups, and they are currently more active than ever. I reached out to a young woman named Rachel Small—who I first saw protesting against Canadian mining company Goldcorp’s actions in Guatemala—for an interview. We met a week later at another protest she was running outside Hudbay’s (another mining giant) office on King Street.

The following is an edited version of my conversation with Rachel Smalls about what is happening between Canadian mining companies and the people of Guatemala.

VICE: What are you protesting today?
Rachel Small: Today we’re gathered outside of Hudbay’s annual general meeting where we've convened a people’s court to highlight three cases of injustice the company is responsible for. Two of the cases concern Hudbay's former mine site in Guatemala, where people have been forcibly evicted as a result of a project and hundreds of homes were burned down. In the community of Lote 8, at least 11 women were raped by security guards and police during a forced eviction of their community to make space for Hudbay’s mine. Another incident in Guatemala where a community activist, Adolfo Ich Chamán, was murdered. We've brought real testimonies with the direct words of the Adolfo Ich's widow and a woman from Lote 8 who was raped. We shared those testimonies here today.

That’s pretty intense, are these kinds of things happening a lot in Guatemala?
Unfortunately, yes. We’ve seen lots of violence around all of the Canadian mining projects in Guatemala. During the Lote 8 attack, a number of the women were pregnant at the time and lost their babies. Horribly violent acts took place as part of evicting this community. In 2009, a community leader in the town of El Estor named Adolfo Ich Chamán was murdered by the former head of security at the mine. The security head is named Mynor Padilla and he is currently facing charges in Guatemala for that murder and for shooting seven other peaceful protesters.

All human rights activists face high risks there. It is estimated that there have been more than 2,000 assaults against activists over the past ten years, with over 100 defenders murdered. Attacks tend to especially target individuals and groups who are Indigenous community leaders, environmentalists and activists. Diodora Antonio Hernandez Cinto, a woman who had resisted the Goldcorp Marlin Mine since it began operations, was shot in the face at her home in 2011. The assailants were arrested and traced back to having worked for a company who did contract work for Goldcorp. She claims this happened because she refused the sell the company her land.

Do you think the Canadian mining companies know what is going on?
Yes, these Canadian companies know full well that they can operate with complete impunity overseas. There are no laws in Canada governing what Canadian mining companies do in other countries. There is a case against Hudbay in Ontario courts for a violent attack and murder, and this is precedent setting. It's the first time that a Canadian mining company is being held accountable for its actions overseas. 

OK, so this is going to court because there is enough evidence to prove that Hudbay knew what was going on?
Yes, absolutely. In this case the claimants are trying to pierce the corporate veil, to explain that if Hudbay had a wholly-owned subsidiary in Guatemala and decisions were being made here governing operations there, that Canada is absolutely the right jurisdiction to have this trial move forward in, and the right place to seek justice. The criminal case going on in Guatemala is purely against the former head of security who held the gun, what’s happening in courts here in Canada is really an attempt to hold the company responsible.

Does Hudbay still own that mine?
No, it’s owned by a Russian company named Solway now. They sold at $290 million loss right after the lawsuit was announced here in Canada. The communities around the mine have decided that because they have been unable to achieve meaningful justice in Guatemala, they want to pursue their case here in Canada, where the real decisions took place in the company offices.

Why can’t they find meaningful justice in Guatemala?
Unfortunately, there's a very corrupt government that's in place. The current President was the head of military intelligence during the genocide that took place. He has never faced justice for these crimes, so the government is not at all accountable to the people—least of all to these indigenous communities who are being directly affected by this mine. It has been very easy for the company to buy off local leaders and bribe whoever they needed locally, and so really none of the benefits of these mines go to the local communities. Yet they are left with all of the negative impacts of the mining projects—they're often unable to grow crops, unable to pursue their former livelihoods, left with illnesses, social conflict, and community divisions. In addition to that, there has also been violent attacks including murders, assaults, and kidnappings against resistance leaders.



Rachel giving a speech. Photo via Rachel Small. 
There was a young woman killed recently as a result of her protesting of one of these mines, is that correct?
Yes, Topacio, a 16-year-old youth organizer, poet, and musician was murdered a few weeks ago protesting Tahoe Resource's Escobal Project. Topacio’s father, Alex Reynoso, is one of the main resistance leaders, and he and his daughter were leaving a meeting one night when they were attacked by unknown armed assailants, who shot both of them multiple times and killed Topacio. Alex remains in intensive care at a hospital in Guatemala.

And this is a newer Goldcorp mine?
Well, Goldcorp is a 40 percent shareholder in the Tahoe mine. This is a newer mining project, and in this area the majority of the population is not indigenous people, however the communities around the Escobal Project have really banded together. They've seen what other mines like the Marlin have done to the area, and have very clearly decided that they don’t want a mine on their territory. Specifically, they have seen what has happened with Goldcorp’s mines elsewhere. And the CEO of Tahoe was the former CEO of Goldcorp. They know what’s going on, and they don’t want it. 

Why do people believe that the mining companies had anything to do with that attack?
First of all, this is not the first instance of violence that has taken place around this mining site. Last year in March, the President and three other members of the Xinca Parliament—which is a non-Mayan Indigenous people—were kidnapped. One of the kidnapping victims, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, was later found murdered. The rest escaped with their arms tied behind their backs.

Also, during a peaceful resistance set up outside the mining gates last April, six unarmed community members were shot by private security forces. Two of the men suffered serious injuries. The incident lead to the arrest of Alberto Rotondo, who was the head of security of the company at that time. While details of the specific recent attack against Alex and Topacio Reynoso remain unclear, it is impossible to not view this incident as part of a larger pattern of violence and repression carried out against those who defend their right to life and territory in resisting this mining project. 

What does the resistance look like over there?
They are on the front line, they are doing the blockade, they are doing everything they can to save their communities and to seek justice for deaths of their husbands and wives and sons and daughters.

How large is presence of Canadian mining companies in Guatemala?
The largest mine in Guatemala is the Marlin mine in the West part of the country. That mine has been run and operated by Goldcorp under 100 percent owned Guatemala subsidiaries, for about 10 years. It has been met with nothing but fierce and staunch opposition since it began. In fact, a community called Sipakapa, which is located right by the Marlin mine site launched the first community referendum, which have been called consultas, and was an opportunity for this community to get together and hold a vote according to their indigenous traditions and at that time they voted 99 percent against the mine. The mine has continued to push forward without consent, and those communities and are continuing to see those mines encroaching on their territories. Sipakapa, however, has set an amazing example in Guatemala of a way of carrying out peaceful resistance. Since they held their consulta in 2005, which was the first in the country, more than 65 consultas have been held across Guatemala, with a vast majority of the over one million participants voting “No” to mining and other mega-projects on their lands.  



A tribute sign for Merilyn Topacio Reynoso, a 16-year-old killed after leaving a protest. Photo via Rachel Small.
The mining company rhetoric is often that they are contributing to the community by providing a stronger economy and better resources, such as schools. Do you see that as being true?
Wherever this money goes, it corrupts. These companies go into countries, set up as NGOs and then incorporate as a mining company in the region. The mining company leaves a tiny percentage of the profits in the country. It just recently was changed to a voluntary contribution of five percent royalties, but up until just a few years ago, it was one percent of the profits that were left in Guatemala and 99 percent were taken by the company. A small percentage of that goes to the local community and authorities, and the rest goes to the government.

What are some of the negative leftover effects of these mines in Guatemala?
What we’ve seen in terms of the Marlin mine—which is more advanced at this point—is that they’ve left rivers completely contaminated, any livestock that has drank from rivers near the mines have died almost instantly. We’ve heard stories from people who have simply stuck their hand in a tailing pond to remove a soccer ball and died the next day. There are countless stories of people who have become very ill because of waterway contamination. The number of birth defects has also risen since the mine’s presence there. Children have been left unable to walk, unable to move their limbs—issues that were never a problem in the area before. People’s homes have been cracked; often people will learn that there is a tunnel running beneath their house by feeling their house shaking and seeing their walls cracking.

Is it safe to say when a mine is dried-up of resources, that the companies just tend to leave?
That has been our experience. A few years ago, a group of people got together to propose a shareholder's resolution at Goldcorp's AGM to ensure that the company set aside a $49 million dollar bond—the estimated cost of closing the mine—and to disclose their plans for closing the mine. They also advocated that the company conduct meaningful consultations with communities regarding closure and post-closure plans, because when the mine is operating they promise they will clean up everything, and then it’s very easy for them to leave the second they are done extracting. That was something we tried to do, but it didn’t pass.

Because these mines do employ people from the area, does this also create a divide in the community?
Yes, community divisions are a big problem. These Canadian companies have developed all sorts of different strategies to divide communities that before were very united. For instance, they have promised things like water wells nd then tell people it can’t happen until their neighbor stops protesting. 

You recently returned from Guatemala, what did you observe about the culture around the mines while you were there?
The Marlin Mine is essentially a series of open pits, tunnels, and smaller extraction sites. It is completely mind-boggling just how much land the project has taken over and irreversibly changed. I had to constantly remind myself that a forested mountain had previously existed where now all you can see is a giant dusty pit. Just the tailings pond alone is enormous. Seeing it perched up on a hill, and knowing how often tailing ponds leak and where all of that water contaminated with arsenic and other highly toxic chemicals would flow, is terrifying. I look at this mining site and am deeply impacted. I can't even imagine the pain and suffering local Indigenous communities who have such specific and sacred relations with the land must feel. 

Did you ever feel afraid for your safety?
When I’m in Guatemala, especially around the mining areas, everyone has to be careful and take care of themselves. However, it’s really the Guatemalan communities on the frontline who are risking their lives for this.

Why do you feel like it’s so important for you to speak out about this in Canada?
I feel like I am involved in this issue whether I like it or not and whether I speak out about it or not. Any bank that I chose to put my money in here in Canada is investing in these companies. The Canadian Pension Plan is a large investor in all of the companies that are operating in Guatemala right now, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International trade, and the Canadian embassy in Guatemala have been huge supporters of these projects, so I know that my country here and my money is 100 percent playing a role in these projects whether I like it or not. The very least I can do is stand in solidarity with communities there whose lives have been lost and destroyed and whose lives continue to be on the line. I think the only way we're going to continue to have change is if we do what we can over here to support their fierce and amazing resistance over there.

Do you find it difficult to have your voice heard in Canada?
Absolutely. The mining companies have huge budgets to spend on PR. Just a few years ago Bill C300 was advancing through the parliament and it was a very modest bill to begin to start the process of holding these companies accountable, beginning with if egregious human rights violations are found to be true, the Canadian Pension Plan, will consider divesting from these companies. It was modest, and it was just a beginning step and the mining companies, though they claim to act responsibly in all of their operations, lobbied fiercely against this bill. It reminded us of just how much power they have. And eventually the bill was lost by six votes.

Do you think there is a general ignorance amongst Canadians about what is actually happening at Canadian mining sites across the world?
Yes, it’s very telling that most Canadians don’t know that over 70 percent of the mines across the world are owned by Canadian companies, that should be a bragging point and something that Canadians are proud of, however I think it’s kept a secret for a reason because I think the more you look into these companies and you look into their projects, the more you realize it’s giving Canada a terrible reputation in many places around the world. There are many places where I would suggest people not put a Canadian flag on their backpack. Rural Guatemala is definitely one of them.

How did you get involved in all this?
I first got involved as an 18-year-old who had quit school and was backpacking around Ecuador. I ended up spending a few months living with a community in the rainforest there that was resisting Texaco. At that moment, I started to realize, Wow, I had no idea that oil companies and all sorts of extractive companies treated indigenous communities this way. When I realized how huge a role Canada plays in extractive communities, I felt like that was something that I had to continue to follow up on.

And what is the group you work with here?
We’re the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and we’re a collective of volunteers. We have no paid staff, we’re just people living in Canada who are really concerned about what is happening. More than anything, we are people who are based right out of Toronto who have come together to help. And we work with other allies in Canada, such as MiningWatch Canada, Breaking the Silence, and Rights Action. 

In an ideal world, what do you believe would be the best outcome with these mining sites?
Well, something that has been really exciting is that a mine site in Guatemala that was formerly owned by Canadian company, Radius Gold, and is now owned by an American Company, has not actually been able to open because communities there have held a two-year, 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week blockade. So that is one of the most exciting stories we’ve had where communities have been unified. They are calling their resistance La Puya. These people seen what’s happened across their country and are trying to stop it.

It must feel good to see any kind of progress happening.
There are uphill battles, and it's rare to have such clear "wins" as La Puya. Even where we can't always see it we have to believe that bit by bit, we're changing the way this industry operates and supporting moves towards justice, decolonization and self-determination for communities.    


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