Canadian mining project in Guatemala opposes local vote on environmental concerns

In a recent historic move, residents of Asunción Mita, Guatemala voiced their opposition in a referendum on mining projects that have affected their community for decades. Eighty-nine percent of them voted “no” to the development of mining activities, such as the Cerro Blanco open-pit gold and silver mine owned by Bluestone Resources – a Canadian mining company – during a a municipal consultation held last month.

The arsenic used in the gold mining process of the proposed open pit mine can cause toxic leaching and long-lasting contamination that affects local communities’ drinking, farming and livestock water supplies.

Despite resistance, Bluestone Resources, the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines and a local pro-mining group attempted to challenge the legality of the voting process in an attempt to render it illegitimate.

While this consultation binds the city council and the mayor – responsible for issuing local mining permits – the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the results of the consultation after an injunction filed by a subsidiary of Bluestone Resources, Elevar Resources.

The community, along with social and environmental organizations in the neighboring countries of El Salvador and Honduras, plan to take the consultation case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Such local consultations remain the most effective instrument for communities to express their consent, and they should be supported.

From tunnel to surface mining

After denying Goldcorp, the former owner of Cerro Blanco, a license to conduct large-scale mining projects due to sparse and inconsistent information on environmental impacts, Guatemala’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has granted the mining company a 25-year license in 2007.

The ministry approved an environmental impact assessment that ignored concerns, such as pollution of the Lempa River, presented by Guatemalan environmental collective MadreSelva and residents of Asunción Mita. Goldcorp, however, was unable to extract minerals from these tunnel mines due to heat and other issues.

Miners enter the Cerro Blanco site. According to the 2021 environmental impact assessment, the tunnel mining process will change to an open pit process.
(ACAFREMIN), Author provided

Bluestone Resources took over the mine from Goldcorp in 2017. In November 2021, the company submitted a license amendment application – spanning over 3,000 pages – which spoke of an open pit rather than a mining process. tunnel mining.

While the tunnel mine would extract thermal water, circulating at a temperature of 80 C to 120 C with a high content of arsenic and heavy metals, the recently approved surface mining uses a dry tailings storage technique. . The silty and sandy materials that remain after metal extraction, called filter tailings, are compacted into a mound and stored at the base of a dam in upstream construction methods.

When waterlogged, tailings can liquefy and reduce the friction that binds an earth dam, risking disastrous collapses. This is why this method has been banned in Chile and Brazil in South America.

Strategic support in the consultation process

Historically, communities closest to mining projects suffer severe consequences.

Julio González, of environmental collective MadreSelva, says Bluestone Resources has publicly stated there is local support for the project, blaming any opposition on outside sources. But local organizations collected more than 4,000 signatures from registered voters asking the municipal authorities of Asunción Mita to carry out a consultation.

A community meeting
The communities organized a municipal consultation on September 18, 2022 in accordance with the municipal code.
(ACAFREMIN), Author provided

These groups have received support, guidance and inspiration from the Central American Alliance against Mining, representatives of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan Catholic Church and the letter from Pope Francis, Laudato If.

Preparing a plan for any major extractive project requires consultation with affected indigenous groups in the area. The lack of consultation in the mining industry, as in Asunción Mita, has aggravated socio-environmental conflicts in Guatemala.

Lack of consultation

Until now, the Guatemalan government has never consulted before awarding a mining license.

But it has begun suspending the licenses of mines that have failed to gain community support through consultations following the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 which obliges ‘governments to respect traditional values tribal and indigenous peoples and to consult them on decisions affecting their economic or social development. .” Guatemala ratified it in 1996.

This was evident when the Guatemalan Constitutional Court suspended the operating license for the Fénix nickel mine in 2019 and ordered a consultation.

The Department of Energy and Mines plans to begin consultations on previously authorized projects such as the Tambor gold asset of Kappes, Cassiday & Associates and 24 other non-metallic mining projects.

Cross-border necessities

Cross-border issues, such as shared watersheds and climate change, have sparked crucial new discussions about natural resource sovereignty and security. Mining activity in Cerro Blanco in Guatemala also poses a big threat to El Salvador and Honduras, as they depend on the Lempa River to meet the water needs of their 3.8 million people.

Bluestone Resources said an independent international consultancy had collected data from locals and found “a positive attitude towards the project”. The company has won the support of some locals by investing in infrastructure, education and job promises, creating divisions within the community as those who oppose the mine are stigmatized and further marginalized.

A narrow river with green bushes on both sides and mountains in the background.
The use of arsenic to extract gold in the Cerro Blanco mining project could lead to toxic leaching and long-lasting contamination.
(ACAFREMIN), Author provided

The establishment of a regional agreement on the impact of the Cerro Blanco mine on the Ostua Basin, Lake Guija and the Lempa River, in the Trifinio-Fraternidad cross-border biosphere, is crucial.

Local citizens must be able to exercise their constitutional right to participate in the consultation process for projects in their neighborhoods that affect their environment, health and well-being. They must be able to make the voice of their community heard across borders.

The tendency to under-report social conflicts in Latin America to foreign investors, including those of Canadian mining companies, must change.

Canadian shareholders and concerned citizens need to be aware of the impact and failure of their mining companies to meet international standards. And it all starts with community consultation.

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