‘Great Joy’ as Indigenous Q’eqchi’ Win Case Against Guatemalan Nickel Mine

“This is a transcendent moment, for the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala and for a global public that is demanding an end to investments… that harm the planet and violate human rights,” said one plaintiffs’ attorney.

By Brett Wilkins. Published 12-15-2023 by Common Dreams

The Fenix mountain-top removal nickel mine in the Mayan Q’eqchi’ territories, eastern Guatemala. Photo: Rights Action

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled Friday that Guatemala violated Indigenous rights by allowing the construction of a massive nickel mine on land belonging to Q’eqchi’ Mayans—a decision hailed as a major victory in the decadeslong fight against state repression on behalf of the multiple multinational companies that have operated the site.

The IACHR found that Guatemala’s government violated the Q’eqchi’s rights to property and consultation when it permitted the Canadian company Hudbay to develop the long-dormant Fenix mine, also known as El Estor, on a mountaintop in the Izabal Department of eastern Guatemala in the 2000s. The mine—now owned by the Switzerland-based firm Solway—is located near Lake Izabal, a critical source of fish and other sustenance for the Q’eqchi’ and a protected habitat for species including the endangered Yucatan black howler monkey.

The court ordered an immediate end to all mining activities at the site, while giving the Guatemalan government six months to start granting land title to the Q’eqchi’. No further mining will be allowed without Indigenous consent. The IACHR also ordered the government to create a development fund for the benefit of the local Indigenous population.

“We got everything we asked for,” Leonardo Crippa, an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center and a member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, said in a statement. “The court has ruled for the first time that the government must make changes in the law to recognize the collective land ownership rights of Indigenous peoples and to remove all discriminatory laws from their books and to recognize these communities as distinct legal, social, and political entities.”

“This will affect all of the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala,” Crippa added, “granting them the right to communal land ownership, consultation before any decision is made that would affect their territories and their resources, and the authority to decide on the exploitation or not of any resources on their lands—with no outside interference.”

Rodrigo Tot, a Q’eqchi’ leader and 2017 winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize whose son was shot and killed by the mine’s security chief , said that “we have always believed in the legal solution.”

“The law takes a lot of patience and time, but we have always believed we would prevail, with God’s help and with the help of our community,” he added. “We are delighted the human rights court’s decision will cover not only all the 16 Maya Q’eqchi’ peoples affected by the mine, but all Indigenous communities of the country.”

The right to mine nickel at the site was first granted by the military dictatorship that seized power in the 1954 CIA-orchestrated coup that deposed the democratically elected reformist government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz. In the 1960s, the dictatorship granted a 40-year mining concession to the Canadian company Inco, which operated an open-pit nickel mine during the Guatemalan Civil War, a period of genocidal repression of Mayan peoples.

A local subsidiary, Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN)—formerly known as EXIMBAL—was implicated in the murders of Q’eqchi’ activists who opposed the mine, as well as the assassination of a Guatemalan congressman and lawyer investigating the company’s activities. During the early 1980s, massacres accelerated under the rule of U.S.-backed dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was later charged in connection with a genocide that left some 200,000 Mayans dead in the name of “fighting communism.”

After two decades of development, the Fenix mine was shut down in 1981 and was dormant for three decades, during which time the Q’eqchi’ resettled lands from which they’d been expelled to make way for the project. Vancouver-based Skye Resources bought the mine from Inco in 2004, and then sold the project to Hudbay in 2008. Three years later, the Russian-owned Solway Group—now based in Switzerland—acquired the project for $170 million. Mining operations resumed in 2014 amid fierce opposition from the Q’eqchi’.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, “The leader of Solway’s mining operations in Guatemala, Russian national Dmitry Kudryakov, along with Belarusian national Iryna Litviniuk, allegedly led multiple bribery schemes over several years involving politicians, judges, and government officials.”

“In addition, Litviniuk conducted corrupt acts in furtherance of Russian influence-peddling schemes by unlawfully giving cash payments to public officials in exchange for support for Russian mining interests,” the department—which sanctioned the pair—added.

Earlier this year, Newsweek revealed that the Biden administration was supporting a bid by Montreal-based Central America Nickel to acquire the Fenix project, which was valued at as much as $1 billion.

In 2015, the Ontario Court of Justice in Canada ordered Hudbay to disclose extensive documentation regarding alleged murder, shootings, and gang rapes perpetrated by the company’s security personnel at or near the mine between 2007 and 2009. On September 27, 2009, Mynor Padilla, Hudbay’s chief of security, shot and paralyzed anti-mining activist German Chub while he and other Q’eqchi’ were playing soccer in the community of La Unión.

As Mongabay reported in 2015:

Chub is one of several Maya Q’eqchi’ community members shot on September 27, 2009 during a crackdown on protests over threats that a group would be evicted from its ancestral lands near CGN’s Fenix ferro-nickel mining project. Chub is paralyzed from the chest down as a result, and doctors determined it too risky to remove the bullet lodged near his spine. Adolfo Ich, a teacher and well-known community leader from La Unión, died after being beaten, attacked with a machete, and shot by CGN security personnel, according to witnesses. At least seven others were wounded on the same day, according to court case plaintiffs.

In 2021, Padilla pleaded guilty to killing Ich.

A 2019 multi-outlet journalistic investigation coordinated by the French outlet Forbidden Stories found that the mine may have been responsible for polluting local waters and causing crop failures, and that Solway attempted to bribe local Indigenous leaders and officials to gain support for the mining project.

Two years later, Indigenous-led protesters blockaded the mine, prompting violent state suppression.

Despite the risks to life and limb, the Q’eqchi’ and their allies never stopped fighting for their rights.

“We now have a powerful new legal tool for securing Indigenous rights and for fighting the environmental damage that fuels climate change,” Crippa said Friday. “We still have a lot of work to do to bring about the changes demanded by the court and to remove existing impediments to the land titling procedure that block efforts to title Indigenous lands in a prompt and effective manner.”

“But this is a transcendent moment,” Crippa added, “for the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala and for a global public that is demanding an end to investments—by companies, multilateral banks, governments, and other investors—that harm the planet and violate human rights.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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