Friday, July 12, 2013

Mining reform

I am rapidly realizing that in order to do the current research on radios in the context of indigenous resistance, I need to understand more profoundly the issues and controversies surrounding mining. Guatemala is a weak state in terms of its internal regulatory infrastructure: weak or non-existent regulation. The highway system is a good example of lack of oversight. Lack of oversight on health and safety issues, lack of oversight on budgets and cost overruns. Perfect for neoliberal strategies, since the private sector - whether national or foreign capital -- can do pretty much what it wants. Minimum wages laws exist but there is little to lose by flouting them. This is why semi-feudal conditions persist in many rural areas, where landless peasants pay the rent on their lands by doing unpaid work for the landowner on his coastal finca (virtually unpaid: some nominal wages, but they charge for room and board, and often the peasants have to pay their own transportation to the coast).  This sets up good conditions for the exploitation of natural resources by foreign companies, since  Guatemala does not have native corporations with the capacity to do that kind of exploration and extraction, although it does have a wealth of natural resources.

So the government grants concessions to these companies, against the wishes of the community since the government doesn't respect the process of community consultations - which are called for under the international conventions governing the rights of indigenous people. Specifically, it goes against the provisions of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which guarantees certain rights for tribal and indigenous people. Convention 169 states that no projects that affect the lands of indigenous communities can be implemented without prior and informed consent. Since the Guatemalan government has not established any procedures of its own, indigenous rights groups have set up a process of "consultas de buena fé" (consultations in good faith), mostly around mining but also around other proposed projects. All of the ones carried out thus far have gone against the mining projects -- in most cases by over 90% (and in many cases around 99%). But the exploration concessions have been granted nonetheless, and this has stepped up under the current government (although the last several were also in favor of extractive industries and foreign capital). 

This sets up a situation ripe for conflict (a point made by Mike Doherty in his presentation yesterday), as the community opposes the project before it starts and the government apparently pays no heed to the community. Very often the local government sides with the company and the national government, and so people get angry not only at the company, its security guards, and the national government, but also local leaders. In Barillas, many of the protests were directed at the municipal building. In San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where the only fully functional gold mine is located, residents have blockaded the highway and are angry at the town mayor for siding with the company against his constituents. There was supposed to be a meeting on Wednesday but I haven't yet heard about the outcome.

So, on Wednesday, the president announced that he was calling for a 2-year moratorium on mining concessions. This is, I think, a good sign -- not that I want to hold out too much hope that the leopard will change his spots. But it is at least a respite. There are a lot of legal cases pending both in Guatemalan courts and international tribunals, and the international tribunals and commissions have mostly declared against the Guatemalan government, calling for a halt to mining and a halt to granting new concessions.  In a few days I will be on my way to San Miguel Ixtahuacan Ihereinafter SMI), and will hopefully have a clearer perspetive.

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