Spotlight interview with Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri (Bishop of San Marcos – Guatemala)

“What good is gold when you don’t even have water?”

The Bishop of San Marcos, Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri, is the driving force behind the COPAE, the pastoral commission for peace and the environment. The COPAE was founded in 2007 to support the demands of local people who are opposed to mining and hydroelectric mega-projects in their communities. The Bishop believes that the extractive industries are of no benefit to the indigenous peoples.

Guatemala is a relatively poor country. Surely a gold mine is good news for the economy and it also brings jobs and money for local people?

Guatemala is a small country. We have always lived at great risk from earthquakes and hurricanes. We are very vulnerable.

We are opposed to the gold and silver extractive industry here. It has a huge impact on the environment.

One of our biggest environmental problems is the lack of water. People in the mining areas do not even have enough drinking water or water for irrigation. Then along come the mining companies and they are using thousands and thousands of litres of water every day.This is an excessive use of our very limited water resources. We are also afraid that the river running past the mine will be polluted, as well as the groundwater.

But isn’t there always a price to pay for development?

I insist, this type of mining development is very bad for the country. This is not development. Ninety nine percent of the people will see no benefits whatsoever. The only people who profit from this are the transnational companies and the oligarchy in Guatemala.

Development is, of course, necessary. But it should be integrated and of the type that respects the environment. If we are left with no water, then we are headed for an environmental catastrophe; this is not development.

It is not only a problem for the indigenous peoples, it is a national problem. But we cannot deny that the indigenous peoples and the campesinos are the ones who have suffered the most. They are not benefitting in any way.

In the past, you have argued that the Marlin mine is an illegal operation. Could you explain why?

Under ILO Convention 169 of 1994, which Guatemala has signed and ratified, developments like the Marlin mine should only be undertaken after consultation and agreement with the indigenous population. But the indigenous population has not been consulted.

The same applies with our own national Mining Act of 1997. It very clearly states that before such projects start, extensive environmental impact studies should be carried out, economic benefits should be proved and that there should be consultations and agreement with the local people. None of this has been done properly.

But surely there must be some economic benefits for Guatemala?

Five years ago, gold cost US$300 an ounce. It now costs around US$1000 an ounce. This is very, very bad business for the country. The mining concessions don’t pay taxes for the first seven years.

They only pay one percent (of annual production value) to the country: half a percent goes to the local municipality, and the other half percent is for the national government. There isn’t even a proper system to verify the levels of annual production. This is very bad for the country.

What good is gold when you don’t even have water? It is no good to anyone. We are not China. We are not a huge country. We are a very, very small country.

Interview and photos by David Browne

Spotlight interview with Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic (Council of The K’iche People - Guatemala)

“The Marlin mine is violating mother earth”

At the Forum on indigenous people held in Antigua, Guatemala, in March 2010, K’iche community leader Aura Lolita Chavez stated that development, as promoted by the large corporations based in her region, is in total contradiction with the values of the indigenous peoples. Whilst some of seek harmony with Mother Nature, others show blatant disregard for it, as well as for the rights of the indigenous people.

Could you tell us how you feel about the mine?

We want to live well, of course, like anyone else. We can still live well in Guatemala without gold, without mines. Of course we need food, water, land, clothing. You can have one vehicle, but you don’t need ten.

But this is more than an environmental crisis, it is a crisis of civilization. We believe we can make a vital contribution to this debate: how to live in harmony with nature. This is not a battle. There are no winners and losers. This is about life.

Ours is a democratic and non-violent movement. We need the international community to know what is going on. We are not alone in this: 375,000 people have said ‘No’ to the mine. We have no confidence in these mining companies, based on their activities around the world. But they have already cut a deal with the government. This is illegal, unjust, illegitimate. It is savage capitalism, economic gangsterism.

What has the direct impact been of the mine on the people?

Around 100 people, 12 families, were evicted to make room for the mine. Why are they coming here? Why don’t they exploit mines in their own country? They are developing mines in areas where there are the greatest concentrations of people, not in sparsely populated areas, not on their private estates.

In Huehuetenango alone, a third of the state - 7,500 square kilometres - has been licensed. Fifty mining licences (for gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc and uranium mining) have been handed out. For us, it means the end of us. This is development for millionaires only.

They are cheating us once again in the name of progress and development. This development is of no benefit to us. It is for them. Agriculture is being put at risk. And this is a grave error, as most of us depend on agriculture for our survival.

The success of the film “Avatar” has led to new focus on the struggles of indigenous peoples around the world. Could you explain a little about the K’iche concept of “Ut’z Kaslemal?

Our concept of living well is living in harmony with nature: air, water, energy, earth. In our culture, we do not talk about so-called progress and development.

This is a new bone of contention between the Mayan people and the state. We have a different way of looking at the cosmos and life. They are destroying the relationship between humanity and nature. Where is the reciprocation?

The earth does not belong to us. We have to live in harmony with it. They are raping our territory. They are violating Mother Earth. There is no consensus.

They – the state, the army, the transnationals, the big landowning families – are not consulting us. They are taking over the land, as if it were their own private property.

Guatemala has a long and terrible history of atrocities against the indigenous peoples. Are you not afraid?

Yes, we have brutal experience of armed conflict. In the past (between 1966 and 1996), they killed some 500,000 indigenous people. We do not want to return to this situation. We do not want any more deaths.

We have denounced the mine, and the fact that it violates human rights, both nationally and internationally. They have made private property sacred. We say public property should be sacred.

Of course we are very preoccupied and fearful that we might be killed. But where are we to go? To the moon?

We do not want to provoke any conflict or violence, but this territory doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to the indigenous people.

Interview and photos by David Browne

- See the "Union View": The alliance between the
indigenous peoples and trade unions in Latin America

- Also see the Spotlight interview with Carlos Manami Condori: "El Chaco - The alliance between indigenous peoples and trade unions is very important"

- Also see the written and video interview with Marta Dora Peralta: "Domestic workers are exploited and discriminated against"

- See Spotlight Interview and the `video with Crecencio Caceres (Chaco Inter-Ethnic Council Paraguay): "We need help in the fight against forced labour among indigenous peoples"

- Also see the video: Guatemala: gold mine plundering sacred resources