GUATEMALA: Anti-Mine Activists Encouraged by Canadian Ruling

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press News Service (IPS)

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 16, 2010 (IPS) - Ecologists
in Guatemala see a recent ruling by Canada's Supreme Court, which
ordered Canadian mining companies to carry out rigorous environmental
assessments, as a positive precedent that could help improve
environmental controls over the mining industry in this Central
American country.

In a case that focused on a Red Chris
mining company project in the western Canadian province of British
Columbia, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not
split projects into artificially small parts in order to avoid
comprehensive environmental impact studies.

In its verdict, the Court stated that under the Canadian
Environmental Assessment Act, entire projects must be environmentally
evaluated, and the government "cannot reduce the scope of the project
to less than what is proposed by the proponent."

The ruling also said the Canadian government had acted
unlawfully by excluding public input from its assessment of the planned
Red Chris mine, which would process 30,000 metric tons of copper and
gold a day in a pristine wilderness area.

The legal decision was met with applause and hope by
environmental organisations in Guatemala, where two Canadian mining
companies operate, because they believe it could have positive
repercussions in terms of environmental safeguards and public
participation in decision-making.

"The ruling exerts a kind of pressure for Canadian companies
to live up to legal standards and not try to conceal the real impacts
of their activities on the environment," Uriel Miranda, legal adviser
to the Comisión Pastoral de Paz y Ecología (COPAE - Pastoral Commission
on Peace and Ecology), told IPS.

COPAE is a member of the Mesa de Diálogo sobre Minería, a coalition of anti-mining and environmental groups.

In the midst of heavy local opposition, Montana Exploradora, a
subsidiary of Canadian mining company Goldcorp, began to extract gold
and silver in December 2005 in the Marlin open-pit mine in the
highlands of the southwestern department (province) of San Marcos, on
the border with Mexico.

Meanwhile, plans by Entre Mares, another of the Canadian
gold-mining corporation's subsidiaries, to extract precious metals in
the department of Jutiapa, which borders El Salvador in the southeast,
have drawn opposition in that country.

Miranda said Goldcorp must respect the Supreme Court ruling
because "they themselves talk about corporate social responsibility. So
at a minimum, we expect that when they seek approval of an
environmental impact assessment, they will do so in line with the same
standards ordered by the verdict."

The legal advisers of environmental organisations in Guatemala
and other countries are studying the reach of the Supreme Court
decision, as well as the possibility of bringing legal action in the
courts in Canada for irregularities that Canadian corporations may
commit in other countries.

"We are analysing whether there is jurisdiction to file
lawsuits for shortcomings in environmental impact reports contracted by
Goldcorp, which has two mining projects here and exploration permits
for other mines," said Miranda.

The director of the School of Ecological Thought (Savia),
Magalí Rey Rosa, told IPS that the Supreme Court ruling set an
important legal precedent.

"It should now be possible to turn to a Canadian court to sue
companies from that country for failing to do what the verdict ordered
them to do," said the activist.

She added that the ruling could also serve as a starting-point
to assess the environmental impact studies and procedures of other
mining companies, like the Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel, owned by
Vancouver, BC-based Skye Resources.

Rey Rosa said the damages already caused by the mining
industry in Guatemala are incalculable. "It has brought serious social
conflicts, water sources have dried up, houses have suffered cracks and
splits, while it has left us a few miserable dollars in return," she

Under Guatemala's mining law, corporations must pay the state
a one percent royalty, half of which goes to the municipality where the
mine is located.

While Goldcorp reported 100 million dollars in profits from
the Marlin mine alone in 2008, San Miguel Ixtahuacán, the municipality
where it operates, received around one million dollars that year.

The mining industry's boom in Guatemala has been dizzying.

In 2009 the extraction industries had 259 permits, while
another 383 applications were being considered, according to the
Ministry of Energy and Mines.

Activists see the Canadian Supreme Court ruling as key to
improving environmental controls over the mining industry not only in
Guatemala, but around the world.

"We hope the verdict will be taken into account in all
Canadian mining projects in the hemisphere, because it sets a new
standard for operations, in line with international norms and
legislation," lawyer Jacob Kopas with the Interamerican Association for
Environmental Defence (AIDA) told IPS.

In Latin America, Goldcorp also operates mines in Argentina, Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Other Canadian mining companies active in the region are
Meridian Gold, Glencairn Gold and Barrick Gold, which runs the
controversial Pascua Lama mine along the border between Chile and
Argentina in the Andes mountains, as well as mines in Peru that face
stiff opposition from environmentalists and local communities.

Kopas said that even though the Supreme Court verdict is not
directly applicable, in legal terms, to companies operating outside of
Canada, it will have to be taken into consideration to some extent by
all mining companies, especially Canadian ones.

The lawyer pointed out that the Canadian parliament is
debating Bill C-300, an Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the
Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas Corporations in Developing Countries,
which would regulate the Canadian mining industry outside of the
country's borders based on international environmental and human rights

Rafael Maldonado, adviser to the Centro de Acción Legal
Ambiental y Social (CALAS - Centre for Legal, Environmental and Social
Action), said to IPS that the Supreme Court decision is of vital
importance not only in terms of improving environmental impact studies,
but to order companies to take into account public input from local
communities where mines operate.

But the Montana Exploradora mining company argued that the
news of the Canadian Supreme Court ruling had been manipulated and

"We are concerned by the way opposition groups are
manipulating information on this case, where the Canadian Supreme Court
pronounced itself on the capacity of a federal authority to determine
what kind of environmental evaluation process should be followed," said
the firm's spokeswoman, Maritza Ruiz.

Community activists, in the meantime, continue raising their voices against the harmful effects of mining.

"This is not mere rebelliousness. We are not opposed to mining
itself, but to its consequences, starting with the social conflicts
that have left our families divided," Maudilia Cardona, a local leader
in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where the Marlin mine
operates, told IPS. (END)

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