Searching for gold at the end of the Guatemalan rainbow-W5 investigates

Date of publication: 
17 April 2010

W5 Executive Producer Anton Koschany issued a caution as he sent his four-person crew into Central America to investigate questions about Canadian mining companies operating overseas. ‘It’s dangerous there, stay safe.’ The first confirmation comes from the American I meet on the plane en route to the little country squeezed between El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. “What are you? Suicidal?” A former police officer, crew-cut and hard-muscled, he is returning to his job there as a private and “very well-paid” armed security guard — a popular career in skittish Guatemala City.
Uniformed security squads dominate the scenery in the airport, on the streets, ringing the wealthy and the powerful. In the smaller towns, local men in t-shirts and khakis lean against storefronts or pace bank entrances with automatic weapons slung across their chests. Everybody’s alert in a country roiling with murder, drug trafficking, theft, kidnapping and a long-running dispute between those who want to develop Guatemala and ancient Indigenous cultures with mystic ties to the past.
Enter Canadian mining companies, who are spending billions to churn up the mountains in eastern and western Guatemala to uncover valuable gold, silver and nickel. At the Marlin Mine alone, Canadian mining companies, including the current Vancouver-based GoldCorp, have blasted through almost seven million tons of rock since 2005, producing nearly a million ounces of gold.
But it costs more than money to send profits back to shareholders. Local residents, including Mayans clinging proudly to their traditional way of life, alternate between anger and despair. Some claim the massive mining projects leave little value behind while sucking up their water supply, polluting what’s left of it and leaving them ill. They point to skin rashes on their children and huge cracks in the plaster walls of their homes as proof. GoldCorp officials argue the mine is not the source of these problems.
W5 spent almost two weeks bumping along mountain roads, climbing up into the jungle, and touring mine sites and interviewing residents, corporate officials and rights workers. Producer Anne Hainsworth, cameraman Paul Freer and soundman Michael Kennedy and I are accustomed to seeing a difference of opinion; in fact, that’s what we look for as we try to tell a balanced story. But the contrast in Guatemala is particularly marked: both sides insisting they are telling the truth, everyone certain they know how to best protect a country that is as conflicted as it is beautiful.
Pro- and anti-mine sentiments divide communities and families, too, as locals who welcome the mine and its money, align against those who want the land left alone. Tension runs as high as the stakes.
Inside the Marlin Mine compound
In dusty towns outside of Guatemala City, poverty is everywhere: tiny children, often covered in more filth than clothing, play with stones on the sidewalks. Packs of wild dogs scavenge. Homes are cobbled together from old wood and boxes; worn curtains flap on outdoor bathrooms, sometimes nothing more than a hole in the ground. In this country, you carry your own toilet paper, if you are lucky enough to afford it. Sun-crinkled farmers cling to the side of a mountain to harvest a meager onion crop.
Life inside the GoldCorp Marlin Mine compound in San Marcos is so different, it’s almost surreal. If you get past the armed guards at the gate, you’ll see shiny trucks and sparkling buildings, including tidy homes where some employees live while running the mine. Massive mills rumble as the mountain tumbles through them, breaking down the ore before it is soaked in cyanide to leach out the silver and gold. Everywhere there is order and yellow construction helmets.
GoldCorp’s Vice-President for Latin America, Eduardo Villacorta Haddad, says he’s proud of what his company is doing — employing some 1,200 people from surrounding villages, paying good wages, building roads and schools. He shows us an on-site green house where they’re growing trees to refurbish the mountain when they leave. In the modern cafeteria, hecheerfully serves strawberries grown on the mine property and points to the generous meals his employees are fed. He says Canadians can be proud of the way GoldCorp is operating.
Yet, we meet three young Canadian human rights workers here who are anything but proud. Karen Spring and Jackie McVicar from Ontario, and Francois Guindon from Quebec have all stayed in Guatemala longer than they ever planned and have become vocal activists because they are worried about the “damage” they believe mining companies are doing to the people, the land, the Guatemalan culture. It has become an embarrassment, they claim, to admit you are a Canadian in Central America.
Spring came as a University of Toronto student to study health problems, estimating she’d stay a few months, but a couple years later, she is still here, fluent in Spanish, and determined to continue her work for a social justice organization called ‘Rights Action.’ Like Guindon, who’s known as “Pancho” and works with the ‘Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala,’ Spring is determined to help local people get their message out. Together, they lend their language skills, their connections and their conviction that Canadian mining companies are not being properly held to account.
The young activists introduce W5 to Guatemalans, some of whom confide they are afraid for their lives now that they’ve dared to protest against the Canadian mines. They report ominous phone calls and death threats. We meet a tiny woman with seven children, who says she didn’t agree to huge poles which support the power lines supplying the mine being built on her property. No longer able to plant or enjoy her home, she says she threw a rope over one of the power lines and knocked out a key source of electricity to the mine. There is a warrant out for her arrest and she has since gone into hiding, emerging only to speak with us.
Guatemalans divided over the mining issue
Activist Jackie McVicar, who works for Nova Scotia-based human rights organization ‘Breaking the Silence,’ has interviewed many local people who insist their lives have been ruined by either the mining companies’ takeover of their land, or the violence that has accompanied development as Guatemalans split into pro- and anti-mining camps.
In El Estor, another Canadian mining company named HudBay Minerals is refurbishing the Fenix Project— a moth-balled nickel smelter and mine. But anger is still raw over forced evictions that took place in 2007 when the mine was owned by Canadian company Skye Resources (since acquired by HudBay). A Canadian filmmaker, Steven Schnoor, documented homes being burned and knocked down by police and the military, while McVicar reports widespread allegations that women were sexually abused and raped during the melee — accusations that are strongly denied by HudBay officials.
One evening, the W5 team witnesses a widow in a ramshackle graveyard weep for her dead husband, a popular teacher, who she claims was killed last year by security guarding the same HudBay mine — all, she believes, because he fought the “progress” they don’t want. HudBay officials deny the allegations and any involvement in his death.
In many countries, local and national governments might mediate more. But Guatemala is barely back on its feet after 36 years of violent conflict and civil war. Assassination, frequent rape and murder of women, powerful drug gangs, and government corruption keep the country teetering. There are neighborhoods in Guatemala City so violent and gang-controlled, we could find no one willing to enter.
Meanwhile, key police officials have been arrested for allegedly passing tips to criminals about pending drug raids, while Guatemala’s national police chief is facing charges for drug theft and co-operating with a violent drug gang. Other police and anti-drug officials have also been arrested for allegedly stealing drug money or taking bribes.
Protesters, particularly poor Mayans who are unable to speak English or enlist legal help, say they are vulnerable in the face of powerful North American corporations, especially because the Guatemalan government welcomes the foreign investment and revenues mining produces.
In the end, Indigenous people with a profound connection to the earth are pitted against Canadian mining companies who, with government backing, are digging up the country for profit, with a promise to leave it better than they found it. Along the way they are also affecting how some of our Latin American neighbours see Canadians.