Security Forces Burn Peasant Settlements for Canadian Nickel Firm
by Bill Weinberg, Indian Country Today
On January 8, some 200 Guatemalan army troops and twice as many national police occupied two Qeq’chi (Kekchi) Maya indigenous communities at El Estor, a rural municipality in the department of Izabal, on the shores of the scenic lake of that name. Their orders were to evict the 308 families that made up the settlements, La Unión and La Pista. The following morning, 175 more Kekchi families were forcibly expelled from the nearby communities of La Revolución and La Paz. That day also saw the eviction of a Kekchi community at a site called Lote 8 in Cahaboncito municipality just across the line in the neighboring department of Alta Verapaz.
The evictions were carried out on behalf of the Guatemala Nickel Company (CGN), a subsidiary of the Vancouver-based Skye Resources Nickel Mining Co., which holds a disputed title to the lands in question.
The first evictions at La Unión were peaceful. Public Prosecutor Rafael Andrade Escobar read the eviction notice aloud as workers-contracted by CGN-Skye-dismantled the modest wood-and-thatch structures. But when the security forces next arrived at La Pista, they found the residents had fled. Police troops set upon the dwellings, sacking and torching them.
The following day at La Revolución, contracted helicopters hovered low over the community as a mixed force of army troops, black-clad riot police and CGN security guards wearing black face paint arrived by land. Security guards were also positioned on the cliffs overlooking the road in and out of the settlement. Some 50 residents were surrounded, including about a dozen women and some children. As the prosecutor finally arrived, CGN-contracted security dispersed throughout the settlement and set the dwellings ablaze, according to witnesses. The prosecutor ostensibly attempted to call the security personnel to order them to stop, but claimed his cell phone had no signal. The residents watched as 18 of their homes were reduced to ashes and wreckage.
James Rodriguez, a photojournalist who was on the scene, posted shots to his website of peasants looking on the destruction in tears. “I am sad because my little home is gone,” he quoted one elderly man.
Eventually, the torchings were halted, and the remainder of the settlement’s dwellings were dismantled. By then, the families were gathered on the roadside with what was left of their belongings.
Grahame Russell, co-director of Rights Action, a Connecticut-based group that supports Kekchi alternative development and land reclamation efforts, calls the actions illegal, and protests that “483 families were made homeless in less than forty-eight hours.”
He says the evictions show a deep iniquity in the Guatemalan legal system more than 21 years after the end of military rule in the Central American republic. “The local communities that have lived there forever don’t have title. It never gets resolved, because the courts do not work when its issues pertaining to human rights or the rights of the poor. They only work when companies come along and want an eviction order.”
In a press release, Skye Resources calls the Kekchi “squatters who had been illegally occupying, for several months, land leased by Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel (CGN) for its Fenix project.” It claims, “The operation is being carried out by a special unit of the national police that has been trained to avoid violence in such situations.”
The statement says Guatemala’s First Instance Criminal Court had ruled in favor of CGN in December. “Since then,” it reads, “the company has worked to find a peaceful resolution to the dispute.”
“We’re disappointed that the organizers of the land invasions were not able to keep their commitment to have their people leave the land so we could engage in further dialogue,” Skye president and CEO Ian Austin says in the statement. “However, we’re also thankful that the Guatemalan government has upheld the company’s rights to the land and we remain committed to working with community leaders to find solutions to this important issue.”
According to the statement, community leaders had promised to abandon the lands in exchange for a pledge of dialogue in a December meeting brokered by the bishop of Izabal. “Land rights are a challenging issue throughout the country, but we believe that the programs we already have in place and our continuing commitment to employ as many local people as possible, while we develop the Fenix project, will help us work positively with the community,” says Austin.
Leonardo Crippa, a staff attorney with the DC-based Indian Law Resource Center (ILRA), which is working with the Defensoria Qeq’chi, the local land rights organization, says some of the sites were in fact abandoned in December-but retaken after Skye showed bad faith. “The communities called for a nonviolent solution to the question of land claims. The Defensoria and the bishop were working to have a meeting with all the parties concerned, and set a date, but the mining company representatives didn’t attend.”
As accounts mounted of the torching of La Revolución, on Jan. 17 Austin issued a new letter admitting that “during the eviction process, a total of 18 makeshift houses were set on fire… While we don’t know who started the fires, we do know it was not anyone who works for CGN or contracted by CGN.” This is contradicted by the accounts from Rights Action and James Rodriguez.
Austin’s letter also claimed, “During the final eviction a small group of 15 squatters confronted the police.” It claimed the company is offering financial compensation for lost property-but his list (“structures, cooking utensils and any crops that were planted”) makes clear this excludes land. The letter says the displaced were offered transportation to Panzos, where food and water would be made available. It does not mention shelter or lands. Panzos is outside the immediate region-some 50 kilometers away, across the department line in Alta Verapaz.
On the same day Austin issued his letter, there were more evictions-and more dwellings burned down-as national police and soldiers were sent in to remove Kekchi who had re-entered the lands they had been expelled from days earlier. At Lote 8, the security forces found the residents had already fled, and again set the huts alight. At La Unión, police used tear gas to disperse the Kekchi, and a group of gunmen apparently deputized by El Estor’s municipal government arrived in three pick-up trucks, firing in the air.
At La Paz, the evictions were orderly and no homes were torched, due to the presence of an observer from the national Human Rights Prosecutor’s office. At La Pista and Revolución, residents also fled into the forest before the arrival of the security forces.
The dispute goes back to the 1960s when the Canadian mining giant INCO, started to buy or force out local campesinos from their small agricultural holdings. At the time, the Guatemalan army was putting down a guerilla insurgency in the region, and human rights violations were widespread. Campesinos who refused to sell out were violently evicted by company thugs, often backed up by the army. This was one of the most violent periods in the 1954-86 military dictatorship. In 1999, the UN Truth Commission for Guatemala found INCO directly responsible for killings and other rights abuses.
Land claims related to INCO operations were among the grievances at issue when over 100 protesting Maya were massacred by the army at Panzos in May 1978—seen as the key step towards the genocide in the Guatemalan highlands that would take some 50,000 lives over the next five years. Graham says the military used company airstrips and trucks in Izabal and Alta Verapaz in those years. “INCO’s been challenged on this at shareholders meetings,” he says. “They do nothing about it.”
INCO had bought other of the lands in question from the Guatemalan government in the late 1950s, on very favorable terms. This was the aftermath of the CIA-back coup of 1954, which toppled the moderately socialist elected government. North American corporations were granted widespread and easy access in these years.
The Guatemalan government had acquired the lands during World War II, when the large holdings of oligarchs of German ancestry were expropriated. The lands had been granted to the Germans in the 1870s under the Liberal dictatorship of Justino Rufino Barrios-which, in turn had illegally expropriated them from the Kekchi communities.
Under INCO’s local subsidiary EXMIBAL open-pit mining began in 1979, scarring the hillsides and-residents claim-releasing acid and sulfur into the lake, although no study was ever conducted. Operations halted with falling nickel prices in 1981, and the lands lay vacant and unproductive for decades. Cattle grazed on the company golf course, and the opulent housing for company managers-a stark contrast to the humble campesino homes nearby-also sat vacant. Locals were allowed to use an access road through the vast holdings, which incorporate much of the Sierra de Santa Cruz, a small mountain range overlooking the lake. But the road is lined with “private property” sings in Spanish and Kekchi. A force of private guards kept residents away from the empty housing.
In 2004, Skye purchased the mining leases from INCO, and announced plans to resume operations under the name Project Fenix. Skye began exploratory drilling in the high cloud forest of the sierra. The Kekchi settlement of Las Nubes, high in the Sierra, faced eviction due to the explorations slated for their lands. The residents of Las Nubes repeatedly blocked access roads last year to keep Skye from entering their lands, until the company agreed to halt the encroachment pending dialogue. But on the agricultural lands at El Estor below, nothing changed.
Then in September 2006, hundreds of Kekchi families who had been living in the overcrowded town of Chichipate, just to the west, moved back to El Estor to reclaim their ancestral territories. On September 19, dozens of landless Kekchi families moved onto “La Pista”-the long-unused company landing strip. Families subsequently entered the lands at the other nearby locations, and began to prepare the ground for their subsistence crops of beans and maize.
Doña Fidelia, an elder in La Revolución community, told independent journalist Dawn Paley in an account distributed by Rights Action: “We are recuperating our lands, not invading them. Some of us were born on these lands, before any mining company arrived in the area…. EXMIBAL was not here first, our parents were.”
The new settlements at La Unión, La Pista and Revolución were evicted by a force of around 60 police on November 12. Rights Action says that one of the men involved in the land occupation at La Pista, Jose Chocoj Pan, was seriously beaten in the operation. Walking alone on the road to El Estor following the eviction, he was stopped and abducted by a truck of police. After hours of physical abuse, he was left unconscious in the forest.
The lands were subsequently re-taken by the Kekchi, after CGN representatives failed to show up for a Nov. 15 meeting to discuss the land claims issue, according to Rights Action.
Following the November land actions, a group calling itself the “civil society of El Estor” paid for an open letter, “El Estor United Against the Violence and Vandalism,” published in the national daily Prensa Libre. Purportedly comprised of “business people, hotel owners, honorable persons and members of the civil society” (no actual signatories), the group called themselves “members of the Mayan culture Q’eqchi’,” and referred to El Estor as “Land of Nickel.” Ominously, the letter stated “that as a “contribution to the solution of this problem, [we have] has organized [our]selves into a group of Civil Patrollers. The Civil Patrols will work together with the public security forces (National Civil Police and Army) to re-establish order and maintain the peace in our municipality.” The clearly invokes the Civil Patrols established by the army in occupied Maya villages during the years of the genocide. The deputized gunmen in pick-up trucks who backed up the official security forces in the Jan. 17 eviction at La Unión appear to be a part of this new semi-official force.
The mayor of El Estor, Rigoberto Chub, is in favor of Skye Resources and appears to be responsible for the creation of the civil patrol. In November, an open-air kiosk on his property was burned down in an apparent arson attack. Subsequently, the Defensoria Qeq’chi started receiving anonymous telephone threats to burn their offices and the home of the group’s coordinator Arnoldo Jat. The group’s Kekchi attorney Juan Chen Dubon and an American priest who supports the Defensoria, Daniel Vogt,, have also been threatened. The Guatemalan courts are considering a petition to issue an amparo or protection order. Meanwhile, the ILRC is asking the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to order measures to protect the lives of the Defensoria leaders.
In its November 2006 report “Land Conflicts in El Estor, Izabal, Guatemala & the Rights of the Maya Q’eqchi’ People,” the Defensoria Q’eqchi protested the transfer of the 250-square kilometer lease area to Skye. “This area is mostly on lands possessed by 16 Q’eqchi’ communities. No previous consultation with the indigenous communities was undertaken. The communities have repeatedly stated that they do not wish their lands to be mined. The granting of this license represents a clear violation of Convention 169 of the ILO (International Labor Organization), ratified by Guatemala in 1996, an international treaty with the force of law that requires the state to consult indigenous communities when and if mining or other projects would affect their lands or impact their lives.”
“There should be an outright moratorium on mining in Guatemala just for the sake of decency,” says Grahame Russell of Rights Action. “There’s too much conflict. The Canadian government should call for a moratorium. The issues are not being resolved peacefully. The powers that be are resorting to violence and the people who lose are always the campesinos and indigenous peoples.
A shorter version of this story appeared in the Jan. 23 edition of Indian Country Today, a national weekly published at the Oneida Nation, Canastota, NY
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Reprinting permissible with attribution