While community opposition to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal project grows and wins support from the Constitutional Court, the company remains on the defense trying to convince investors that it enjoys “strong local community support.” However, the record of local votes in neighboring communities and municipalities, betrays a different reality.
More than half of the communities in the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores, where Tahoe’s Escobal mine is located, have declared opposition to the project. Likewise, thousands of people in the five municipalities closest to San Rafael, in the departments of Santa Rosa and Jalapa, have voted against the mine in municipal referenda. The most recent local vote took place on November 10th in the municipality of Jalapa, department of Jalapa. A total of 23,152 people participated, with 98.29% voting against the mine and 1.71% in favor.
In early December, communities demanding the right to consultation throughout Guatemala celebrated an important victory when the Constitutional Court (CC) ruled in favor of such a referendum, determining that a vote carried out in Mataquescuintla, Jalapa in November, 2012 was legal. The decision provides support to votes carried out by municipal authorities and underlines the responsibility of the local government in promoting these processes.
In its decision, the Constitutional Court stated: “The popular referenda are important mechanisms to guarantee fundamental rights and are a clear expression of a democratic framework. The residents of the municipalities have the right to express themselves with regard to the use, enjoyment and benefits from the natural resources found within the territory of their municipality.”
All five referenda in Santa Rosa and Jalapa held during the past two years regarding the Escobal mine were municipally convened votes.
|Community member from Santa Rosa protests Escobal
mine outside Constitutional Court (Photo: CPR Urbana)
For communities opposing the Escobal project, the CC decision validates the legality and legitimacy of their referenda. A leader from Mataquescuintla remarked on the importance of the decision saying, “It is one more point in favor of those of us who are against the mine. We have to decide how to move forward from here because the company is invading our territory.”
Municipal governments, however, do not organize all referenda on large-scale development projects carried out in Guatemala. Some referenda are organized and overseen by indigenous authorities without the support of the local municipal government. While the CC ruling sets an important legal precedent in the struggle for the right to consultation, the granting of concessions is still ultimately the decision of the central government and the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
Communities stand up against criminalization and persecution
The arrest warrants for all twelve people released in November were issued on May 2, 2013, the same day the Guatemalan government declared a state of siege in four municipalities surrounding Tahoe’s Escobal mine. The imposition of martial law created terror among the population peacefully defending their right to consultation and ramped up the ongoing criminalization against human rights defenders.
Among the accused and imprisoned during the state of siege were key leaders in the organized community resistance to the Escobal project. Teresa Muñoz, an outspoken leader in defense of territory, was forced to flee into the mountains when the military came to her home.
Muñoz, a community leader from Jalapa shared: “We are in peaceful resistance, fighting for life and nature, despite knowing what the risks are… the mine security, with support from the government, is almost always there, pointing guns at our heads while our hands are empty. We know that if we lose our life, we fought for something that was worth while.”
Meanwhile, the head of security for Tahoe’s mine at the time of these arrests, Alberto Rotondo, awaits trial for alleged involvement in a shooting on April 27 that injured six. Despite being arrested at Guatemala’s international airport while attempting to leave the country, Rotondo was granted house arrest. The priviledge granted to the former Tahoe employee provides a stark contrast to community members who spent over six months in preventative prison only to have all charges against them dropped.
NISGUA has accompanied communities in opposition to the Tahoe Resources Escobal mine since 2011.