Guatemalan mine resistance speaks out in Western Canada

Second from left, Xinka representative Luis Fernando García Monroy discusses ongoing resistance to Pan American Silver Corp.’s Escobal mine in Guatemala. Image by Hayley Woodin.

It was the first advocacy effort of its kind in a mining conflict that has spanned a decade, three countries and multiple legal challenges.

In November, a representative of Guatemala’s Indigenous Xinka people embarked on a weeklong speaking tour in Victoria and Vancouver to denounce what he sees as efforts by Vancouver-based Pan American Silver Corp. (TSX:PAAS) and the government of Guatemala to undermine Indigenous rights in his country.

“Pan American doesn’t have a social licence to operate,” Luis Fernando García Monroy told students, alumni and faculty at the University of British Columbia (UBC) on November 21. 

“We have been left out of the consultation process,” he said. “The company wants to promote a different kind of consultation.”

Pan American has a team in Guatemala to participate in the court-ordered consultation process that will be led by the country’s government, which held general elections earlier this year

In a series of events not unlike those surrounding Canada’s controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala determined last year that the government of Guatemala had failed to meaningfully consult Indigenous communities around the Escobal silver mine before granting the project a mining licence.

The mine’s operations have been suspended since June 2017. Pan American’s third-quarter care and maintenance costs – primarily related to Escobal – totalled $6.4 million.

García Monroy said the Xinka people have grown frustrated with a process they feel has gone nowhere. He told a receptive audience at UBC that there have been misinformation campaigns in Guatemala that deny the Xinkas’ existence, and that members of his community have been accused of terrorism and unjustly detained. 

“The only crime that they have committed is being opposed to the project,” he said. 

García Monroy was one of several protesters who were shot outside of the Escobal mine in 2013 when an altercation with mine security personnel turned violent. Joe Fiorante – a panellist at the UBC event and a partner at Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman LLP – represented the plaintiffs in a historic civil suit that set precedent in B.C.

Pan American, which purchased the mine in its acquisition of Tahoe Resources Inc. earlier this year, announced in July that it had closed Tahoe’s six-year legal battle and settled with the suit’s four remaining plaintiffs, including García Monroy and his father, Adolfo García.

Pan American Silver’s senior vice-president of corporate affairs and sustainability told BIV the company reached out to event organizers to express interest in participating in the dialogue.

“In this case we didn’t receive any communication back from the organizers,” said Brent Bergeron.

Ellen Moore, international mining campaign manager at Earthworks, confirmed that organizing students at UBC did hear from Pan American. She said they declined the offer in part because she said the consultation process is the appropriate forum for the company to engage in a dialogue about the future of the mine. 

Pan American has a team in Guatemala to participate in the court-ordered consultation process that will be led by the country’s government, which held general elections earlier this year. 

Bergeron said the company has met with some officials in Guatemala’s incoming administration, which will assume power in January. 

“Basically what we want to make sure is that they understand our views towards the consultation process,” he said. “We’re not willing to rush any of the consultation process, and we want to make sure that this is led by the government and that we are a participant in the consultation process along with the other stakeholders.” 

Aside from a few ongoing programs, Bergeron added, the company is pulling back its community engagement outside of that process.

“It’s minimal right now simply because we want to make sure that we’re not interfering with the consultation process going forward,” he said.

The speaking tour in November, organized with support from a number of advocacy and non-profit agencies, was an attempt to raise awareness in B.C. about continuing resistance to the mine in certain Guatemalan communities. 

UBC’s Students for Mining Justice led a march across campus from the event to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, singling out Pan American chairman Ross Beaty by chanting, “Ross Beaty, go home.”

Beaty had no comment on the event. 

It’s unclear what a resistance movement might be able to achieve in B.C. outside of increased awareness. 

The event occurred just days ahead of B.C. becoming the first province in Canada to legislate its commitment to bring its laws in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

“The conduct in question is always transnational. It starts with a company raised, born, financed in Canada making decisions that affect others in countries where their own legal systems are often underdeveloped or weak,” responded Fiorante to a question about engaging corporate directors on issues that involve Canadian companies and their actions abroad.

He reflected on the process of bringing García Monroy’s case to Canada.

“One of my observations is that we have a profound problem in the way we characterize what’s a Canadian legal issue and what’s a Guatemalan legal issue,” he said.

“The traditional response has been, ‘Well, the harm occurred in Guatemala so it’s a matter of the Guatemala legal system.’ That is an outdated, territorial-based view of something that is a modern transnational problem.”

(This article first appeared in Business in Vancouver)