High in the mountains of the Philippine island of Mindoro, members of the Alangan tribe live in the village of Kisluyan, on the same land their ancestors have lived on for generations.
Kisluyan is one of 26 indigenous villages that face the threat of displacement by the Mindoro Nickel Project, a proposed open pit nickel mine on their ancestral land.
The Alangan are one of eight indigenous tribes in Mindoro, known collectively as the Mangyan. The Mangyan once occupied the whole island. As more and more settlers began moving to the island, the Mangyan were gradually pushed off the more fertile areas higher and higher into the mountains. Now, with the proposed mine threatening to push them off their mountain, they are left with nowhere to go.
For the Alangan, their land is the very foundation of their identity. Generation after generation, the Mangyan have been taught to care for the land; “we take care of the land, and the land will take care of us.” Many of them believe that disaster will befall them if their sacred lands are desecrated by the proposed nickel mine.
Someone Else’s Treasure is an ongoing multimedia project which brings to light some of the experiences of indigenous communities around the world that have been impacted by the global mining industry – including communities in the Philippines, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Chile, Canada, and Guatemala.
This multimedia piece focuses on communities in San Marcos, Guatemala, living next to the Canadian-owned Marlin Mine. The first two songs are by Grupo Kotzic, who are from San Marcos, singing about the peoples’ resistance to the mine. The third song is a live recording from inside the Church of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, San Marcos, where community members were singing a song they wrote about their experiences with the mine.
In an effort to better understand the true cost of an industry that shapes the world around all of us, the focus of Someone Else’s Treasure is on the externalized – the men, women, and children, that have been left out of the equations and are therefore forced to pay the price for someone else’s treasure.
Now available in Spanish: La Riqueza de Otros – Guatemala
Read the photo essay for more information:
Within the Department of San Marcos, in the western highlands of Guatemala, the Marlin Mine is located along the border between the municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa. These communities are largely composed of Indigenous Mayans who speak their traditional languages in addition to Spanish. 85% of the mine is located in San Miguel Ixtahacán, where the population is mostly Mam-Maya, one of the larger Mayan subgroups.Sipakapa is inhabited mostly by the Sipakapense, one of the smaller subgroups.
The Marlin Mine, which has both open-pit and underground operations, is fully owned by Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc., one of the world’s biggest gold companies. The mine is operated by Montana Exploradora, a subsidiary fully owned by Goldcorp. The Marlin Mine was the first project to be funded by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) after its Extractive Industries Review (EIR), in 2003, which sought to bring World Bank-funded projects in line with the institution’s “overarching mandate of poverty alleviation and sustainable development.” It was also the first project to be found not in compliance with these new World Bank standards.
According to the Canadian Social Investment Database, Goldcorp has the highest environmental fine total among mining companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) Composite Index. Goldcorp has been accused of having caused cyanide spikes, elevated levels of heavy metal contamination and acid mine drainage at its mines in Mexico, Honduras, Canada, the United States, Argentina, and Guatemala. In April 2008, Jantzi Research, an independent investment research association which analyzes the social and environmental performance of more than 300 Canadian companies, recommended not to invest in Goldcorp, citing the threats to safety and security, environmental impacts, growing opposition from local indigenous communities, and inadequate consultation with local communities. Guatemala has signed and ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169, which requires the State to consult affected indigenous communities, before they can approve any project, law, or decree that might affect them. Community members of both San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa claim that they were never consulted by either the Government or the company.
Rosalia stands on what used to be part of her farm until the mine expanded a single lane dirt road to accommodate large mining trucks. Rosalia’s family says it was never consulted or compensated for the loss of their land. When the company first arrived in the area, they carried out a series of presentations on the benefits of mining. The company claims to have held 74 meetings with people in San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa. Those who attended the meetings were were asked to sign a list in exchange for a free lunch. Community members say that these lists were then used by Goldcorp to prove to the Government and the World Bank that they had consulted the local communities. “There was no dialogue and no consultation with the communities about the company coming here,” they say, “the public was not consulted. That is why we are very upset, because these people have money, they are millionaires, they can do what they want. They don’t care about our lives. We did what we could, but it didn’t make any difference. The old Mayor and Judge sided with the company for the money. So the people couldn’t defend their rights.”
“They say that they have brought a lot of change and development,” says Julian who lives in San Miguel Ixtahuacán . “But these are pure lies because we have not seen any development! If the company really cared about our development, we would be living in better conditions. Our houses would be nicer, and our roads would be paved. But they only pave the roads that they want to use. When they came, they promised to build houses, but the houses were never built. They even try to take credit for the few concrete houses there are in the village, but that is a lie! All the houses here built with concrete were made, because the families have members who have emigrated to the USA and are sending money back. All the rest of our houses are built of mud and wood, we know this because we built them with our own hands. We have to listen to their lies everyday, but they haven’t given us anything! So why are they telling all these lies?”
Candelaria stands outside her home directly below the mine in front of a bullet hole in her wall. Candelaria’s husband is currently working at a hotel for tourists in Cancun, Mexico, so that he can send money back for his family, who also lost some of its farm land to the road expansion. One night while the family was asleep, a vehicle drove past her home, and someone fired four gun shots at Candelaria’s house. “Before we all lived peacefully,” says Candelaria’s brother-in-law Victor, “one heard about violence, but in the capital, now the violence is here, among us—to the point of parents fighting with their children and brothers fighting each other. We are very worried, because we hear people saying: ‘we will kill or kidnap those who are against mining,’ and there are many killings and kidnappings, not only here but also in many other villages above the mine. We are living a life that is very difficult, and it will continue to get worse. And I think: who will defend us? What will we do?”
Community members of San Miguel Ixtahuacán gather inside their Church to see pictures from Father Erick’s recent trip to the USA. Father Erick’s trip included several cities accross the United States, so that he could visit peoples’ relatives who are working there, often undocumented, in order to support their families. “They said that we would benefit by getting jobs,” someone murmurs in the crowd, “so where are the jobs? If there are jobs here, why do so many of us have to leave our families and homes risking our lives for a few coins?” In addition to the United States, many people also emigrate to Mexico or to the coastal regions of Guatemala to work in the sugar plantations.
Yolanda lives in one of the houses surrounding the Marlin Mine. Over a hundred of these houses have suffered structural damage, including cracking walls and floors, since the mining activities began. The company denies any responsibility, but villagers believe the cracks are being caused by the daily dynamite explosions in the mine. A recent report put out by the Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) concludes that “by a process of elimination, the most likely cause of the building damage is ground vibrations. There are no sources of vibrations in the area except those resulting from mine blasting and heavy truck traffic; therefore it is very highly likely that the damage in local villages is caused by the mining activity and associated truck traffic.”
“Our houses are falling apart!” says Irma standing in her crumbling bedroom, “I’m scared to be inside my house, because one day it can fall on top of us!” Goldcorp refuses to acknowledge any connection between their operations and the damage to the houses. At first they claimed that the cracks were caused by all the vehicles driving through the villiages. “We said that if it was a problem of vehicles,” recalls Irma, “only the vehicles from the company are heavy, and anyway the houses far away from the road would not be cracking too. Then they said it wasn’t the vehicles, but poor construction. We told them that if the problem was poor construction, then most of the houses in the whole country would be having the same problems, not just the ones next to their mine. Their stories keep changing, but they always refuse to accept any responsibility. They don’t even take our complaints seriously, they laugh at us. Once they even said it was being caused because we play our music too loud!”
Maria and her family had spent four years building themselves a new home. It was a moment of great pride, when they finally completed the construction. But three weeks later, they discovered that the cement floor had started to crack. At the moment it is only a hair-line crack, but Maria has seen some of the other homes that have much larger cracks, so she knows that it is only a matter of time. Everyday at noon and then again at midnight, the mine sets off dynamite explosions which cause the ground to shake like an earthquake. The family eventually decided to cut its losses and not move in, so the building remains empty and unused. “They are making us suffer,” says Maria, “we are not being treated as human beings.”
Like most large-scale gold mines, the extracted ore is processed using cyanide. The remaining waste material is then dumped in a tailings pond. Locals are very concerned about how the mine may be effecting both the quantity and the quality of their water supplies. The mine uses as much as 250,000 liters of water every hour of every day, which is roughly equivalent to what a Guatemalan family of 8 would use over the course of 25 years. Six to eight wells are reported to have dried up recently, although the company claims it obtains all its water either from what is recycled from the tailings pond or from deep underground sources which are not connected to the communities’ wells. Additional concerns include the possibility of the chemicals leaking out into the rivers or, even worse, that the dyke keeping all the waste in the pond may not be able to withstand the frequent earthquakes in the area. “This worries us,” says Victor, “because the tailings pond is above and we are here below it!”
“They told us the water is fine,” says Reyna as she does her laundry in the river with her brother Alex. “We don’t have any water at the house and our well has dried up, so we have to come down here.” Scientific studies by the Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE), have shown that the rivers below the tailings pond contain arsenic. “All mines contaminate,” says Alejandro from COPAE, “there are no examples of the mining industry not causing contamination anywhere in the world. Our studies demonstrate that the rivers below the mine are contaminated. The water is not suitable for consumption.” Despite the company’s claims that the water is safe, company employees refused when Freddy, one of the auxiliary mayors of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, challenged them to drink or bathe in the water themselves.
“Before,” remembers Teresa, “we used to plant gourds, beans, avocado, lemons, oranges, peaches and corn. But they are not the same anymore. Look at the avocado trees, they don’t have any fruit—they flower, but then the flowers fall off. And the life of the animals? Already it is sad. It is not the same as it was when I was growing up, it was healthy, you could eat everything. Now, what we eat and what we drink, these are contaminated.”
“The crops were much better before,” says Crisanta holding up some of the corn her family harvested this year, “but since the mine came, they don’t come out the same anymore. They do not grow properly now! We haven’t had a good harvest for about three years. Even the crops that we do harvest, we cannot sell. As soon as people find out that we are from San Miguel, they don’t want to buy from us because they say it’s all contaminated. ”
Eight-year old Lisandro has itchy rashes all over his body, which first appeared about four years ago when the mine started operations. “Before the mining company came, there weren’t so many health problems,” says Lisandro’s uncle Victor, “now there are many illnesses. When the mining company came, it brought us skin infections, stomach pains, illnesses like flu and also diarrhea in children and adults. They don’t tell us why this is happening. I think that it is because we are drinking the water, and we bathe in the river. This worries us a lot because, look—what are we going to do? Where are we going to go? Who will offer us a helping hand? Who will care for us? This is what worries us a lot. And later, not only this but also the conflicts, the violence, the kidnappings, before these didn’t happen.” “This is not a development project,” adds Miguel-Angel, who owns the local pharmacy, “this is a project of death! It’s a monster!”
“Since the company came we have diseases, before we didn’t have anything like this,” says Irma, whose daughter Yahira has similar itchy rashes all over her body. “Before the children were all healthy. Not any more! It is the mine’s fault! In the past everyone was healthy, but not anymore because of them. And then they insult us, saying that we get these rashes because we are dirty and don’t bathe! We are sad. They are scaring us! They are just scaring us! I want the mine to leave! They have come here and taken advantage of us. Here in San Miguel they are really taking advantage of us!”
“We were fine before, but now things aren’t as they used to be,” says Teresa, who has a mysterious growth below her left eye, “we are living a very difficult life — our crops, animals, everyone’s health is at risk, violence, kidnappings. We don’t count! We don’t know what will happen with us. It hurts, because we are human, we have feelings. These things never happened before the mine came here. They only think of their love of money and for that reason they are discriminating against us. But we hope in God that one day we can change their hearts, then they will not come to do so many things to us, because they will finally recognize us as human beings.”
In community meetings throughout San Miguel Ixtahuacán, residents are currently in the process of organizing a community referendum on mining. This referendum was inspired by the 2005 referendum in the neighboring municipality of Sipakapa. The results of the Sipakapa referendum speak for themselves; 2,502 eligible voters participated, which compares favorably to the 3,087 turnout for the federal elections. In total, 2,426 people voted against mining, 35 people voted for mining, 8 ballots were illegible, one was blank and 32 abstained. Of the 13 community assemblies held in Sipakapa, 11 rejected mining (unanimously in most cases), one supported the mine, and one abstained. In total, 98.5% of the participating population rejected mining. The company took legal action to have the referendum annulled. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled that the referendum was legal, but not binding.
Sipakapa continues to refuse any payments from the company and resist continued attempts to expand the mine within their territory. Instead, the community proposed an alternative development project of their own in the form of a fair-trade organic coffee cooperative. In the summer of 2009, their coffee co-op finally got off the ground and participants, like Fausto and Pedro here, are now in the process of laying the groundwork for their future plantations. While the referendum was important in demonstrating the community’s unified opposition to the mine, it was also very important for them to be able to propose an alternative that was driven by the whole community themselves.
“Agriculture is our Art, it’s what we know” says Ovideo, “gold is of no value to us, but our land, our families, our culture — these are things that we value greatly.” The indigenous residents of both Sipakapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacán know that their ancestors have lived on these lands for generations refining and passing down their knowledge of how to cultivate the land. What could be more sustainable than that? This group pictured here, including (left to right) Matilda, Jeffrey Jr, Jeffrey Sr, Bayron, and Raul, are planning the layout of their new coffee plantation in Sipakapa. They carefully measure out the distances between the points where they will plant each tree, taking all factors into account, including the slope of the hill, the direction of the sun, and the quality of the soil. “This is very difficult and complicated work, but we know how to take care of ourselves,” says Fidel, one of the organizers behind the organic coffee project, “that is why we, the people of Sipakapa, have said ‘No!’ to mining in our territory.”
As the people of both Sipakapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacán look on in horror at the Marlin Mine in their midst, many of them struggle to even comprehend the point of it all. “Who came up with the idea that gold should be worth so much anyway?” asks Alejandro, “it’s only a yellow stone that shines! Life should be more valuable than gold.” “I hope that everyone takes this information, listens to our stories, and tells our stories,” says Reyna, “we are only humble people but our exeriences are our own, they are real, no one understands our situation better than we do, but we want everyone to know what is happening to us in order to put international pressure on the authorities so that they think a little about the poor people, not only those who have money, but us who are ignored, humiliated, as though we are worth nothing. We also have rights, and we don’t want to continue suffering like this.”