- The power imbalance between mining companies and communities in Latin America deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report published May 24.
- The report details how the pandemic presented companies with a window of opportunity to continue or even ramp up their activities, while communities opposed to mining projects faced pandemic restrictions and violence.
- Indigenous Mapuche-Tehuelche community leaders from Argentina traveled to Guatemala in May to meet with Indigenous Xinka communities affected by the same mining company.
CASILLAS, Guatemala — Evelin Cante got involved in the protest camp right from the start. Her village isn’t far from the Escobal silver mine in southern Guatemala, and she was worried about its impacts on the environment and local homes, especially from the detonations at the mine site. Indigenous Xinka communities and other area residents were never consulted about the mine, and in 2017 they set up a roadside encampment to block entry to trucks carrying mine supplies and equipment.
“I have been supporting the resistance here since it began,” Cante told Mongabay by the encampment next to the town of Casillas, 60 kilometers (37 miles) southeast of Guatemala City. “I have children and I do not want to leave them without water.”
A month to the day after the encampment began, the country’s Supreme Court suspended the mine’s license pending consultation with the affected Xinka population. Five years later, a pre-consultation process is still underway and so are the encampment actions to enforce the suspension.
But the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for mine-affected communities. Health concerns and restrictions limited community actions, while violence against local leaders involved in the resistance movement continued — and not just in Guatemala.
Across Latin America, the pandemic has generated new pressures and restrictions on communities, while mining industry activity, deregulation efforts and violence have continued, and in some cases increased, according to a new report. More than 20 organizations in the Americas joined forces to document the trends, carrying out participatory research in nine countries. Elsewhere, leaders from Indigenous communities affected by the same mining company in two countries joined forces.
The report, “No Reprieve,” was published May 24 by the Coalition Against the Mining Pandemic, an alliance of NGOs engaged in advocacy and research into the intersection of mining and the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of a larger global project, the Latin America-focused report examines regional trends and case studies in Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. In some cases, governmental oversight and monitoring of environmental impacts were limited or delayed where communities were already dealing with toxic waste pollution and water shortages.
“In most cases, mining was declared an essential activity,” Leny Olivera Rojas, one of the report co-authors, told Mongabay. “Communities have had to continue their struggles in even more hostile conditions.”
Companies gain strength during pandemic
The asymmetry of power between companies and communities deepened during the pandemic, said Olivera Rojas, executive director of TerraJusta, a research and advocacy group based in Bolivia. Despite some temporary suspensions, many companies began making more money than ever during the pandemic, as the prices of gold, silver and other metals rose sharply in 2020. Some countries pushed mining as a driver of recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
“For communities, the crisis of the pandemic was just one more crisis that intensified the other crises they were already experiencing,” Olivera Rojas said, pointing to social conflicts, water shortages, and violence against rights activists and community leaders.
“Now during the pandemic, it has become even more evident how this economic development model that prioritizes mining projects, for example, has led to this crisis,” she said. “Communities that have not lost their territories, even if just small parcels of land, have been able to produce at least something to create basic conditions for subsistence during the crisis of the pandemic.”
The San José underground silver and gold mine, in production since 2011, is one of several Mexican case studies included in the report. Owned by Fortuna Silver Mines, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, the San José mine is located in the central valley region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The region is also home to significant opposition to the mine in the predominantly Indigenous Zapotec towns and communities. These communities were subject to substantial restrictions during the pandemic, while activity at the mine was only briefly halted.
Mexican federal government measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic included suspension of mining activities, deemed non-essential, at the end of March 2020. Less than two months later, the government approved the resumption of operations at the San José mine. In December 2021, the government extended the terms of the company’s environmental impact authorization after an initial denial and ensuing court battle.
“The company took advantage of the pandemic,” said Juan Pérez, a pseudonym for a member of the Oaxacan chapter of REMA, the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining. “They are now in a stronger position.”
Pérez requested anonymity for security reasons, to prevent being targeted for speaking out. Mining resistance organizers in Oaxaca, and particularly Zapotec community and town leaders opposing Fortuna Silver’s mine, say they’ve been subjected to threats, intimidation and even violent attacks, which they link to the company.
“Our level of risk is quite high at the moment,” Pérez told Mongabay. “We are starting to face really strong intimidation.”
The San José mine’s operations were only suspended for eight weeks, but the pandemic affected communities in the region in various ways. COVID-19 cases and deaths hit Zapotec communities, not all of which have a health clinic, much less a hospital. Health measures restricting the freedom of assembly were only lifted this year, Pérez said.
“Community assemblies are the spaces for discussion and for making decisions,” he said, adding that politicians supporting the mine took advantage of the situation to pressure local mayors to drop their opposition. “There was no dialogue. There were no assemblies. There was no consultation with communities.”
The San José mine operates under strict adherence to international standards, according to Carlos Baca, director of investor relations at Fortuna Silver Mines. The company “is a good corporate citizen and does not endorse nor is involved in any kind of violent acts,” he told Mongabay in an email. “On the contrary, we strive to have continued, transparent and constructive engagement with all stakeholders.”
Now that community assemblies have been gradually starting up again, the challenge will be to try to revert some of the advances the company made during the pandemic, Pérez said.
“This is just the beginning of extractivism in the valley,” he said, pointing to the more than 40 mining concessions in the state of Oaxaca.
Pandemic-era deregulation favoring mining
Along with specific mine-focused case studies, the newly published report also examines pandemic-era deregulation, policy and discourse that favor mining. At the regional and national level in some countries with long-standing opposition to mining, “the industry and political leaders connected to mining have taken advantage of the pandemic to try and position themselves as the economic solution,” according to the report.
In Chubut, a province in southern Argentina, open-pit metals mining and the use of cyanide have been banned by law since 2003, following widespread mobilizations and a referendum that same year in the town of Esquel, where 81% of voters rejected mining. The provincial law stipulated that within months of its passage, territorial zoning should take place to define areas within the province where mining would be permitted on a case-by-case basis. But the anti-mining movement persisted and politicians did not follow through with zoning exceptions for nearly 20 years.
That changed during the pandemic. The governor proposed a zoning bill in 2020 to exempt two districts from the ban. In a session the night of Dec. 15, 2021, the provincial legislature passed the bill. Mass protests began the next morning, with some people setting fires in some government buildings, and police cracking down with rubber bullets and arrests. The zoning law was repealed within a few days, on Dec. 20.
Indigenous Mapuche-Tehuelche communities on an arid plateau in one of the two districts slated for the now-repealed exemptions to the mining ban never let their guard down. Despite the long-standing ban, companies have maintained rights to mining concessions, including the Navidad project of undeveloped silver deposits acquired in 2010 by Pan American Silver, another company based in Vancouver.
“Pan American Silver believes that properly permitted and regulated mining activity with sustainable mining practices, both environmental and social, can benefit the people of Chubut,” the company said in statements following both the passage and repeal of the bill.
“Navidad has not opened and hopefully it never does,” Paola Coronado, a Mapuche-Tehuelche community leader, told Mongabay in Guatemala City earlier this month after she and other Chubut residents visited for several days with Xinka communities in the region around the Escobal mine, also owned by Pan American Silver.
“We were never consulted. That process never happened,” Coronado said. “It is the same problem as here [in Guatemala].”
Operations at the Escobal mine remain suspended pending the court-ordered consultation process, which is still in the pre-consultation phase while Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mines and Xinka community representatives sort out the ground rules for how to move forward. But Xinka leaders say threats and violence they link to the company didn’t stop during the pandemic, pointing to the shooting and wounding of a community member, Julio González, in January 2021.
Pan American Silver did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment by the time this article was published. “Pan American strongly condemns and will not resort to the use of any violence,” the company said in a 2019 statement following the settlement of a lawsuit in Canada brought by Guatemalan community members shot and injured by mine security personnel during a protest in 2013, years before Pan American acquired the Escobal mine.
The community encampments set up along the roads leading to the mine five years ago were lifted at the very outset of the pandemic, but only very briefly.
“People withdrew for a few days but then resumed with measures like distancing, disinfection, masks, and on-site water,” Sheni Lemus, a participant in the Xinka resistance movement against the mine, told Mongabay. “The resistance continues.”
That has been the case for many communities throughout Latin America, said Olivera Rojas. “They have had to keep struggling,” she said. “‘Stay at home’ was not an option.”