Small Farmers Vs. Big Mining in Central America

Heavy-metals pollution threatens indigenous agriculture throughout the region, reports Edgardo Ayala.

By Edgardo Ayala
in San Salvador

Inter Press Service

Like an octopus, metals mining has been spreading its tentacles throughout Central America and dealing a blow to the region’s agriculture and natural ecosystems, according to affected villagers, activists and a new report on the problem.

“Where the mining company is operating was land that peasants leased to plant corn and beans, our staple crops. But since the company came in, there is no land left to farm,” said Lesbia Villagrán, who lives in the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores in eastern Guatemala.

Minera San Rafael, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Tahoe Resources, set up shop in this rural municipality of just over 9,000 people in 2007, and since then local residents in different villages scattered throughout this municipality and nearby areas have been organized to bring its operations to a halt. Villagers have been fighting the El Escobal silver mine arguing that it will affect their livelihood in agriculture, as well as local water sources and biodiversity.

“When I was little, my father leased four or six manzanas (a little more than four hectares) of land and for us it was a joy to work in the abundant harvest. But when the owners of the land sold it to the company, my father was no longer able to plant our staple crops,” added Villagrán, 28, in an interview with IPS from San Rafael.

This silver mine in San Rafael Las Flores, Guatemala, was closed in 2017 by a Constitutional Court ruling in favor of local inhabitants. (Edgardo Ayala/IPS)

Escobal mine in San Rafael Las Flores, Guatemala.  (Edgardo Ayala/IPS)

The mine changed ownership in January, and now the company is called Minera San Rafael El Escobal, a subsidiary of Canada’s Pan American Silver, which according to its website, is the world’s second-largest producer of silver. It owns and operates six mines in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, and now Guatemala.

“The situation in agriculture is complicated by the company’s operations,” said Alex Reynoso, a coffee grower from a municipality near San Rafael.

Fears of Heavy Metal Contamination

According to Reynoso, the country’s markets do not want produce harvested near the mine because of fears that they are contaminated with heavy metals used in the extraction process.

“The country’s most important markets flat-out avoid buying our products,” he told IPS from his hometown.

IPS attempted to get comments from both Tahoe Resources and Pan American Silver with respect to the criticism by San Rafael Las Flores residents against the mine, but had received no reply by the time this article was published. 

Mining operations have been suspended since July 2017 while the Guatemalan Constitutional Court studied a complaint by organizations of local Amerindian Xinca residents that they were not consulted about the project as required by law.

Protest of Tahoe Resources' Escobar silver mine outside the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, May 2018. (Jackie McVickar via Flickr)

Protest of Tahoe Resources’ Escobar silver mine outside the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, May 2018. (Jackie McVickar via Flickr)

The Court issued a ruling upholding the suspension of mining activity in September 2018.

This case in Guatemala is an example of the tensions caused in Central America by metals mining, an activity that has been ongoing in the area, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, since the time of Spanish colonialism in the sixteenth century.

Recent Expansion

In the last few decades it has expanded with the arrival of transnational mining corporations to the area.

The arrival of foreign corporations generated social conflict, as local residents in the villages and towns where the mines are active began to organize, especially in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The consortia that win the mining concessions have been grabbing up traditional farming and forest land, while monopolizing water resources that local communities, especially indigenous ones, depend on, putting their food security at risk.

A study released Feb. 11 in San Salvador, gives an account of this expansion and its impacts. Published in Spanish by the Central American Mining Alliance, a conglomerate of environmental organizations in the region, its title in English is,

“Strategies for the Defense of the Environment and Human Rights in the Face of the Impacts of Mining Extractivism in Central America."

“Strategies for the Defense of the Environment and Human Rights in the Face of the Impacts of Mining Extractivism in Central America.”

In Honduras, up to January 2017, 172 mining concessions had been granted, covering a total area of 7,275 square kilometers, equivalent to 6.47 of the country’s territory.

In Guatemala, up to the same date, 55 concessions had been granted, covering an area of 4,143 square kilometers, or 3.81 percent of the national territory.

And by May 2017 Nicaragua had granted 146 mining concessions, and is still processing 20 more applications. Altogether, including the pending applications, they cover 11,143 square kilometers, or 8.55 percent of the country.

El Salvador made international history by being the first country in the world to ban all forms of mining in March 2017. But as of 2006 there were 31 mining concessions, covering an area of 1,088 square kilometers, 5.17 percent of the national territory.

Central America is a region of great social deprivation, with a population of 48 million inhabitants and an area of 524,000 square kilometers, also made up of Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.

Vulnerable to Climate Impacts

It is also one of the regions most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with high annual crop losses, either due to excess water, during the rainy season, or due to droughts in the dry season.

 Representatives of the Central American environmental organizations that produced the study presenting it San Salvador. (Association for the Development of El Salvador)


Study presenters in San Salvador. (Association for the Development of El Salvador)

Following the Salvadoran example, “there are cases of movements that are demanding mining-free territories” in neighboring countries, Nicaraguan researcher Angélica Alfaro, one of the chief authors of the new study, told IPS.  “But the reality is that countries like Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua have passed laws aimed directly at promoting the mining sector,” said Alfaro, who worked on the document as a consultant for the Association for the Development of El Salvador.

The mining industry jeopardizes food security in Central America because it directly impacts agriculture, as it affects several watersheds, Julio González, of the Guatemalan group Madre Selva, told IPS.

For example, the Cerro Blanco mine, located in the Guatemalan municipality of Asunción Mita, bordering on western El Salvador, is part of the Ostua-Guija-Lempa basin.

The pollution generated by the mine runs into Lake Guija, in El Salvador, and from there to the Lempa River, which winds through this country, supplying water that is processed for use in irrigation and for human consumption. 

“Water, apart from daily use, is vital for agriculture, and is affected by the presence of metallic minerals, like cyanide, all of which will alter food production,” said González, who participated in the presentation of the study in San Salvador.

He added that the land used by the mining industry is not the enormous extensions of land owned by large landowners, but rather the areas used for subsistence agriculture, especially in the territories of indigenous people, historically expelled from their land and pushed into forested areas.  “But that’s the agriculture that sustains food security,” he said.

The report Impacts of metal mining in Central America, published in 2011, warned that “access to the geographical space available to mining is twice that dedicated to the production of basic grains, that is, for every square kilometer that is planted with basic grains in Central America there are two square kilometers controlled by the mining industry.”

Edgardo Ayala covers El Salvador for the Inter-Press Agency.

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9 comments for “Small Farmers Vs. Big Mining in Central America

  1. Adam Halverson
    March 4, 2019 at 14:16

    As I read this article, I think back to the horrific mining dam collapse in Brazil, in Brumadinho (which is just outside of the city of Belo Horizonte), in the Minas Gerais region – last time I checked, over 300 are believed to have been killed, with just over 180 confirmed dead.

    In addition to the environmental impacts, there are also innocent lives lost when mining disasters do occur. Deregulation and lax standards, as well as the unwillingness sometimes to enforce applicable laws, are chiefly to blame.

    In the video of the Brumadinho dam collapse itself, if you look very, very closely, you can actually see about 20 people on top of the dam fall right into the liquefaction , and several people up ahead attempt to run/drive away from the massive torrent (which, by my estimation, sprung up 30-50 feet high), who never had any chance of surviving whatsoever. El Globo (in Portuguese) has this video with the details – I was personally sickened and horrified at the sight… I can’t possibly imagine the horror of being effectively drowned and crushed by a wave of toxic waste twice as dense as water, while stuck 30-50 feet deep. If this thought disturbs you, then it’s probably evident that you acknowledge that urgent action is required and there must be more regulation and accountability.

  2. Maria S Calef
    March 2, 2019 at 19:01

    National government have handling their lands to foreign corporations and investment groups who are free from national state regulations, and who received cheap local labor whose workers receive none benefits.

  3. rosemerry
    March 2, 2019 at 14:36

    Notice that most of the countries affected are the usual US-dominated/destroyed we all know-Guatemala, ElSalvador, Honduras, Nicaragua-sad to see also Bolivia, whose president actually does care for the earth and in the constitution environment is prominent. Canada of course has its fingers all over the region.

  4. Andrew Thomas
    March 1, 2019 at 22:11

    The commodities extracted by the international corporate conspiracy, which may be reasonably compared to a relatively smooth-functioning confederacy of mafia families, may change, but nothing much else does. And the USA military/ surveillance complex acts as Murder, Incorporated for the lot of them.

  5. TomG
    March 1, 2019 at 10:32

    Whether mountain top removal in Kentucky, frac’ing in west Texas or farm lands in Central America, around the world we’d rather have metals and oil extracted under the most lax oversight imaginable rather than health of the land, water and its creatures. Culturally right behind slavery there has never been a more expendable group of people than the subsistence farmer. Our contempt is lost among the concrete and steel of our ever-growing cities and its inhabitants that fail to connect the dots between their comforts and the earth’s destruction.

    • Sam F
      March 2, 2019 at 19:33

      Yes, there is an urban/rural cultural disconnect as well as the indigenous and rich/poor disconnects.

      The UN must be empowered to enforce health, environmental, and quality-of-life standards, using trade embargoes enforced upon all members, to ensure that exploitative industries cannot market even if they can extract.

  6. noor aza othman
    March 1, 2019 at 10:20

    Besides, DEPOPULATING as many poor Indigenous Liberation Theology Catholic peoples in Latin America, as they can, in their savage genocidal ZioMasonic New World Order (where’s that hypocrite ICC/UN) – also to conquer militarily, by NATO-EU/US/ISrael-Soros’s regimes, the strategic maritimes routes such as the Caribbean Sea, The Panama Canal (an artificial waterway in Panama that cuts across the Isthmus of Panama, and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean), the Mona/Windward/Anegada Passages (the three Passages of the Caribbean, that connects the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and
    as important shipping routes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Panama Canal), the Magellan Strait/Drake Passage/Beagle Channel (the three Passages around South America that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans), the Gulf of´Mexico, and the whole Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean (among the FIVE major Oceans with all their Seas/Straits/Passages/Canals/Gulfs/Isthmus/deep water Ports etc.). This is in order to transport the $Zillions worth of URANIUM/THORIUM/LITHIUM/ORO BLANCO/IRIDIUM mined or robbed illegally (including from the Sea/Ocean/Volcanoes/Mountain range/River) and also to carry their
    illegal Nuclear Weapon, freely but hiddenly, globally, with their ILLEGAL Nuclear Submarines (suspectedly, also to create man-made
    Tsunamis/Earthquakes/Floods/Volcanic Eruption etc. , through under the deep sea/under the earth/inside the Volcano Nuclear Bombing etc., or maybe the Nuclear explosion was actually from mining secretely and illegally, the Uranium/Thorium/Lithium/Oro Blanco/Iridium minerals, from the rocks/corals in the Sea/Ocean/Volcanoes/Mountain range/River) , another hidden MO for most evil ZioMasonic regime change and massive Depopulation agenda, especially in Muslim-Catholic nations!

  7. noor aza othman
    March 1, 2019 at 10:18

    Thus, the world, have been fooled by these endless savage ZioMasonic TERRORISTS
    NATO-EU/US/Israel-Soros regimkes – because all the endless savage Genocide of poor INDIGENOUS peoples in Latin
    America (consisting of Mexico-South America/Central America and the Caribbeans) – is mainly about conquering/robbing the $ZILLIONS worth of URANIUM/THORIUM/LITHIUM/ORO BLANCO/IRIDIUM minerals-rich Latin America, especially in the Guiana-Shield (one of the three cratons of the South American Plate), the Amazon River System and Basin, the Andes Mountains and the Caribbean Sea, hence preventing the Left Governments of Latin America itself, Iran, Russia and China, or any other
    non-Western/Israel world, from having access to the Uranium/Thorium/Lithium/Oro Blanco/Iridium mining industry in any anti-NATO/anti-Israel Left-ruled Latin American countries (or anywhere for that matter), especially pro-Palestine or anti-US/NATO Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba!

    This is in order to prevent any other countries, except NATO-EU/US/Israel, from building, fuelling,
    maintaining and possessing NUCLEAR WEAPONS/NUCLEAR ENERGY/SPACECRAFTS-SPACE STATIONS/AIRCRAFTS!

  8. noor aza othman
    March 1, 2019 at 10:15

    Where is that HYPOCRITE Greenpeace and Amnesty Int.?!!

    It’s time that the whole poor and deprived LATIN AMERICAN Indigenous people be UNITED and start a great new INDEPENDENCE REVOLUTION, with the help of great Left Wing Governments such as Pres. Nicolas Moduro , Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and others – to take back their most precious and beautiful land, from these most evil and greedy ZioMasonic US-NATO-ISrae/Soros’s sponsored giant multinational mining corporations!

    Because, actually, LATIN AMERICA is so RICH and so IMPORTANT, beyond imagination, especially with the new ‘OIL’! Check out these references why the ILLEGAL Toppling of Venezuelan Pres. Maduro is LINKED to $ZILLIONS worth of URANIUM/THORIUM/LITHIUM/ORO BLANCO/IRIDIUM‘s Conquest/War by ZioMasonic US/UK/FRANCE/EU/NATO/ISrael-Soros regimes in whole LATIN AMERICA – mainly, to build or maintain, or to provide endless fuel for most evil
    ZioMASONIC-controlled Western-NATO/Israel’s NUCLEAR WEAPON/ENERGY, SPACECRAFTS-SPACE STATIONS and AIRCRAFTS especially!

    1. at – Latin America poised to become uranium superpower

    Cecilia Jamasmie

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