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Guatemalan indigenous need rights protected, UN official says

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Due to human rights violations affecting the indigenous peoples of the country, Guatemala risks becoming “ungovernable” according to the U.N. official in charge of indigenous rights after a visit in June.

These problems revolve around the lack of indigenous rights to prior consultation, as well as territorial and civil rights in Guatemala according to James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people. Anaya (along with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) also specifically mentioned that the Marlin Mine, owned by Goldcorp of Canada, was a source of many serious pollution allegations and was recently closed due to these problems.

Anaya conducted a series of interviews with Guatemalan government officials, indigenous leaders and other community members, business owners, mine owners, and human rights activists in the second week of June. The Guatemalan government and Native activists invited Anaya to visit after another turbulent year that included more accusations of communities not being consulted before businesses were opened in their territories as well as state and mining company violence against Mayan communities along with more reports of severe pollution and subsequent health problems.

“In the course of my visit I could identify a climate of high instability and social conflict relating to the activities of businesses in traditional territories of the indigenous people of Guatemala,” Anaya wrote in his initial report.

“I don’t believe that I am mistaken in saying that this perception is shared by all of the interested parties, including not only the affected communities but the government, civil society and the same businesses.”

The first issue Anaya addressed in his report was prior consultation, which involves the government and private businesses asking permission from an indigenous community to conduct any commercial enterprise in that community. The most troublesome business ventures in these situations usually involved extractive industries like mining.

“I have received allegations that, on numerous occasions, the state has authorized licenses for the construction of infrastructures or for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources in indigenous territories without the required consultations,” Anaya said. “On top of that all of the parties agree that there is no legislative measure that regulates the consultation procedure in the Guatemalan judicial system.”

The special rapporteur asserted that the present consultation arrangement in Guatemala was “insufficient from the point of view of international standards.” He also stated that this lack of legal protections had another connotation.

“For many indigenous communities, the lack of consultation is associated with a trans-generational experience of invasion, marginalization and dispossession, along with a continued perception of lack of inclusion and participation in relation to the decisions that affect them.”

Another category Anaya addressed in his investigation and report involved territorial rights. He indicated that the Guatemalan government was not adequately dealing with indigenous rights to land and natural resources. Anaya also noted that “the absence, in the great majority of cases, of collective property titles, together with the consequences that lead to dispossession of lands during internal armed conflicts are factors. …”

In the many interviews Anaya conducted with indigenous leaders he was told that among the most serious results of the mining operations were charges of assaults, rapes and other violence perpetrated by company operatives and Guatemalan military, as well as charges that the pollution created by the mines was causing severe illness in people and death in some cattle.

“I have received direct testimony involving the contamination of rivers; of wells drying up; of diseases that affect the youngest children; of deaths of cattle; of kidnappings, attacks including death of community leaders; of forced exile; of damage and destruction of houses; of horrible violations and sexual abuse of women,” Anaya said.

“These allegations point to the security forces of the country as well as private companies and other groups being responsible for these crimes.”

To deal with these serious problems Anaya included a series of recommendations for the Guatemalan government and civil society. He emphasized that the government needed to ensure that indigenous communities would be sufficiently consulted about any commercial enterprise, and that the consultation had definitely not happened in relation to the controversial Marlin Mine. Anaya suggested the creation of a standardized series of meetings to be held between officials and the communities, as well as methods of communicating concerns to both the government and businesses.

While Anaya’s preliminary report showed the many serious problems facing the indigenous people and all of Guatemala, he ended his comments on a more positive note.

“Guatemala has demonstrated its commitment to the promotion and protection of indigenous rights. … I hope that the state continues to take steps towards the effective implementation of human rights protections for indigenous peoples and to make the declaration of these principles a reality in the daily lives of the people.”

Guatemala closes controversial mine in Mayan community The Guatemalan government announced June 23 that they were closing down the Marlin Mine due to concerns about possible health problems and environmental damage caused by the enterprise. The government intends on securing an independent commission to further investigate the charges. The closing of the controversial mine followed similar recommendations made by other international officials. In the week prior to the government announcement, James Anaya, U.S. special rapporteur on indigenous rights, recommended suspending mine activities due to a large number of complaints by indigenous residents and farmers. The complaints included serious health problems, damage to land and rivers, as well as dying cattle, all connected to contamination said to be caused by the Marlin Mine. Before either of the recent actions, in May the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged Guatemalan officials to close the same mine due to numerous complaints they received while conducting an investigation into violations of indigenous rights by government and private forces in the area of the mine and elsewhere in Guatemala. The Marlin Mine is owned by Goldcorp which has its headquarters in Vancouver, Canada. Goldcorp President Chuck Jeannes issued a press statement after the government announcement in June, denying that the mine was unsafe to the area. “Before the absence of such evidence, we continue believing there is no basis for suspending the operations of the mine. We have been assured that we will have an opportunity to present convincing information that shows that the mine has not caused adverse impacts to the environment or to the health of the people.” However, indigenous activists have been complaining that contamination from the mine has been causing these problems for years, but it was in 2009 that a scientific study of the area supported their concerns. In the summer of 2009, a multi-disciplinary team of investigators was assembled by Physicians for Human Rights and sent to Guatemala for a one week study of the area surrounding the Marlin Mine. The study found that residents living near the mine had “higher levels of certain metals” in their bloodstream, and that “several metals such as aluminum, manganese and cobalt were found at elevated levels in river water and sediment sites directly below the mine compared to sites elsewhere.” While the study concluded that “it is not clear if the current magnitude of these elevations poses a significant threat to health,” it did state that the “negative impacts of the mine on human health and eco-system quality in the region have the potential to increase in the coming years and last for decades.” The scientists urged authorities to conduct broader and more in-depth health and environmental investigations.