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Struggles in Guatemala: Mineral cartel evicts Kekchi Maya

Security forces burn peasant settlements for Canadian nickel firm

NEW YORK - On Jan. 8, some 600 Guatemalan national police and army troops occupied two Kekchi Maya indigenous communities at El Estor, Izabal department. Their orders were to evict the 308 families that made up the settlements of La Union and La Pista. The following morning, 175 more Kekchi families were forcibly expelled from the nearby communities of La Revolucion and La Paz. A Kekchi community at Lote 8 in the neighboring department of Alta Verapaz was also evicted.

The evictions were carried out on behalf of the Guatemala Nickel Co. (CGN), a subsidiary of the Vancouver-based Skye Resources Nickel Mining Co., which holds a disputed title to the lands.

The first evictions at La Union were peaceful. Public Prosecutor Rafael Andrade Escobar read the eviction notice aloud as workers - contracted by CGN-Skye Resources - dismantled the modest wood-and-thatch structures. But when the security forces next arrived a t La Pista, they found the residents had fled. Police troops set upon the dwellings, sacking and torching them.

The following day at La Revolucion, contracted helicopters hovered over the community as army troops, riot police and CGN security guards arrived by land. Some 50 residents were surrounded. As the prosecutor finally arrived, CGN-contracted security set the dwellings ablaze, according to witnesses. The prosecutor ostensibly attempted to call the security personnel to order them to stop, but claimed his cell phone had no signal. The residents watched as 18 of their homes were reduced to ashes and rubble.

Grahame Russell, co-director of Rights Action, a Connecticut-based group that supports Kekchi land reclamation efforts, called the actions illegal, and protested that ''483 families were made homeless in less than 48 hours.''

He said the evictions show a deep iniquity in the Guatemalan legal system. ''The local communities that have lived there forever don't have title. It never gets resolved, because the courts do not work when its issues pertaining to human rights or the rights of the poor. They only work when companies come along and want an eviction order.''

In a press release, Skye Resources called the Kekchi ''squatters who had been illegally occupying'' CGN lands. It claimed, ''The operation is being carried out by a special unit of the national police that has been trained to avoid violence in such situations.''

The statement said Guatemala's courts had ruled in favor of CGN in December. ''Since then,'' it read, ''the company has worked to find a peaceful resolution to the dispute.''

''We're disappointed that the organizers of the land invasions were not able to keep their commitment to have their people leave the land so we could engage in further dialogue,'' Skye president and CEO Ian Austin said in the statement. ''However, we're also thankful that the Guatemalan government has upheld the company's rights to the land and we remain committed to working with community leaders to find solutions to this important issue.''

Leonardo Crippa, a staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Indian Law Resource Center, which is working with the Kekchi, said some of the sites were in fact abandoned in December but retaken after Skye showed bad faith. ''The communities called for a nonviolent solution to the question of land claims. The Defensoria and the bishop of Izabal were working to have a meeting with all the parties concerned, and set a date, but the mining company representatives didn't attend.''

As accounts of the torchings mounted, on Jan. 17 Austin issued a new letter admitting that ''during the eviction process, a total of 18 makeshift houses were set on fire ... While we don't know who started the fires, we do know it was not anyone who works for CGN or contracted by CGN.'' This is contradicted by the accounts from Rights Action. On the same day Austin issued his letter, more dwellings were burned as police and soldiers were sent in to remove Kekchi who had re-entered the lands from which they had been expelled days earlier.

The dispute goes back to the 1960s, when the Canadian mining giant INCO started to buy or force out local campesinos. At the time, human rights violations were widespread. In 1999, the U.N. Truth Commission for Guatemala found INCO directly responsible for killings and other rights abuses. INCO bought other lands from the Guatemalan government on very favorable terms.

Under INCO's local subsidiary, EXMIBAL, open-pit mining began in 1979. Operations halted in 1981, and the lands lay vacant and unproductive for decades. In 2004, Skye purchased the mining leases and announced plans to resume operations.

In September 2006, hundreds of landless Kekchi families moved back to El Estor to reclaim their territories. Dona Fidelia, an elder in La Revolucion, told Rights Action: ''We are recuperating our lands, not invading them. Some of us were born on these lands, before any mining company arrived in the area. ... EXMIBAL was not here first, our parents were.''

The new settlements were first evicted by a force of around 60 police on Nov. 12, 2006. Rights Action said that one of the men involved in the land occupation at La Pista, Jose Chocoj Pan, was seriously beaten in the operation.

The mayor of El Estor, Rigoberto Chub, is in favor of Skye Resources. In November, an open-air kiosk on his property was burned down in an apparent arson attack. Subsequently, the Kekchi leaders started receiving anonymous threats. The ILRC is asking the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to order measures to protect their lives.

''There should be an outright moratorium on mining in Guatemala just for the sake of decency,'' said Grahame Russell of Rights Action. ''There's too much conflict. The Canadian government should call for a moratorium. The issues are not being resolved peacefully. The powers that be are resorting to violence and the people who lose are always the campesinos and indigenous peoples.''