golden promises dross reality

Crumple a piece of paper, then slowly pull it back out to about half its original length. The deeply creased and broken surface could easily stand in…

Crumple a piece of paper, then slowly pull it back out to about half its original length. The deeply creased and broken surface could easily stand in for the highlands of Guatemala.

Any travel off the paved Pan American Highway, which carries traffic from Mexico on south to El Salvador or the Ruta Atlantico, which takes you down to the Caribbean banana port town of Puerto Barrios promises to be an arduous adventure.

Travel on one of the recycled school buses that link off main road communities to the market towns only adds to the thrill.

In tightly packed buses passengers cushion each other from centrifugal forces as the driver whips around hairpin turns on narrow roads high up on the shoulder of some hill.

If that doesn’t induce ‘mareo’ (or road sickness) then the dash down into some valley towards an obligatory narrow, one-lane bridge and then the stomach lifting dip before he tries to get as far up the next slope before down shifting, will.

San Miguel Ixtahuacán lies only about 320 kilometres northwest by air from Guatemala City, the capital of this Central American republic of nearly 13 million people.

However given the reality of Guatemalan topography and the state of its roads it takes about eight hours travel time to get there according to Dawn Paley. She is an independent journalist and Rights Action member who visited the Yukon earlier this week.

The small town of San Miguel Ixtahuacan plays a central role in Paley’s recounting of recent Guatemalan history, which has been as troubled and broken as its landscape.

She focused particularly in on the role that the mining industry has had in it. Canadian mining corporations have had a high and regrettably not all that positive profile in this story.

Near San Miguel Ixtahuacan the Vancouver based Goldcorp Inc., the world’s second-largest gold mining company, has a open pit, cyanide leach process gold mine.

Even before construction began on the Marlin mine in 2003 there was. In this Mayan area of Guatemala most of the indigenous peoples eke out their living through farming small subsistence plots.

Already squeezed onto the most marginal lands by traditional landowning oligarchs whose priority is the export of crops such as coffee, sesame seed, bananas and cotton, the campesino families faced new pressure from Goldcorp.

Some farmers felt they were unfairly forced from their land to make way for the mine.

Dawn Paley noted that numerous killings have also been associated with its opening. Thousands of others feel threatened by the environmental impact of the Marlin mine.

Last week local and national organizations in Guatemala “expressed their concern that the Marlin Mine (Goldcorp Inc.) is about to discharge liquid waste that is a byproduct of gold extraction in San Marcos,” Alberto Ramírez reported in a Prensa Libre article.

“It is believed that this waste contains metal residue that can contaminate the Cuilco River basin,” which flows north into the Grijalva River and on into Mexico.

Tens of thousands of people rely on these rivers for their drinking water, irrigation and other domestic uses.

Ian Tefler, the Chairman of Goldcorp, reportedly earned US$23 million last year. Goldcorp also showed nearly a half a billion dollars in profits.

Projects like the Marlin mine reward their executives and shareholders like the Canada Pension Plan and the Ontario Teachers Pension fund handsomely.

However what long-term impact do they have on a vulnerable country like Guatemala? Paley noted that over 50 per cent of all the children there are malnourished.

When will the gold taken from their lands be more than dross for them? Will they be left in a decade or so when the mine closes with just a wrecked landscape and polluted rivers?

What is our role as Canadians in assuring the just and environmentally sustainable actions of our corporations overseas?

For more information’ go to the Rights Action website at www.rightsaction.org.