Survival on the front lines: Guatemalan human rights defenders and Canadian Mining

By Alin Ibrahim


This text focuses on how Canadian mining industry has impacted the social, health, political and environmental fabric of Guatemalan society. These impacts will be illustrated through a case study on the Escobal mine in San Rafael Los Flores. Secondly, the position of the Canadian government on holding Canadian mining companies accountable to their actions will be discussed. Thirdly, a reflection on the way forward in the fight for justice will follow. Finally, a list of sources and suggestions for further reading will be provided.

The purpose of this text is tripartite: (1) to exemplify the active and insidious repercussions of Canadian mining on the lives of Guatemalans, (2) to give a voice to affected individuals and communities in Guatemala, and (3) to promote solidarity and awareness to effect change. One necessary change involves holding accountable Canadian mining companies to Canadian laws in cases where they operate in countries whose legal system is endemic with corruption and impunity. 


This idea of this text was born out of participating in Education in Action’s [EIA] 2019 delegation in Guatemala. The aim of EIA is to build solidarity with grassroots initiatives promoting human rights by means of education and awareness about problems occurring in Guatemala. These problems include the struggle for access to clean water for farming, access of water for drinking and cooking in rural communities, communities to have access to consultations prior to extractive industry being granted exploitation licenses, as well as women’s rights.

Understandably, this text relies heavily on first-person testimony and lived experience of those who have been affected by the Canadian mining industry in Guatemala.

These sources are comprised of people affiliated with, or official reports composed by:

  • Comité Campesino del Altiplano, the Committee of High Plains Farmers, known by its Spanish acronym CCDA
  • Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG
  • Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders –Guatemala, known by its English acronym UDEFEGUA
  • Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social de Guatemala, Environmental and Social Legal Action Center of Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym CALAS
  • Centro de Estudios Conservacionistas, Center for Conservation Studies, known by its Spanish acronym CECON
  • Amnesty International and public news print sources.


In 1948, exactly seventy-one years ago, the United Nations produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereon referred to as the Declaration). This document outlines a list of rights that are deemed universal and applicable to all humans. As Canadians there is a consensus among the population that we enjoy many of the human rights listed in the Declaration. While participating the EIA delegation, we were shocked to learn about the numerous allegations of human rights violations against Canadian mining companies.

Prior to arriving in Guatemala, we, the participants in the delegation were briefed both by Guatemalan and Canadian individuals active in the struggle for human rights in Guatemala. During the delegation, we met with many community leaders who shared difficult stories of their struggle to access human rights as outlined in the Declaration. Some of the rights not afforded to citizens and activists are highlighted throughout the text. Despite prior briefings about the issues faced by Guatemalan farmers and rural communities, the stories we heard directly from the source were hard to swallow. The teachings and facts from these stories are below.

The Escobal mine

The Escobal mine in Santa Rosa, Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Tahoe Resources found as posted on


The Escobal mine was owned by Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources and was the world’s third largest silver mine. Minera San Rafael, the Guatemalan subsidiary of Tahoe Resources, began commercial production in 2014. To get a sense of its output, the mine produced over 600,000 kg of concentrate in 2016. The mine is about 3 km from San Rafael, a rural community comprised of mainly non-Mayan Indigenous Xinca farmers. On November 15, 2018, the Canadian company Pan American Silver announced it was purchasing Tahoe Resources for $1.1 billion, including the Escobal mine.

In May 2017, CALAS, a human rights organization focusing on denouncing abuses committed by the mining industry in Guatemala, advanced a legal case against Minera San Rafael, alleging the company “violated the local indigenous people’s right of consultation in advance of granting the Escobal mining license” (Els, 2017). CALAS is referring to the United Nation’s instruments titled Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (C169), and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 1989, and 2007, respectively. Article 19 of the latter instrument declares, “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them” (United Nations, 2007).

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Select articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Beginning in June 2017, blockades on the main road leading to the mine were formed by protestors from nearby communities curtailing operations (Els, 2017). Minera San Rafael filed an appeal to the action CALAS brought against the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM). However, the appeal failed as the Guatemalan Supreme Court upheld the suspension of the Escobal exploitation license in July 2017.

Several months later, in March 2018, the constitutional court “asked for several independent reviews—of the mine’s environmental impacts, of the consultation process that led the mine to be licensed and of the impacts on the Xinca” (Webster, 2019, p. 27). Escobal’s license will be reinstated pending court-mandated consultations with the local Xinca inhabitants on September 2018 (Webster, 2019, p. 27). The initial blockades have transformed into encampments that are staffed around-the-clock by protestors from nearby communities, ensuring fuel and supplies do not enter the mine.  During the delegation, we visited both of the encampments near Escobal and as of March 2019, operations continue to be halted, however land defenders are afraid of Pan American Silver Company’s desire to re-initiate operations by the end of 2019.

photo of the Escobal mine (top right) in Santa Rosa, Guatemala taken from the highway. Note the proximity of the mine to nearby established homes

A sign reads: “I am from San Rafael Las Flores and the mine only brought social conflict to our communities.” Obtained from BTS

Meeting with activists at the Xinca Parliament

In Canadian courts, Tahoe Resources is involved in a legal action put forward by Guatemalan protestors. The protesters allege that some individuals were subjected to violent attacks and live fire in 2013 at a peaceful protest adjacent to the mine while construction was underway. The delegation met with Luis Fernando Garcia, an individual who was present at the protest referred to in the legal action on March 7, 2019. It was at the Xinca Parliament in Santa Rosa Cuilapa, about 50 km away from the Escobal mine where we also heard a presentation by Emy Gomez, a project coordinator for the Xinca Parliament.

Luis Fernando comes from a family of farmers. He stated that on April 27, 2013 he and his father were subject to violence and abuse carried out by security guards outside the Escobal mine. On that date, the head of security ordered security guards to shoot protestors with rubber and live bullets. Both Luis and his father suffered gunshot wounds, and were able to obtain assistance for the required surgeries through Amnesty International. Several days following the live fire, Minera San Rafael began operations of Escobal.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Select articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Subsequently, Luis and others who were present at the protest were subject to harassment and threats by agents representing Minera San Rafael. He recalled that intelligence was collected on each individual at the protest. The injustices experienced by land defenders, such as him and members of farming communities across the country, is a vital reason for studying law. He is the first individual in his family who is pursuing higher education in place of making a living by farming. Luis Fernando and other land defenders face a livelihood constantly “under threats and violence, including injuries and deaths” (Amnesty International, 2014, p. 3).

Luis mentioned the threats, hostility, acts of intimidation, and attacks were not exclusively instigated by the mining company, but were raised by pro-mining members of his own and nearby communities. His family personally suffered from the “division and resentment” that arose in his community due to conflicts between the land defenders and pro-mining members (Amnesty International, 2014, p. 3). He explained how families who are desperate for economic gains at any environmental cost are proponents for mining and extractive industries.

Luis shared with us another personal experience resulting from the division and resentment within his community, namely, when pro-mining teachers refused to teach children whose families are land defenders in local community schools. To add insult to injury, the water was cut off from Luis’ family home by pro-mining neighbors. Luis recounted an unfortunate tragedy where pro-mining members of his community attacked the children of land defenders. In this specific case, a child became deaf as a result of rocks thrown and causing injuries to the head.

After Luis presented, it was time for Emy Gomez to supplement our understanding of to the social and political repercussions of the Escobal mine.  Emy elaborated on its harmful effects on human and environmental health. She noted that during construction, Minera San Rafael had clear-cut 24 year-old medicinal trees and plants, replacing them with eucalyptus. That plant requires large quantities of water to survive and is used strategically by mining industry as an indicator of ground mineral content. A complaint was forwarded by communities concerned about the clear-cutting of the medicinal trees which play an important role in the ecosystem of nearby coffee, vegetable, and plant farms. Since March 7, 2019, the communities are holding consultations and seeking legal support in order to move forward.

Emy indicated that communities nearby Escobal obtained a 99% consensus opposing mining. This consensus indicated to the government that the Xinca and other Indigenous Peoples in the area are not interested in the construction of the mine; however the government issued the exploitation license anyway. Those communities are not interested in being paid for health problems resulting from arsenic contaminated water from the mine, nor the building or painting of community schools. For the communities, the future of their children and posterity trumps any minor economic growth that could result from allowing mines to operate.

Escobal mine encampments: Active resistance on the front lines

After meeting with Emy and Luis at the Xinca parliament we visited the Escobal mine and met with individuals on their shifts at the encampments in Mataquescuintla. In turns, community members introduced themselves and presented their names, the community they live in, and explained why staffing the encampments is important to them.

To ensure twenty-four hour supervision of the main road leading to the mine, individuals from neighboring communities volunteer in shifts to conduct surveillance and grant entry to local vehicles. One member who was on shift at the first encampment specified the perils the mine has had on the environment and human health. Specifically, he noted that San Rafael and nearby communities were affected by arsenic contamination in their water and in their produce. He continued: “because the mine is on top of a hill, the discharge of the water can reach the coast. It is alarming. We have also found traces of arsenic in community members who were administered blood tests.”

He indicated another by-product of the mine has been earthquakes, one of which has horribly affected a neighbouring community called La Cuchilla. Homes there had suffered fissures, culminating in total structural collapse and caused people to be crushed to death in their own homes. The community believes the structural damage in the homes formed due to earthquakes produced by the constant vibrations of machinery at the mine. Minera San Rafael compensated affected families with without accepting responsibility for the earthquake or the damage to the homes. However, the affected families did not receive the necessary support to thrive elsewhere as they were forced to disperse to different municipalities and spend their money on rent. Many families returned to La Cuchilla because they had exhausted their financial compensation.

Moreover, when nearby communities demanded Minera San Rafael to take responsibility for the earthquakes, the company denied its involvement, and indicated that the compensation was provided as a gesture of goodwill, not an indication of guilt or responsibility. However, the surrounding communities believe the mine is at fault because it is situated 3 km away from San Rafael instead of the required minimum of 50 km away from inhabited settlements. The community believes the operation of the mine violates the rights of Indigenous People, as they have their own ways of development, construction and livelihood. He finished his presentation by stipulating that “all [the mining companies] give us is the disaster left by the mines… [and when we defend our land] we are being criminalized and assassinated.”

At the second encampment, some members shared with the delegates the reason behind their dedication, effort, and sacrifice to staff the encampment. One member spoke for the communities participating in the encampment shifts: “We are not doing this just for ourselves; we do it to protect Mother Nature, to have a place and a good life for our children.” The reason turned personal as described, “Sometimes I feel very motivated [to defend the land], but sometimes I feel like I am drowning. We have [the strength] in our hearts [to fight] because it is not fair what these companies take away from our community.”

The encampments are simple structures: a basic gazebo with a metal tin roof in order to protect from the weather and provide refuge from the sun. There are plastic lawn chairs next to the main road so that volunteers can view each vehicle, ensuring it is local and belongs to the neighbouring communities. The volunteers observe a mandate to deter vehicles carrying fuel, concrete and supplies required for the mine’s operation. All of the volunteers are farmers and have a vested interest to protect their land and the future of the land for their children and future generations.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Select articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Antonio Camey: a testament to the struggle of land defenders

After we left the encampments we met with Antonio and his spouse, both of whom made an impact on the delegates and left a lasting impression on me. Antonio is a farmer and land defender who stressed the importance of the health and livelihood of future generations when describing why he chooses to defend the land. During his emotional and moving presentation outside of his home, he underscored several ramifications of mining in his community.

These include:

  • Twenty-six wells of water have dried up, the remaining water has been contaminated with arsenic;
  • When he and other farmers try to sell their produce to other towns and Guatemala City, markets do not want to buy the products because of contamination;
  • Destruction of the town of La Cuchilla (earthquake destroying houses and killing people)
  • Prostitution; and
  • Criminalization of peaceful protestors against the mine.

Antonio shared his personal experience of criminalization for his peaceful protest activity, and showed the delegates his legal file enclosing the charges he is facing. One of the photos that the mining company provided the court as evidence against him shows Antonio holding his phone and a water bottle in his pants pocket. However, the mining company drew circles around different aspects of the photo, alleging the water bottle was a Molotov cocktail, and that he was about to ignite it with a lighter which was actually his phone. 

Antonio also illustrated the ways by which he and his family’s human rights have been violated. Specifically, he was the target of threats and attacks on his person and farm property. He shared how he and his family live in fear of being targeted for attack by the mining company’s agents. He also indicated that his family’s economic livelihood has depended mostly on his spouse who sells ice cream to earn a living. Very few markets are willing to purchase his crops because his farm is near the Escobal mine, which adds additional stress and suffering to his family’s already difficult lifestyle.

Antonio Camey, Luis Garcia and other land and human rights defenders feel they are acting in the spirit of what they deem to be right: the protection of the land and its resources, as well as the right to be consulted by government and industry prior to the construction of any industry infrastructure.  These requests are basic human rights, and have been highlighted throughout the text. The fight for defending the land is a sensible struggle, especially because of the multidimensional ramifications the Escobal mine has had on its neighbouring people, economy and land.

These negative impacts are reiterated in a report by CECON, who in partnership with Virginia Tech University has examined the social, economic, and environmental repercussions of the Escobal mine. The CECON’s findings were presented in late February 2019 in Guatemala City. Raúl M. Grijalva, a U.S. Member of Congress, wrote a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to condemn Pan American Silver’s extracting activities in the Escobal mine. The letter summarizes some of the findings of the CECON report “clearly [demonstrating] the negative environmental and economic impact of the mine” (Grijalva, 2019). They include:

  • An analysis conducted by Virginia Tech University shows that of the 33 water sources studied in the three municipalities surrounding the mine, 13 contain the presence of heavy metals above the amount considered safe for human consumption. 
  • The levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium are sufficiently high enough to produce health problems in the long run in the municipalities surrounding the mine.
  • The mine has not brought economic prosperity to the region.
  • Communities have not had the opportunity to influence decision making around the mine in a meaningful way, lacking access to technical documents and support in understanding them.
  • Communities have expressed widespread opposition to this project: a municipal consultation process registered 98% opposition to mining on local lands.
  • Local community members opposed to the mine have experienced human rights abuses and criminalization of protest. (Grijalva, 2019)
Antonio Camey (left in blue) and family, with members of his community and the 2019 EIA delegates.

The Government of Canada’s position: Visiting the Canadian embassy

 On March 14, 2019 the delegates visited the Canadian embassy and spoke with Karolina Guay, political counsellor; Monica Izaruirre, political affairs; Dominic Salolt, and another embassy officer. I presented them with the findings of the CECON report as well as shared the experiences of Antonio Camey and Luis Garcia.

I personally asked the following questions:

  1. What is the Canadian government’s official position if the Xinca consultations conclude their decision is against the development of a mine in their community?
  2. How does Canada hold Canadian mining companies in Guatemala accountable to Indigenous people especially if the companies do not honour the Government of Canada’s 10 Principles of Engaging with Indigenous People?

Karolina responded the embassy continues to be in dialogue with mining companies and the Government of Guatemala, and works to inform companies to adhere appropriately to Canadian business and human rights principles. She added, the embassy is a government agency and not a business, and as a result, the embassy faces limitations with respect to enforcing Canadian principles because it does not have the appropriate authority, nor the platform from which to act.  Karolina agreed that more must be done and dialogue at many levels must take place.

My understanding of the Canadian embassy’s position is the embassy’s hands are tied because it cannot step out of its delegated level of authority. The embassy indicated the appropriate authority to deal with these matters is the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). This individual is tasked to independently investigate complaints of human rights abuse at the hands of Canadian companies, to make public recommendations for remedies, and to monitor the implementation of those recommendations (Global Affairs Canada (a), 2019).

The Council of Canadians (COC), a Canadian not-for-profit organization acting for social justice, wrote a letter on February 20, 2019, addressed to Francois-Philippe Champagne, Minister of

Infrastructure and Communities, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, indicating concerns about the objectivity of the CORE. The Council of Canadians explained the CORE would face unique challenges, including:

The new ombudsperson will face enormous pressure to avoid antagonizing Canadian industry overseas. The Canadian mining industry in particular is expert at professing dedication to corporate social responsibility and respect for human and environmental rights while blatantly doing the opposite.

As is so often the case, we believe that the devil will be in the details and it is the precise mechanism by which the ombudsperson functions that will determine whether it will represent an opportunity for real accountability to victims of abuses by Canadian businesses overseas (The Council of Canadians, 2018).

The COC’s concern regarding transparency, objectivity and fairness of a government body conducting investigations, exercising authority, and having the tools in order to administer fines and legal recourse, is warranted. Many instances of human rights violations conducted by

Canadian mining companies abroad have been illustrated and it is clear that an Ombudsperson with specialized knowledge of the situation is necessary.

In their letter, the COC also asserts that, to be effective, this ombudsperson must:

  • Operate independently, transparently, free from political interference and autonomously from the Minister of International Trade and from Global Affairs
  • Canada, including in the administration of its operational budget.
  • Be empowered to conduct effective investigations, with the authority to summon witnesses and the tools needed to compel corporate disclosure.
  • Report publicly on investigation findings, including findings of wrongdoing, as well as recommendations for remedy.
  • Make recommendations regarding harm prevention; remedy; corporate eligibility for government support; and policy and law reforms needed to prevent and address corporate wrongdoing that result in meaningful action and consequences.
  • Be well-resourced both financially and with the necessary expertise and staff levels so as to be able to respond effectively and in a timely way to complaints.
  • Engage in monitoring and follow-up.
  • Have no impact on the right of victims to bring forward a legal action in court in any jurisdiction in Canada regarding allegations of harms committed by a Canadian company abroad. (The Council of Canadians, 2018)

According to Global Affairs Canada, on April 8 2019, Sheri Meyerhoffer was appointed as the first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. Presently the Office of the Ombudsperson is not established and it is unknown when the office will be operational (Global Affairs Canada (b), 2019). Moreover, one would be wise to have a realistic expectation on the extent to which the CORE would exercise their duties up to full capacity in the search for justice and accountability.

Looking Forward: Where do we go from here?

The events and situations outlined in this text provide a miniscule glimpse of the struggles faced by communities in Guatemala due to the mining industry. In the global context, there exists a trend of human rights violations when foreign economic interests and poor legal systems combine forces. In these cases, Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens of countries with less economic development suffer the detrimental effects on their health, and pay the economic, political and environmental price.

A simple internet search with key terms, including “Canadian mining companies” and “Africa” or

“South America”, produce innumerable articles. Some articles cover the devastating effects of extractive industry in countries across Central and South America and Africa, and others are biased in favour of the industry and advertise the “great economic benefits” the industry brings to the region. It is easy to feel overwhelmed after learning about the difficulties and struggles for justice experienced by the individuals discussed in this text.

However, we must be proactive in order to effect change and show solidarity with those individuals who are courageous and unwavering in their actions for justice. We may ask ourselves, “What can we do about this? Can we make a difference from thousands of kilometres away?” The answer is yes we can and below are some suggestions on how to do so.

  1. Education and raising awareness: The individuals mentioned in this text requested for their stories to be shared. We can teach others about, and raising awareness of, the struggle against Canadian mining in the fight for basic human rights and respect for Indigenous People’s right to autonomy. Raising awareness and speaking of the facts of what has happened to the individuals, families and communities who choose to defend their land, culture, and livelihoods are important. This text alongside the many conversations, presentations, articles, blogging posts and social media posts, work on this. However, education is not enough on its own.
  1. Utilising existing measures: When the Office of the Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise becomes operational, individuals are able to submit public inquiries online and by mail. We must utilise this resource to illustrate to the government that we, conscientious citizens, exist and we are willing to pressure the government to hold Canadian companies accountable.
  1. Join social justice organizations, follow the news and social media on social justice issues: In Canada, there are organizations that act for social justice initiatives in Guatemala and abroad. In addition to the PSAC’s Social Justice Fund, two other organizations include ‘Breaking the Silence - Maritime Chapter,’ and ‘The Council of Canadians’. Connecting with organizations who work on current human rights issues provides a way to contribute to spreading the word, as well as participate in grassroots initiatives working to pressure the government and industry to act differently. Some ways social justice organisations do this is by organising marches and protests, writing letters to members of parliament, and bringing affected individuals to Canada to publicly share their experiences.
  1. Seek out information about social justice struggles in your own community, province and country. Often, the issues faced in Guatemala and abroad, are parallel to the problems faced by communities in our own country. The struggle for justice in Canada for indigenous people, access to clean drinking water, and food security is a live issue. Obtaining legal success at home sets a precedence for potential success and justice abroad.

Suggestions for further reading

Breaking the Silence (BTS): Maritime Chapter

Breaking the Silence’s Stacey Gomez’ article “Still waiting for an effective mining Ombudsperson”

The Council of Canadians: Acting for Social Justice

CECON’s website

Government of Canada’s official website on Responsible Business Conduct Abroad

Works Cited

Amnesty International. (2014). Mining in Guatemala: Rights at risk. London: Amnesty International.

The Council of Canadians. (2018, 01 22). New Human Rights Watchdog Announced; But Will It Have Teeth? (R. Small, Ed.) Retrieved 04 07, 2019, from The Council of Canadians: Comment: link to the Open Letter to Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Champagne is on bottom of page.

Els, Frik (2017, 09 11). Tahoe shares surge after Guatemala ruling. Retrieved 04 09, 2019, from

Global Affairs Canada (a). (2019, 04 08). Responsible business conduct abroad - Questions and answers. Retrieved 04 08, 2019, from Global Affairs Canada:

Global Affairs Canada (b). (2019, 04 18). Canada’s Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. Retrieved 04 08, 2019, from Global Affairs Canada:

Grijalva, R. M. (2019, 02 22). URGENT: Co-Sign Letter Urging Sec. of State to Condemn Silver Mine’s Environmental and Social Impacts in Guatemala’s Indigenous Communities. Retrieved 04 09, 2019, from

Jamasmie, Cecilia (2018, 09 04). Tahoe’s Escobal mine licence to remain suspended — Guatemalan court. Retrieved 04 09, 2019, from

United Nations. (2007). United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. United Nations.

Webster, P. C. (2019, 03 01). A long Road. The Globe and Mail: Report on Business, 35(6), pp. 22-29.