EL ESTOR, GUATEMALA–Famed for having hosted an INCO nickel mining project from the early 60s until the mid 80s, Guatemala’s El Estor is back in the spotlight. Three years ago, Vancouver-based Skye Resources took up the reigns of their predecessors, promising another round of development and jobs for local people. From the ground, however, round after round of violent evictions are the most striking characteristic of the presence of the mining company in the region.
In mid-September, 2006, after years of living five or more families to a lot in the overcrowded town of Chichipate — located just west of El Estor — six groups comprising more than 400 families moved onto lands belonging to the Guatemalan subsidiary of Skye Resources, Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel (CGN). The vast majority of the people that took part in what some have called “land invasions” are Mayan Q’eqchi’ peasant farmers. Their principle desire is to have enough land to support their families through subsistence agriculture.
Barrio RevoluciÃ³n is one of the newly settled communities in the area. It sprang up in recent months on lands that have been unused and unproductive for decades. In the face of much adversity — including one forced eviction on November 12 — community members built and rebuilt thatched-roof houses and a gathering place, organized regular meetings and had started planting crops of corn and beans.
I first visited the community in early December, after the first eviction. People showed me their thatched-roof houses, many still under construction; their gathering place, made up of a large palm roof hoisted upon beams, with a smoothed earthen floor and hand-made benches; and where they had started planting crops of corn and beans. Regardless of the difficulties of the last eviction, there was a sense of hope in the community that was tangible.
Dona Fidelia, an elder living in RevoluciÃ³n, explained at the time that, “We are recuperating our lands, not invading them. Some of us were born on these lands, before any mining company arrived in the area.” Referring to EXMIBAL, the nickel company that mining giant INCO introduced in the region in the 1960s, Fidelia said: “EXMIBAL was not here first, our parents were.” In 2004, EXMIBAL was bought by Skye Resources and began exploration on the renamed “Fenix Project” as CGN.
The community cemetery bears testament to her words, with headstones dating from the 1920s. It lies in the heart of RevoluciÃ³n. When EXMIBAL began to buy and clear lands in the 1960s, the people living there were coaxed out or forced out. Some were murdered. In a steady voice, Fidelia explains what happened to her parents, who “actively and physically participated in defending their lands; activities for which they paid with their lives.” Stories such as Fidelia’s are not out of the ordinary for the peasant population in the area, many of whom lost friends, leaders and families in the internal conflict that plagued
Although some things have undoubtedly changed since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, a climate of fear and uncertainty has been maintained by CNG-Skye Resources since land reoccupations began in September. Locals I met with in December told of bi-weekly helicopter flyovers, fruitless meetings with company representatives who would not allow community members to bring legal representation or translators and of a horrifying night of military and police evictions that took place in November, when hundreds of police and army personnel arrived to remove people from the lands.
The first eviction took place on November 12 and was carried out without an order signed by a judge, which is required under Guatemalan law. In statements reminiscent of the days of EXMIBAL, eyewitness testimonies from the night of the evictions related that groups of police and troops were deployed from within the boundaries of company property — some using company vehicles — to evict people from their homes.
RevoluciÃ³n was faced with a second eviction order on December 27, 2006. The Christmastime eviction order appeared to be an attempt on behalf of CGN-Skye Resources to “go legal” — to follow procedures for eviction from private land as dictated by Guatemalan law. On the morning of the 27th, the people in RevoluciÃ³n were organized and expecting the worst and it was only by listening to a local radio station did residents learn that the eviction would not take place.
The sense of relief was fleeting, however. Another eviction notice was filed for January 8, 2007.