Original article published by Foreign Policy in Focus.

Written by: Ellen Moore & Jen Moore

Photo Credit: Xinka Parliament

Rising corruption in Guatemala threatens landmark legal victories by Indigenous activists defending their land from mining.

The large-scale extraction of gold, silver, and other metals has large-scale impacts. Each industrial mega-mine leaves behind millions of tons of toxic waste, often polluting water supplies in perpetuity. Huge and permanent scars on the land, such as deep tunnels or pits, also remain.

Just as devastating are less visible harms on the social fabric and well-being of rural and Indigenous people, which often start even before a company gets a drill in the ground. That’s why throughout Latin America, the violent imposition of large-scale mining projects has sparked mass movements of people willing to stand up and fight back to protect what they value most: water, land, health, and diverse ways of life.

This has certainly been the case in Guatemala, where neoliberal reforms to the mining law opened the door to foreign investment shortly after the 1996 Peace Accords ended a 36-year internal armed conflict.

The development of the World Bank-supported Marlin mine in the northwestern highlands, the first industrial mine to advance after the Peace Accords, quickly led to repression and violence against the Maya Indigenous communities who opposed its construction in the early 2000s. Health and environmental impacts from the gold and silver mine soon followed.

People’s movements across the country learned from this experience.

Within a few years, Indigenous and farming communities throughout Guatemala held plebiscites, took to the streets, and petitioned the courts to oppose other mining projects. In recent years, as a result of community direct action and successful legal challenges over the lack of prior consultation with Indigenous people, the courts have ordered the suspension of the country’s three industrial metal mines and mandated the government to carry out consultations with affected communities.

These were unprecedented decisions. However, as our new report for Earthworks explains, powerful interests are striking back, and the headway gained in the country’s top court is at risk — along with much else — as Guatemala’s entire judicial system is under attack.

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