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Inside the turbulent Guatemalan movement against Canadian mining

The lawsuit filed against Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources in BC's Supreme Court has shone a light on the Guatemalans who have been speaking out against a Canadian mining company for years. Third in a series.

A young boy and his father attend an anti-mining rally in Nueva Santa Rosa
A young boy and his father attend an anti-mining rally in the town of Nueva Santa Rosa, 22 kilometres from the silver mine owned by Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources. Photograph by Joshua Hergesheimer

I'm taking his picture when two loud pops crack open the sky. Tires squeal, heads turn, people duck for cover. The truck screeches around the corner, gone in a heartbeat. Seconds later, just faint black lines left behind on the road…and two shells from a .45, still hot to the touch.

Juan Samayoa holds two shell casings from a .45 fired outside the anti-mining rally in the town of Nueva Santa Rosa, near the Escobal mine. Photo by Joshua Hergesheimer

The boy turns toward his father, who covers him and glances warily around. The pair were in the parking lot of a dining hall in Nueva Santa Rosa, a town in southeastern Guatemala, where people had gathered to oppose a Canadian-owned silver mine in the town of San Rafael las Flores, 22 kilometres away. I run to the road and watch Juan Samayoa scoop up the bullet casings with the brim of his hat. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Samayoa's wife escort their son inside the hall.

The people who came here to support Enrique Arredondo, the mayor of Nueva Santa Rosa, aren’t naïve. To them, these are warning shots, and the message is clear: dissent is dangerous.

Arredondo is one of just two mayors who has refused to sign on to the voluntary royalty payments offered by Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources – the company that owns the Escobal mine in Guatemala – royalty payments that Ira Gostin, Vice President of Investor Relations, says are designed to spread the economic benefits of the mine to outlying communities. 

Gostin says that while Guatemalan law requires mining companies to pay a royalty of 1 per cent of net smelter returns, Tahoe is going above and beyond, offering up to 5 per cent, a portion of which is distributed to the municipalities surrounding the town of San Rafael las Flores, where the mine is located. The majority of the mayors in the region have already signed on, Gostin points out – for him, that demonstrates strong local support for Escobal. "There are only two communities who have refused our royalty payments," he tells me, "and those communities are the ones losing out. It's sad."

While Arredondo's refusal to accept Tahoe's royalty payments may be good politics – the residents of Nueva Santa Rosa voted 98.8 per cent against mining in 2011 – he is paying a heavy personal price for his anti-mining stance. 

Arredondo claimed to have received "more death threats that he can count," and locals tell me he travels with his own private security detail – the only people he feels he can trust. So by coming out to the rally to publicly support Arredondo, ordinary families like Juan Samayoa's are placing themselves – and their children – on the front lines of this conflict.

"You see what we happens when we speak out in this country?" Rufino Pinyeda says, as Samayoa holds up the shell casings to the crowd. "There are young children here," Pineda gestures towards the boy I just photographed, and shakes his head.

"What does this intimidation teach the next generation? To stand up for what they believe is right, or to be afraid?"

Five minutes later, word spreads through the crowd: Mayor Arredondo has arrived. Now people surge into the dining hall – filing into aisles, filling row upon row of plastic chairs. Soon, it is standing room only; people cluster around the door, gather near the open windows. The air inside is thick and I'm sweating – I'd much rather be outside – but don't want to exit and risk being unable to reenter.

The microphone squeals as the P.A. is switched on. An older man stands, raises his arms and bows his head. Then, as if on command, the people rise in unison, men remove their hats. Nuestro Senor…

The mayor sits down at long table at front, flanked on each side by his supporters. One by one the speakers come forward, introduce themselves, explain how they came to be part of the opposition to the silver mine, put forward their views on the best course of action.

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