Health, environment and society: An industry with multiple and serious impacts

Gold and silver deposits are found deep in the ground or high on the mountains. The coveted metals must be mined from the rock that contains them. The most popular gold mining technique in Guatemala is open-pit mining, which companies favour due to its low cost – this is the case for three of the four mining projects dealt with in this toolkit. The process requires explosions, grinding, leaching, the induction of chemical reactions, retention and decantation in basins, and more. It requires the use – or the release – of various products,16 some of which are highly toxic, such as cyanide, arsenic, mercury and lead. Mining also requires a huge quantity of water.17 Under Guatemala’s mining laws, companies are not required to pay any taxes on the use of the water sources they deplete or contaminate. Water contamination causes serious problems and the consequences for people’s public health and the environment, which outlast the life of the operations.

The access of communities and individuals to life, security and a healthy environment are recognized as fundamental rights by several instruments of international law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mining companies see a potential for profits in the deposits, while ignoring the human and environmental impacts and the economic costs of the long-term damage caused. A recent OXFAM report and various scientific studies show that if the human and environmental costs were included in the companies’ costs/profits calculation, mining megaprojects such as the Marlin and Escobal mines would be seem unquestionably ridiculous and abhorrent.18

Due to the economic interests at play, the documentation and the denunciation of the catastrophic impacts of the mining industry are far from being fully understood. The people who attempt to raise awareness are often the subjects of assaults and very serious threats. In 2012, more than half of the attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala targeted individuals or organizations that fight for environmental protection in contexts of mining or hydroelectric megaprojects.

Some major impacts of the mining industry in Guatemala19

THE ENVIRONMENT HUMAN HEALTH COMMUNITY AND SOCIAL ECONOMY
  • Changes to the ecosystems and mountain degradation.
  • Depletion of vital water sources for the community.
  • Contamination of water sources and water tables with arsenic and mercury.
  • Farming soil impoverishment and crop destruction.
  • Diseases and death of wild animals and domestic livestock.
  • Spontaneous abortions and newborn deaths.
  • Respiratory illness caused by the presence of carcinogenic dust in the air.
  • Birth defects.
  • Skin conditions and rashes.
  • Dangerous concentrations of arsenic, copper, zinc and mercury in the blood.
  • Division amongst communities, sometimes violent conflicts.
  • Forced and sometimes brutal displacement of populations in regions coveted for its minerals.
  • Appearance of canteens for mine workers leads to rapid increase in problems of alcoholism, the prostitution industry and an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Persecution, criminalization, attacks and murders in communities or of individuals that oppose the mining industry. There is a climate of tension and terror.
  • Destruction of dwellings caused by the use of mine explosives.

  1. Action Ressources Naturelles, Mines d’or : exploration, développement, production et valorisation, Paris, 2011, en ligne : http://www.spgp.fr/export/sites/default/fr/_data/DOCS/fund_the_tectonic_fund/SPGP_TheTectonicFund_MinesdOr_ExplorationDeveloppementProductionValorisation.pdf 

  2. FEPS Fondation de l’Eau potable sûre, rapport Exploitation minières et la pollution de l’eau, rapport en ligne : http://www.safewater.org/PDFS/knowthefacts/frenchfactsheets/exploitationminierepollutioneau.pdf 

  3. OXFAM America, rapport Metals Mining and Sustainable Development in Central America, An Assessment of Benefits and Costs, Thomas M. Power, 2008 

  4. OXFAM America, rapport Metals Mining and Sustainable Development in Central America, an Assessment of Benefits and Costs, Thomas M. Power, 2008; Zarsky and Stanley, Searching for Gold in the Highlands of Guatemala: Economic benefits and environmental risks of the Marlin Mine, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, septembre 2011; Unité de protection des défenseurs et défenderesses des droits humains (UDEFEGUA), Quitemonos el Tabu, defendemos nuestros derechos. rapport annuel 2012; FEPS Fondation de l’Eau potable sûre, rapport Exploitation minières et la pollution de l’eau; Silvia Gonzalez, biologiste, rapport Impactos ambientales y en la salud humana de la minería a cielo abierto para la extracción de oro utilizando lixiviación con soluciones de cianuro en ligne, www.conflictosmineros.net; America’s Policy Group, Briefing Note Mining; E-Tech international, rapport Evaluation of Predicted and Actual Water Quality Conditions at the Marlin Mine; pour des compléments d’informations voir la liste des organisations vouées à la documentation des enjeux miniers.