Indigenous People’s Struggles against Transnational Mining Companies in Guatemala: The Sipakapa People vs GoldCorp Mining Company*

Simona V. Yagenova and Rocío

Territory and Struggle Under Neoliberalism

The global context has a decisive influence on the form and content of people's struggles. The cycle of social struggles currently underway in Guatemala is partly a response to structural and historical demands, which have never been democratically resolved. But it is also a response to new factors spurred by a new strategy of capital accumulation and its competition on a global scale for markets, cheap manual labor, and natural resources.

Between 2005 and 2008, the country experienced a total of 1,482 protests – 312, 417, 364 and 389 each year, respectively. The increasing number and variety of demands that motivate men and women to step out into the streets and engage in protest activity reflects the growing organizational capacity of Guatemalan society in the post-war era. Indeed, protests have intensified and expanded territorially in recent years. The protagonists of these protests come from an increasing multiplicity of social forces, but the community-subject (sujeto-comunitario) has become one of the most important.1 The preponderant role of the community-subject in protests indicates the rural citizenry's growing disaffection and capacity to organize socially and enforce its rights. The protests are territorially grounded, reflecting the unsatisfied needs and demands arising from daily life. They do not necessarily reflect nationwide strategies of struggle. Instead, they emerge from the analysis and reflection of local actors, driven by an awareness of their own discontent.2

A significant number of these struggles arise from confrontations between the communities and the projects of transnational mining, hydroelectric, and oil companies. Despite numerous community-led referenda or consultations,3 all of which have expressed majority opposition to the exploitation of their natural resources and to the presence of transnational capital, the state has responded with violence or indifference by backing the transnational companies' actions, thereby setting the stage for the deepening and radicalization of these conflicts. Undoubtedly, the new cycle of class struggle in the country is situated precisely in the countryside, in the community, and its principle subjects are indigenous peoples and campesino communities.

This resistance is expressed in the strategic slogan, "In Defense of the Territory," promoted by the Council of the Peoples of the West (Consejo de los Pueblos de Occidente), which has strong community support in western Guatemala. The group is already active in six mostly indigenous departments (Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Sololá, Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango and Quiche) – out of a total of 22 departments. What makes its campaign particularly important is that it not only questions the liberal foundations of the state's territorial organization (municipality, region, department) – laying bare the racist and ethnocentric nature of the state and its links with capital as part of a long history of dispossession and occupation – but that it also reconceptualizes the territory as a space of struggle against dispossession by transnational corporations.4

The main protagonists of these new regional struggles are indigenous peoples, who are demanding respect for their culture, institutions, authorities, system of justice, and their territory. The resounding "NO" of the referenda – in which tens of thousands of men and women participated – has strengthened ties, dialogues and alliances among those who until recently had been divided along lines of language, culture, and geography. What began in 2005 as an isolated struggle by the people of Sipakapa against a mining company has evolved into one of Guatemala's most defiant organizing processes.

The criminalization of social protest, a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in recent years, is applied with particular severity when the rebellious protagonists are indigenous peoples and when the interests of capital are at stake.5 A paradigmatic case is the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez in the department of Guatemala in the territory of the Maya-Kaqchikel people, who for two years have resisted the entry of a cement company belonging to a family of the Guatemalan oligarchy. Their struggle has cost them political prisoners, assassinations, threats and harassment, including legal persecution against their leaders.

Finally, the long-standing crisis of the social movements that had been building for some time has now become clearly visible. The crisis stems from their incapacity to (a) develop adequate mechanisms of representation, (b) bring organizational forms up to date, (c) develop new leadership, and (d) advance in the discussion of mechanisms for cross-sector linkages on a national level. The latter difficulty reflects a breakdown in discussions over the nature of an alternative national project and also the fact that positions grounded in counter-hegemonic practices/imaginaries/values are sidelined as tangential to strategic debates.

The process of building unity of action faces a series of difficulties which are in part attributable to differences among the organizations, with their distinct interests, identities, and organizational experiences. Beyond this, the social movements have felt the profound effect of neoliberalism on forms of thinking and acting. In a society deeply scarred by counterinsurgent state violence and the logic of capital, neoliberalism amplifies social fragmentation, impeding attempts to construct a collective popular subject. At present, these difficulties are being most effectively confronted in local and regional spaces, not in national or cross-sector arenas.

Sipakapa qal k´o pirk´ey xik (Sipakapa doesn’t sell out): The Struggle Against GoldCorp

About 15,000 people inhabit the small municipality of Sipakapa6 in the northwestern department of San Marcos. Although most residents belong to the Sipakapense ethnic group of the Maya-Kiché linguistic family, the municipality is situated in a region dominantly populated by Maya-Mam speakers.7 The people of Sipakapa have a long history of defending their territory. In recent years, this history has gained special relevance with their frontal opposition to the intentions of GoldCorp Inc., a Canadian mining company, which has received state support for exploiting local mineral resources.

GoldCorp, whose local subsidiary is Montana Exploradora Guatemalteca, began soliciting exploration/exploitation licenses in 1996 in an area including the municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa San Marcos. The government ultimately granted a license for the Marlin I Mine Project in 2003, approving the extraction of gold, silver, zinc, lead, iron, copper, and mercury.8 In subsequent years, the company acquired large swaths of land through fraudulent offers and maneuvers taking advantage of the precarious conditions and knowledge of campesino families in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where the mine project is currently situated.9 Today, six years later, despite an all-out offensive by the company, GoldCorp has not managed to establish a mine in the municipality of Sipakapa.

The First Popular Consultation Saying NO to Open-pit Mining

Over the last five years, sipakapenses (people from Sipakapa) have resisted the mining project employing a diverse political-juridical repertoire. Based on stipulations included in Guatemala's Peace Agreement, ILO Convention 169, and the municipal legal code (COPAE:2006), along with solidarity from indigenous groups from other departments and the Catholic Church, the people of Sipakapa held the country's first community consultation on June 18, 2005, reaffirming their rejection of the mining project.10 The referendum held in community assemblies was ratified by a municipal agreement, which was later submitted to three separate state entities. At a press conference, the Ombudsman's Office for Human Rights ratified the results as valid and said they should be respected.

The first clash between indigenous peoples and the mining company occurred on January 11, 2005, when residents of the village of Los Encuentros in the western department of Solalá blocked a shipment of GoldCorp mining equipment destined for the department of San Marcos. The action was carried out in solidarity with the people of Sipakapa, who faced the threat of mining projects in their own department. The government unleashed the security forces leaving one campesino dead, 16 gravely wounded, and criminal cases against their leaders, who were charged with terrorism and sedition.11

In the wake of these events, the Regional Council of Indigenous Authorities of the Western Highlands was formed and held its first conference, a two-day event, on March 31/April 1. The conference, dubbed "Mining and the Patrimony of Indigenous Peoples," brought together representatives from the departments of Huehuetenango, El Quiché, San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, Totonicapán y Sololá. The delegates demanded that the state comply with indigenous rights and strictly adhere to ILO Convention 169; they also demanded an end to the criminalization of protest and respect for the territoriality of indigenous groups.12

Charges and Counter-charges: The Mine vs. the People of Sipakapa and San Miguel

Reacting to the June 2005 referendum, the company began a series of legal actions seeking to invalidate it. First, a court from San Marcos department ruled that the actions of the Sipakapa municipality violated the rights of the mining company. Later, Guatemala's Constitutional Court ruled that the referendum was unconstitutionality, which means that popular consultations cannot be binding.

Independently of the outcome of the legal battles – on both national and international stages – this new cycle of struggle for their territories has shown the indigenous peoples that the state and its legal framework neither recognize nor respect their collective rights. After the Constitutional Court's decision, an organizing drive began, aimed at holding popular consultations in all the municipalities of Huehuetenango and San Marcos with the goal of publicly declaring these territories mining-company free. The effort shows that indigenous peoples have decided to exercise their right to self-determination with or without the "approval" the Guatemalan state – an important step both symbolically and politically.

From Resistance to Mining to the Construction of Municipal Popular Power

"The power of the company is money, but we have the power to keep them out." -- Women's Focus Group in Sipakapa

After the June 2005 referendum in Sipakapa, the people initiated a broad repertoire of political and legal actions aimed at simultaneously attacking the company's maneuvers and strengthening internal organizational cohesion.13 With the strategic goal of building alternative popular power and to defend collective rights and the resounding "NO to mining," the Sipakapense Civic Committee (Comité Cívico Sipakapense, or CCS) was founded to compete in the municipal elections of 2007. Its candidate was a teacher, Delfino Tema – a respected anti-mine activist.14

Despite the huge amount of funds received by opposing parties, the CCS won the elections. San Marcos Bishop monsignor Ramazzini, who has backed the struggle against mining, expressed his satisfaction over the committee's victory. The municipality, which today remains in the hands of those leading the fight against the mine, plays a fundamental role in neutralizing the company's attempts to expand its holdings. The municipal government's goals are to maintain unity among the people, promote alternative development projects, raise environmental awareness, and encourage the technical training of specialists in natural resource management. The underlying aim is for the people to value and protect the natural wealth of the municipality and to consolidate their resistance.15

"No industrial activity is as environmentally, socially, and culturally aggressive as open-pit mining"16

The CCS's electoral victory was important not just as an expression of autonomy and self-reliance. It makes possible a local project of territorial development that challenges the previous model of pillage and environmental degradation. It is part of the long tradition of resistance in Sipakapa based on Maya-Sipakapa historical memory and identity that seeks to address the needs and aspirations of its people.

However, managing local power has not been easy. After GoldCorp and its workers were expelled from the center of the municipality in mid-2007, the company opened informational offices in five different communities, using these to intensify its offensive against the municipality. Although the local government has implemented some projects to benefit residents, the company offers cash to those request it for household or community micro-projects. The company has also amassed a group of local lobbyists, who receive $1,000 monthly payments, travel costs (including gas), and vehicles for the purpose of going door to door to extol the benefits of mining and to persuade residents to sell their land. Several families in the community depend on employment with the mine for their livelihoods, and have been forced to disseminate company propaganda, leading to internal tension and conflict. In response to these developments, the municipality in alliance with the Catholic Church is taking measures to strengthen community cohesion and to counteract the divisiveness fostered by the company.

Meanwhile, as Sipakapa resists, the Maya-Mam in San Miguel Ixtahuacán suffer the consequences of the mining project in their territory. The presence of the mining company in the municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, next to Sipakapa, has generated serious internal community conflicts and problems involving the presence of security forces, assassinations, intimidation, threats, health problems, structural damage to homes, and the legal persecution of those who have fought the company. The mine has also created grave environmental problems: clear-cutting of 20 km2 of forest, contaminating ground and surface water with the massive use of cyanide, and the large-scale draining of water.17

Five years since mine was established, the contamination of water with arsenic, magnesium, cyanide, copper, and iron in San Marcos exceeds the standards set by Guatemalan regulations on water quality, which are already much laxer than those accepted by Canada, the United States, and the World Bank.18 Growing cracks in the structure of homes are an increasingly common sight in the villages of San José Ixcaniche and Agel in San Miguel Ixtahuacán. Residents attribute the damage to the dynamite explosions used to expand the open-pit mine and to the vibrations caused by enormous trucks carrying tons of rock. Other effects of the mine include increased skin and respiratory diseases; conflict over the placement of the mine's electrical cables; an uptick in violence, with several dead, wounded, and threatened by the mine's security detail; and the fraying of community relations. All these problems have become features of social relations in San Miguel since the mine began operations.

Legal battles against the company fall on deaf ears in a system of justice moored behind a wall of impunity. Residents of San Miguel Ixtahuacán have seen their protests and peaceful demonstrations turned against them as criminal charges. One case involves seven Maya-Mam women leaders of the community who currently face charges including aggravated usurpation, coercion, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Their troubles began when the company decided to pass a high-voltage power cable, providing electricity for the mine, through their yards and over the houses in the community of Agel in San Miguel Ixtahuacan. The women opposed the move citing possible dangers to the health of their families. In addition to now facing arrest warrants, during 2008 they had several unpleasant run-ins with members of the security forces who were sent by the company to reinstall the electrical lines.

According to a complaint filed at the Permanent People's Tribunal held at the 2008 Social Forum of the Americas, "The women… prevented company technicians from entering Ms. Crisanta's lands. When police advanced, violently threatening to use teargas, and even accosting and threatening the children, the women grew angry and joined arms in a human chain, which the police were unable to break…"191

Demands and the Violation of Rights

According to lawyers for the communities in resisting the mine, the company is in flagrant violation of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and ILO Convention 169 Concerning the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. The company has also infringed on local property rights, including the use, possession, and administration of local indigenous land and territory. The mining project has also trampled on the patrimonial right of San Miguel and Sipakapa to decide on whether to issue mining licenses that pose risks to health, the environment, security, social and cultural life as well as the right to the free self-determination of the People.

The Maya-Mam and Maya-Sipakapense are demanding an investigation into the grave violation of their collective rights and have insisted that the Guatemalan state immediately cancel all chemical mining concessions within their municipalities. They also demand the return of two disappeared community members, trial and punishment of those responsible for the murders of several local leaders, an end to the criminalization of protest, and the nullification of all criminal and civil suits against the women and men of these municipalities.20 Finally, they also want reparations for the damage caused to local residents, natural resources, and environment.

Although the license given to GoldCorp's Montana Exploradora Guatemalteca includes a total of 25 km2, of which 85% lies within the territory of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and 15% in Sipakapense territory, the mine operates only in the municipality of San Miguel, where it has had unfortunate and notorious results, whereas in Sipakapa it has remained blocked. This resistance sends a message of hope to other communities of the department, which in recent months have converged in the People's Council of San Marcos (Consejo de los Pueblos de San Marcos), and to other departments of western Guatemala, which in turn have formed the Western People's Council (Consejo de los Pueblos de Occidente).

Both groupings are collaborative spaces in which indigenous organizations and their supporters can come together to defend their territories. The leaders of these organizations are amplifying the voices of their communities at the departmental and regional level to halt the threat of destruction. Indigenous peoples are in open resistance against the aggressiveness of a rootless capital that threatens a novel and definitive dispossession. They are defending an ethnic identity that is complexly organized and bound by a love of life in all its forms. Underlying all of this and, in fact, making it all possible is one thing: territory.

The indigenous people's defense of their territory and way of life against the imposition of open-pit mining by a transnational company reveals several important factors that can be similarly seen in other Latin American contexts – and not just those involving indigenous peoples. For example, in many cases a tendency exists to construct popular blocs among the local population with sectors of the church, intellectuals, and diverse social classes to build a solid base of popular unity. Leveraging legitimate claims against the state and its legislation by using various forms of law – ad hoc municipal law, community practices (usos y costumbres), and international agreements (ILO Convention 169) – pits growing popular power against that of the central state, which excludes direct democracy. In this way, the correlation of forces between the government and the governed begins to change. The democratization of the state depends on the unity of those who defend their territory and their way of life, and hence on their level of consciousness and political power.


*An earlier version of this article appeared (in Spanish) in Revista OSAL (Observatorio Social Latinoamericano), vol. 9, no. 25 (April 2009). The present text is revised from a draft-translation prepared by Teo Ballvé.

1. [Ed. note: Between the late 1960s and 1996 Guatemala experienced a bloody armed conflict in which 450 Mayan villages were destroyed, more than one million peoples lost their homes, and thousands – mostly Indians – were tortured, disappeared and summarily executed.]

2. S. V. Yagenova, La protesta social en Guatemala: Una aproximación a los actores, demandas, formas, despliegue territorial, limites y alcances (Guatemala: FLACSO, 2007), 12.

3. Thirty-five community referenda have been held in the country against mining, hydroelectric, and oil projects. These referenda are based on Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and on municipal law. In all these consultations the "No" vote has won with wide margins.

4. See "Comunicado Público, Declaración del Consejo de Pueblos de Occidente, Coordinación y Convergencia Nacional Maya Waquib’Kej," February 14, 2009.

5. Criminalization includes: a. Legal persecution; b. Office searches; c. Covert assassinations; d. State of militarization-prevention; e. Character assassination and propaganda; f. Intimidation, threats; g. Arbitrary firings, etc.

6. K'iche' (or Quiche) and Sipakapense come from the common Eastern linguistic branch. They split some 1500 years ago. Decree 65-60 of Guatemala's Academy of Maya Languages recognizes Maya Sipakapense, which is only spoken in the municipality of Sipakapa despite being surrounded by Maya-Mam, as having maintained its linguistic purity. The alphabet for writing the language is legally recognized through Government Agreement 1046-87. This all means that besides being a municipality, Sipakapa is also a linguistic community. The current location of the Sipakapa population is an enigma of sorts because it is surrounded by Mam-speaking municipalities and is isolated from other K'iche'-related communities. This would indicate that settlement of the Sipakapense-speakers is relatively recent.

7. Irma Otzoy, Sipakapa y el límite de la democracia (, 31.

8. According to Goldcorp, the company has 17 active projects in Canada, United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Argentina, employing a total of 9,000 workers.

9. The mining license for San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa (comprising 25 Km2) was awarded to Montana Exploradora, a subsidiary of Glamis Gold (today, GoldCorp) in 2003. The extraction is open-pit and subterranean, endangering both surface and ground water.

10. 2564 people participated in the consultation: 2448 voted “no” to mining and 35 voted yes, while there were five null votes, one blank vote and 35 voters who preferred not to express their opinion.

11. The first four months of 2005 was a period of intense mobilizations against local ratification of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (DR-CAFTA). The height of this conflict was March 14, 2005, when a general strike was held and severely repressed by government authorities. The repression left several wounded and killed. For more information on these events see: Simona V. Yagenova, "La Guatemala de la Resistencia y la Esperanza," CLACSO; Revista Osal, No. 16 (2005).

12. For more on the conference's resolutions, see: "Memorial de la I Conferencia Regional de Autoridades Indígenas del Altiplano Occidental sobre: LA MINERIA Y EL PATRIMONIO DE LOS PUEBLOS INDIGENAS." April 1, 2005.

13. This includes international appeals to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, denunciations to GoldCorp's shareholders, which led to a 2008 delegation from Sipakapa to the company's shareholders' meeting as well as protests, and the forging of alliances with similarly affected communities in other countries, such as Honduras.

14. Comisión Pastoral Paz y Ecología, COPAE; Boletin, February 28, 2008.

15. Photo essay by James Rodriguez, independent photojournalist, November 2007.

16. Fernando Bermúdez, “Resistencia y Alternativas a la Explotación Minera en Guatemala," Presentation at the III Encuentro de la Red de Alternativas a la Impunidad y a la Globalización del Mercado, in Oviedo, Spain, June 21-24, 2007. Bermúdez is Human Rights Coordinator of the Archdiocese of San Marcos (Guatemala) and a member of the coordinating team of the Pastoral Social of the San Marcos Diocese.

17. Bermúdez, “Resistencia y Alternativas.”

18. "Informe Anual del Monitoreo y análisis de la calidad de las Aguas, Situación actual del agua alrededor de la Mina Marlin, ubicada en los municipios de San Miguel Ixtahuacán y Sipakapa, Departamento de San Marcos, Guatemala," COPAE (note 14), Diocese of San Marcos, August 2008.

19. Document presented at the Permanent People's Tribunal at the Social Forum of the Americas, Guatemala October 7-12, 2008.

20. The whereabouts of Byron Bámaca Perez and Marco Tulio Rodríguez – the disappeared – are still unknown. Punishment is sought for the security agent of the Marlin Mine who gunned down Álvaro Benigno Sánchez in front of several witnesses; for the murder of Raúl Castro Bocel perpetrated by the state's security forces; and finally for the brutal murder of senior citizen Pedro Miguel Cinto.