Issues related to mineral extraction and land use are leading to a global increase of upheaval. In fact, deaths caused by environmental conflicts have “almost doubled in the last three years, to a rate of over two killings a week in 2011” (Global Witness Report, 2012). The Maya region of Central America exemplifies this increase in violence as communities strive to protect their land from mining exploitation. They do so by exposing the narrow application of international declarations and treaties by mining companies.
In Guatemala, the majority of the 166 mining licenses are subject to indigenous lands, which occurs without the consent of local communities. This injustice is possible as a result of the Mining Law, in which there is no guarantee that indigenous peoples be consulted prior to the licensing of mining agreements. Interestingly enough, this law contradicts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO Convention 169 which is a binding agreement that entices participatory democracy from local communities. Udel Miranda, lawyer and member of the Church’s Social Pastoral Commission, strongly opposes this violation and stresses that indigenous communities should have “the right to collective land ownership, the right to territory, the right to water, the right to cultural identity, to participation in the decisions that affect development” (Open Democracy, 2012).
Conejo, located in Belize, is one of the two villages that first secured title to their land, in 2010 under the country’s constitution. The Belizean government is restricted from granting exploration or extraction licences to these territories without the “free, prior, and informed consent” of the villagers. The government is also prohibed from “issuing any concessions for resource exploitation, including concessions, permits or contracts authorizing logging, prospecting or exploration” before verifying property rights with tribal communities (Open Democracy, 2012). Guatemala Maya is next to attempt the inauguration of this law in their legislation. However, as citizens are confronted with significant dangers, fighting for their rights becomes increasingly difficult as their freedom of speech is breached.
In “The right of Guatemala’s Indigenous Peoples” to referenda: the rupture between discourse and practice, the Council of Western Peoples (CPO) noted attempts to suppress the organization of referenda by indigineous peoples through acts of violence, which is, surprisingly, tolerated by the State of Guatemala. Even more so, “in 90 per cent of referenda, there is evidence of peer harassment, the persecution of leaders, initiation of criminal proceedings against the leaders, and attempts to discredit, delay or cancel the event”. Companies also attempt to assimilate community leaders through monetary offers and efforts to divide communities (Open Democracy, 2012).
As can be seen, this legislation is bittersweet for the indigenous communities. Yes, they have the right to decline the negotiation of a mining law agreement. However, are their voices heard? If the answer is ‘yes’, does this eliminate the possibility of their marginalization and criminalization?