Permaculture vs Gold Mining in Guatemala

Trina Moyles & KJ Dakin
Friday, 25th April 2014

Guatemalan farmers are finding solutions in permaculture to grow their own food and protect the landscape from the destructive gold mining industry.

In the arid mountain village of Tuixcajchis, Aurelia Jimenez Zacories is always growing something on her small but productive tract of land. She spends her days coaxing vegetables and the staples of corn, wheat and potatoes from the soil, raising livestock, building organic soil, planting trees and saving her seeds for the next harvest. Aurelia is a Maya-Mam woman, mother, wife and farmer.

For 2,000 years, Maya-Mam farmers of northwestern Guatemala, descendants of the Maya civilization, which flourished from 2000 BC to AD 900, have been planting and harvesting criolla (indigenous) maize, beans and ayote (pumpkin) on small plots of land scattered along the sides of the sun-baked Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountains.

Today, many Maya-Mam farmers are integrating aspects of permaculture, agroecology and agroforestry into the way they grow food - not only with the intention of feeding their families - but with the larger goal of resisting and struggling against the social and environmental changes caused by gold, silver and nickel mining on their indigenous territories.

Environmental & Social Impact of Gold Mining

In 2003, the Guatemalan government leased the land from underneath the Maya-Mam’s homes and gardens to a Canadian-incorporated company, Glamis Gold - without conducting public consultation, or receiving community consent. It wasn’t agricultural land the government was after; it was what lay beneath the soil on which people planted: mass reserves of gold, silver and nickel for large-scale mineral extraction.

After signing the lease with the Guatemalan government, Glamis Gold set forth developing Marlin Mine in the province of San Marcos with a major helping hand from the World Bank’s International Financing Corporation who lent the company $45 million dollars.

When local Maya-Mam communities learnt of the mine being constructed on their indigenous land, they began to protest that their government had broken the International Labor Organization Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which ensures indigenous people’s land rights and rights to self-determination.

On December 3rd, 2003, more than 2,000 Maya-Mam gathered to block the passage of a convoy traveling on the Pan-American Highway that was hauling construction materials for Marlin Mine. They expressed anger at not being consulted by their government, and declared that the mine would have serious environmental and social consequences.

The community blockade endured for more than 40 days until January 11th, 2004 when the government deployed military and security forces to remove the protestors. The military shot tear-gas and fired their weapons into the crowd, killing one man, Raul Castro Bocel, a 37-year old farmer from Solola. And so it began, a decade of gold mining and the use of violent state repression against Maya-Mam communities in northwestern Guatemala.

Since 2005, Marlin Mine (which was acquired from Glamis Gold by another Canadian-owned company, Goldcorp in 2006) has extracted over 1 million ounces of gold using open pit and underground technologies. In 2013, Goldcorp extracted 49,400 ounces of gold and 1.7 million ounces of silver from Marlin in their third quarter alone, which contributed to $1.2 billion dollars in adjusted revenue for the company.

Goldcorp claims that their “production is low-cost”; however, many Maya-Mam farmers and organizations would disagree. 

Human rights and environmental organizations, including Rights Action and COPAE (Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology), have documented cases of poor health and environmental degradation, including high levels of cyanide, arsenic, aluminum and nitrates (chemicals used in the extractive process) in the rivers and waterways of communities living downstream from the mine.

In addition, farmers fear that the gold mining operations, which can potentially consume up to 250,000 liters of water per hour, are depleting groundwater sources they desperately need. While no conclusive studies on the level of water supply in San Marcos and the activities of Marlin Mine’s have been conducted and documented, Goldcorp continues to access local water supply for their operations without paying a cent for the privilege.

In 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the Guatemalan government and Goldcorp to provide the affected communities with sufficient, safe drinking water; but both institutions have continued to deny any negative impact to health or the environment and ignore the IACHR’s order. Goldcorp says that it’s “confident that the Marlin Mine has had a positive impact on social and economic development”. Their funded non-profit organization, Fundación Sierra Madre has constructed schools and health clinics in the communities surrounding the mine.

Despite local and international protests and resistance to gold mining in northwestern Guatemala, Goldcorp continues mineral exploration and expansion of the Marlin Mine. In 2014, the company projects that it will produce upwards of 185,000 ounces of gold.

Growing Resistance on Aurelia’s Permaculture System

Aurelia’s small adobe-constructed home, garden and fields of maize are situated atop the mountain village of Tuixcajchis, at an elevation of 2,650m above sea level - and located only 10km away from Goldcorp’s most recent exploration and expansion into the Los Chocoyos site.

In recent months, Goldcorp representatives approached Aurelia and her husband, along with their neighbours, urging them to sell their property, but Aurelia and other community members of Tuixcajchis are adamantly opposed to the idea of losing control of the land that feeds them.

Raising Livestock & Generating Organic Soil

Aurelia continues to expand her knowledge of farming. Recently she began raising pigs in a small wooden pen outside her home. Raising grazing livestock on the high, arid slopes is exhausting work as it demands a farmer physically herd the animals to the bottom of the steep valley to find greener pastures; however, pigs are a practical solution as they don’t require fresh greens and can be fed most organic scraps. Aurelia saves the waste materials from her maize, bean and pumpkin harvests, including the dried husks and immature maize ears, to feed to her pigs. Pig manure, rich in nitrogen, is excellent for hot composting, a quick method of creating organic soil for her fields and kitchen garden.

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Growing Vegetables & Medicinal Plants

Aurelia grows non-traditional vegetables in a small kitchen garden to help diversify her family’s diet, including beets, kale, carrots and spinach. She allows one or two plants to go to seed in order to keep her seeds for the following season. Aurelia also grows different varieties of plants with basic medicinal properties, which can be dried and made into teas, or applied as a salve for treating rashes and skin irritations. She calls the garden her “pharmacy” and explained how it often saves her from having to walk two hours into the nearest town to buy medicine that she cannot afford.

Grey Water System

Access to water is a serious issue for Aurelia and her neighbors. They are without potable water and rely on a nearby well to draw water for drinking, cooking, washing and irrigating their kitchen gardens. Aurelia saves the water she uses for cooking and washing in round washing basins, and reuses it on her avocado and pear tree seedlings. 

Food Storage & Indigenous Seed Saving

Aurelia and her husband have built lofts for storing criolla (indigenous) potato seed, and tie the husks of dried maize to the rafters inside their kitchen and home. She saves different varieties of pinto and fava beans, and chili peppers inside her kitchen in contained bins. 

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Women Organizing & Planting Trees

Through the training and guidance of a Mayan-Mam development organization, Asociación Maya-Mam de Investigación y Desarollo (AMMID) (Mayan-Mam Association of Research and Dvelopment), Aurelia recently began participating in a the community’s organizing and reforestation project, run for and by women. She and 22 other women in Tuixcajchis attended AMMID’s training on agroecology and reforestation, and formed a group that meets weekly to care for a tree nursery. AMMID supplies Aurelia’s group with avocado, pine and indigenous tree seedlings and the women work collaboratively to tend to the seedlings before distribution to every woman in the group. 

Through education Aurelia and her community now recognize the importance of reforestation around their gardens and fields, for maintaining water in the soil, preventing erosion and providing a sustainable source of food and fuel for her family, as well as protecting the land and environment for future generations.
The group has also evolved into a secure space for women to support one another and discuss important issues in their homes and community, including the threat of Goldcorp’s mining activities in the region and its increasing proximity to their land and livelihoods.

In early January 2014, Aurelia and other women in her group attended a protest against Goldcorp’s expansion into the Los Chocoyos area. “We don’t want the mine here – today or tomorrow,” said Aurelia.

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An Uncertain Future – Land Ownership & Gold Mining

As Aurelia and her husband continue to develop their diverse growing system in Tuixcajchis, uncertainty surrounding land ownership and Aurelia’s rights to ‘surface resources’ over the government’s rights to ‘sub-surface resources’ looms ahead.

There is a growing resistance within Maya-Mam communities to the gold mining industry in the region, evidenced in community mobilization and protests, yet the Guatemalan government and Goldcorp appear keen to move forward with exploration and expansion of the Marlin Mine on the Los Chocoyos site. 

Whatever happens in the boardrooms of business or in the business of politics, Aurelia is determined that she will fight “with sticks and stones” for her indigenous land, her garden and the criolla seeds she will continue to reap and sow, season upon season.

Learn More & Get Involved

Rights Action - www.rightsaction.org 
Gold Fever (documentary) - www.goldfevermovie.com
Asociación Maya-Mam de Investigación y Desarollo (AMMID) - www.ammidguatemala.org 

Trina Moyles is a Canadian writer who is currently based out of southwestern Uganda. She is researching and writing a book about the lives of women farmers in the Americas and East Africa. Find Trina on her blog at www.thebeantree.org or The Bean Tree Facebook

All images above belong to KJ Dakin, who is a photojournalist and journalist from the West Coast of Canada. She is currently based wherever she happens to be unlacing her grim-encrusted boots. In the fall of 2013, she spent more than a month on the Turkish/Syrian border working on a story for Al Jazeera America, about Syrian refugees. Right now she is working on co-authoring stories about women in Guatemala and Nicaragua with Trina Moyles. 

Further resources

Also from Trina: Permaculture ethics and practice in sub-saharan Africa

Flowers and garbage in Cuba

The unexpected flowering of a new culture?

Organic farming in Africa

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