by Jose Olivares
A sense of nervousness and excitement filled the air as protesters entered the building and made their way up the stairs of mining company Tahoe Resources’ office. On Monday, Oct. 12, a group of about 20 protesters — made up of members from the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the University of Nevada’s Reno Justice Coalition — were protesting against alleged actions of Tahoe Resources in Guatemala. The protest was part of a bigger “Anti-Columbus Day” event that was held earlier in the morning.
Tahoe Resources is a Canadian mining company that is now based in Reno. Its mining operation and subsequent actions in Guatemala have been the subject of much criticism by international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.
In 2010, Tahoe Resources arrived in Guatemala and began to build a mine near the town of San Rafael Las Flores. The Escobal Silver Mine began its commercial operations in 2014 and is the third largest silver mine in the world, according to Tahoe Resources’ website. The company reported profits of $24.8 million in the first quarter of 2014.
The San Rafael Las Flores population has been incredibly vocal in their opposition to the building of the Escobal mine. In 2011, local communities began organizing protests and votes in response to Tahoe Resources’ arrival. According to PLAN, over 50,000 people in the surrounding municipalities voted against the presence of Tahoe Resources. Families in San Rafael Las Flores are primarily dependent on the growing of corn, beans, coffee, tomatoes and onions to sustain their way of living. The protesters and community members were concerned about the possible contamination of water sources and environment as a result of the mining.
“Guatemala is 100 percent agricultural,” said Llan Carlos Davila. “So this is our main worry, because many people live precisely off the land.”
Davila is an activist and the recent mayor-elect of Santa Rosa de Lima — a town that is 30 minutes away from San Rafael Las Flores.
“[Tahoe Resources are] digging up the land and are making tunnels to extract the minerals deep underground,” Davila said. “This is making the water absorb the chemicals that they are using.”
Davila also stated that a lot of wells used by community members have been drying up because of the mining. According to the BBC, the company is currently under investigation for industrial contamination by Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against the Environment. In a press release by Tahoe Resources earlier this year, it was stated that one of Tahoe Resources’ employees in charge of regulatory issues was detained on related charges earlier this year.
Protests and opposition to the mine continued to heat up when Tahoe Resources proceeded with its operations after the communities voted against it. According to the same report by the BBC, six protesters, including two teenage boys, were seriously injured when private security guards fired bullets and tear gas at protesters in April of 2013.
Following this incident, Tahoe Resources’ private security chief was arrested at the airport trying to leave the country. There was incriminating evidence played at his first court hearing in which he was heard giving orders to shoot the protesters. According to the BBC report, Tahoe Resources fired him “within a couple of days.”
“[We] had an incident that I can’t talk about because it’s still pending,” said Ira Gostin, vice president of investor relations for Tahoe Resources, when asked about these allegations. “But they were trespassers, not protesters. People that show up with sticks and rocks and instigate and engage our security guards are not protesters.”
According to a PLAN press release, Tahoe Resources allegedly killed three anti-mining activists, including 16-year-old youth leader Topaico Reynoso.
Many of the alleged crimes were the focus of Monday’s protest in Tahoe Resources’ office. When PLAN and RJC protesters entered the offices, Gostin immediately told the protesters to leave, or he would call the police. Escenthio “Thio” Marigny, president of UNR’s RJC, began to read off the list of alleged crimes by Tahoe Resources. Gostin proceeded to call the police, which prompted the protesters to leave the building. Police showed up, but no arrests were made and no action against the protesters was taken.
“We have a really strong, positive human rights policy. Unfortunately there are NGOs, Non-Government [sic] Organizations that like to stir the pot,” Gostin said in an interview following the protest. “Our human record is great. It just depends what stories you tend to listen to.”
Gostin denied the protesters’ claims, also stating that Tahoe Resources employs up to 850 Guatemalan people.
“I think when you look at what we do there and the programs and the community relations that we do, and the care for the environment we engage in, we’re a great company and overall very positive,” Gostin said.
Later that night, Davila spoke at UNR to tell students, faculty and community members of his community’s actions and the response by Tahoe Resources. Davila is traveling across the United States on a “Tahoe on Trial” tour, stopping to speak and participate in protests in various cities.
The event was part of RJC and PLAN’s “People Planet First Week,” in which they called for people and the environment to be put above profit.
“When corporations can still operate in another country when the people there don’t want that, it shows a very, very big problem,” Marigny said. “It goes to the point of what we’re trying to do with People Planet First Week — to show that profit has been put above people on a global level.”
Jose Olivares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.