In Guatemala: What “Less Environmental Regulation” Looks Like

I am writing today from La Labor, a small village in the San Pedro Ayumpuc municipality of Guatemala. I am with a group of students who are working in a health clinic and a school run by the sisters who also run our university. It is a trip that our students take every year. None of them ever comes back quite the same as they were before—in a good way.

This year, though, the trip has become something different. In addition to living with families, serving in the community, and teaching children, our students are getting a chance to see first hand what a real struggle for justice looks like—a struggle that affects people they know and have begun to care about deeply.

Unlike many villages in this part of the world, La Labor has its own well—a reliable, safe supply of drinking water available to the entire community. It has made all the difference. The citizens of the community do not have to wait for weeks until the government-run water supply turns on and then try to collect as much as they can before it shuts off. They don’t have to buy water at inflated prices from people who have a truck and no conscience. They just have to turn on the water and drink it. It is a surprisingly rare luxury in far too many countries.

But for the last two years, this simple, essential thing that so many of us take for granted—a safe and reliable supply of drinking water—has been under attack. Not far from the village, in the community of La Puya, the Guatemalan government has sold the rights to open a gold mine—first to the Canadian company Goldcorp, who later sold them to the American company, Kappes, Cassiday & Associates. Nobody asked any of the people in the area if they wanted a mine. That’s usually how it works down here.

Those who inveigh constantly against environmental regulations should spend some time in places where they do not exist.
Michael Austin
Now we are not talking about men with lights on their helmets digging gold out of the ground with picks and shovels. All of the gold that could be extracted like that has already been found. The La Puya mine will use the highly controversial process of cyanide leaching. Miners will dig a pit about the size of the astrodome and then use millions of pounds of sodium cyanide to separate gold from arsenic and other kinds of ore. Then they will leave. They will not take the cyanide with them, or the arsenic from which the gold is separated–thus threatening rivers, streams, lakes, and, most importantly, ground water.

For the last two years, the residents of San Pedro Ayumpuc and surrounding communities have maintained a constant vigil at the entrance to the mine—effectively preventing it from opening. One of the leaders of the resistance movement, Yolanda Oqueli, survived an assassination attempt last June. Others have been arrested and convicted of trumped-up charges of attacking miners. And yet hundreds of community members have continued to show up every day to dissent in the only way they can from something that they strongly believe will injure their families.

Last Friday, Guatemalan police in riot gear used tear gas and rubber bullets to disrupt the vigil and bring heavy equipment into the mine. Soon it will be operating at full throttle, leading to the same kinds of health and environmental damage that have been well documented in the Marlin Mine in the Department of San Marcos, on the West Coast of the country.

Make no mistake about it, this is a tragedy for these communities. And it is an important lesson for the students who travelled down here to live for a short time as Guatemalans. They are seeing the darkest side of capitalism as it effects some of the world’s most vulnerable people. They are seeing what the privatization of profits, combined with the socialization of risk, can do in a country that lacks those pesky environmental regulations that Americans love to complain about. They are seeing what happens when an entire political process trusts the worst elements of human nature to somehow produce a public good.

In the United States, which has a strong enough regulatory mechanism in place to prevent the worst abuses of a free market system, this dark side is rarely allowed full reign. Those who inveigh constantly against environmental regulations should spend some time in places where they do not exist. Some Americans, of course, do precisely that–and it is to our national shame that American companies have so long been, and continue to be, on the forefront of exploiting those whose own governments have no interest in protecting them from the idols of the marketplace.