Guatemalans take on Canadian mining giant

August 12, 2016
Local communities organising against mine
Local communities organise against Tahoe Resources' Escobal mine.

Canadian mining giant Tahoe Resources came under fire on August 11 for bulldozing human rights in Guatemala. Two groups have filed a complaint in the United States calling for a probe into whether Tahoe executives lied to investors.

The California-based Network in Solidarity with Guatemala (NISGUA) and the Guatemalan Diocesan Committee in Defence of Nature (CODIDENA), represented by the Canada-based Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, submitted a 36-page report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which oversees financial securities laws.

The report details why Tahoe should be held liable under US law for failing to disclose to investors key details about local community opposition and human rights concerns about its contentious Escobal silver mine.

“We strongly believe that a thorough investigation into Tahoe Resources' reporting record would reveal that the company failed to disclose widespread opposition to the project and in fact, has no social license to be operating the Escobal mine,” NISGUA's Becky Kaump told TeleSUR.

She also noted that the group has repeatedly called for international solidarity to condemn “direct violence, threats and criminalisation” against community members and local activists amid “persistent” human rights violations against the communities around the mine.

The groups call for the SEC to consider whether Tahoe omitted facts necessary for investors to assess the risk of the Escobal mine, including secret local legal action to suppress opposition to the mine, and failed to disclose information about human rights concerns.

Depending on what the agency decides, Tahoe could face forced disclosure or personal liability for executives over the company's negligence with reporting key facts.

Tahoe Resources, incorporated in the Canadian province of British Columbia and headquartered in Nevada, has repeatedly faced criticism over its abysmal human rights record and contempt for community opposition in its operations at the Escobal mine through its wholly-owned Guatemalan subsidiary Minera San Rafael.

The mine has faced considerable resistance. This has included referendums in seven surrounding municipalities in the last five years, in which communities voted between 95% and 99% against mining activities.

In the Quesada community, for example, 8027 community members voted against allowing mining and just eight people voted in favour.

“The affected communities have been clear on their position on Tahoe's Escobal silver mine, engaging in rigorously democratic processes to voice their overwhelming opposition to the presence of the project in their territory,” said Kaump.

“Our hope is that the decisions communities have already made with respect to mining will be upheld and honoured by Tahoe and its investors.”

Shin Imai, a lawyer with the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, told TeleSUR that the complaint against Tahoe “offers the community a voice” in light of the repeated “disparaging remarks” Tahoe has made about opposition to the mine and particularly the local plebiscites.

“Hopefully, this investigation will help ethical investors see the truth,” Imai said, adding that the Corporate Social Responsibility guidelines companies like Tahoe subscribe to are voluntary and unenforceable.

The worst violations associated with controversy over the mine include the murders of Xinca Indigenous leader Exaltacion Marcos Ucelo in 2013 and 16-year-old youth activist Topacio Reynoso in 2014.

In a separate case, six local farmers were shot in 2013 when Tahoe private security forces opened fire on peaceful protesters. The victims are now seeking recourse by suing the company in British Columbia.

After the incident, Escobal mine's security chief Alberto Rotondo fled in the face of charges for crimes against humanity based on damning wiretap evidence. He was recaptured in Peru in January.

Rotondo was caught on the wiretap saying: “Let these damn dogs understand that the mine creates jobs.”

Tahoe denies responsibility for the shooting.

Tahoe also filed at least four undisclosed lawsuits to try to block and override the multiple local plebiscites that overwhelmingly voted against the mine. However, Guatemala's Constitutional Court upheld the outcomes of the plebiscites and the communities' democratic right to hold such votes.

Separately, Tahoe also failed to disclose a lawsuit filed against former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and his government, which aimed to secure protection for the company from protesters.

In light of these and other complaints over the company's conduct, the new report to the SEC argues that Tahoe's practice of misstating and omitting facts “necessary for US investors to understand accurately the risks of investing in Tahoe” warrants close scrutiny.

“We raise these issues as illustrations of Tahoe's careless disregard for accuracy that should form a backdrop in assessing Tahoe's credibility, supporting the need for further scrutiny of Tahoe's public disclosures,” the report reads.

The report argues that the fact that Norway's US$850 billion Government Pension Fund divested from Tahoe Resources over its human rights record — and the company's failure to cooperate in investigations into allegations — underlines the need for heightened scrutiny.

“When investors actually find out what's going on,” Imai said with reference to the Norwegian fund, “some of the ethical investors will make a decision to divest.”

The Tahoe case is also emblematic of broader systemic issues in the mining industry. Multinational corporations have carried out human rights abuses, land seizures without social license, and environmental destruction with near complete impunity.

“Transnational mining companies often use their international status to evade regulations meant to hold them accountable to the governments and communities in which they operate,” said Kaump, reiterating the importance of “strong and transparent reporting requirements” for the industry.

Separately, Tahoe has also faced complaints over toxic waste pollution in a local river near the Escobal mine. Hundreds of community members facing polluted water sources and threats to their agricultural production brought forward a case against the head of the Escobal mine for industrial contamination.

Canadian mining corporations have a notorious record in Latin America and Africa. Local plaintiffs impacted by environmental destruction and grave human rights abuses by multinationals companies in countries like Guatemala are increasingly seeking recourse in international courts.

[Abridged from TeleSUR English.]

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