Ever since Goldcorp arrived in the Cree territory to open up the Eleonore Mine Project there have been questions about their dealings in Guatemala. The Marlin goldmine in that country has been an object of controversy from day one and continues to this day. Residents of the Cree community of Wemindji expressed concerns and wondered who they were really making a deal with – a company that respected social and environmental responsibility or an opportunistic greed-driven machine.

These were questions Wemindji Chief Rodney Mark, McGill anthropologist Colin Scott and the Nation went to Guatemala to investigate. The answers are far from being resolved but a greater understanding of Goldcorp, the Marlin mine, the affected communities and the controversy was attained.

To understand what is happening one must look at the communities themselves. Before the arrival of Goldcorp, residents were extremely poor and largely uneducated. These two conditions went hand-in-hand. Most people had to leave the area and go to Mexico to become migrant farm workers for three months or more. One can only imagine the low pay since Mexicans were going to the United States to be extremely poor-paid migrant workers. The conditions were horrendous with little food and no housing, running water or other facilities. Workers would bring their whole families including children. This meant no schooling, but schools either didn’t exist or weren’t easily available in any case. With little or no education they were locked into a cycle of poverty. Add to this a 30-year civil war where violence was and still is an everyday part of Guatemalan life and you begin to understand how there could be controversy.

On top of it all is the fact the majority of Guatemala’s population is of Mayan ancestry, who have been discriminated against for ages. They have a deep distrust of the government and don’t believe it will protect them. Hardly surprising as almost any Canadian First Nations person believes the same of Canada’s government. It is something that First Nations can empathize with the Mayan people.

Distrust of Goldcorp was a reality given the conditions in the area where they wished to mine. Religious organizations and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were quick to react. They, along with anti-mine residents, claimed Goldcorp was responsible for systematic violence, environmental and health violations, human-rights violations, labour problems and a general lack of social responsibility.

Goldcorp’s presentations while responding to the issue at times had to be taken with a grain of salt. Of course they would show their best side and this would be expected. It was up to us to see beneath the corporate image. And to be fair Goldcorp answered a lot of the questions and laid them to rest.

An example of this was the claim they contaminated a river that ran beside the mining operation. On a map we saw monitoring stations before the mine, at the mine and after the mine. There was no appreciable difference from one end to the other. Yes, there was contamination but it was already present before the river arrived or left the mine site. The data is analyzed by Goldcorp, AMAC (an independent community-based committee) and Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

Given the problems with the Ouje-Bougoumou experience with mining, the Nation asked about tailing disposal and the cyanide extraction process. Goldcorp is actually quite ahead of the game on both counts. They take the tailing and encapsulate them in clay. According to the latest information this is very environmentally friendly. Not only that, they have a closed cyanide process which is to their credit. Water going into the tailings pond is processed and cleaned beforehand. The only questionable claim in this area is their “state-of-the-art cyanide destruction process.” A geologist stated an element, and cyanide is one, cannot be destroyed.

“You can never totally eliminate potential risk. In each instance potential risks have to be measured against potential benefits.” (editorial: Vol. 19 No. 5, January 13, 2012)

This is what the affected communities around Guatemala’s Marlin mine have to consider. They are divided and the current ratio is 60/40 in favour of Goldcorp’s perceived benefits to the area and subsequent job creation. Therein lies the root of their problems.

Just as in First Nation communities there are different factions wanting their voices heard and concerns dealt with. Some Goldcorp can deal with, but others aren’t so easy to satisfy. For instance, some former landowners after selling the land expected it to return to them after spending the money. Some were against Goldcorp from day one. Chief Rodney Mark and Colin Scott stayed a couple of extra days in order to meet with some of the anti-mine residents. Mark said, “As in any community there will be those who are for a project and those who are against it.”

One example was Deodora Hernandez, a landowner who was shot. The bullet entered through her cheek and exited at the neck. Goldcorp urged authorities to investigate as it was rumoured some of their employees were involved. Goldcorp said the attacks might have been due to other factors. However, a meeting between Hernandez and Rights Action tells a different story. She says there were people who wanted her dead as a result of her decision not to deal with Goldcorp. Hernandez was unwilling to sell her land as she had scrimped and saved to buy it and wanted something to pass on to her daughter. Before she had been shot Hernandez told Rights Action her family had been threatened. Her neighbour, who also opposed Goldcorp, was beheaded at a nearby river.

It is hard to say how much Goldcorp played in this event. Yes, during a meeting to look at the future of Goldcorp in Guatemala it was mentioned that Hernandez’s refusal would hold up exploration but this was just an information session. Following that her water was cut off and she received smaller amounts of rations from the community. A local man held a machete to her throat. Was it a case of local people taking care of business when a problem is indicated? After all the recent civil war makes people more prone to violence or is it that while upper management tries to do good, middle or lower management ensure business runs smoothly?

It’s hard to tell as Goldcorp has made efforts to be a part of the communities around them. They have a daycare and women and single fathers only work day shifts so that they can take care of their children. Employee benefits are great. There are bonuses equal to a month’s pay for employees who have worked a full year, a production bonus and a further Christmas bonus of a month’s salary. Employees receive 15 days of vacation per year, free healthcare, get a breakfast, free transportation to and from the mine site, a literacy program and a retirement saving plan.

In addition once or twice a year employees have an opportunity to buy computers, fridges and other goods. Goldcorp pays for the merchandise and deducts it from their salaries throughout the year.

Mark said perhaps more consultations on a collective level would have helped with Goldcorp’s problems. “The NGOs’ and opposition’s viewpoints were quite different from what we were shown, but there is only so much a company can do. The mine is a fact of life and if you sell the land you are not going to get it back again.”

Then Mark added, “There is a lot of good and bad in the situation. Mine employees are well off compared to other locals and this has divided the community in some ways. One of the mine employees said he was making $2,000 a month and that’s a lot in Guatemala but considering in Canada miners make $80,000 minimum it’s quite a difference. If you look at gross revenue from the Marlin mine it’s a small part of the overhead.”

Mark wants to establish a relationship with the Mayan people and other Guatemalans living near the Marlin mine. “I didn’t go there to impose anything, but I want to help these people. We can share ideas and experiences. There is an international connection between Wemindji and Guatemala. I’ve invited them to come to our community,” he said.

Employees of Goldcorp are looking to a future when the mine closes. Many are buying land and growing cash crops. They are employing other residents to work the land for them. Mark said many people on both sides are wondering what will happen when the mine closes in about six years.

In the nearby community of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Goldcorp spent $3 million building and stocking a hospital. They are also involved in the Sierra Madre Foundation. Part of this foundation is dedicated to assisting local farmers to produce coffee and other crops. This is a change as locals used to harvest coffee in other regions and countries.

Questions still remain as looking at the 2009 report on the mine you see that on December 24 a junction on the pipe that transports tailings to the tailings-storage facility failed, resulting in an 83 cubic meter spill of treated tailings. Approximately 20% of the tailings were recovered and approximately 80% flowed through a gully and roadside drainage ditch and reached the natural intermittent stream, which is known downstream as Quebrada Seca (dry creek). The report said all material was removed and the entire area was cleaned. Normally remediation data would be included as to determine risks.

In the end though has Goldcorp been the villain they have been made out to be? Has the benefits outweighed the risks? Questions on contamination and social responsibility remain, but are not as bad as they are made out to be. Experts have said the closed cyanide process for gold mining is state-of-the-art. The plans to encapsulate mine tailings with clay are above and beyond what most mining companies do in third-world countries. The potentials for violence in the community already existed and Goldcorp must deal with that. In any case, this poverty-stricken region has an opportunity and it is up to them to deal with the reality of a mine that isn’t going anywhere.