EL ESTOR, Guatemala – When the Canadian International Nickel Company(INCO) departed from this small town in 1981, it said it intended to be gone for oneyear.The price of nickel had plummeted and with the promise to its approximately3,000 employees – who in a short time had come to depend on the mine – that it wouldreturn after their economically driven hiatus, INCO, which operated through Exploraciones y Explotaciones Mineras Izabal, S.A. (EXMIBAL) left the tropicallowlands of northeastern Guatemala. It never came back.More than two decades later, the Jaguar Nickel Company – which in its numerousreincarnations has most recently been known as Chesbar Inc. – has announced itsintentions to reinhabit the cobwebbed facilities at El Estor and resume mining.THIS news has been received with delight by many of the town’s residents, who hope to reap the economic benefits that are sure to come from a multinational corporation, and with dismay by various local and international environmental groups who fear the irreversible effects of strip mining on the delicate and diverse ecosystem of El Estor. Consequently, controversy has arisen.Like much of rural Guatemala, what El Estor lacks in basic infrastructure it makesup for with its natural beauty. The town, which boasts a population of 40,000, ofwhich 90% are indigenous Q’eqchi’, sits on Lake Izabal, the country’s largest freshwaterlake.The local economy is dependent on weak agriculture and fishing industries andpledges some hope for its burgeoning though fledgling tourism opportunities.BECAUSE the community was not as badly affected as other areas by the 36-yearcivil war that plagued much of the Western Highlands, the international help thatflooded into the country after the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords has been sporadic– if not inexistent – in El Estor.– As a result, the poverty and economic instability that has been the continuousexistence of El Estor has remained unchanged.One of the inklings of hope for El Estor came in 1979 when EXMIBAL, spanningan area of 150 square miles – 30% owned by the Guatemalan government, openedfor business.For two and a half years, the company mined for nickel on the outskirts of townwhile providing access to education and room and board for the majority of theiremployees.Reports that have been widely circulated link assassinations and massacres toEXMIBAL and those who opposed their mining activity.While the oft-reported massacre of as many as 200 indigenous people did occuron EXMIBAL property, it happened on May 29, 1978, before the mine opened.Many say it was more a direct result of the armed conflict than conflict over the miningoperations.WHILE the records appear inaccessible,it is acknowledged throughout the town that EXMIBAL did not pay its share of municipal taxes. However, it is also noted by residents that the company contributed to the development of the town, creating and sectioning off roads and building the central park, a school and a health center for the public, in addition to the schools, parks and medical facilities available to the employees near their headquarters.“We didn’t have electricity before they came. We didn’t even have transportationto connect us to the rest of the country. People had work and when they left, theeconomy suffered. but at the same time, with the money that people had earnedthey opened their own businesses, many of which are standing here today,” said CarlosPaz, a lifelong El Estor resident who had been employed by EXMIBAL and is nowthe owner of several hotels in town.ALTHOUGH he knows about the potential negative environmental effects that strip mining produces – topsoil erosion, deforested mountainsides and water contamination – Paz said he fully supports their return.When asked why, Paz quickly responded, “Food. People are hungry. They don’thave enough to feed their children. Yes, we need to protect the environment but wealso need to eat. There is poverty everywhere in this country. We are lucky to havethis important resource available and should take advantage of it. Of course, wehope for sustainable mining.”Not everyone shares this sentiment.“People need to know the effects and the reality. This will help or prevent a number of generations from thriving in El Estor. When this is all over, I don’t want people to be worse off than they were before,” said Eloyda Mejía, president of Friends of Lake Izabal, an area group of twelve members that has been expressing concern about the project since 2000, when the Guatemalan government granted mining exploration concession rights to Chesbar.This group was influential in organizing the community, planning protests and collectingpetitions that effectively stopped the government from granting concessions for petroleum drilling in Lake Izabal in 2002.“IT isn’t that I have anything against this (mining) company in particular. Theyare welcome to come in if they follow international environmental norms and atthe very least, I would hope and expect Guatemalan laws. Until they fulfill themthey shouldn’t even be allowed to be working at all,” Mejía said.The mining concession also grants the company the right to extract 10.5 cubicmeters per second of water from the lake to cool plant generators, Daniel Vogt, presidentof El Estor’s Association for Integral Development, told The Tico Times last year. That is enough water, he claimed, to drain the 590-square-kilometer lake in 19.5 days (TT, Oct. 10, 2003).In February, a heated open forum was held in the town hall, and numerous concernswere aired and addressed. One of the concerns included allegations that when EXMIBAL departed, it leftbehind hazardous waste.Luis Barricutos Rey, an employee at Refugio de Vida Silvestre Bocas says thatwhile this has never been proved, it is a real possibility.“We didn’t have environmental laws then,” he said. “Now we do and we hopethat they follow them.”LIVELY, peaceful demonstrations followed the forum. The press later reportedthat because of Mejía’s opposition to the mining, she had received death threats,which she denies.Although mining has not resumed and probably will not for another three to four years, EXMIBAL already employs 36 people, all Guatemalans, 75% of them of indigenous descent.“The government granted us the concessions, but we won’t know until the endof this year if they will have to take them back,” said Carlos Quim Xol, who hasspent the last four months doing public relations for EXMIBAL.“If we can proceed, then there will be at least two years of scientific study todetermine the most environmentally sound way to extract nickel,” he added.THE 36 employees enjoy benefits not available elsewhere in El Estor, such asmedical insurance and scholarships for education.The company employees work on a variety of projects, including reforestingpreviously mined areas and other neighboring lands and visiting nearby communitiesto address their needs.“Essentially, we are trying to follow a good neighbor policy,” said Abelardo Caal,the company supervisor of all that is tied to environmental issues. “We want the community to know what methods of mining we will be using.”Caal, like Quim Xol, was previously employed by Defensores de la Naturaleza,a non-governmental environmental organization in El Estor.“OUR intention is to protect the biodiversity and to allow El Estor to benefitfrom our presence,” Caal said.Can this be accomplished? Only time will tell.
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