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Global gold frenzy has devastating impact on Guatemala’s Mayans

April 15, 2013

With the global economy struggling to rebound after tanking in 2008, investors around the world began putting their money into gold. But what financial advisers don’t talk about is where that gold comes from, and what price local residents – many of them indigenous – pay so that others can get rich.

A new documentary film, “Gold Fever,” by Minnesota-based Northland Films, shows the consequences when a gold-mining company muscles its way into an indigenous Mayan village in Guatemala. (See the trailer here.) The film premiered Saturday at the U.S. Environmental Film Festival at Yale, Connecticut, and will be shown at an international premiere on Thursday at Guatemala City’s National Theater.

In the past five months, five indigenous human rights activists have been killed due to escalating violence linked to gold mining in Guatemala. And nearly every day brings new conflicts in indigenous regions throughout Guatemala over mining rights granted by the government to foreign-owned companies.

On Friday, 29 mining opponents were arrested in southern Guatemala during a violent police operation in San Rafael Las Flores, Santa Rosa, 100 kilometers south of the capital. Protesters, whose ages range from 18-69, had set up camp at the entrance to Minera San Rafael, a subsidiary of Canadian Tahoe Resources, which received a 25-year concession to mine nickel, copper, gold, silver and other minerals. Local residents say the mine exposes them to serious environmental problems.

Also last week, the Guatemalan government granted another mining concession in the Caribbean municipality of Amates, Izabal, to Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel, a subsidiary of Russian company Solway Investment Group Limited Inc.

“Gold Fever” documents the exploits of Goldcorp Inc. – the second-largest gold mining company in the world – in the village of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, in the western Guatemalan highlands. Through local subsidiary Montana Exploradora, Goldcorp operates the open-pit Marlin Mine, which opponents say has led to both environmental and health problems, including toxic levels of metal found in blood and urine samples of local residents.

The film follows three villagers – Diodora, Crisanta and Gregoria – as they resist what they consider a threat to their ancestral lands posed by the mine, as well as the “devastating consequences” of challenging the company. Directors also interview a cast of influential experts, including MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights James Anaya, former CIA staff historian Nick Cullather, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” author John Perkins (a former economic hit man), Prensa Libre columnist Magali Rey Rosa, and many others.

What emerges is a disturbing look at social unrest caused when the rights of local indigenous residents are usurped by a government that has historically ignored them, in favor of the extraction of natural resources by foreign companies. It is a formula that sounds strikingly familiar to the root causes of Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives. As the film shows, not much has changed for most of Guatemala’s indigenous citizens since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996.

Back in the mid-20th century, conflict followed exploitation by multinational fruit companies backed by a militaristic and imperialistic U.S. government. Today, it’s the mining companies – many of them Canadian – that are causing social unrest, the film shows.

According to directors, the launch of “Gold Fever” in the U.S. and Guatemala “highlights the cross-border relevance of the story.”

“For several decades, Guatemalan society hasn’t had the opportunity to see itself reflected on the screen,” said Uli Stelzner, festival director for Guatemala’s Muestra de Cine Internacional Memoria Verdad Justicia, which organized Thursday’s screening. “Having ‘Gold Fever’ as an international premiere will test Guatemalan society’s willingness to confront what might be today’s biggest challenge: overcoming the social unrest caused by the massive extraction of natural resources.”

Members of communities affected by the Marlin Mine will attend the film’s premiere, along with a Northland Films team, who also will be traveling to the mine-affected western region.

“Gold Fever” also will be shown in Minneapolis-St.Paul and Boston, in the U.S., later this month. If you’ve got money in gold – and chances are you do – you might consider watching this movie.

AFP contributed to this report.

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