Guatemala
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Guatemala mine consultations delayed by COVID-19 surge

Bnamericas Published: Friday, September 10, 2021
Guatemala mine consultations delayed by COVID-19 surge

Consultations with indigenous communities needed for suspended mines in Guatemala to restart operations are facing further delays due to a COVID-19 surge.

Court-ordered consultations following International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 rules relating to the rights of indigenous people are being conducted by the energy and mines ministry (MEM) at Pan American Silver’s Escobal silver-lead-zinc asset and at Solway Investment Group’s Fénix nickel mine.

Both mines, along with Kappes, Cassiday & Associates’ (KCA) Tambor gold operation, have been suspended following injunctions by local NGO CALAS, on grounds that the ministry did not conduct a prior consultation with indigenous groups in awarding their licenses.

ESCOBAL

At Escobal, which has been suspended since 2017, MEM minister Alberto Pimentel outlined a possible timeline for the consultation to be concluded by end-2021 in January, following delays due to presidential elections in 2019 and the pandemic last year.

A pre-consultation – the second of the six-stage process set out by the ministry – was due to take 2-3 months, followed by a full consultation lasting up to four months.

But the process remains stuck at the pre-consultation stage amid a new wave of COVID-19 in the country.

Confirmed daily cases increased sharply in May-August, peaking at around 5,000 last month, but have fallen so far in September, with daily deaths above 50 among Guatemala’s population of around 18mn, according to data website Worldometers.

While two pre-consultation meetings have taken place, a third has yet to be scheduled because of pandemic disruption, Pan American’s Guatemala managing director, Sean McAleer, said at the launch of the company’s 2021 sustainability report.

“We have just started the consultation process with the pre-consultation meetings, and the challenges with COVID-19 are significant,” he said.

“I would expect we see slow progress on some of the meetings right now. We have to take health considerations into account.”

Some progress has been made, including an agreement to conduct a cultural and spiritual impact study, McAleer said, but the timing remains uncertain.

“We are in the early stages of the process so we are not able to provide a timeline or date for restarting the Escobal mine,” he added.

MEM has also confirmed that the pre-consultation is underway at Fénix, although the process at both Fénix and Escobal has been delayed due to the pandemic, Óscar Pérez, deputy minister of sustainable development, told a press conference earlier this month.

Solway suspended operations at Fénix in February after the constitutional court suspended its license in 2019.

The company continued mining after the ruling, which it said had not come into force as MEM had sought clarifications.

Pérez said he hoped the consultations would conclude in the coming months, without giving further details.

The ministry has also met with indigenous communities at Tambor, also known as Progreso VII, he said. KCA has lodged an arbitration claim against the country over the suspension of the mine.

FURTHER DELAYS LIKELY

Despite Pérez’s optimism, further pandemic-related delays are likely and the government introduced further restrictions, including a curfew, earlier this month.

“The situation with COVID-19 is complicated,” Valeria Vásquez, Central America analyst for UK-based consultancy Control Risks, told BNamericas.

“There are a lot of cases, the vaccination is going on but at a slow pace. I don’t think this year they [the mines] will open. Maybe in 2H22.”

The ministry’s guidance also suggests the consultation is some way off concluding.

Following a 2-3 month pre-consultation, MEM expects planning and design of the consultation to take three months, followed by the evaluation and delivery of information, a 3-4 month process.

This will be followed by intercultural dialogue, expected to take three months, prior to monitoring.

MEM has begun drawing up plans for a new mining framework aimed at paving the way for significant growth in Guatemala’s mining industry, which has suffered a slump in recent years due to the suspensions.

There will also be an overhaul of royalties and environmental regulations, which will involve an attempt to resolve conflicts and improve public perceptions of mining.

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