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International court rules against Guatemala in landmark Indigenous and environmental rights case

Guatemala violated Indigenous rights by permitting a huge nickel mine on tribal land almost two decades ago, according to a ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights Friday.

The landmark verdict marks a monumental step in a four-decade struggle for Indigenous land rights and a long, bitter legal battle which has at times spilled into the streets of northern Guatemala.

It also comes at the close of the United Nations climate summit COP28, which stressed the importance of renewables and energy transition minerals like nickel more than ever.

According to a verdict read from Costa Rica in the early hours of the morning, the Guatemalan government violated the rights of the Indigenous Q’eqchi’ people to property and consultation, by permitting mining on land where members of the community have lived at least since the 1800s.

Guatemala will have six months to begin the process of awarding a land title to the community, and was ordered to set up a development fund.

The Guatemalan environmental department did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment.

“For us it is the most important development in a century, for a country which has no law recognizing indigenous land rights,” said Leonardo Crippa, an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center who has been researching and representing the community since 2005.

Guatemala first granted massive exploratory permits at the Fenix mine in eastern Guatemala to Canadian company Hudbay just under two decades ago. In 2009, the mine’s head of security shot a community leader dead. Hudbay sold the site to a local subsidiary of Swiss-based Solway Investment Group two years later.

After over a decade of national and now international litigation, leaked documents in 2022 appeared to show staff from the mine company attempting to divide the community by bribing some locals to testify in court in favor of the mine.

In response the U.S Treasury sanctioned two Solway officials implicated in the accusations in November 2022. The summary of the ruling read out in court Friday did not mention allegations of bribery.

Solway did not immediately comment on the verdict, but a company spokesperson said the company was preparing a statement.

The Fenix mine is unlikely to be the last conflict between international mines offering clean energy minerals and Indigenous communities. A study published last year calculated that over half of existing and planned critical mineral mines sit on or near Indigenous land.

In remarks at COP28, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warned of exactly this potential for conflict as demand for minerals like nickel grows.

“The extraction of critical minerals for the clean energy revolution – from wind farms to solar panels and battery manufacturing – must be done in a sustainable, fair and just way,” said Guterres.


Inkl, 2023



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