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A Guatemalan town fights to bar gold mining and save its waters

Lake Güija is a transboundary body of water shared by Guatemala and El Salvador and a source of livelihood for hundreds of local families. Over the last 25 years, mining has been putting pressure on water ecosystems. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

  • Over the last 25 years, local community members have repeatedly rejected a gold mining project on the border of Guatemala and El Salvador for lack of environmental compliance.
  • The government of Guatemala has approved the extension of the Cerro Blanco project, which, under new ownership is planned to switch from underground to open-pit mining.
  • Worried that mining is contaminating waters and affecting biodiversity, the community of Asunción Mita held a referendum last September, voting to reject the project, but it hasn’t yet obtained recognition from the state.
  • While mining is on hold, awaiting a final verdict on the referendum, natural ecosystems and watercourses are bouncing back with life.

In 1997, people in Asunción Mita, a municipality in eastern Guatemala, weren’t really thinking that mining could arrive close to home. But that same year, the country’s Ministry of Energy and Mines granted mining company Entre Mares S.A. a permit to start exploration on a little more than 100 square kilometres (39 square miles) in the department of Jutiapa, where the town is located. “We believed that the place where they would dig had no value,” says Armando Teo Villeda, a local member of the Community Development Council. “We called them garrobera lands,” he says, referring to the black iguana, a lizard native to Centra America.

Over the following six years, Entre Mares, which at the time was a subsidiary of the Canadian gold mining corporation Goldcorp, explored the region for gold, silver, nickel, cobalt, chromium, lead, zinc, antimony and rare-earth elements. In 2004, its exploration area was reduced by more than 85% as the company submitted incomplete activity reports and its permits expired. But Entre Mares continued to pursue the acquisition of a license to exploit the land, which required presenting to authorities an initial environmental impact study (IEIS). By July 2007, the state already had rejected the IEIS twice. After a third submission containing barely any changes, in August 2007, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources granted Entre Mares the license to mine in Cerro Blanco, an area located just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the center of Asunción Mita.

Cerro Blanco

Entre Mares began exploitation underground, but in 2014, Ministry of Environment authorities and environmentalists, along with González, requested the total closure of the mine, complaining about the company’s problems in cleaning up polluting vapors, the high temperatures in residual waters and other issues while arguing that the company had not extracted any gold. But the government did not respond to the pleas. “The only thing they achieved is the contamination of the Ostúa River,” according to González at the time.

Environmental contamination  

The Cerro Blanco mine is located within the Biological Corridor of the Ostúa Dry Forest (CB-BSO), an area created in 2015 by Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas to conserve ecosystem services and livelihoods of local populations. Spread across more than 75,000 hectares (185,300 acres), including humid forests and tropical dry forests, CB-BSO is also meant to protect the Ostúa River, which flows into Lake Güija, a protected area in Guatemala and part of El Salvador’s Güija Complex, a lagoon which became a Ramsar site in 2010. The corridor is home to species such as the morro tree (Crescentia allata), which the ancient Maya considered the tree of life, the Guayacán (Guaiacum sanctum), Palo de Jiote (Bursera spp.) and the Matapalo (Ficus spp.), which are part of the diet of the Torogoz (Eumomota superciliosa), a flagship bird species in the region.

Mining in Cerro Blanco threatens the health of local water sources, such as the source of the Tancushapa stream, which feeds other rivers sustaining livelihoods in Asunción Mita in eastern Guatemala. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

A 2019 study on how the Cerro Blanco project affects water resources and health locally and across the border, in El Salvador, shows increased levels of arsenic and other chemicals released by the mine. The study looks not only at the Ostúa River but also at Lake Guija, which sits on the border between Guatemala and El Salvador. “The geothermal water discharges that the company has released so far through different streams contain arsenic levels of up to 143.13 [parts per million], above international quality standards for aquatic life and people,” the report states. According to the same report, Cerro Blanco produces a daily output of more than 10,000 liters (2,640 gallons) of geothermal water at temperatures between 70-80 degrees Celsius (158-176 degrees Fahrenheit), containing high concentrations of arsenic, boron, fluoride and possibly lithium. The research, carried out by Salvadoran biologist Cidia Ventura Cortes, also suggests that the local incidence of diseases such as cancer, kidney failure and Type 2 diabetes spikes in the presence of increased arsenic in local water sources.

morro tree
Asunción Mita is part of the Central American Dry Corridor, an ecosystem rich in flora and fauna, including species such as the morro tree (Crescentia alata), a tree sacred to the Mayan populations of Guatemala. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

Open-pit mining faces community backlash

In 2017, Goldcorp sold the Cerro Blanco project to Bluestone Resources for $18 million. Despite the mine’s lack of productivity, the Ministry of Energy and Mines granted the company the extension of the project. However, the mine activity did not take off, as Bluestone decided to change the extraction model from underground to open pit, as the company’s research shows that taking advantage of the area’s high mineralization near the surface would dramatically increase the mine’s production; this could triple the project’s net value, bringing it up to $907 million. According to a company report from February 2022, Cerro Blanco’s proven and potential reserves total 2.8 million ounces of gold and 12.6 million ounces of silver. Over 14 years, production would equal 2.6. million ounces of gold and 10.6 million ounces of silver, bringing $228 million per year in revenues for the first 10 years.

Armando Teo Villeda, a resident of Tiucal, a village in Asunción Mita, has worked for the last 12 years to inform people about mining impacts on the environment and local natural resources. “We have a great wealth of minerals, but here we are already rich because we have water,” he tells Mongabay. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

To access the reserves under an open-pit model, the project would need to pump more than 18,000 liters (4,755 gallons) of water per minute, more than 5 times the amount used in underground mining. Previously, Entre Mares estimated that it required more than 400 liters (106 gallons) of water per minute to extract the amount of gold and silver targeted. But the company’s environmental assessments for the new extraction model did not convince people in Asunción Mita.

“The problem is that the study they presented does not consider the contamination of springs or the effective decontamination of the used water before returning it to the river,” says Teo Villeda. “[With underground mining] they have come across hot water and that is why they changed extraction model – temperatures drop in the open pit, but there, contamination is even bigger.”

The environmental study presented by Elevar Resources, Bluestone’s Guatemalan concessionaire, continues to be incomplete, according to González, as there is evidence of “serious deficiencies in project planning, it omits an analysis of health risks due to the transfer of arsenic from the project area, and it does not provide adequate information about the increase in the temperature of the Ostúa River,” among other things, said the environmentalist.

The environmental impact study presented by the Cerro Blanco mining project, currently owned by Canadian company Bluestone Resources, needs to clarify how it will dispose of the toxic waste resulting from mining activity. Last year the town of Asunción Mita rejected the project because of contamination. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

The lack of clarity regarding water decontamination and the impact on local water resources led the population of Asunción Mita to organize a referendum to decide if they agreed with “the installation and operation of projects metal mining in any of its modalities.”

On Sept. 18, 27.9% of the people registered in the municipality voted “no” to the reactivation of the mine. “This is a resistance fight to protect what little we have left,” says María Cifuentes, an elementary school teacher and an Asunción Mita Catholic Church member.

No government support, but nature kicks back in

In response to the referendum, the following day, the Mines and Energy Ministry released a statement rejecting its result. So did Bluestone and Elevar Resources, pointing out that the organizing committee, including Teo Villeda and Cifuentes, “is fully made of individuals with an anti-mining agenda. The referendum is against the recommendations of the Central Government, no entity other than the relevant federal government agencies have the legal jurisdiction over mining licenses in Guatemala.”

Don René is a resident of Asunción Mita who has lived near Cerro Blanco since 1984. “I have seen how all this has changed. We are happy that the mine has stopped its activities because we can already see the water flowing again”, he said, standing in front of sulphur water spring, typical for this volcanic area in Guatemala. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

Both authorities and the company argued that the referendum’s result is not binding on their activities. But González says it “was a consultation between neighbors to decide about their interests, guaranteed by articles 60 to 66 of the Municipal Code of Guatemala, not against the mining permit.”

Eight months after the referendum, the community is still waiting for its acknowledgment, as Guatemala’s Constitutional Court is judging an appeal filed by the Specific Commission for Municipal Consultation to respect the vote. The verdict was expected in March. If the commission obtains a negative outcome, Gonzalez says the community will go to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and sue the state of Guatemala for “denial of justice.”

People in Asunción Mita know the calm is temporary. In January, Bluestone Resources announced to its investors that its loan funding the reactivation of Cerro Blanco was extended and that it expected the “permitting amendment process” to be finalized by the end of the year.

The pause on mining has boosted ecosystems. “Back in 2007, when they started drilling, spring waters dried out,” says Villeda. “A month after the referendum, we started to see water again, and with it, fish, crabs and even crocodiles. People are thrilled.”

“Mining is very harmful for us because we lose water quality and the fish die,” said Marvin Lemus, who makes a living by growing tilapia in Lake Guija. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

Andrid Ramirez, a Guatemalan biologist, says the slow recovery of Asunción Mita’s biodiversity positively impacts the residents’ and the quality of surrounding ecosystems. “In this type of ecosystem, water is not that abundant. With clean water, we have healthy vegetation that allows housing more individuals of different species such as birds, reptiles and small mammals,” she tells Mongabay.

“We are not going to let them take away our water,” Villeda says. Right now, the pressure is on the municipality of Asunción Mita. It has to defend its autonomy and the sovereignty of the people. If it does not, we will act against the municipal council.”

Banner image: Lake Güija is a transboundary body of water shared by Guatemala and El Salvador and a source of livelihood for hundreds of local families. Over the last 25 years, mining has been putting pressure on water ecosystems. Image by Jorge Rodriguez.

Related reading

Guatemalans strongly reject mining project in local referendum

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