A Discussion with Alvaro Ramazzini, Bishop of Huehuetenango, Guatemala (Part 2)

With: Alvaro Ramazzini

November 14, 2015

Background: This discussion with Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, conducted by Carlos Martínez Ruiz in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, on November 14, 2015, focused on environmental challenges facing Guatemala. Based on extensive experience and engagement, the Bishop recounts the many problems he sees, beginning with carelessness with garbage and plastic refuse, serious deforestation without regard for replanting, and the general lack of strategy and regulation. Grave problems face the extractive industries, which emerged in an environment of exploitative regulations (enshrined in the constitution) and general government support for companies against the people. Corrupt practices accentuate practical day-to-day problems. The Catholic Church has been especially active in supporting popular efforts to right the situation but Bishop Ramazzini himself doubts whether Guatemala, with its small size and dense population and weak governance, is suited for mining. Reflecting on contemporary transitions, he is quite optimistic that change is on the way but is concerned that popular mobilization may too much resemble Alka Seltzer—quick and violent initially but flat thereafter. The Papal Encyclical and Catholic and Protestant support for environmental protection are sources of optimism but many evangelical churches have yet to engage in meaningful ways on the topic.

Could you provide me with a general outlook on the environmental situation based on your recent experience in San Marcos and now in Huehuetenango?

On this subject, it has to be said that here in Guatemala we still really need to develop a culture of caring for the environment. There is trash everywhere and in the municipalities there aren’t any black water treatment plants. So the rivers practically serve as an irrigation channel for all of the town’s black water and that generates a lot of contamination. There also isn’t implementation of serious regulations on the carbon dioxide emissions of buses and trucks. Here we face the issue that many second-hand vehicles come from the United States and they don’t have the necessary inspections; many of them come without a catalytic converter. Whereas I see that in the United States it is a requirement that cars have catalytic converters; here it isn’t. I don’t think there is a state policy controlling the importation of vehicles. We are loading up with hundreds and hundreds of old pick-ups and buses without catalytic converters that contaminate the environment. I think that Guatemala is also responsible for contributing to climate change, because we also are carbon dioxide producers.

Then we have the very serious problem of deforestation, above all in the jungle areas. A lot of times deforestation occurs in order to make room for the intensive cultivation of African palm trees and banana trees. So we are losing a lot of our natural wealth due to deforestation. Deforestation is also generated in the communities; people also cut down many trees and don’t plant replacement ones. Even though there is a law that requires that if you chop down a tree, you have to plant five, but that law is not applied consistently.

In spite of this, in some communities people are organizing, I have seen it, and in reality it is the communities that become protectors of the forests, because they realize that deforestation is hurting them. Here in Guatemala firewood is used a lot in the rural areas to cook food and good projects have been done on improving stoves. Water filter projects have also been undertaken in the communities to teach people to filter water. In addition, projects have been executed on intensive reforestation, more than anything with pine and alder trees, which are fast-growing and can help people have firewood without too much contamination.

The differences are sizeable between rural and urban areas. In urban areas, especially in the big cities, the surge in vehicles is incredible and there are no vehicle inspections of gas emissions, especially for old cars. Also what I have seen and I think has to do with the contamination of the environment is that the United States sends us a lot of used tires, and here they sell them at a low price. But what are we going to do with those tires after using them? Because those tires aren’t biodegradable and there is no treatment center.

We also use too much plastic, even though now we are trying to reduce it, but if you go to a market in a municipality or you go at the end of the day, the streets are full of plastic bags and we also know that plastic is not biodegradable. And there are no inspections to reduce this type of contamination.

In Guatemala, we have protected areas but the maintenance of these areas would have to be intensified, especially with some type of forestry policy so that the upkeep is more efficient. We don’t have forestry policies in Guatemala. We have a National Institute of Forests (Instituto Nacional de Bosques), which leads remuneration programs for those who reforest in their communities, but those programs are not very effective.

I think that on environmental issues, in Guatemala we are very behind. We haven’t managed to create awareness in everyone that this is our country, that we have to love it, that we have to take care of it. We are still early in this process of raising awareness.

More specifically, what is your take on the problem with extractive industries?

In relation to the extractive industries and the production of hydrocarbons, four or five years ago Guatemala signed a new contract with a French company for oil exploration in the northern part of Guatemala. It was a very detrimental contract for the country. We produce petroleum but they take it to the United States and then they sell us gas. But there has also been very little care in the process of exploration of petroleum wells, and in the communities where oil has been found there were arguments about these matters a few years ago, because they wanted to put wells in a protected area zone.

Speaking of the extractive industries, we have to begin with the fact that the Constitution of Guatemala mandates that the country’s subsoil belongs to the state. For that reason a mining law was enacted, because in our constitution it is also established that the technical and rational exploration of whatever is in the subsoil is authorized and approved by the state. That means carbides, that means gas, that means precious metals, everything. It’s a constitutional principle. If in Guatemala we wanted to totally and drastically stop the precious metal and hydrocarbon extractive industries, we would have to change the Constitution. And up until now there is no sign and no movement toward making that change. There is a constituent assembly but many people don't agree with it since a constituent assembly with the elected mayors is not going to result in big changes in the country.

Many years ago a mining law was enacted in order to carry out this technical and rational exploration. But this mining law did not posteriorly integrate the application of the 169 Agreement for consulting with the indigenous peoples. According to this agreement, the communities have to be consulted if development projects are desired in their historic lands. In general, except in the case of Santa Rosa, where the San Rafael mine is, and in the case of Guatemala City also, where there is another mine—gold, silver, or nickel are found in indigenous areas. The mining law has not integrated the 169 Agreement and this has caused a lot of unrest in the communities, because there have been very strong reactions against open-pit mining.

In second place, with this mining law, the parameters of the environmental impact study are very low. On one occasion we did a critique of the Marlin mine, which is here in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, because they say that they follow the World Bank parameters, but the parameters in general are very low according to the law. If there is a social responsibility on the part of the company, the parameters can increase; if not, they stay very low.

In third place, that law has not made a territorial ordinance to determine what the mining zones are. In the areas where the miners find gold, silver, or nickel, right there is where they start to work; even though the communities may oppose it, the companies say that they have the legal permits from the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Energy and Mines. And the same ministries say that they can’t disobey what the law says because it can put them in danger.

This government, when Mr. Otto Pérez Molina was president, requested a moratorium of two years on mining extraction; in other words that everything stop for two years while the pros and cons are analyzed. But this didn’t happen because these types of decisions are in the hands of Congress, and the Congress of the Republic is still a disaster, they don’t look out for the good of the country. So we have a mining law that favors the big companies; they are not charged at all for water, the parameters of the environmental impact study are very low, they don’t take into account the application of Agreement 169, and finally, they only give us a 1 percent royalty—for the first seven years they don’t pay import or export taxes. It’s a mistaken logic because at the end of the day they are playing with the fate of the country.

I have personally gone down a path of reflection and I have reached the conclusion that Guatemala is not a suitable country for the extractive and precious metal industry. We are a small country of 109,000 square kilometers and very populated. We are now already confronting problems with water shortages; mining uses a lot of water and they are also using cyanide. And we don’t know the effects of the acid drainage that the extractive industries leave behind. I want to see what will happen, if God gives me life, after the Marlin mine leaves San Miguel Ixtahuacán, I want to see what’s left over. They have talked about their operations ending but they have not said when. Who knows how much money they have made? I once talked with a manager, and he mentioned that he doesn’t think they have made much, but there is no information, in other words, since they are public limited companies, there is no way to really see their accounts and see what their earnings have been and what their investments have been. They have to report it to their board of shareholders and to the Canadian government, but the government of Guatemala has never requested it.

On this matter what I always proposed, since we have the Marlin mine, because the Ministry did not give out any more licenses, is that we have a waiting period to see what will happen when the company leaves, to see what waste it is going to leave behind. Because the representatives of the mine used to say that they create jobs. Yes, at the beginning they employed more than 2,000 people when the entire infrastructure was being installed, but now I don’t think they have more than 400 workers in the mine and furthermore in the main technical posts they have foreigners. So it’s not a source of job creation like they say.

What are specific problems surrounding mining?

Something very serious is the unrest, because the communities say that they don’t want mining, that mining is harmful to them and that it’s not good for them. But the government says the contrary, that the mines have the right and the permission to operate. We have a very weak Ministry of the Environment, it doesn’t have money in its budget, it doesn’t even have money to pay for specialized teams that look into whether the groundwater is going to be exhausted or not. For example, there is no team that goes to check on the water condition in the tailings dam because there is a big lake there where all the waste from the mine goes. We don’t know what the condition of that water is; we have requested investigations but they have not done them.

So I think that the future of Guatemala is not with the extractive industries since they affect our environment by contaminating the water and using cyanide, in addition to the fact that the environmental impact studies are deficient. When I was in San Marcos, we did a study on the arsenic and cyanide concentration in the water of the neighboring streams. Arsenic was found but not in high concentrations at that time. We did not find cyanide either, at least up until last year. But we don’t know what will be left when the Marlin mine is closed. That’s the big question; have they dumped in the tailings dam? We don’t know. And if they have dumped, where? Where have those dumps been made? And above all else, what is the chemical nature of those waters? The landscape has already been totally destroyed by the open reduction. There was a hill, they blew the whole thing up, they built tunnels and have worked for more than seven years, but at this time none of us knows what earnings this has generated for the mining company Goldcorp (before it was Glamis Gold).

There hasn’t been any response on behalf of the state?

No, because the state has allowed the mines. What has happened here is that when there have been social protests; the leaders of the social protests have been put in jail. The politics of the state of Guatemala always favor the companies, not the people.

In that regard, what has been the reaction of the communities? Have social movements been organized?

Yes. We have the Ecology and Peace Pastoral Committee (COPAE). I created this committee when I was in San Marcos and it has been working since then, monitoring, observing. In Santa Rosa, there is the Life Maintenance Committee; people there have been in resistance for two or three years. That’s in spite of the fact that they have put some people in jail and then they have freed them because they didn’t find proof. The repressive reaction of the state of Guatemala is unbelievable. We have had talks with the Committee on the Environment and the Committee on Energy and Mines of the Congress of the Republic but they have been a farce, because they tell us yes, let’s talk about it here, let’s talk about it there, but nothing happens. It’s a joke what the deputies have done. They have not changed the law and they are the ones who should change the law.

And what activities have the other religious denominations gotten involved in?

A progressive evangelical sect has united with us but the majority of the evangelical church has not. The historically non-Catholic Christian denominations (Lutherans, Episcopalians, some Presbyterians) that represent the religious make-up of Guatemala don’t get along with us. But the others (there are more than 125 non-Catholic Christian denominations) aren’t interested in these matters.

Why could it be that the environment isn’t on the agenda of these other churches?

Because they don’t have an integral interpretation of the world. They divide the world into that which is religious and sacred and that which is unhallowed and profane. For them getting involved in activities that defend human rights and that defend the environment is a profane thing, something that doesn’t follow their religious path. In other words, they don’t have a theology of creation like we do, or like many other protestant sects do, of study and reflection where we support each other in our social work. When I think about German Protestantism or Swedish Protestantism, those things are totally different from these groups that were started by people who came from the United States towards the end of the nineteenth century.

And with the Pope’s new interest in the environment, what has been the country’s reaction?

Very positive. The dioceses have commented on the Encyclical and in our sermons we are incorporating the ecological theme. The Catholic Church has always maintained an attitude of condemnation, pointing out the serious damage that these actions that go against the environment bring. We always defend quality of life; we involve ourselves in potable water projects; we get involved in health projects in order to help people have quality of life. That is to say that our position has always been in favor of life and not just spiritual life but all life, including the body and spirit. In that sense the Catholic Church here has always put up a strong front against the extractive industries.

What do people outside the church think about the message of Pope Francis on the environment?

He has an influence on people here, those who have the power to decide, what matters to them a lot is money, they are not looking to the future. One of the fundamental ideas, since the time of John Paul II, is that we have to think about what planet we are going to leave behind for our future generations. We are not taking that very seriously here in Guatemala. For that reason I think that with the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has called, we are going to take advantage a bit of the publication of the Encyclical to pick up this subject with more force. At least since the episcopal conference; our Pastoral Committee on the Earth is also involved in this matter of caring for the environment.

Given all the recent political changes in Guatemala and the political participation of the citizens, what is your take on the situation of increased civic participation of young people, of evangelicals and Catholics alike?

I would hope and wish that all of this energy, which sprouted from the weariness of the people after feeling betrayed and cheated by all the corruption, continues. We have insisted on criticizing corruption for years, but until now it seems like it reached its limit, and of course, the intervention of CICIG and the intervention of the Public Ministry favored the change. I would hope that this mobilization movement would be maintained, but that it be transformed into two very concrete efforts. One, to continue demanding that the Congress of the Republic makes the reforms to electoral law and the political parties, that is fundamental since if they are not made we are going to continue with more of the same. So I think that we have to start the future mobilizations there.

In second place, we should focus now on the social audit of the government, of the judges and the deputies. I think that we need to hurry there so that the people don’t fall asleep because, sometimes we Guatemalans are like Alka Seltzer, bubbly one moment and flat the next; we are not constant, we are not persevering. I think that one task, at least I feel this way as Bishop of the diocese, will be that we permanently be demanding of the deputies, president, vice president, and their ministries. Let’s see who will be left in the ministries and let’s be attentive to the social audit and let’s generate protests to ask for change in the electoral law and political parties.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.