The Canadian company mining hills of silver and the people dying to stop it

In Guatemala, one of the worlds biggest silver deposits reaps millions for the Canadian owners but for local maqui berry farmers the price is their land and also their lives

D eep underground, buried in the lush hillsides of southern Guatemala , lies a veritable treasure trove: silver, tonnes of it, one of the biggest deposits in the world.

But its above ground in which the really dangerous activity goes on. On the dusty highway, about 50 peasant farmers stand praying in a group, a makeshift roadblock intended to quit trucks reaching the mine. They have been violently dispersed by law enforcement teargas. Now they fear the particular army might move in.

The contrast couldnt be greater: the mine taken out more than $350m (270m) worth associated with silver last year. The protesters, guys, women and children turning out for 12-hour vigils, eke out a living simply by farming coffee, maize and little herds of cattle.

This is a perennial frontline in a deadly battle fought against by land rights activists towards corporate interests in Guatemala, the clash of interests that have produced the country one of the most risky places in the world for environmentalists , according to the NGO Global Witness.

Since the year 2010 at least 41 people have been murdered including eight at the Canadian-owned my own, Escobal .

Although a handful of hitmen have been prosecuted regarding the the killings, none of the conspirators has been detained.

Some argue that the existing pattern of oppression has hyperlinks to Guatemalas unresolved past. Throughout the civil war, forced disappearances plus extrajudicial killings were used to subjugate poor rural communities in order to protect land rights for the elites.

Right now, says Ramn Cadena Rmila, Main America director of the International Commission rate of Jurists, the repression much more subtle but the end results are similar: countryside communities forced to defend their property.

Three organs of the state the legal courts, congress and executive branch interact to authorise forced evictions, declares of siege, false charges plus arbitrary detention in order to generate fear and kill rebellion in neighborhoods opposed to extractive industries, said Cadena.

You will find currently at least 307 active exploration licences in Guatemala, mainly within rural indigenous regions, according to Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) figures . Almost six hundred more are under consideration. At least thirty-two hydroelectric dams are operational, along with dozens more under construction or even assessment.

Against that, about two mil people have participated in plebiscites given that 2010, voting overwhelmingly against eco destructive projects such as mines, signing and dams. Their voices are largely ignored.

Luis Fernando, 23, who had been shot three times in the face at near range in 2013. Photograph: Nina Lakhani

The particular pattern of repression linked to the Escobal mine, situated 40 miles south-east of the capital Guatemala City, offers an insight into the murky world associated with extractive industries in the country.

The strong mine, which had been acquired by Canadian company Tahoe Resources in 2010 , is considered to hold the third biggest silver down payment in the world. But it is situated in the middle of Guatemalas southern agricultural heartlands where a large number of families live off the land.

Tahoe was granted a 25-year license to exploit a 20 sq kilometres area in San Rafael todas las Flores almost a quarter of the municipalitys territory in April 2013 regardless of numerous community votes against the my own.

Its environmental impact study (EIA) was flawed and should not have already been approved, according to indie experts , whose assessment Tahoe rejects. The company insists all the licences were obtained legally, which most community members support the particular mine.

Days after the Escobal license has been granted, seven protesters were photo outside the mine. Luis Fernando Monroy, now 23, was shot three times at close variety in the face, leaving your pet with permanent loss of smell plus breathing complications.

Fernando, who potential clients a youth environmental group, will not cower despite a regular stream associated with abusive, defamatory and threatening communications via social networks and WhatsApp. Thugs have threatened his family in their home; his younger siblings had been forced to abandon school.

The harassment is certainly constant, the fear is there, but I am going to resist until death. We have the right to a healthy environment and thoroughly clean water; this is a struggle for life, Fernando told the Guardian.

Efforts to go after the man accused of ordering the particular guards to open fire have been shambolic. Alberto Rotondo, then head associated with security who was fired by Tahoe soon after the event, was detained looking to flee Guatemala in 2013. He or she was held under house arrest yet escaped with the help of his police protects and fled in order to Peru where he is awaiting extradition .

Another victim of the violence within Guatemala was Topacio Reynoso, simply 16 when she was photo dead as she climbed directly into her fathers car in 2014.

The girl went through a political awakening plus educated us about the dangers associated with mining, said Irma Reynoso, 41, sitting solemnly in front of the picture montage of her daughter that decorates the faade of their home.

Topacios father Alex was also shot, yet survived after nine days within a coma.

Alex Reynoso and his wife Irma sit in front of a montage of the daughter Topocio, who was shot deceased in 2014 when she has been 16. Alex survived the strike. Photograph: Nina Lakhani

Three years later no one continues to be charged. The original prosecutor is below investigation for allegedly leaking details to suspects, but still working.

Back in 2013, a few days after Fernando was chance, the government declared a state of duress around the mine and deployed soldiers armed with arrest warrants for anti-mining activists. No charges were ever confirmed, but dozens had been detained arbitrarily for months , demoralising the movement.

The state of duress was instigated a few weeks after Tahoe attempted to sue the government to attack on protesters.

One of three army bases set-up during the siege continues to be in place. On top of its own private safety, Tahoes subsidiary financed a new police station near the mine as part of an agreement to boost police presence.

Tahoe is facing claims for settlement in Canada for the role in the violence in Apr 2013. Three of the victims lately agreed out of court settlements with all the company.

The Escobal mine dispute is not an isolated incident. Throughout Latin America, Canadian-owned mines are actually linked to at least forty-four deaths and 400 injuries in between 2000 and 2015 , based on the Brand Canada investigation by the Proper rights and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP) at Osgoode Hall Law College in Ontario. A quarter of the recorded violence took place in Guatemala, in which the embassy is accused of marketing business interests over human legal rights.

The particular embassy provides 100% blind assistance and political cover for Canadian mining companies, said Prof Tibia Imai from JCAP.

An embassy spokeswoman said Canadian companies operating abroad are expected to respect all relevant laws and international standards.

Drinking water is at the heart of the opposition in order to Escobal. Several locals told the particular Guardian that water sources had been polluted and shortages increasingly typical, even during rainy season. Local people fear that Escobal is component of a much larger project that includes several concessions across several farming areas also dependent on clean plentiful drinking water.

When the company expands like it wants it can be the end of us, said Amalia Lemus, a local activist in the lush espresso growing community of San Juan Bosco where villagers say search has continued despite a 2016 court ruling ordering a suspension system until MEM could guarantee drinking water sources will not be adversely affected.

Tahoe said the accusations about drinking water were unsubstantiated and inaccurate, which allegations their mine is leading to seismic activity in the nearby city of Casillas make no medical sense.

Topacios father Alex Reynosa, 37, a passionate campaigner who made it a second assassination attempt a year later on, has lost faith in the proper rights system. The law doesnt serve everyone else like us, but we will never ever stop resisting to protect mother earth. When the state tries to repress us once again, the only option would be armed level of resistance, he said.

Impunity breeds violence, based on Jorge Santos from the NGO Security of Human Rights Defenders within Guatemala (UDEFEGUA). The Guatemalan condition is designed to guarantee private interests and be sure impunity for the most powerful.

Tahoe views the violence differently.

There are a small number of expressive opponents who foment intimidation plus violence in the region. This has led to several violent incidents which sometimes produces a general environment of impunity that will violent activists foment, said spokeswoman Edie Hofmeister.

The Escobal mine within San Rafael las Flores. Photo: Nina Lakhani

Amid mounting worldwide condemnation of the episodes, the human rights prosecutors office within Guatemala City is analysing designs of violence against activists, plus investigating possible criminal wrongdoing simply by authorities approving licences and environment impact studies.

On 6 Come july 1st Guatemalas supreme court confirmed initial suspension of Tahoes Escobal mining licence citing violation of indigenous individuals rights to be consulted. The company provides filed an appeal seeking to overturn the decision.

Extractive industries have generated interpersonal conflicts across the country which politicians have not yet stopped, said Gilda Pineda, the particular countrys chief human rights prosecutor. Its been left to all of us to use the law to try and stop this particular vicious cycle of violence.

This year, in collaboration along with Global Witness, the Guardian can record the deaths of people that are killed while defending their property, forests, rivers or wildlife usually against the harmful impacts of sector. We will also report on the tales of some of the land and environment defenders still under attack. You can view the names of those who have died up to now this year here . You can read more from the project here .