Hundreds of families of Mayan Indians have occupied part of a large nickel mine owned by a Canadian company in Guatemala and demanded they be given land for subsistence farms.
Concerned about the threat that the mine allegedly poses to the environment and land rights, about 2,000 Q'eqchi Indians moved on to three separate areas of the mining complex and began setting up makeshift camps. Campaigners say the UN-sponsored Truth Commission - part of a 1996 peace agreement that ended Guatemala's brutal civil war - demanded that indigenous communities with historical claims to land have the right to determine how it is used.
The Indians moved on to the currently inactive mine site near Lake Izabal in north-east Guatemala, owned by Vancouver-based Skye Resources, at the weekend. Father Dan Vogt, a Catholic priest and co-ordinator of a community development group, Aepdi, said they had long been campaigning for the company to provide them with land to farm.
Speaking from El Estor, the nearest community, he told The Independent: "They got fed up and decided to take action. There were around 350 families - around 2,000 people. They are still there, building houses. The company has told me they are not willing to negotiate until they move."
Skye bought the site from another Canadian mining company, Canadian International Nickel Co, which had operated the mine from the 1960s until 1981. Skye hopes to begin producing up to 11,000 tonnes of ferro-nickel by the end of 2008.
Campaigners say the plans fit a pattern across other countries in Latin America where foreign and multinational companies have secured rights to exploit mineral and other natural resources, with local communities receiving little in exchange. Elsewhere in Guatemala, and in neighbouring Honduras, protests have recently been made against the US-Canadian mining company Glamis, while in Chile protesters have sought to stop the building of a gold mine by another Canadian company, Barrick.
Grahame Russell, a spokesman for the Canadian-based group Rights Action, said: "Skye Resources is just one more example of what North American companies are doing through Latin America. The patterns are being repeated everywhere and the problems go from A-Z. It starts with a complete absence of consultation with local communities, which they have a legal right to. Before people know anything about it they are in the back door with a mining exploration licence."
A recent report by Oxfam about the El Estor Mayan community said: " Rigorous strip mining has already degraded the fragile ecosystem, eroding the thin topsoil in mountain passes inhabited by Mayan communities. The mountainsides have been deforested, causing landslides and a litany of environmental hazards. In addition to the environmental threat, there is a long history of political violence between the mining companies and the indigenous communities who resist."
Ian Austin, chief executive officer of Skye, said his company was keen to defuse the tension and avoid confrontation. "Our approach has been to try and talk with the community and the people in the area and to develop a win-win situation." He added: "Groups are opposed to mining and that is a fact of life in our industry."