Everyone has heard of fracking these days -- that dreadful and dangerous practice of drilling and injecting chemical-laden fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks below to release natural gas or oil inside. The roughly 4 million gallons of water and 40,000 gallons of undisclosed chemicals used for each fracturing job have wrought the ire of communities throughout North America where gas and oil wells are being exploited. While big money interest groups claim that the fracking industry will bring economic benefits from the vast amounts of formerly inaccessible hydrocarbons the process can extract, many cities and states have sought to ban fracking from their communities due to the contaminated air, groundwater and various other health effects that fracking sites have created.
But who wants to hear another diatribe against fracking? The reality that communities surrounded by fracking projects face have been well-documented and brought into the public domain. But as goes our globalized economic system and its infinitely long and complex supply lines, the communities directly affected by the injection of dangerous chemicals into the earth below them are often only the tip of the iceberg.
Over 600 chemicals and other minerals are used in fracking fluid, among them known carcinogens such as uranium, mercury and lead. The Energy Policy Act, however, allows companies to keep secret the identity of chemicals they use in their fracking operations thus making it almost impossible to know the origin of the components of that chemical brew that seeps into your groundwater. It also keeps hidden the disastrous effects of the mining of these chemicals on small communities around the world. This law follows faithfully one of the guiding principles of our industrial civilization -- that producer and consumer should have nothing to do with one another.
One of the many substances that make up that liquid mess that fracking companies inject violently into the earth is barite which, due to its density and non-sparking nature, is used mainly as a weighting agent. In the Mayan Highlands of northern Guatemalan, a prized source of high grade barite is hidden within the pristine communal forest and pasture lands of the Mayan Ixil people. Currently, that barite is still buried beneath the towering oaks of the cloud forest and the hoofs of cows and sheep that are pastured by women and children. It is still there because the Mayan Ixil people of the villages of Salquil and Vicalama have vehemently defended their communal lands during the last 30 years despite the repeated attempts by companies in cohorts with the Guatemalan government to commence a massive, open pit barite mine.
In recent weeks, Double Crown Resources, a North American natural resource exploration and development company, has bought the rights to the proposed mine site and has insolently declared that mineral extraction will begin later this year. The barite mined from nine square kilometers of communal forest and pasture land is to be exported to a refining plant in New Orleans before being sold to multinational oil and gas companies for fracking operations around the world.
Though it is impossible to know where the barite that is expected to be extracted from the communal lands of the Mayan Ixil people will eventually end up, I believe that the resistance and strong opposition to the proposed barite mine by the Ixil people offers a unique opportunity to connect the dots between production, consumption and disposal that is purposefully concealed by our global economic system. Furthermore, it presents an opportunity to bring together opposition groups in communities affected along the long supply lines of our economic system. By briefly presenting the history and some of the possible effects of the proposed barite mine in Guatemala and its effects on the traditional livelihoods of the Ixil people of Guatemala, I hope to inspire communities involved in local struggles against specific fracking operations in the United States to broaden their resistance and to become convinced of the need to form alliances with other groups and communities affected indirectly by the fracking industry.
The history of the proposed barite mine in the Ixil communities of Guatemala isn't a unique story by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it's a story that has been played out in almost every rural, agrarian community affected by the arrival of multinational mining and energy corporations coveting their natural wealth. The deceitfulness and lies, the arrogance of paternalism, and the Orwellian language disguising hidden agendas will be recognized and understood by communities from Appalachia to rural Pennsylvania to Guatemala. These parallels in the stories are another convincing motivation to connect local resistance movements along the production-consumption-disposal lines of our global economy.
Double Crown Resource COO Antonio Castillo recently stated in a press release that "through our management's market research over the past year we became aware that (the mine in Guatemala) was a greatly prized source of high grade barite." Being that the proposed barite mine is located miles off road in the midst of a communal cloud forest of distant Mayan Ixil communities, what type of "market research" would that exactly entail?
Double Crown bought the rights to the proposed mine from another company called Geominas S.A. In February 2010, Jorge Luis Avalos, owner of Geominas S.A. with whom Double Crown are partnering with, was detained by the indigenous communities around the proposed mine site for trespassing on communal land. After debating with community leaders, Mr. Avalos signed a statement recognizing that the communities were not in agreement with the proposed mine and promising that the mining company would never return. Sneaking onto the collective forest and pasture land of the Mayan Ixil people to collect samples is indeed a novel form of "market research."
In the same press release, Castillo comments that "it is our hope that revenue generated from the revitalization of the Guatemalan mining industry can change the lives of the local people in need." The press release fails to mention of course, that none of the actual Mayan Ixil people asked for the company to change their lives in any way. The very concept of need, or poverty if you will, is not only western-centric, but also blatantly and shamefully used as an excuse to justify foreign investment as a means to "modernize" and improve supposedly backward, rural and agrarian areas. In Guatemala, the excuse of poverty is commonly used as a justification for mega-mining projects, and the qualification by Castillo that "local people" are in "need" seems to follow that pattern. Though the traditional lifestyle of Mayan Ixil farmers may be austere, the majority live decent, agrarian lives tied to their ancestral lands and traditional way of life.
Double Crown Resources believes that "Guatemalan business and government officials will be able to take advantage of a new long-term, high value revenue stream to create or improve social services... including health care, education, communications, technological advancements and much more." This hopeful thinking ignores the reality of the rampant corruption that defines Guatemala where the 1-5 percent of royalties given by the mining industry almost never makes its way to the people. The company is right in saying that business and government officials will be "taking advantage" of these royalties, but they forget to mention that the Mayan Ixil people living around the mine will most likely receive nothing other than environmental degradation that will surely destroy a relatively healthy forest and agrarian economy.
Lastly, the company conceitedly affirms that "the barite from Guatemala is some of the best quality in the world and we will now have exclusive rights to 100 percent of the ore from the Bilojom II mining operation." Double Crown Resources has been in the Mayan Ixil region of Guatemala for a few months at the most. The Mayan Ixil people of the villages of Salquil and Vicalama have been using their communal forests and pastures for the last 2,500 years. Nonetheless, Double Crown seems to believe and affirm that an extraction license signed by Guatemalan government officials trumps the rights of indigenous people over the land they have inhabited and cared for over countless generations never mind the fact that the license was signed without any sort of prior and informed consent of the Mayan Ixil people.
Communities affected by fracking in North America, despite the absurd lobbying power of corporate gas and oil interests, generally have at least some sort of legal recourse to defend themselves. The recent case of a family in Texas that won a 3 million dollar lawsuit against a fracking company due to contamination of their lands is a case in point that would be unimaginable in places like Guatemala where the interests of multinational mining and energy companies are safeguarded by military intervention.
A unified and coherent resistance to the fracking industry should expand beyond the immediate effects felt by communities where fracking takes place. It should reach out to forge alliances with other vulnerable communities around the globe that are affected by the extraction of many of the raw materials used in the fracking industry. Together, communities affected by different aspects of the fracking industry can unite to form a common struggle against an industry that causes harm all along the long supply lines of our global economic system.