Guatemalan authorities have charged current and former senior officials involved in one of Central America’s largest nickel mines, which OCCRP exposed as the main polluter of the air and the country’s largest lake.
Current Energy and Mines Minister Alberto Pimentel Mata and his predecessor Luis Chang Navarro have been accused of allowing the Fénix mine to mine nickel, despite a Guatemalan Supreme Court ruling that mining could not continue.
The Fénix mine is owned by the Swiss Solway Investment Group and the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN).
During the tenure of former President Jimmy Morales in mid-2019, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ordered the suspension of Fénix operations to protect the rights of the Q’eqchi’ Maya indigenous people, who claimed the mine’s mining license was illegal because they operated without it she was issued proper collusion with them.
However, the mine had never stopped working, with the complicity of first Chang Navarro and later Pimental Mata under the management of Alejandro Giammattei.
In a leaked letter in March 2020, the CGN President wrote to Solway’s co-founder that the mine was still operating despite opposition from “farmers” and “radical groups”.
Local residents protested several times, demanding a cleaner environment and better water. In 2017, a Q’eqchi’ Maya member was killed during protests against mining activities polluting Lake Izabal.
The Constitutional Court of Guatemala suspended Fénix’s extraction license and in 2021 Pimentel Mata upheld the decision.
But satellite imagery provided by the Extractive Industries Observatory’s Guatemalan watchdog showed the mine’s trenches continued not only after the court’s first judgment in 2019, but also after the ratification of the judgment in 2021.
The manager of the Extractive Industries Observatory Guadalupe García told OCCRP that mining licenses allow exploration within 20 square kilometers, but that she believes there is a legal vacuum because when a mining company produces a technical report justifying an expansion, it can get the right to make a larger exploitation area. The Fénix mine allegedly took advantage of this, expanding its reach to about 246 square kilometers, or 12 times the normal size of a licensed area, she added.
Solway denied claims the mine caused pollution and said the company was complying with Guatemalan law and international regulations. Shortly after OCCRP’s partners published a series of articles about the issue, the company released a statement disputing the findings.
“Our performance is closely monitored by both national regulatory bodies and international testing and certification agencies,” said Dan Bronstein, co-founder and CEO of Solway, as well as Swiss authorities. “We reject all allegations that are made without factual basis.”
However, the Fénix mine is said to have leached contaminated water into Lake Izabal. A biologist told OCCRP the lake has been contaminated with heavy metals like nickel, chromium, iron, aluminum and mercury that could be toxic to plants and animals like fish.
Despite the apparent violations, the Guatemalan authorities supported Solway. The Environment Ministry said its regulations “establish the policies, structures and procedures necessary to support the country’s sustainable development in environmental matters”.
In January this year, Mata allowed Fénix to resume its mining activities after allegedly holding “consultation with legitimate community representatives” and CGN officials coordinated by his ministry. However, some local groups complained that they had been excluded from these consultations, such as the artisanal fishermen’s guild, García said.
The value of these consultations is debatable. Leaked documents showed CGN used money to sway local opinion in its favor when the government held consultations on the mine’s environmental impact, OCCRP reported. A table described some of the payments as “purchase from community leaders.”