Distraction Free Reading

Science and Justice: “Impartial” Water Monitoring and Resistance to the Escobal Mine in Guatemala

Editor’s note: This is the third post in an ongoing series called “The Spectrum of Research and Practice in Guatemalan Science Studies.”

A picture of the the surface installation of the Escobal Mine in San Rafael Las Flores. Photo taken from above overlooking a green valley divided by plots.

The surface installation of the Escobal Mine in San Rafael Las Flores. Photo by author.

In Defense of Xinka Territory against Extractivism

A water monitoring process conducted around a controversial mine site in Guatemala highlighted the central, but also contested and indeterminate, role of science in environmental struggles. Groups with competing aims, and distinct conceptions of science and politics produce (or influence the production of) distinct forms and interpretations of science to ground their claims and shape the outcome of environmental conflicts.

Since 2018, I have worked on water rights in Guatemala, beginning with an effort to help rural communities access water science. This grew out of fieldwork on food sovereignty initiatives done in collaboration with a progressive NGO, The Foundation for the Development and Strengthening of Grassroots Organizations (FUNDEBASE). We were in San Carlos Alzatate, one of five municipalities in resistance to the Escobal Silver Mine. This is an emblematic struggle in Guatemala’s “defense of territory” against extractive industries, the most significant community-based indigenous political movement since the 1996 peace accords.[1] As a pillar of the neoliberal development model launched alongside the transition to multicultural democracy, extractive industries like mining, hydroelectric dams, timber operations, and agricultural monocrops have provoked sustained resistance from indigenous communities, who see few benefits and catastrophic environmental risks.

In San Carlos Alzatate, FUNDEBASE promoted agroecology, strengthened women’s and youth groups, and provided training and accompaniment for the local resistance, including helping to implement the Xinka Parliament’s campaign to revitalize Xinka identity. The Xinka are an indigenous people in Guatemala and El Salvador. International Labor Organization treaty 169 recognizes indigenous peoples’ right to consultation regarding development projects that affect the natural environment. Although the autonomous consultations carried out in surrounding towns rejected the mine overwhelmingly, the mine funded incessant radio spots saying “Xinka do not exist.” The resistance dug in, setting up a highway checkpoint in 2017 to block all materials from entering the mine. Soon after, the Supreme Court ordered the mine closed pending a legal ruling about whether the mine, which began operations in 2013 without consultation, had violated the Xinka peoples’ rights. In 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that the project had violated the Xinka right to consultation, cancelling one exploration license. It was also ordered that the consultation be carried out by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, while mine operations continued to be suspended. Meanwhile the communities insisted that the new consultation adhere to the ruling issued, that dictates the appropriate steps to follow.

Community Demand for Water Monitoring

In a meeting with the comunidad indígena, the local indigenous authority, an incensed teacher related to me key injustices in the fight against the mine: a security guard opening fire on peaceful protestors in 2013, resistance leaders threatened and some in pretrial detention, a cyanide spill that led to the arrest of the lead engineer, etc. I offered to write a short article highlighting recent developments. What would help more, the teacher said, was if someone at my university could analyze water samples. Local communities lived with the fear and anxiety that they were drinking water contaminated with arsenic from the mine. Water samples taken by Madre Selva, an environmental NGO, in 2015 had shown some elevated levels; but that study was dated and limited in scope. The mine insisted the water was fine and had installed a treatment plant in San Rafael las Flores, the town where the mine was located.

I agreed to ask. After all, I work at Virginia Tech, home to Marc Edwards, the engineer who helped exposing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. I wrote to Dr. Leigh Anne Krometis, a Biological Systems Engineer and water testing expert. With her graduate student Cristina Marcillo (now PhD) and in coordination with the Diocesan Commission in Defense of Nature (CODIDENA), a local organization coordinating the resistance, and community leaders from San Rafael las Flores, we carried out a monitoring of surface water systems in San Rafael in July 2018.

Three people huddled around a cement well in the middle of green foliage, using scientific equipment to measure dissolved oxygen

Dr. Marcillo, Rudy Pivaral, and Moises Divas (from CODIDENA) using a probe to measuring the dissolved oxygen in a spring box. Photo by author.

The Political Aims of Water Science

The community resistance wanted impartial science to prove that their concerns were valid, and to produce justice, which to them meant a permanent closure of the mine. In their minds, “impartial science,” science that did not take a side—in this case, conducted by a foreign university—could counter the science produced by the mine or government regulatory agencies, and corroborate the findings from the Madre Selva study. Community residents were skeptical of the “partial” environmental impact statements produced by the mine and the findings of state regulatory agencies. The mine had a financial interest, and state agencies were seen as favoring industry—they had already granted the mine a license, and state scientists were under pressure to produce data that would enable them to keep their jobs. The community resistance believed that science done impartially would become partial and support justice. They also wanted to know if a water treatment plant installed in San Rafael was working properly. The Madre Selva study tested only a limited number of locations and needed to be updated.

The engineers understood the role of science differently. Dr. Krometis understands her work in general as guided by social justice—examining water quality in poor and marginalized communities that are disproportionately subjected to environmental externalities. But she also saw science as apolitical and objective: her methods would produce accurate and neutral—though partial—data about water quality; and she could provide information about scientifically proven steps to clean water if necessary. A core assumption was that following the scientific method can advance social justice if the data guides policy. The more data, the better. Justice in this perspective means access to sufficient quantities of water that meets international standards: the human right to water. Dr. Krometis believes that politics can interfere in the scientific method by influencing decisions to measure when, where, and what to look for, or how results are tabulated or reported. In her view, science should avoid even the appearance of these forms of bias, lest it lose credibility.

Dr. Krometis was also concerned about what would happen in the event of heightened arsenic levels: “You can’t just tell a community that their water is toxic and then leave,” she explained. We needed to offer some remedy, like water filtration. I told her that we didn’t have many options, but that even finding contamination would be valuable as leverage to pressure the state to remedy the situation.

The Limits of Science

As she prepared information about filtration options, Dr. Krometis took pains to explain that analysis can only tell us what is in the water, not its origin; that would require more extensive testing and (expensive) geophysical analysis of how water moved underground and natural (e.g. non-industrial) sources of toxics like arsenic. Furthermore, scientific “certainty” took time and money to establish and would almost certainly disappoint political expectations.

Local leaders understood when I explained these limits. They too wanted “impartial” science: they wanted to know what was in their water. But their view exceeded the engineering perspective: they believed that scientific data showing contamination, even if they could not prove it was from the mine, could still help them make the case against the mine. The community was more inclined to draw conclusions about the mine’s likely responsibility, and would also evaluate the risk differently. If arsenic was naturally occurring, why dig a several kilometer tunnel, grinding up a mountain of waste rock and exposing it to water and oxygen in a recharge zone at the top of a watershed? Resistance leaders were primarily concerned with how the data would affect the balance of forces. Any heightened levels of contamination would strengthen the resistance effort. Impartial data could show that the mine’s science was erroneous and corroborate community interpretations. Maintaining a 24-hour blockade, holding regular meetings in a range of rural communities to share information and coordinate action, responding to the company’s statements, pursuing legal action, attending meetings in the capital with support organizations, providing support to individuals who are threatened, attacked, and criminalized, interacting with municipal and state governments—these tasks are onerous and time consuming. It matters that people believe they are necessary. Resistance leaders also at least implicitly knew that more inconclusive data only benefitted the mining company, which would maintain the legal right to operate, if not strengthen their social license.

Conversely, from the mine’s perspective, additional outside study of water quality was unnecessary and inherently risky and political. The Tahoe Resources, the mining company, did not encourage independent monitoring; they had state approval and regularly boasted about the quantity and quality of their own data—although the mine did not share this, or all of this, with the community, especially base line data, of which none was available. The mine’s decision to not take baseline data, or hoard it, was a political decision. They insisted that their data demonstrated that the mine could operate safely. Yes, mining had environmental costs, but these were far outweighed, in their view, by the benefits to the community in terms of jobs, gifts, royalties: development. The mine knew as well as the community that the very activity of taking water samples questioned their conclusions. This effect was further heightened by the involvement of a prestigious foreign university.

People crossing bridge over small mud river

Dr. Marcillo and Dr. Krometis with local activists Rudy Pivaral and Alfonso Solorzano from San Rafael las Flores. Photo by author.

An Effective Collaboration

Nonetheless, these differences in perspectives and motivations did not prove to be obstacles to collaboration. The engineers and the community were able to work together productively, respectful of each other’s positions. This collaboration was a methodological precondition for scientific production. The community wanted the engineers’ help precisely because of their impartiality. Conversely, if the VT engineers had not coordinated with the resistance, they could not have entered the communities to take samples.

We conducted dozens of samples over three days and analyzed them in VT labs. We found arsenic levels at times violated USEPA and WHO standards; other samples were very close to violating these standards, and there is no “safe” level of exposure. While we cannot determine if the contamination came from the mine, it is no longer possible to say that there is no contamination. The data also showed that the water treatment plant, which used technology that was not revealed to the communities or an external investigation, was not functioning as supposedly designed, and not consistently removing arsenic to acceptable levels.

Our water sampling data formed part of a multidisciplinary study of the mine’s impact conducted by the Center for Conservation Studies,[2] part of the University of San Carlos, Guatemala’s public university. That study undermined the mine’s claim to promote development and highlighted significant environmental risks, particularly the dewatering of the watershed. It is not clear if the study factored into the Constitutional Court’s ruling in 2019 that the mine had violated the Xinka right to consultation. It did matter to the resistance, who have begun to develop their own community watershed monitoring capacities, and played an integral role in founding the Guatemalan Water Network (REDAGUA), a national water rights network that emerged out of this collaboration.

As an anthropologist, I have been trained to view science not a neutral or universal, but a heterogeneous practice carried out in specific settings, shaped by competing agendas. This process showed a potential role for anthropologists in helping bridge the gap between poor communities and more academically “prestigious” sources of scientific knowledge production, and to prevent divergent understandings of the aims and limits of science and frame findings for various publics. This demonstrates how engineers and indigenous communities can productively collaborate to produce scientific knowledge even when their understandings of science and its political uses diverge. These divergences can also generate new possibilities for collaborative engineering and influence grassroots political strategies and environmental perceptions.


[1] Dary, Claudia, Giovanni Batz, Santiago Bastos, Quimy de León, Nelton Rivera González, Pablo Sigüenza Ramírez, Ollantey Itzamná, Rony Morales, and María Jacinta Xón Riquiac. Pensar Guatemala desde la resistencia: el neoliberalismo enfrentado. F&G Editores, 2018.

[2] Desigualdad, Extractivismo, y Desarrollo en Santa Rosa y Jalapa. Centro de Estudios Conservacionistas, Universad de San Carlos. Ciudad de Guatemala. http://cdc.usac.edu.gt/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/estudio-de-caso-desigualdad-extractivismo-y-desarrollo.pdf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *