In an attempt to quell simmering tensions in the rural mining zone of Santo Domingo, Chontales, Canadian mining company B2Gold and a group of Nicaraguan gold prospectors penned a tentative truce this weekend that promises to end months of social unrest.
The agreement, signed in the presence of local political and religious authorities, aims to hush protest against the foreign mining company in exchange for the freedom of 12 local prospectors who were jailed more than a month ago for demonstrating against B2Gold. The Canadian mining company also reportedly agreed to retract its requested capture orders against two dozen other Nicaraguans involved in last month’s protests against their open-pit mining operations.
Despite the tenuously negotiated peace accord, human rights activists say the terms of the agreement were essentially foisted upon the residents of Santo Domingo by a powerful foreign company that is backed fully by the government. The local community had no choice but to sign on the dotted line, says Gonzalo Carrion, a lawyer from the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) who has been actively involved in the case.
“This was like an executioner negotiating a treaty with his prisoner,” Carrion told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “The incarcerated miners had a gun put to their heads until they said: ‘Okay, we give up! We renounce our right to protest’.”
The agreement, which some in the community are reportedly already grumbling about, comes five weeks after Nicaraguan riot police fired teargas and rubber bullets at a group of local protesters who were blocking the entrance to B2Gold’s open-air mine. An environmental group called “Save Santo Domingo” was also demonstrating against the mining company based on concerns over logging and river pollution.
At the behest of B2Gold, riot police moved in on Feb. 9 to crack skulls and clear the crowd. CENIDH reports that some 100 people were injured and 47 arrested, including the dozen who are still being held in Managua’s infamous El Chipote jail. The incarcerated miners are expected to be freed on Tuesday, following this weekend’s armistice.
In a statement to Nicaraguan press, B2Gold said it is dedicated to dialogue and development in Santo Domingo. The company said the accord reached with the 500 families of the “El Cafetal” prospectors’ group is the fifth such agreement the Canadian mining firm has negotiated with local residents of Santo Domingo.
B2Gold said it is in the process of “intensifying social development projects” in the community of Santo Domingo, including improvements to the health center and construction of a new municipal building, among other projects.
Gold is one of Nicaragua’s fastest-growing exports. In 2012, Nicaragua exported $422 million with of gold, surpassing beef as the country’s No. 2 export behind coffee. Nicaragua’s gold exports climbed 16% last year.
So far this year, gold is Nicaragua’s leading export, netting more than $76.5 million in sales in January and February, according to government figures.
Zero tolerance for protest
The gold prospectors’ decision to end their protest of B2Gold in exchange for the freedom of their incarcerated comrades is reminiscent of last October’s taxi drivers’ protest in Managua, which ended when union leaders agreed to renounce their right to protest in exchange for the release of 40 cabbies who were locked up without bail. Human rights advocates say a worrisome pattern is forming.
“While all this was happening in Santo Domingo, the government went to a mining tradeshow in Canada to invite other mining companies to come to Nicaragua because the government guarantees the best conditions for mining operations here. And what that means is that the government won’t allow any form of protest against foreign mining companies, because all protest will be repressed,” Carrion said.
The rights leader says the government’s “brutal repression” of the mining protest last month is clear evidence that the president sides with the transnational business interests.
“The shine of gold is given priority to the rights of the people in Santo Domingo,” Carrion charges.
More mining protests to come
The protest against open-pit mining in Chontales isn’t the only local pushback against B2Gold.
In Matagalpa, the communities of Rancho Grande and Yaoska are also starting to remobilize against the Canadian mining firm, according to local journalist Frank García of Matagalpa Gráfica.
García claims the previous municipal government of Rancho Grande was in bed with the Canadian mining company, but the new authorities who took power in January are taking a stronger stance in defense of a conservationist platform.
On Thursday, the community of Rancho Grande, led by a local environmentalist group called the “The Guardians of Yaoska” (named after the river that flows through Matagalpa) is organizing a march against B2Gold’s mining operations in Matagalpa.
It remains to be seen whether that protest will be a violent repeat of last month’s protest in Santo Domingo.