On 28 March 2011 a group of 11 Guatemalan women filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court in Ontario, Canada, against HudBay Minerals and its Guatemalan subsidiary Compania Guatemalteco de Niquel (CGN). The women alleged that the companies were complicit in the gang rapes suffered by the women at the hands of security personnel hired by the defendant companies. The women claim that the gang rapes occurred in January 2007 during forced evictions of members of the Mayan Q’eqchi’ community living in Lote Ocho / El Estor where the companies’ nickel mining project – the Fenix project – is located . Members of this community have challenged the legitimacy of the mining concession granted for the Fenix project for decades. HudBay Minerals says it will vigorously defend itself against the allegations of rape . Due to the high global demand for nickel to produce batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles , the company has a great economic interest in continuing the mining activities.
The local indigenous population of Lote Ocho, consisting of 100 homes and being located a 45-minute drive from the nearest town Cahaboncito, had been threatened to leave their land since the end of 2006 by helicopter flights over the village, the destruction of houses and plundering activities . They had repeatedly resisted until the conflict finally erupted on 17 January 2007. As evidence (emails, messages, etc.) from the ongoing court case testify, the evacuation of the village for a new phase of the mining project was a planned strategy by the Canadian company in charge at the time Skye Resources, in which contact with local authorities was also involved . On the day of the violent eviction, which was carried out by armed and masked external security personnel hired by the Guatemalan subsidiary CGN, and the local police, the men of the community had left the village to do their agricultural work, so only women and children were there . The executors of the eviction used illegal methods, such as operating firearms, and it was well known that this hired private security company had been involved in illegal activities before . As the 11 women of Lote Ocho, who approached the Superior Court in Ontario, Canada with the support of various NGOs (e.g., Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, Rights Action and others), reported in the court case, the invading men raped the women using brutal methods already used in the civil war after they refused to vacate the village. Some of the women were pregnant at the time and subsequently experienced forced abortion or gave birth prematurely causing injuries and the inability to become pregnant in the future. To this day, the women report pain and trauma. The village of Lote Ocho was completely destroyed, and the women did not only lose most of their belongings, but also their leadership role in the community because of the humiliation they experienced .
Ever since the military dictatorship granted concessions for nickel mining in the area of El Estor at Lake Izabal in eastern Guatemala in the 1960s, the mining project called "Fenix" has provoked numerous violent conflicts with the indigenous local population . Other examples of brutal clashes with the local Mayan Q'eqchi' indigenous community in the recent past include the murder of community leader Adolfo Ich and the mutilation of German Chub after a fire at protesters on September 27, 2009 by HudBay security personnel, with Mynor Padilla as the head of the firm, and the murder of Fisherman's Guild member Carolos Maaz Coc during peaceful protests in 2017 . These cases were also brought before Canadian courts.
The partly illegal development of new excavation sites by various multinational companies over the decades has not only led to forced displacement, murder and the destruction of ancestral habitats, but the adjacent lake also suffered from proven heavy contamination because of the practices related to nickel mining . This has not only immensely reduced the quality of the drinking water, but it is also destroying the livelihood of local fishermen ever since. Environmental threats include harm to the region’s rich biodiversity. To mine nickel, a sulphuric acid would be used. This causes the same problems regarding acid mine drainage and contamination of the (ground)water as the mining of gold. The effluents might be discharged in the ocean or in the Izabal Lake. Some communities complained about exploration drilling which caused an erosion runoff that has damaged and polluted several communities’ drinking water supplies.
The nickel mine is currently owned by the Russian/ Swiss company Solway Investment Group and operated by the Guatemalan subsidiary Compañia Guatemalteco de Niquél (CGN) but was previously owned by the Canadian company INCO (International Nickel Company) for 40 years from the 1960s, which then operated as Vancouver-based Skye Resources from 2005 to 2008 after the 40 years old mining licence expired in 2004. In 2008, the company was sold to Toronto-based HudBay Minerals. From then on, the name of the project was changed from "EXMIBAL" to "Fenix" . After numerous protests by local indigenous people and the International Labour Organization (ILO) ruling that Guatemala had breached international law by granting the Fenix mining concession without first consulting with local Mayan Q’eqchi’ people in 2006 , Guatemala's Constitutional Court ruled in 2021 that consultation with local residents is necessary before this type of project . The fact that this has not been obtained in the last 60 years makes the operations illegal.
In July 2013, the Canadian courts decided that the three lawsuits will be allowed to proceed in Canada following a ruling that makes it possible for firms to face liability at home for incidents that occur overseas. On January 22, 2020, rejecting an appeal by Toronto-based HudBay, the Superior Court of Justice of Canada confirmed that an indictment of HudBay, that had taken over Sky Resource’s legal liability by their purchase in 2008, as well as an indictment of the Guatemalan police and military is legal. The remaining 10 women of Lote Ocho (one has died in the meantime) can now provide further evidence . If the case is successful, it will set a precedent for multinational companies to be held accountable in their national courts for their activities abroad .
In 2017, Rodrigo Tot was the winner of Goldman Environmental Prize. He is an indigenous leader in Guatemala’s Agua Caliente, who led his community to a landmark court decision that ordered the government to issue land titles to the Q’eqchi people and kept environmentally destructive mining operation from expanding into his community. The following paragraph is citation from the Goldman Prize: "An indigenous leader in Guatemala’s Agua Caliente, Rodrigo Tot led his community to a landmark court decision that ordered the government to issue land titles to the Q’eqchi people and kept environmentally destructive nickel mining from expanding into his community. Lake Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala, and its surrounding land in El Estor, are a place of vital importance to the indigenous Q’eqchi people. Descendants of the ancient Maya, the Q’eqchi maintain their living by farming and fishing. They defended their territory from Spanish colonists in the 16th century, and hundreds of years later, they are fighting for their land yet again—this time against their own government and multinational corporations interested in tapping the nickel deposits under their land. In the 1960s, the Guatemalan government began issuing permits to multinational mining companies in an attempt to cash in on the rising nickel prices. Among the mines established during this rush was the Fénix mine. It stopped its operations in the 1980s as the price of nickel crashed, but not before discharging untreated wastewater into Lake Izabal and rendering it the most polluted lake in the country. The global price of nickel rebounded and, in 2006, the mining companies returned to El Estor. The government issued a permit to restart the Fénix mine and expand its operations into the Q’eqchi village of Agua Caliente. The company’s security forces began to forcibly remove people from their land, in violation of international treaties that require free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities. An indigenous Q’eqchi leader, Rodrigo Tot was born in central Guatemala just as the mining boom of the 1960s was underway. After losing his parents at a young age, he moved to live with extended family in Agua Caliente when he was 12 years old. The small village became his home where he grew up, learned how to farm, got married, and raised his children. Tot never received a formal education but taught himself to speak Spanish by listening to others. Tot remembers how government and company officials never spoke with the local community about the mines. The Q’eqchi only found out when the miners arrived on their land to begin work. Fear began to spread in the community. People were worried that they were losing their land and, with it, their livelihood. Tot saw the need to start gathering evidence of Q’eqchi ownership of the land and, in 2002, as the elected president of Agua Caliente, he brought these documents to the government and petitioned for land titles. To his dismay, he discovered that several pages from the official land registry had been removed in a deliberate attempt to deny his people their land rights. Then there was an unexpected landmark ruling in 2011. The community’s next recourse was to take the government to court. Tot found legal support with the US-based Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) and Defensoria Q’eqchi, a small human rights organization in Guatemala. The team spent years preparing its case to establish the community’s legal claims to the land. On February 8, 2011, two years after the community of Agua Caliente filed its lawsuit, the Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision. Recognizing the Q’eqchi’s collective property rights, the court ordered the government to replace the missing pages from the registry and issue land titles to the people of Agua Caliente. The ruling came as a surprise to environmental and indigenous activists around the world who were well aware of corruption in Guatemala’s legal system and had been skeptical of the court’s ability to see how egregious these violations had been.“
Meanwhile, in Guatemala itself, the court case against Mynor Padilla, the former head of security at the mine, which began in 2014, was concluded in 2021 with Padilla's conviction in the killing of Adolfo Ich and the shooting of Carolos Maaz Chub . Furthermore, on June 18, 2020, Guatemala's highest Court ordered the closure of the project due to the lack of consultation with the local population when the last concession was awarded in 2006, until this consultation is carried out. While the mine continued to operate illegally, consultations have taken place since September 28, 2021, but not with the Mayan Q’eqchi’ community's self-determined governance structure, the Ancestral Council of Q'eqchi Peoples . In early 2022, Guatemala's energy and mines (MEM) minister Alberto Pimentel signed a resolution allowing the Solway Investment Group to resume mining activities .