Surprise ruling: Guatemalan Constitutional Court says that community referendums can’t just be ignored


In a move that could have a big affect on Guatemala’s mining industry, the Constitutional Court has ruled that the results of a community referendum are binding. Last year, in a referendum asking residents of Matesquintla, 10,000 people voted against the installation of the San Rafael mine while 100 voted in favor.

The opposition (and the mining company) argued that the issue of mining should be decided by the state not the community. This week, the Constitutional Court issued a verdict in favor of the community, basing the ruling on the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s convention.

While the national government issues permits for mining—the Environmental Ministry first and then the Ministry of Energy and Mines—local government has control over construction permits, which in affect gives them the power to block a mine from opening.

There is a bit of conflicting opinion as to what the ruling means. ElPeriodico reports that this doesn’t mean that the community referendums are binding, but rather that the municipality must include these results in reports sent to the national government for approval of a mining license. However, other sources (here,  here and here) are interpreting it to mean that 1) Mining will not be allowed in Matesquintla, and 2) nor will it be allowed in future places where a citizens reject the mine in referendums.  In a press conference yesterday, the Minister of the Environment, Roxana Sobenes, was asked whether MARN would respect the ruling. She said it was not an issue for MARN but rather the municipalities. I am only adding this because based on that, it would appear that both journalists and the minister are interpreting it as binding, and not a sort of suggestion as ElPeriodico reported. For what its worth, people in the Environmental Ministry have also interpreted it as a binding agreement and that at the very least, Matesquintla will not have mining (although that seems improbable considering the fact that the San Rafael mine is practically up and running—it is slated to begin production early next year.)


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