In Guatemala, the “Devil’s Metal” Is Ravaging Local Environments

In Guatemala, those who dare to criticize the devastating environmental impacts of a nickel mine built on ancestral lands, like journalist Carlos Choc, have been reduced to silence. For years, the mine’s owners have managed to hide the proof of damage caused to the neighboring environment, but today Forbidden Stories and its partners are lifting the veil of Solway Group, which owns the mine, and revealing its best-hidden secrets.

The Fenix project in El Estor, Guatemala - March 2019. (Credit: Forbidden Stories)

By Léa Peruchon
Translation by: Phineas Rueckert
Reading time: 21m

MINING SECRETS | March 6, 2022

On the surface, a Siemens washing machine, an Ikea sink and Dubai’s Burg Khalifa skyscraper have very little in common. But they do have one key similarity: all three were built using ultra-resistant stainless steel sold by Outokumpu, a powerful Finnish steel multinational.

In promotional materials, Outokumpu presents itself as a sleek, modern and environmentally-conscious company. “It is not only what we produce, but how we produce it,” a sustainability report produced by the company reads. However, the company’s supply chain, which Forbidden Stories and 20 media partners investigated over six months as part of the Mining Secrets project, tells a different story.

Although Outokumpu claims to take responsibility for “ensur[ing] that our suppliers have effective processes and actions in place to protect the environment and human rights,” it imports some of its raw materials – ferronickel, in particular – from a giant mine across the Atlantic Ocean, nestled into the mountains of southeastern Guatemala. In this isolated region, indigenous communities have long raised their voices against the steady destruction and erosion of their lands by the Fénix mine, owned by Solway Group.

Run by Russian and Estonian businesspeople and headquartered in Switzerland, Solway operates the mine through two local subsidiaries – Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel (CGN) and Pronico. Solway’s management has not been without controversy, nor has the extraction of nickel – nicknamed “the devil’s metal” for the difficulty of refining it – been without consequences for the local population.

Solway – which everyone in the local area calls simply “la empresa,” or “the company” – has always denied its environmental impact, regardless of whether it was deforestation, soil erosion or water and air pollution.

In a letter to the Forbidden Stories consortium, Solway was categorical. “Solway Investment Group is operating fully in line with applicable national laws and international regulations,” wrote CEO Dan Bronstein. “We refute any allegations brought up without factual basis.”

But for the first time, Forbidden Stories and its partners were able to peak behind the curtains of the mining conglomerate, thanks to an enormous data leak that Forbidden Stories had access to and shared with 65 journalists from 20 international media organizations, including Le Monde, The Guardian and The Intercept, among others.

For six months, the consortium of journalists, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, pored over more than 8 million internal files and 470 mailboxes belonging to representatives of the Fénix mine. Today, they are revealing the company’s efforts – in concert with local and national authorities – to conceal information, lie to local populations and profile and harass those who dared to investigate the mine, all in the aim of hiding an inconvenient truth: the proof of a harrowing environmental scandal.

Fishermen on a small boat going fishing on Lake Izabal. (Credit: Benjamin Thuau / Radio France)


The mysterious red slick

On the shores of Lake Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala, children throw out fishing lines and admire the paths of boats returning to shore loaded with fish to be grilled in local restaurants. Daily life for the indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ communities who live in the region was for many years calm and in complete equilibrium with nature. But all of that changed in 2017.

One April morning, as they prepared their bait for catfish, local fishermen noticed something unusual: a red slick on the surface of the lake water. For the fishermen, the source of this strange color was as clear as day – to them, it had to be coming directly from the neighboring mine.

“Starting in 2016, we had seen manatees, fish, lizards, turtles dying,” Cristobal Pop, the president of the local fishermen’s association, said, “but nobody paid any until the lake changed color.”

When the fishermen took to the streets to ask authorities for an investigation into the red slick, protests were violently repressed by police. On May 27, 2017, 27-year-old fisherman Carlos Maaz was killed – putting an abrupt end to the protests.

Fishermen demonstrate in the streets of El Estor against the Fenix mine, which they suspect of polluting Lake Izabal - March 2017. (Credit: Carlos Choc / Prensa Comunitaria)

Authorities eventually investigated the red slick, but their conclusions differed significantly from that of the local fishermen. The mysterious color, according to Maritza Aguirre, the director of the government agency responsible for monitoring the lake, was not emanating from the mine but instead from an invasive aquatic plant called Botryococcus braunii.

Contacted by Forbidden Stories and its partners, the Guatemalan Ministry of the Environment (MARN) reiterated this argument – an argument that the company has also used when asked about the red slick. “The increase in nitrogen and phosphorus promotes algae growth,” Gustavo García, the head of the mine’s environmental department, said. “That’s what gave [the lake] this hue, and the places where [this slick] was specifically identified were away from our zones of exploitation.”

The fact that the color of the slick was similar to that of the material being produced inside the mine, he added, was “pure coincidence.”

Internal documents accessed as part of the Mining Secrets project, however, contradict the company’s public declarations. Although invasive algae were indeed observed during the period in question, the red slick was anything but natural.

An analysis of emails in the leak show how, internally, mining representatives worried that sediments from the mine’s exploitation zones caused the red slick.

“The presence of sediments in the factory’s exit channel is non-negligeable,” a report from March 2017, shared by email with the mine’s management staff, informed. “It was observed after heavy rains that the material was reaching Lake Izabal.”

That internal report, which was translated into Russian and shared with upper management, shows that sediments of limonite – a mineral rich in iron that is identical to the nickel mined from the hills of the mine’s exploitation zones – were at least partially responsible for the red slick. “The discharge of sediments into the lake was evident due to the reddish color of the water at this location,” the report reads.

Animation on the March 2017 internal report. (Credit: Melody Da Fonseca / Forbidden Stories)

“I am worried about what is happening, especially since it could lead to a visit from the MARN [Guatemala’s ministry of the environment],” wrote Marco Aceituno, one of the mine’s directors at the time. Another employee responded with specific plans for “stopping the contamination coming from zone 212,” such as through the addition of wooden plank barriers to retain sediments.

The company immediately sprang into action. The day after the March 11 report was drawn up, Solway’s subsidiaries filed incident reports, sent teams to photograph the exit channel and organized crisis meetings, the emails show.

Marvin Méndez, the administrative director of Pronico, one of Solway’s local subsidiaries, confirmed the existence of this report – which was never made public – in a letter to a member of the Forbidden Stories consortium in February 2022. According to him, however, “the water in the canal is beyond the responsibility of CGN and Pronico because it is coming from natural zones” that are not exploited by the mine. The company added that the rainwater that falls into their zones of exploitation is redirected into a dam and not toward the exit channel.

While it’s unclear whether the mine’s propositions for stemming the leakage were ultimately adopted, what is sure is that after the initial incident, company representatives were made aware when another red slick emerged in April 2018, according to an internal report. The local community, however, had by then been effectively reduced to silence.

Leaked document accessed by Forbidden Stories and 20 media partners, entitled 'Memo on the current state of the banks of Lake Izabal, shores of Lake Izabal, mouth of the Güiscoyol River' - April 2018. | Highlighted: "Sediment from the mining area, which, through runoff caused by precipitation (rain), flows into the Güiscoyol River micro-basin and drains into the outlet channel and then into the lake."

“Unfortunately, the protest movements from that time were crushed,” said Rafael Maldonado, the lawyer for the fishermen’s association, in an interview with members of the Forbidden Stories consortium. “The community is very scared.”


Folders and flyovers: journalists under surveillance

Fisherman Carlos Maaz’s death in 2017 was a turning point for many in El Estor. But today, only one photograph remains as documentary evidence of this event. That photo was taken by journalist Carlos Choc for Prensa Comunitaria as part of a long-form investigation on the “historical resistance of the Q’eqchi’ people.” For months Choc had interviewed local fishermen and documented environmental damage caused by the mining industry in the region, where rolling hills are rich with nickel. That investigation was never published.

Carlos Maaz, a fisherman who was killed during a demonstration on May 27, 2017 in El Estor. (Credit: Carlos Choc)

On the pretext that he had participated in the protest, Choc, along with a journalist colleague and five fishermen, was accused of six crimes and misdemeanors by Solway Group. An arrest warrant was submitted against him in August 2017, forcing him into hiding for several months. “I had to abandon my children, my family, my community,” Choc said in an interview with Forbidden Stories.

Months of exile wasn’t punishment enough for the local journalist. When he reemerged months later, the company put him under surveillance, documents in the leak show.

Digging into Solway’s archives, Forbidden Stories and its partners discovered a revealing file. Labeled “key photos,” the internal folder included dozens of photos of Choc: in the forest on a reporting trip in March 2019, driving his red pick-up truck around El Estor, walking with lawyer Rafael Maldonado to his court hearing in nearby Puerto Barrios.

Leaked photographs of Carlos Choc accessed by Forbidden Stories and 20 media partners.

“Knowing that I was photographed is very worrying,” Choc said after seeing the images. “I am actually quite angry because the mining company controls not only the population of El Estor, but also the lives of environmental defenders and my life as a journalist.”

Asked about these methods, Méndez wrote in a letter shared with Forbidden Stories and its partners that “this information does not correspond to reality.”

However, documents from the leak suggest that Choc was not the only person that the company put under heavy scrutiny. Journalists who reported from El Estor in 2019 as part of the Green Blood project, which Forbidden Stories also coordinated, were photographed without their knowledge. Perhaps even more concerningly, one of the team’s camerapeople and their driver were followed by a company drone. The goal of this surveillance, according to a report intended for the company’s security team, was to “follow the movements of these individuals and their intentions.”

Internal report from one of Solway's subsidiaries, after a Green Blood reporter visited in October 2019. The report concludes "that these are representatives of non-governmental institutions and NGOs who are trying to discredit the company for political, social and/or economic interests."

For international reporters who traveled to El Estor, nothing was left up to chance. The journalists’ visit to the mine was highly choreographed, according to internal emails seen by Forbidden Stories. “Show [the journalists] a clean factory, access to healthcare [for workers], happy Guatemalan employees and inhabitants,” the email, sent by communications director Arina Birstein, reads. “It will be harder for them to show us as cynical capitalists feeding off the underdeveloped economy and local population of Guatemala.”

Despite their rhetoric, Solway Group sued both Le Monde and Forbidden Stories for defamation after the publication of the Green Blood project – cases that are still ongoing. But today’s publication, as well as the confidential information that the company has always refused to reveal, confirm the local community’s deepest fears about environmental damage caused by the mine and reaffirm the initial conclusions of the Green Blood project.


The proof is in the pollution data

In January 2022, nearly three years after Green Blood, journalists from the Forbidden Stories consortium returned to the Fénix mine. During the hours-long visit, company representatives were unequivocal about their environmental impact: “We don’t release anything into the lake or elsewhere, and everything is contained and dealt with by us,” a representative said.

But hundreds of reports, studies, and data points on water and air quality, organized methodically in the company’s internal file system, again contradict Solway’s public-facing statements.

In one email addressed to Solway’s CEO Dan Bronstein from June 26, 2019, the president of one of the company’s subsidiaries, Dmitry Kudryakov, summed up his concerns about releasing environmental data, writing: “If today journalists aren’t able to accuse us of pollution, after speaking with independent experts they will have that opportunity.”

Data in hand, Forbidden Stories and its partners did indeed contact numerous independent experts and their collective response was clear: unmanaged mineral waste is undeniably making its way into the nearby rivers and Lake Izabal.

Fishermen collected sediment from Lake Izabal - August 2017. (Credit: Carlos Choc / Prensa Comunitaria)

High levels of iron, nickel, manganese, and aluminum were registered in the lake, particularly in the areas closest to the mine’s exit channel, these reports clearly show. One stat is particularly telling: In the center of the 48-square-kilometer lake, the concentration of nickel is 1.8 micrograms per liter, whereas in areas directly abutting the mine, that number rises to 35.3 micrograms – or roughly 20 times higher.

In a letter shared with Forbidden Stories and its partners, Méndez wrote: “Results for metal concentrations in surface water show that the highest concentrations are in the Polochic River, [far away from the mining facilities], which is not affected by the operation.”

Traces of chromium can also be found in sediments at the bottom of the lake and nearby rivers, the leaked documents show. According to Laurence Maurice, the director of environmental geochemistry at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, “the level at which we start to see health risks in aquatic ecosystems is 90 micrograms of chrome per gram of sediments, and here in the river we see that the levels are between 580 and 2,800 micrograms.”

“That’s really huge,” she concluded.

Contacted by Forbidden Stories, Méndez assured that, “the company does not use chemicals containing chromium in its treatment processes.”

Animation of excel tables from the data leak accessed by Forbidden Stories and 20 media partners, showing high levels of chromium in the sediments. (Credit: Melody Da Fonseca - Forbidden Stories)

Chromium, however, is naturally found in saprolite, a nickel-rich rock that’s extracted from the hills of El Estor. Saprolite is decanted in Pronico’s metal processing facility, where the nickel is then isolated. As part of this process chromium residues from rocks stored in open-air quarries or mineral storage centers can find their way into waterways and the lake, which is located just several dozen meters from the treatment facility.

“What should be done in a case like that is that the authorities should be alerted – just like ‘Hey there, watch out,’” Thierry Adatte, an earth science professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, told Forbidden Stories after being shown the chrome-residue data.

“There is a real, non-negligible problem,” he added.

Davide Vignati, the researcher director at the Interdisciplinary Continental Environment Lab in Metz, France, said that in order to confirm the risks to local fauna ecosystems, authorities would need to conduct toxicity tests, which measure how different organisms respond to exposure to these metals, and bioavailability tests – another way to measure metal exposure. Perhaps most importantly, he added, authorities would have to analyze chrome levels in fish, since high-exposure in those animals could indicate contamination all the way up the food chain, including in humans.


Mining secrets, mining sickness

Without any access to samples or studies from the authorities, however, El Estor residents’ only reference point up until now has been their own bodies. Anecdotal data already gave them reason for concern, according to local fisherman Cristobal Pop. “Everyone who went in the lake started feeling itchy,” Pop, who worries about his four children, said. “A person with allergies could very easily contract hives.”

Cristobal Pop, president of the El Estor artisanal fishermen's union - January 2022. (Credit: Joe Parkin Daniels / The Guardian)

But water isn’t the only resource affected by the mine’s activities. According to documents found in the leak, fine particles that are potentially harmful for the local population were also found in the smoke released from the treatment facility, as well as in the dirt kicked up by the daily passage of trucks carrying minerals for export.

Responding to specific questions sent by the consortium, the company denied being the cause of any air pollution and attached atmospheric analyses from the second semester of 2020 as proof.

That’s not the same conclusion that Gaëlle Uzu, an atmospheric geochemist at the Institute of Earth Sciences and Environment in Grenoble, came to when she analyzed confidential Excel documents from the leak on behalf of the Forbidden Stories consortium. These samples, which measured various air quality indicators in El Estor over the past six years from multiple locations in and around the mine, told a different story, she said. According to Uzu’s analysis, the particle pollution that indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ families and mining employees are breathing often exceeds OMS recommendations.

“At certain stations, the air pollution is two to three times the admissible norms,” Uzu said in an interview with Forbidden Stories, referring to European air pollution standards because Guatemala does not have any on-the-books legislation for air quality. “In Europe, we estimate that this level of exposure is not acceptable and could lead to long-term, cardio-respiratory diseases.”

Orange smoke over El Estor. (Credit: Jerson Xitumul / Prensa Comunitaria)

According to the company’s own internal data, analyzed by Uzu, these numbers regularly surpass the upper limit set by the European Union: 20 nanograms for cubic meters of air. In El Estor, the amount of metal in areas in and around the mine ranged from 150 nanograms to 800 nanograms – 40 times higher than the European limit.

“These levels of air pollution could expose [individuals] to high risks of acute poisoning,” Uzu said. “When exposed to it for a long time, over the course of several years, nickel can be cancerogenic.”


Solway’s smokescreen

In Las Nubes, a small community located just several hundred meters from the mine’s nickel treatment facility, headaches and fevers are a common occurrence. “We think it’s because of the smoke coming from the factory,” Luis Caal, who lives in Las Nubes, told a member of the Forbidden Stories consortium.

Although many in Las Nubes have made similar complaints, no scientific study done by Solway has been publicly released regarding the health effects of the mine on the local population.

When asked about this, Méndez, Pronico’s administrative director, said that it is not the company’s role to compile statistics, adding that “statistics on community health are managed by the Ministry of Health (MSPAS). We have no influence on institutions in terms of studies and/or publication of statistical information.”

The internal documents accessed by Forbidden Stories and its partners, however, suggest that company higher ups went to great lengths to ensure that potentially incriminating health studies never made it outside of the confines of the mine’s internal servers.

In one discussion with the company’s press secretary soon after the publication of the Green Blood project, Dmitry Kudrakov, the director of the local subsidiary that runs the mine, rejected the idea of creating an open database about the mine’s environmental and health impacts. “Doing so would provoke a massive influx of complaints,” he wrote. “The complainants would blame their illnesses on the company in the hopes of getting some money out of it. All of this data would be documented by CAIMI [the local prenatal health center], and made available to journalists.”

Forbidden Stories reached out to local healthcare workers but very few of them agreed to speak on-the-record on the topic because of the influence Solway has over various health care centers in the region.

The director of CAIMI did agree to sit for an interview with a member of the Forbidden Stories consortium. Paulo Mejia – whose office air conditioner is adorned with a “Pronico” sticker from the local treatment facility – has worked at CAIMI for the past 12 years, including two years as director. The clinic treats a number of illnesses, he said, including diarrhetic and respiratory diseases, but when asked about whether there could be any link between these diseases and the nearby mine, he was less forthcoming. “I don’t really have a scientific or administrative basis to give my opinion on the question you are asking,” he said.

The community of Chapín Abajo on the southern shore of Lake Izabal complains of health problems. (Credit : SVT)

“It’s obvious that the doctor would never put the mine in a compromising position,” Maldonado, the lawyer for the fishermen’s association, said. “After all it’s [Solway] that is subsidizing the health center.”

In a written response, company representatives said that they have always answered to CAIMI when they receive requests from it and added that it is “the only specialized health center in a radius of more than 100 km, so the company gives it priority attention.”

Referring to the frequency of diseases including diarrhea, anemia and respiratory illnesses, a health center employee who preferred to rest anonymous went a bit further in her analysis. “I imagine it’s caused by the dust,” she said. “Of course we’re looking into these [health] questions, but since the state [of Guatemala] is in favor of the mining industry, it’s better to shut up, right? Even if we’d love to say a lot of things.”


“A wall of impunity”

Over the course of numerous interviews as part of the Mining Secrets projects, indigenous Guatemalans and some former officials from El Estor expressed frustration at what they saw as a lack of accountability from key actors in the region, including the Guatemalan state.

“There’s a wall of impunity,” Maldonado said, “because the communities never get justice.”

Their frustration goes back to at least 2005, when the Fénix mine – which today produces 36.2 million tons of nickel per year for export – obtained its permit for extraction. At the time the mine was not owned by Solway, but even then officials worried about its potential environmental impacts. A group was convened to conduct an environmental impact study, but was later dismissed in favor of a more accommodating one, which gave the mine the green light to begin operations.

When asked about the original impact study, the current administration of the Department of the Environment said that it does not know “whether the environmental consultants who evaluated the EIA at that time expressed their opposition.”

The mine’s owners at the time, according to a former Ministry of Environment official who preferred to rest anonymous for fear of reprisals, “did not give enough clear information about how [they] planned to reduce [the mine’s] impact on the region’s rich biodiversity.”

Fifteen years later, and despite a change in ownership, the modus operandi has not seemed to change.

In July 2019, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court suspended the mine after discovering that Solway was illegally operating on 247 square kilometers of land instead of the 6.29 square kilometers authorized in the initial environmental impact study. The court also found that the indigenous communities in the mine’s “zone of influence” had not been properly consulted on the project, and ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mining (MEM) to suspend the mine’s exploitation license until a thorough community consultation process was successfully concluded.

Contacted by Forbidden Stories and its partners, the Ministry of Energy and Mines did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

This suspension did not come into effect until February 2021 – more than a year and a half after the court’s initial decision. But, according to some, the mine simply never stopped exploiting the land.

“The company never complied with the resolution of the highest court in the land and continued to operate with impunity,” Maldonado said.

According to Guadalupe García Prado, an anthropologist and the director of the Observatory of Extractive Industries (OIE), the mine continued to operate between at least February and November 2021 – despite the company’s claims to have complied with the suspension. Prado shared exclusive images from Planet Labs, an online platform for satellite imagery, with Forbidden Stories and its partners, which clearly show a red spot appearing in the landscape in between the expanses of green forest and the tin roof houses of the Las Nubes community.

Satellite images of the Fenix mine, El Estor, on February 4, 2021 (left) and November 11, 2021 (right). (Credit: OIE – Planet Labs)

Solway’s subsidiaries denied these allegations, writing: “As soon as it was informed of the suspension of the mining permit, the mining work was immediately stopped.”

When asked about the satellite imagery, Méndez said that “only the vegetation was removed, but not the layer of organic soil,” adding that this was part of an effort to “control soil erosion.”

For indigenous Guatemalans, hopes of a long-term suspension of the mine quickly evaporated with the disappearance of the judge who had initially ordered it to stop its extractive operations.

In April 2021, after her mandate was not renewed by Congress, the Constitutional Court judge who ordered the suspension of the mine fled the country. Known for her positions in favor of indigenous people and the fight against corruption, Gloria Porras lost her immunity and decided to leave the country to avoid possible persecution. Porras has since gone completely off the radar, and despite multiple attempts, Forbidden Stories and its partners were unable to enter into contact with her.

“The Constitutional Court was one of the few remaining resources that allowed the population to defend their rights,” said Garcia Prado. “And now [its judge] has disappeared. There is no longer any political power on the side of the communities.”


History repeats itself in Guatemala

In El Estor, the struggle of local communities against the mine has led to some small victories. In January 2022, Finnish steel conglomerate Outokumpu told members of the Forbidden Stories consortium that it had “stopped all new orders [from Solway] since November 2021,” the month following mass protests in El Estor against the mine and the announcement by the government of a state of siege. Their decision, they said, also came after being contacted by SVT, the Swedish state television service and one of the members of this consortium, with information about serious environmental damages.

“The allegations against the mining operations in Guatemala are very serious and something we have not been aware of,” an Outokumpu representative wrote. “We are acting firmly and decisively on the new information and have initiated our own investigation into the claims together with an external partner for sustainability assessments.”

Nonetheless, many international companies continue to buy “devil’s metal” from Guatemala without thinking twice about the manner in which it is extracted.

On the ground, indigenous communities, fishermen’s groups and local journalists have continued to denounce the environmental impact of the Fénix mine, despite new attempts to reduce them to silence.

Le journaliste Carlos Choc filmant des manifestations en octobre 2021. (Crédits: Prensa Comunitaria)

After Carlos Choc returned to El Estor to cover the protests in October 2021, his house was ransacked by local security forces. The journalist, who still faces a legal case brought by Solway’s subsidiaries, was forced to move to another location several hundred kilometers from El Estor. Each month, he returns to El Estor for a court-mandated check-in that if missed could lead to a prison sentence.

The mine, on the other hand, was handed a carte blanche on January 6, 2022 – a resolution from the MEM allowing it to officially resume extraction. As if nothing had ever happened.


A deadly cover-up

In August 2016, one of the mine’s nickel processing facility’s boilers exploded, killing five employees. At the time, the human lives lost and the mine’s attempts to snuff out the incident led to a scandal in El Estor. But according to leaked data, the accident could have also had serious environmental impacts that never saw the light of day.

In an internal email addressed to Dmitry Kudryakov, the head of environmental management explained that “bunker fuel, oil and process water were spilled ‘into’ Lake Izabal.” “The company has cleaned it all up,” he wrote. “The ministry has no trace of any spills.”

Five years later, the company has still never had to answer for the explosion.

In a statement shared with Forbidden Stories and its partners, Solway’s Guatemalan subsidiaries explained that after the spill, the Ministry of the Environment visited the mine’s facilities and found no environmental impacts.