The inhabitants of El Estor, a town of mostly indigenous Mayans in eastern Guatemala, are living under a "state of siege", watched over by armed soldiers after their years-long fight against a nickel mine took an ominous turn.

El Estor's subsistence fishermen, mainly of the Mayan Q'eqchi' indigenous group, say the Fenix mine is polluting Lake Izabal, diminishing stocks of fish that were abundant just a generation ago.

Solway says its El Estor operations provide jobs for more than 1,900 people 'and hundreds of local contractors' Solway says its El Estor operations provide jobs for more than 1,900 people 'and hundreds of local contractors' Photo: AFP / CARLOS ALONZO

The mine's owners deny the allegation, saying adequate environmental protections are in place.

Frustrated, residents mounted a protest against the mine on Sunday that was put down by security forces using tear gas.

The confrontation left four police officers wounded, and resulted in the government declaring a state of siege, complete with a month-long protest ban and a night curfew enforced by 1,000 police officers and soldiers deployed among the community of 100,000 people.

The town of El Estor is under a state of siege The town of El Estor is under a state of siege Photo: AFP / Johan ORDONEZ

For three weeks before Sunday's clashes, residents of El Estor had blocked truck access to the mine operated by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Solway Investment Group.

"This company is bringing us death," said Cristobal Pop, 44, a fisherman and protest leader who told AFP he will not be deterred by what he sees as the government's "intimidation" measures.

"I have four children and they will bear the brunt" of the nickel mining operation, he said.

El Estor's subsistence fishermen, mainly of the Mayan Q'eqchi' indigenous group, claim the Fenix mine is polluting Lake Izabal, diminishing fish stocks El Estor's subsistence fishermen, mainly of the Mayan Q'eqchi' indigenous group, claim the Fenix mine is polluting Lake Izabal, diminishing fish stocks Photo: AFP / Carlos ALONZO

"My children's future depends on me."

The mine is operated by the Guatemalan Nickel Company, a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Solway Investment Group The mine is operated by the Guatemalan Nickel Company, a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Solway Investment Group Photo: AFP / Carlos ALONZO

Pop said that when he was a child, Lake Izabal -- Guatemala's largest -- was replete with fish.

He says numbers have dwindled since the Fenix mine resumed nickel extraction and processing in 2014.

In 2017, a red slick spread over the lake, which the community blamed on mining pollution.

Fisherman and protest leader Cristobal Pop said fish were plentiful in Lake Izabal when he was a child Fisherman and protest leader Cristobal Pop said fish were plentiful in Lake Izabal when he was a child Photo: AFP / Johan ORDONEZ

In resulting protests, Pop was imprisoned and his comrade Carlos Maaz shot dead.

This month, the community resumed demonstrations, accusing CGN of continuing to mine at Fenix despite a 2019 Constitutional Court order for it to suspend operations.

The court ruled in favor of local communities, who said they had not been consulted about the opening of the mine or its effects on them.

The government was ordered to open fresh consultations, but the people of El Estor say they are being excluded.

For its part, Solway said in a statement Sunday it was adhering to the court order. Extraction at Fenix has stopped, it said, but its processing plant was not affected by the ruling and continues to operate.

The company insisted it was doing all it can to minimize the environmental impact of its activities, investing in social infrastructure, and that its El Estor operations provided jobs for more than 1,900 people "and hundreds of local contractors."

Guatemala, Central America's largest economy, exported 56 million kilograms (123 million pounds) of ferroalloys and ferronickel, mainly to China, in 2019, according to World Bank data.

Guatemala's earnings from the metal grew from $10 million in 2018 to $54 million last year, and this year had already reached $62 million by August, according to Central Bank figures.

El Estor resident Abelino Chub told AFP the Fenix mine was dividing the community.

"Unfortunately, the pro-mining group only sees the money... but not the level of damage that this company is generating," he said.

At the CGN headquarters, company president Dmitry Kudryakov told AFP the contamination allegations amounted to mere "speculation."

He insisted the company adhered to international environmental standards, and said the 2017 red stain was a result of bacteria caused by sewage and fertilizer pollution of the Polochic River that flows into the lake.