Overview of Mega-Mining in Mexico
Here’s a piece I did for Watershed Sentinel that provides an overview of Canadian mining in Mexico and how Toronto and Vancouver mining companies (among others) come into conflict with communal landholders.
Exploitative Mining in Mexico
In rural towns throughout Mexico, life carries on as it has for generations. Sons help their fathers haul wood, women tend to the fire and select seeds, and whole families take part in sowing, caring for and harvesting crops.
Farming is often primary activity for those who live in rural communities. Families grow corn, beans, and other vegetables for personal consumption and sometimes for sale. Eighty per cent of Mexico’s small farmers own land communally. These landholder groups are officially called comunidades indigenas (Indigenous communities) or ejidos, of which there are over 27,000 throughout the country. Some ejidos are in Indigenous communities, while others are in mixed (mestizo) areas.
Decisions about how to use ejido and other forms of communally-held land are made collectively, and adopted via general assembly.
Law of the Land
This is where things get messy. Not because communally-held land is failing the men and women that work it, but because of what’s underneath their feet. Beneath the ground, owned by the people who it sustains, are metals that are in great demand, primarily gold, silver, and copper. A convergence of rising metal prices, favourable government policy, and technology has contributed to the rapid expansion of the mining sector in Mexico over the past decades.
From Chiapas to Chihuahua, farmers in nearly every state in the union have experienced conflict linked to Canadian mining companies. Part of the confusion is made in Mexico: constitutional changes adopted before the North America Free Trade Agreement was passed opened up the possibility for ejido and Indigenous lands to be privately owned, and thus sold. But not all ejidos have gone that route.
Transparent, open negotiation with communal landholders, and accepting communities’ legal right to decide what happens in their lands, would stave off much of the conflict. Unfortunately, it seems, that rarely happens.On the dusty desert plains of northern Chihuahua state, just a couple hours from El Paso, Texas, one community’s fight against Canadian mining turned deadly last October when the highest profile opponent of the project was murdered along with his wife. The couple left behind three sons. MAG Silver, the company in question, based in Vancouver, denied any wrongdoing. The facts on the ground, however, proved otherwise.
“[MAG Silver] never showed up to a general meeting of ejido members. The paperwork that they did with the corresponding authorities was fictitious because they never went before the assembly, which is the maximum authority here,” said Fausto Albión Jiménez Holguín, President of the Ejido of Benito Juarez, on whose communal lands the company was exploring. Confusion around the concessions generated conflict, which quickly escalated into physical fights between mine proponents and mine opponents, culminating in the double murder of Ismael Solorio and his wife Martha Solis. Their murderer was said to have been a low ranking member of the Juárez Cartel, who was himself murdered months later.
In a completely different area of Mexico, in the lush mountains of the country’s southwestern states of Michoacán and Guerrero, Indigenous people have taken the struggle to protect their land one step further.
They’ve formed community policing groups in order to physically protect their territories from armed groups, including members of state security and irregular forces. Recently, these community guards have been facing increased repression from the Mexican government and paramilitary groups. These groups are often referred to as “drug cartels” in the media, but their actions, as in the case of the murders of Solorio and Solis in Chihuahua, show that they’ll carry out the dirty work of people concerned with natural resources, not just narcotics.
The Canadian Connection
Vancouver’s Goldcorp already operates two mines in Guerrero State, where only 11 per cent of the land has been granted in mining concessions (compare with 54 per cent in Chihuahua State). A push into rural lands, which are majority held by Indigenous people, requires pushing past community guards.
“If we let the army enter into our communal territory, they won’t leave afterwards,” Claudio Carrasco, ex-coordinator of a community policing group in El Paraíso, Ayutla, in Guerrero state, told Mexican independent media outlet Desinformemonos.
“The government is after the exploitation of the mines, they want us to fight among ourselves so they can go in and militarize the territory even further.”
According to data from the Mexican government, the amount of gold mined in Mexico almost quadrupled between 2001 and 2011. Silver production doubled over the same time period. After Canada, Australia, and the United States, Mexico is the fourth destination worldwide for mining investment, according to Mexico’s National Chamber of Mines. Canadian mining companies, many of which are based out of Toronto or Vancouver, have become primary aggressors against rural ways of life in Mexico. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Economy, there were 208 Canadian mining companies in Mexico in 2011. Compare that with 46 firms from the US and eight from China, and you’ll get an idea how much of a Canadian problem this really is.
Canadian mining companies have become a problem throughout nearly all of Mexico. Building national networks of solidarity against Canadian mining is increasingly a priority for activists involved in local struggles. Juan Daniel Pascual Alvarez, an ejido member in northern Durango state, has spent years involved in his community’s attempt to get Toronto’s Excellon Resources to honour their commitments to the community.
After a multi-month blockade last year that was broken up through force and threats, the community began a legal process to attempt to force the company out.
But the legal strategy is just one part of the community’s approach. “The other is peaceful resistance and political mobilization, which we do to show that this is not just a problem of Excellon, sure Excellon is the company here, but on a national level there are many Canadian companies that are doing the same thing,” Pascual told Watershed Sentinel. “We want the public opinion, and the governments, to become aware of the way these companies work, and to continue to resist.”
These national networks have become necessary to respond to the ongoing repression of anti-mining activists across the country. Mariano Abarca was murdered for resisting Calgary’s Blackfire Exploration in November of 2010, Bernardo Vasquez Sanchez and Bernardo Mendez ware killed for their role in opposing Vancouver Fortuna Silver in early 2012, later that year came the murders in Chihuahua.
Without contact with other activists and their networks, many more Mexicans would likely feel the “rage of impotence” that Eufenia Vásquez Hernandez described when I met with her in San José del Progreso, Oaxaca. She sat in front of a delegation of Canadian and U.S. professors wearing a frilly apron and holding a plastic bag of tortillas and told us how her community has been torn apart by Fortuna Silver. “San José is in mourning,” she said. “Why do they come to our lands and take our wealth, to take the wealth of the poorest people?”
The road ahead is uncertain, as the US and Canada continue to fund and support the militarization of drug trafficking, which historically has worked in favour of transnational mining companies. Communities defending their land from mega mining, even those who have faced direct repression, continue to hold on to what’s theirs.
“My parents brought us up to struggle for what is ours, and to not let ourselves be walked on by anyone, and we’re going to continue in the struggle that my parents were in,” said Erick Solorio Solís, the middle son of Ismael and Martha, the activists killed in Chihuahua October. “Who is going to do it if we don’t do it ourselves?”
Dawn Paley is an editor-member of the Media Co-op. She lives in Mexico where she is at work on her first book