MAC: Mines and Communities

Conservation threatened by mining concessions in Mexico

Published by MAC on 2016-05-06
Source: Mongabay, New York Times, Telegraph

Mining concessions overlap with protected areas and areas of social land tenure

Mexico's environment is at risk due to intensified exploration and production in the mining and hydrocarbon sectors. Passed in 2014, sweeping energy reforms have opened up huge swaths of the national territory to energy prospecting. There are 888 currently active mining projects, making Mexico’s mining industry the fourth largest in the world. Many of these concessions overlap with protected areas and areas of social land tenure that local communities have managed, and depended upon, for generations.

For example, Mexico’s largest mining conglomerate, Grupo México, wants to revive mining in Angangueo, right next to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. At risk is one of the most wondrous migrations on earth, where tens of millions of monarchs, each weighing only about as much as a paper clip, flutter south from Canada and the northern United States, travelling as far as 3,000 miles.

A Mine vs. a Million Monarchs

Dan Fagin

29 April 2016

The national tourism agency calls the Mexican mountain town of Angangueo a “Pueblo Mágico.” If so, it is a dark magic.

In recent years, Angangueo’s 5,000 inhabitants have been cursed by calamities natural and manufactured. Snowstorms, mudslides and flash floods have terrorized the town. Hulking piles of mine tailings line the main road, barren reminders of the silver, gold and copper mining that petered out a quarter-century ago after defining the community for 200 years.

Even the monarch butterflies that are the focus of the “magic town” tourism campaign are suffering. Millions still roost on nearby mountains, a wintertime spectacle that attracts the visitors from “El Norte” who are the town’s economic lifeline. But the overwintering population of monarchs has fallen by almost two-thirds over the past dozen years, and this year’s better-than-usual aggregation was abruptly devastated in March by another freak snowstorm, the worst in years.

Now those monarchs are facing another potential calamity. One of Mexico’s largest corporations is close to winning government approval to reopen a sprawling mine in Angangueo, right next to the most important winter habitat of North America’s most iconic insect. In a region where butterfly tourism isn’t doing much to ease pervasive poverty, the mining proposal has plenty of local support, even as it alarms biologists.

I spent a few days recently in Angangueo, about 75 miles west of Mexico City, doing research for a book about monarchs. Many people know the outlines of their plight: Monarchs are under extreme pressure from climate change, deforestation in Mexico and the elimination of milkweed — almost the only food monarch caterpillars will eat — from Midwestern farm fields (hastened by the use of genetically modified corn and soybeans).

At risk is one of the most wondrous migrations on earth, where tens of millions of monarchs, each weighing only about as much as a paper clip, flutter south from Canada and the northern United States for as far as 3,000 miles. Catching rides on thermal air currents, they cross mountains and deserts, somehow arriving at the same forested mountainsides in south-central Mexico where their great-great-grandparents spent the previous winter.

But even amid so much public concern about monarchs, very few people are aware that Mexico’s largest mining conglomerate, Grupo México, wants to use a legal loophole to revive mining in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a protected region where most industrial activity is supposed to be banned, said Felipe Martínez Meza, the acting director of the reserve.

Amazingly, the Mexican environmental authorities and a global conservation group that has an active program in the reserve have said almost nothing publicly about the proposal, which local scientists say poses a clear threat to the beleaguered butterflies. The plan also raises difficult questions about what’s best for the long suffering people of Angangueo, where jobs are so scarce that on some mornings the mere rumor that the shuttered mine might need a few temporary laborers generates a stampede to the mine’s front gate — all for the privilege of earning about $8 for a long shift pumping water out of cramped, dank tunnels.

Grupo México has already gotten most of the permits it needs to reopen the mine, but is still negotiating with the Mexican government over an ore-processing plant it needs. The company argues that it should be allowed to go forward because the mine never technically closed, and thus predates the creation of the biosphere reserve and its accompanying restrictions, Mr. Martínez said.

The proposal is avidly supported by Angangueo’s local government and most of its residents, who would benefit most directly from the low-wage jobs the mine would bring — at first a few hundred jobs, and ultimately perhaps several thousand.

Elsewhere in the region, however, many are wary. Silvestre Chávez Sánchez, the elected leader of another community near the monarch reserve, told me, “We know that no mining project in Mexico has ever brought lasting development for local people, but has always had problems associated with natural resource destruction.”

Grupo México’s track record is not encouraging. In 2014, a huge copper mine it operates in the northern state of Sonora was the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in Mexican history. About 10 million gallons of toxic copper sulfate acid breached a dam at the mine and spilled into two rivers that supply water to more than 24,000 people.

In Angangueo, Grupo México wants to process up to 1,200 tons of ore daily, and says it will do so in an environmentally sensitive way, said María Isabel Ramírez, a geographer who studies monarchs at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Morelia.

But the company has been frustratingly vague on some key issues, including how much water and acid will be needed to extract copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold from all that ore, and where the resulting waste will be dumped. Nor has Grupo México fully explained where and how it plans to expand the old tunnel network that snakes beneath nearby mountains — the same mountains where monarchs roost every winter.

Ms. Ramírez worries that the huge volumes of water used by the mine will dry up mountain springs and threaten the viability of the oyamel fir trees where the butterflies roost. “We have many concerns about it,” she said, noting that the firs are already stressed by climate change and illegal logging, which persists despite years of efforts to stop it.

You might think that the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, which operates an active program within the reserve, would be leading the opposition. But the organization, which actively seeks corporate contributions, has been quiet so far, though the W.W.F.’s chief local representative gave me a blunt assessment. “My professional and personal position, W.W.F. aside, is that opening up the mine could have terrible implications ecologically and economically,” said Eduardo Rendón-Salinas, who heads W.W.F.-Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Program.

The W.W.F. and other nonprofits, with some support from the Mexican government, are trying to develop alternate economic models for the region based on ecotourism, sustainable farming and logging, and native crafts, but funding has been limited and progress slow in a region where poverty is all but inescapable. The mine proposal, by contrast, offers a faster route — but to where, exactly? As Mr. Martínez told me: “It will provide work for a small group of people, but the cost may not be worth the benefit. We feel strongly that something like this may be catastrophic for the reserve.”

In Angangueo, memories are still fresh from the last catastrophe: the floods of 2010, when three days of heavy rain and hail produced mud slides and caused the local river to overrun its banks. After hours of gradual flooding, something suddenly gave way — no one is sure what — and sent a wall of water hurtling down the town’s main street. At least 30 people were killed, and hundreds were left homeless. Some locals blamed the honeycomb of mine tunnels above the town, but an official investigation absolved the mine and blamed the heavy rain — just another calamity for a community that has endured so much for so long.

Dan Fagin is a science journalism professor at New York University. His last book, “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Mexican conservation success threatened by wave of mining concessions

Starting in 2014, Mexico’s government has been quick to hand out mining permits, prompting concern from conservation organizations and local communities

Martha Pskowski

29 April 2016

Mexico is known internationally for its environmental achievements. It is a pioneering country in Community Forestry Management (CFM), biodiversity protection, Payments for Environmental Services (PES) and climate change policy. This past year, Mexico was one of the first countries to complete its Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDCs) for the Paris climate talks.

Yet civil society organizations in Mexico have rung the alarm that these achievements are at risk due to intensified exploration and production in the mining and hydrocarbon sectors. Passed in 2014, sweeping energy reforms have opened up huge swaths of the national territory to energy prospecting. There are 888 currently active mining projects, making Mexico’s mining industry the fourth largest in the world.

Many of these concessions overlap with protected areas and areas of social land tenure that local communities have managed and depended upon for generations.

Forty women, a few small children, and one adventurous dog pile into pick-up trucks parked in the town square. It is an early Saturday morning in March in the small mountain town of Capulálpam de Mendez in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mist hangs over the mountains that ring the town center, 45 miles from the state capital.

Capulálpam, home to 2,500 people, feels distant from the city, with no cell phone service and transportation out of town ending at six each evening. Capulálpam’s residents are Zapotecs, one of the many indigenous groups in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Capulálpam’s territory, governed under the common property system established after the Mexican Revolution, comprises of 4,500 hectares. We drive nine miles into the pine forest.

Reaching our destination in the forest, the town mayor, Saúl Aquino, explains that we are in the community’s protected area, where no one is allowed to fell trees or extract other resources. Aquino points out the adjoining reforestation area, where trees have been planted to replace those logged in the sustainable forestry program.

Rosita López Martinez, a young woman from Capulálpam who works in environmental education, points out birds flitting around in the forest around us. She begins to hand out pamphlets that describe the birds found in Oaxaca.

“Songbirds are a biodiversity indicator,” she said. “When we see these different types of birds, we know our forest is healthy.”

Aquino adds that we are close to the springs that supply fresh water for the town. While most Mexicans have to drink bottled water due to sanitation problems, Aquino notes, “We should be very proud that here in Capulálpam, we can open the tap and drink our very own spring water.”

Aquino continues, “Here in the community we have designated our protected area, our sustainable forestry area, our agricultural area.” Capulálpam is also in Mexico’s REDD+ Early Action Area and receives Payments for Environmental Services from the federal government.

But the region has also attracted the attention of industry, specifically because of its underlying gold and silver deposits. Showing a map to the group, Aquino says, “The federal government has given titles for all of our territory to foreign mining companies.”

Contradictions in Mexican conservation policy

Mexico is known internationally for its environmental achievements. It is a pioneering country in Community Forestry Management (CFM), biodiversity protection, Payments for Environmental Services (PES) and climate change policy. This past year, Mexico was one of the first countries to complete its Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDCs) for the Paris climate talks.

Yet civil society organizations in Mexico have rung the alarm that these achievements are at risk due to intensified exploration and production in the mining and hydrocarbon sectors. Sweeping energy reforms are a cornerstone of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. Passed in 2014, the reforms have allowed foreign investment in the energy sector for the first time since the industry was nationalized in the 1930s, following the Mexican Revolution. The highly controversial reforms opened up huge swaths of the national territory to energy prospecting.

Since 2014, the federal government has awarded 489 hydrocarbon concessions for exploration, extraction and production, covering a total of 11.4 million hectares – an area larger than the U.S. state of Virginia. Additionally, 37 million hectares nationwide are now divided between 33,303 mining titles, covering 18.8 percent of Mexico’s landmass. There are 888 active mining projects, making Mexico’s mining industry the fourth largest in the world.

One implication of these titles that is attracting the concern of conservationists is that they frequently overlap with natural protected areas.

“The federal government designates conservation areas and at the same time they promote some of the most polluting industries out there,” said Daniel Sandoval, of the Mexico City-based organization Center for Studies of Change in the Mexican Countryside (CECCAM), in an interview with Mongabay.

Selling off Mexico’s national parks

A full 10 percent of the surface area of natural protected areas in Mexico has been granted in mining titles, according to a recent study by Mexican biologist Elisa Jeanneht Armendariz-Villegas.

In total there are 2,542 mining titles within the limits of federal natural protected reserves. These concessions cover over 2.7 million hectares in 75 different national protected areas.

Mexico has one of the most extensive Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs worldwide, which provide incentives to landowners in exchange for preserving ecosystem services on their properties. But according to data from CECCAM, there are currently 6,453 mining concessions overlapping with 5.1 million hectares that are eligible for PES.

Mexico is also aggressively developing its national Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, which aims to enhance forest management in developing countries. Yet within the Early Action Areas for REDD+ more than 2.6 million hectares have been titled for mining.

Under the Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection, Mexico’s primary environmental legislation, mining or hydrocarbon extraction can take place within protected reserves if the environmental secretary issues a permit based on an environmental impact assessment. The exploitation must take place, “without deteriorating the ecosystem, changing the landscape in a significant way, or causing irreversible environmental impacts,” according to the policy. The national Mining Law also indicates that mining within protected areas, “Can only take place with the authorization or permission of the authorities who are in charge of the area.”

Even though proposed mining projects in protected areas must pass an environmental assessment, Armendariz-Villegas argues, “Mining, especially large-scale, is definitely not a low-impact activity.”

The Mexican government claims that the overlap is incidental and that protected areas will not be impacted, according to Daniel Sandoval who authored a recently published report that documents mining and hydrocarbon titles in protected areas and indigenous territories. In an interview with Mongabay, he said, “Our question is, if that’s true, why put the protected areas at risk in the first place?”

Government officials did not respond to interview requests. Margarita Lozada Nava, an Environmental Director in the Economy Secretary, stated in a publicly-available PowerPoint presentation that, “Open dialogue promotes more opportunities to reach agreements that seek a balance between using natural resources and protecting the environment.”

Oaxaca: local communities protect biodiversity

Oaxaca is a key state in Mexican conservation initiatives. It has some of the largest extensions of temperate and tropical forests and some of the highest biodiversity levels in the country. It is also home to pioneering Community Forestry Management (CFM) projects that have allowed local communities to generate income and employment from sustainable timber harvests.

Seventy-eight percent of Oaxaca is held under communal land tenure. After the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, the new government carried out the most extensive land re-distribution of its time in Latin America. Indigenous communities that had continually occupied their territories were granted legal titles and referred to as “agrarian communities.” People who petitioned the government and received land were organized into “ejidos.” Residents of both ejidos and agrarian communities, together known as social land tenure, are organized in assemblies that decide political issues for the community.

Agrarian communities and ejidos have the legal right to decide land uses within their territory. However, this right is limited, as the federal government holds the mineral rights to the land and the right to regulate timber extraction.

This complicated legal situation has contributed to a level of distrust that exists in some communities towards state-led conservation efforts. In addition to the communities that have entered into federal or state natural protected areas, many communities have adopted their own local systems to conserve their natural resources. Such is the case of Capulálpam, where the community assembly has designated a protected reserve, but it is not certified with the national reserves system.

The hesitance to enter federal conservation programs stems from both the restrictions placed on communities in federal reserves, and the loss of decision-making power over issues such as mining. Sandoval insists that the efforts of indigenous communities to protect their lands must be respected, instead of handing over more control to federal conservation programs.

“The most important work to conservation natural resources in Mexico has been done by indigenous communities,” he said. “The government takes credit for the work indigenous communities have done for centuries to preserve their territories.”

There are currently 416 active mining concessions in Oaxaca, covering a total of 472 million hectares, or 8 percent of the state’s territory. Eighty percent of these concessions are within areas of social land tenure. Oaxaca has ten federal protected areas; two now have mining concessions.

Capulálpam: the mining town that placed its bets on conservation

Capulálpam has received accolades for its sustainable forestry and forest conservation practices over the past two decades. Yet gold and silver mining is at the heart of the community’s history, going back to the 1700s when Spaniards started to extract minerals with the local labor force.

This history is recognized with a statue of a miner outside the town hall. A government tourism initiative called “Magic Towns” has brought more services, restaurants and WiFi hotspots to the town over the past seven years, but much of life remains the same: eating hand-made corn tortillas, sharing the traditional mezcal alcohol made from the agave plant and heaping plates of yellow mole made from tomatoes and chihuacle chilies at festivals.

Community members are concerned that re-opening and expanding the mines will threaten this lifestyle and their conservation initiatives.

“The old mining was very basic, with pickaxes and hand-operated machines, but now it would be modern mining,” said Capulálpam mayor Saul Aquino. “What they extracted over 200 years, now they would be able to extract over just ten or fifteen years.”

The small community of Natividad, which neighbors Capulálpam, was the site of the original mines. Production dwindled for decades and the mines finally closed in the 1990s.

The local community had begun to oppose the mining due to health and environmental impacts, despite its important place in the local economy. Elders in Capulálpam confirmed what they had witnessed for several years: at least thirteen aquifers located across the communal territory had disappeared gradually over the course of the last 40 years. Gold and silver extraction require vast amounts of water, and the mine had been drawing off the community aquifers for more than two centuries.

In 2003, Capulálpam residents learned that the Canadian Natividad Company was carrying out exploratory activities in their territory. This was happening without consultation with Capulálpam residents, a right for indigenous communities under Mexican and international law. Without the community’s consent, the federal government had concessioned its entire territory to mining companies. The community assembly succeeded in halting the activities because the company was not permitted and had not carried out a local consultation.

After changes to the Law of Foreign Investment in 1996, foreign companies are now allowed to invest in mining with no restrictions and hold one hundred percent of mining assets. The Vancouver-based Continuum Resources Group mining company bought Natividad and continues to pursue mining activities in the community.

Aquino has been directly involved in the movement against the mining. “Yes, we want jobs and we want investment,” he said, “but we want jobs and investment that don’t destruct the environment.”

The community assembly of Capulálpam has lodged a legal challenge against the mining companies, which have been barred from any further activities for the time being. Despite Capulálpam’s achievements in sustainable forestry and biodiversity conservation, international mining companies, with the support of the federal government, remain poised to enter their territory.

Civil society responds to mining boom in Mexico

Capulálpam is one of numerous communities in Mexico that have used legal channels to halt or end mining activity. Communities confronting airport, highway and pipeline construction have also used similar strategies. As more indigenous groups in Mexico become familiar with their rights under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO Convention 169, these legal challenges become more common.

CECCAM and other civil society organizations work with local communities to understand their rights and take action.

“The government puts forward an image that it is a government that respects human rights, an ecologically-minded government,” Sandoval said. “It has been difficult to make visible and public what is really happening in the country.”

The issue has garnered little attention outside Mexico. Conservation projects in the country receive funding from a bevy of international conservation organizations, notably The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International. They have been quiet on the issue of mining and hydrocarbon concessions, including in regions where they implement projects, such as the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.

“It would help if some of the international funders would talk about these contradictions in government policy,” Sandoval said. “There is documentation on these issues, but some funders aren’t well-informed.”

Communities such as Capulálpam have faced the encroachment of mining activities face-on, maintaining an opposition movement for more than a decade. Yet conservationists working in the region say action is needed at the national level to slow the tide of mining concessions impacting natural protected areas and indigenous communities.

“It should be a priority to give a legal basis to the cancellation of mining concessions that have already been designated in natural protected areas,” Armendariz-Villegas writes, “and to stop giving away more of these concessions.”

Mystery solved: How monarch butterflies navigate from Canada to Mexico each year

15 April 2016

A threatened butterfly could be helped after scientists cracked the secret of how its brain works.

Researchers believe they have discovered how the internal compass is used by the monarch butterfly to determine their south-west flight when they migrate each autumn.

Scientists have never understood how the monarch's brain receives and processes information about its location and where they should fly.

But now it is hoped this discovery will help scientists understand how they navigate and locate their food.

Each year monarchs turn their orange, black and white-mottled wings toward the Rio Grande and migrate more than 2,000 miles to the warmer climbs of central Mexico.

Their journey is repeated instinctively by generations and has continued even as monarch numbers have plummeted due to loss of their sole food source - the milkweed plant.

Dr Eli Shlizerman, lead author of the study, joined with colleagues at the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts to show how the monarch's compass is organised within its brain.

Dr Shlizerman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Washington in the US, said: "Their compass integrates two pieces of information - the time of day and the sun's position on the horizon - to find the southerly direction.

"We wanted to understand how the monarch is processing these different types of information to yield this constant behaviour - flying south-west each autumn."

Monarchs use their large, complex eyes to monitor the sun's position in the sky, but the sun's position is not enough to determine direction.

Each butterfly must also combine that information with the time of day to know where to go.

Like most animals, including humans, monarchs possess an internal clock based on the rhythmic expression of key genes.

This clock maintains a daily pattern of physiology and behaviour and in the monarch butterfly, the clock is centred in the antennae.

Dr Shlizerman added: "We created a model that incorporated this information - how the antennae and eyes send this information to the brain.

"Our goal was to model what type of control mechanism would be at work within the brain, and then asked whether our model could guarantee sustained navigation in the south-west direction."

Based on their model, it also appears that during course corrections monarchs do not simply make the shortest turn to get back on route.

Their model includes a unique feature - a separation point that would control whether the monarch turned right or left to head in the south-west direction.

Dr Shlizerman said: "The location of this point in the monarch butterfly's visual field changes throughout the day.

"And our model predicts that the monarch will not cross this point when it makes a course correction to head back south-west.

"In experiments with monarchs at different times of the day, you do see occasions where their turns in course corrections are unusually long, slow or meandering.

"These could be cases where they can't do a shorter turn because it would require crossing the separation point.

"And when that happens, their compass points north-east instead of south-west. It's a simple, robust system to explain how these butterflies - generation after generation - make this remarkable migration."

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