MAC: Mines and Communities

Mexican peasants block Minefinders

Published by MAC on 2008-09-22
Source: Reuters, Tierramérica

The residents of Huizopa have maintained a camp since May.

MEXICO: Peasants Seek Ways to Block Canadian-Run Mine

Diego Cevallos


31st August 2008

MEXICO CITY - The Canadian mining corporation, Minefinders, has explored a rural area of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua for 14 years. But as it gets ready to begin mining gold and silver there, its plans are threatened by peasant farmers' protests.

The discontent with Minefinders after such a long time is due to the fact that "we became aware of the trickery, the abuse from the company," campesino (peasant) spokesperson David de la Rosa told Tierramérica. "We became aware of the inequality of the relationship," added Mario Patrón, an attorney who advises the group.

The residents of Huizopa, an enclave community in the Western Sierra Madre made up of 230 farming and ranching families who are self-sustaining, have maintained a camp since May near the not-yet-operational processing plant of the Compañía Minera Dolores, a subsidiary of Minefinders in Mexico.

Entire families from the Huizopa communal ownership association take turns there to ensure an uninterrupted presence. Although they do not get in the way of the mining company's work, their demands and the potential for escalating their protest keep the Minefinders plans "on edge".

The corporation holds a concession granted in 1994 by the Mexican government. With that authorisation and the initial approval of the peasants it made around a thousand perforations in search of gold and silver. To initiate mining of the precious metals, in 2006 it signed an agreement with the Huizopa community leaders, stating that it can operate on some 1,200 hectares. However, a large portion of the community maintains that the required consultation process never took place.

"The agreement signed with the mining company is illegal because it was not studied and voted on by the community assembly, and furthermore it is unequal; it doesn't have even the minimal principle of equality," attorney Patrón said in a Tierramérica interview.

In addition, say the campesinos, the mining company has appropriated nearly 3,500 hectares of the 86,000 belonging to Huizopa.

A minority group among the residents supports the company, which has built houses and roads, but the majority wants a new agreement that includes financing for a community development plan, annual rental payments per hectare of mining, a system for participation in the profits, and environmental studies.

Minefinders says on its web site that it is 100-percent owner of the property at the Dolores mine, which it plans to exploit through open-pit operations for 15 years.

This is not an isolated conflict. In the last decade, recurrent problems have come to a head between the mining industry and the labour unions and residents in several Latin American countries, coinciding with the boom in international prices of precious metals.

In the past four years, gold prices have gone up 219 percent and silver 149 percent in a cycle that has brought multi-million-dollar profits for the companies and a jump in tax revenues collected by governments.

In Peru, there were 26 mining strikes in the first half of this year, just three fewer than the entire year of 2007. In Central America, where mining companies have identified at least 23 minable zones, citizen groups are on war footing, arguing that the mining executives are getting rich while destroying the environment and hurting the populations living near the mines.

The conflict between the government of Mexico and the leadership of one sector of the mining unions has continued since 2006.

The campesinos of Huizopa "will not fall into violence, but we will not give up until we achieve real benefits from Minefinders, because we know it is going to see heavy profits," said spokesperson De la Rosa.

They estimate that in 15 years the mining company will take in about 3 billion dollars and could cause serious damage to the surrounding environment. The operations for extracting gold and silver from the rock will involve toxic sodium cyanide.

The company says those economic calculations are mistaken. In Huizopa there are reserves "equivalent to 3 billion ounces of gold," president Mark Bailey said in March. The corporation, which is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange and has three other projects in Mexico, informed its shareholders on Jul. 25 that because of an "illegal blockade" and "threats of violence from demonstrators," its operations in Huizopa are on hold, but assured that in the following quarter it will begin full operations for gold and silver mining.

Police are guarding the mine and, according to reports from the campesinos, the Mexican army has been called in to conduct intimidating patrols.

On May 27, federal forces used tear gas to disperse about 100 campesinos who were conducting a sit-in, and two days later two Huizopa leaders were detained, but were released soon after due to lack of charges.

Minefinders has not acted in an honest manner, say the Huizopa association and the non-governmental Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a group to which jurist Patrón belongs.

The company says it has spent 12.7 million dollars on assistance for the community that owns the land and that it has financed student scholarships in geology at a university in Chihuahua.

In a bid to end the conflict, it is offering six million dollars more and to sponsor social programmes and activities focused on protecting the environment, and alleges that the campesinos have been egged on by people involved with the left-leaning and opposition PRD, Democratic Revolutionary Party. "What they are offering proves the close-mindedness of the company. We have to take into account that they will be here for many years and we want good neighbourly relations and benefits that are equitable for all," said De la Rosa.

The representatives of Minefinders in Mexico declined to make any further statements to Tierramérica, stating that the negotiations with the campesinos are now under way.

On Aug. 12, a committee in the Mexican Senate called on several government entities to investigate possible human rights violations of the people of Huizopa, to help establish a dialogue amongst the parties involved, to study environmental and social impacts of the mining, and to report on the presence of the army in the area.

The campesinos' spokesperson said that as a result of efforts by the state government it was possible to begin dialogue with the company, but that there have been no results so far.

Mexico's makeshift coal pits try to boost output

Mica Rosenberg


1st September 2008

NUEVA ROSITA - A steel bucket holding two men lowers into a pit, suspended on a cable wound by an old truck engine.

At a depth of about 150 feet, the men get out of the bucket and into a tunnel just wide enough for a few men and a couple of wheelbarrows, pitch black save for the lamps on the men's heads, to mine coal with handheld jackhammers.

Mexicans have been mining "pozitos," or little holes, like this one in the town of Nueva Rosita in much the same way for more than a century. Now, with energy prices sky high and Mexico's electricity needs surging, these rudimentary and dangerous mines are working at full capacity.

Rene Zertuche, the supervisor of the pozito in northern Mexico's Coahuila state, watches as a worker perched on a bolted-down car seat facing the pit pulls a lever to lift a bucket of coal.

After receiving orders over a two-way radio rigged up to an old telephone, the worker uses the same bucket to haul up two men, both shirtless, covered in soot and drenched with underground water and sweat from the sweltering temperatures.

Up to 14 percent of Mexico's electricity comes from coal, with the rest powered by more expensive fuel oil, natural gas and hydroelectric power. At least four more coal-fired plants are in the works and the state electricity commission is considering converting some oil-fired plants to coal.

The electricity industry burns some 16 million tonnes of coal a year, the vast majority of it from big coal mines. The pozitos supply only a small fraction of that, but with demand rising pozitos are trying to extract as much coal as they can.

Rising energy and commodity prices have boosted informal and dangerous mining techniques in many poor countries around the world, from Honduras to Ghana.

In traditional mining states like Coahuila, there are few options: risk your life in the mine or slip across the border into Texas to work illegally.

Prices of imports are soaring. Coal reached almost $200 per tonne on the European Energy Exchange in August, while the going price for a tonne of coal in Coahuila is $64 (651.38 pesos), one reason the Mexican government is clamoring for more.


While more mining means more work and money for people in the rich coal belt of Coahuila, which is nestled below the U.S. state of Texas, it also means more injuries and more deaths.

Three people died in accidents at pozitos last year and miners say its rare a year goes by without fatalities. "You die down below when gas can't escape and there's an explosion, there are never any survivors then. Or rocks can fall and kill you, or crush your arm or leg," said Jacobo Rodriguez, 39, who has worked in Coahuila's pozos since he was 15 years old.

A methane explosion in 2001 and then a flood in 2002 left 25 pozito miners dead, forcing the government to tighten safety controls. But coal mining, which releases combustible dust, is life-threatening even in major operations. In February 2006, 65 miners were killed at a mine owned by Grupo Mexico, the country's worst industrial accident in four decades.

Silverio Valdes, a government official who buys coal from the small miners to sell to the power stations, said the pozitos risk going out of business unless they improve safety standards and upgrade technology to compete with more modern open-pit operations.

And yet the state electricity commission has asked small and medium-sized coal mines in Coahuila to increase production by some 50 percent next year.

Unlike some, the pozito at Nueva Rosita is regulated, at least.

"If you think what we do here looks primitive, the guys without permits are in worse shape," said Ruben Zertuche, Rene's brother, who manages the 60-man crew at the site.

"They have no helmets, no gloves. They work at abandoned mines at a lower cost but with higher risks," he said.

A quarter of the some 100 tiny underground coal mines are not registered with the government and escape regular safety inspections, Mexico's coal producers' union says.

"Without any kind of authorization they find a little piece of land and start digging for coal. Then they try to sell what they get to authorized producers like us," said Rene Zertuche.

In Coahuila, a dusty state littered with dinosaur fossils and steel factories, mine accidents have claimed close to 1,700 lives since the end of the 19th century.

Miners earn between $3 and $6 (30 and 60 pesos) for each tonne of coal they can hack out by hand, more than they could in other occupations.

Some worry the payment system itself leads to accidents.

"The more they mine, the more they are paid, so they go into areas that are unsafe where the tunnels can collapse," said Gerardo Cardenas, a manager at the coal producers' union.

"When you see how the pozitos work it's obvious that they are just as dangerous as they have always been," said Elvira Martinez, whose husband died in the 2006 Grupo Mexico accident, and since then has become an outspoken advocate for mine safety.

"But instead of closing them down, you just see more and more popping up in this region. People keep going because there are no options. If they complain they get fired," she said at her home in the modest mining town of Palau.

Trancazo campesino a minera canadiense

Diego Cevallos

MÉXICO, 25 agosto, 2008 (Tierramérica).- La corporación minera canadiense Minefinders exploró durante 14 años una zona rural del norteño estado mexicano de Chihuahua. Pero cuando se apresta a iniciar la explotación de oro y plata, sus planes se ven amenazados por protestas campesinas.

La inconformidad con Minefinders luego de tanto tiempo se debe a que "nos dimos cuenta de los engaños, de cierto abuso de la empresa", dijo a Tierramérica el portavoz de los campesinos, David de la Rosa. "Es que se tomó conciencia de la inequidad de la relación", añadió el abogado Mario Patrón, asesor del grupo.

Los habitantes de Huizopa, comunidad enclavada en la Sierra Madre Occidental y conformada por unas 230 familias dedicadas a la agricultura de autoconsumo y la ganadería, mantienen desde mayo un campamento cerca de la aún no estrenada planta de procesamiento de la Compañía Minera Dolores, subsidiaria de Minefinders en México.

Familias enteras de la Asamblea Permanente de Ejidatarios de Huizopa hacen turno allí para garantizar una presencia constante. Aunque no interrumpen los trabajos de la empresa, sus reclamos y la posibilidad de que radicalicen su protesta mantienen en vilo los planes de Minefinders.

La corporación goza de una concesión otorgada en 1994 por el gobierno de México. Con esa autorización y la venia inicial de los campesinos efectuó unas 1.000 perforaciones en búsqueda de oro y plata.

Para iniciar la explotación, en 2006 firmó un acuerdo con los dirigentes comunitarios de Huizopa, según el cual puede operar sobre unas 1.200 hectáreas. Sin embargo, buena parte de la comunidad sostiene que no se llevó a cabo el proceso de consultas obligatorio con la comunidad que posee las tierras. "El acuerdo firmado con la minera es ilegal pues no se analizó ni se votó en la asamblea comunitaria y además es desigual, no tiene el mínimo principio de equidad", dijo Patrón a Tierramérica.

Además, argumentan los campesinos, la minera se ha apropiado de casi 3.500 hectáreas, de las 86.000 que tiene Huizopa.

Un grupo minoritario de pobladores apoya a la empresa, que ha construido viviendas y caminos, pero la mayoría quieren un nuevo acuerdo que incluya la financiación de un plan de desarrollo comunitario, pago de renta anual por hectárea explotada, definición de un sistema de participación en las utilidades y estudios ambientales.

Minefinders asegura en su sitio web poseer la propiedad de "100 por ciento" de la mina Dolores, que espera explotar a cielo abierto durante 15 años.

No se trata de un conflicto aislado. En la última década han estallado problemas recurrentes entre la industria minera, los sindicatos y los pobladores en varios países de América Latina, coincidiendo con la bonanza de los precios internacionales de los metales.

En los últimos cuatro años, la cotización del oro se elevó 219 por ciento y la de plata en más de 149 por ciento, un ciclo que trajo multimillonarios ingresos a las empresas y un repunte de los impuestos que perciben los Estados.

En Perú se contabilizaron 26 huelgas mineras en el primer semestre de este año, apenas tres menos que las registradas en todo 2007. En América Central, donde las compañías identifican al menos 23 zonas explotables, organizaciones sociales están en pie de lucha, con el argumento de que los empresarios se enriquecen a costa del ambiente y las poblaciones cercanas a los yacimientos.

En México el conflicto entre el gobierno y la dirigencia de un sector del sindicato minero se mantiene desde 2006.

Los campesinos de Huizopa "no caeremos en la violencia, pero no nos rendiremos hasta lograr beneficios reales de Minefinders, pues sabemos que va a tener ganancias jugosas", advirtió De la Rosa.

Ellos estiman que en 15 años la empresa obtendrá unos 3.000 millones de dólares y podría causar graves daños a la naturaleza, pues para extraer oro y plata de la roca utilizará el venenoso cianuro de sodio. La firma ha dicho que esos cálculos económicos están errados. En Huizopa hay reservas "equivalentes a 3.000 millones de onzas de oro", declaró en marzo el presidente de la corporación, Mark Bailey. La corporación, que cotiza en la Bolsa de Valores de Toronto y tiene otros tres proyectos en México, informó a sus accionistas el 25 de julio que por un "bloqueo ilegal" y "amenazas de violencia de manifestantes", sus operaciones en Huizopa están detenidas, pero aseguró que en el siguiente trimestre entrará de lleno en la extracción de oro y plata.

Policías custodian las instalaciones de la mina y, según denuncian los campesinos, se ha recurrido al ejército para que efectúe patrullajes intimidatorios.

El 27 de mayo, un operativo de fuerzas federales dispersó con gases lacrimógenos a unos 100 campesinos que efectuaban un plantón y dos días después fueron detenidos dos dirigentes de Huizopa, liberados casi de inmediato por falta de denuncias.

Minefinders no ha actuado de forma honesta, afirman la Asamblea Permanente de Ejidatarios y el no gubernamental Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales, al que pertenece el jurista Patrón.

La compañía asegura haber gastado 12,7 millones de dólares en asistencia a la comunidad dueña de la tierra y haber financiado becas a estudiantes de geología en una universidad de Chihuahua.

Para terminar el conflicto, ofrece seis millones de dólares más y patrocinar algunos programas sociales y acciones vinculadas al ambiente, y alega que los campesinos han sido azuzados por personas vinculadas al izquierdista y opositor Partido de la Revolución Democrática.

"Lo que nos ofrecen demuestra la cerrazón de la empresa, hay que considerar que la minera va a estar aquí muchos años más y lo que queremos es una buena vecindad y que los beneficios sean equitativos y para todos", señaló De la Rosa.

La representación de Minefinders en México se rehusó a dar más declaraciones a Tierramérica, con el argumento de que "las negociaciones con los campesinos están ahora en marcha".

Una comisión del Senado de México exhortó el 12 de agosto a diferentes autoridades investigar posibles violaciones de derechos humanos contra los habitantes de Huizopa, ayudar a establecer un diálogo entre las partes, estudiar los impactos ambientales y sociales de la explotación e informar sobre la presencia del ejército en la zona.

El portavoz de los campesinos indicó que por gestión del gobierno estadual fue posible iniciar un diálogo con la empresa, por ahora sin resultado.


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