MAC: Mines and Communities

Mexico's perfect storm - mining, militarization and resistance

Published by MAC on 2009-06-02
Source: NACLA, Narconews

Public forum: "Weaving Resistance in Defense of Our Territories"

On May 6 2009, seven hundred armed police brutally broke up a 40-day blockade, mounted by local citizens against a Canadian-owned silver mine in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. 

According to a correspondent with the North American Congress on Latin America, this was a direct result of the "armouring" of Mexico's "security" budget by the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In the past three years, some eighty mine projects have been permitted, covering 1.5 million acres of Oaxaca alone.

In April, many groups came together to denounce such military and socio-enviornmental assaults, in a forum dedicated to "Weaving Resistance for Defense of our Territories" (Tejiendo la resistencia por las defensa de nuestro territorios).


Megaprojects and Militarization: A Perfect Storm in Mexico
By Todd Miller
North American Congress on Latin America (
19th May 2009

Recent events perhaps demonstrate what a Bush administration official meant when he said that Washington planned the "armoring" of NAFTA. As Mexican security budgets inflate with U.S. military aid, rights groups say security forces are increasingly targeting activist and community groups opposed to foreign-financed and government-backed megaprojects. In the southern state of Oaxaca, these resource conflicts seem inevitable.

The 40-day blockade of the Trinidad mine in the Oaxacan community of San José del Progreso came to a sudden and violent halt on May 6. Mine representatives and municipal authorities called in a 700-strong police force that stormed into the community in anti-riot gear along with an arsenal of tear gas, dogs, assault rifles, and a helicopter.

The overwhelming show of force was in response to community residents' demand that the Canadian company Fortuna Silver Mines immediately pack its bags and leave. The company is in the exploration phase of developing the Trinidad mine. The result was a brutal attack, with over 20 arrests and illegal searches of homes. Police seemed to be going after a heavily armed drug cartel, not a community protest.

This is one of the drug war's dirty secrets: As Mexican security budgets inflate with U.S. aid - to combat the rising power of drug trafficking and organized crime - rights groups say these funds are increasingly being used to protect the interests of multinational corporations. According to a national network of human rights organizations known as the Red TDT, security forces are engaged in the systematic repression of activists opposed to megaprojects financed by foreign firms such as Fortuna Silver Mines.

In Oaxaca and throughout southern Mexico these types of conflicts seem destined to increase. Defying the logic of the international financial crisis, Mexico remains the top destination in Latin America for foreign direct investment, particularly in extractive industries. In the last three years alone, multinational companies have received over 80 federal mining concessions in just Oaxaca, covering 1.5 million acres of land. Mining is only the tip of the iceberg: Other megaprojects include hydroelectric dam construction, tourism and infrastructure, energy generation projects, water privatization, and oil exploration.

In response to the influx of capital-intensive projects, Marcos Leyva, director of Services for an Alternative Education, a community group, says, "We saw it coming, but we didn't realize the utter force with which it was coming at us."

The warning signs were there. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) gave foreign investment free range in the country. NAFTA even forced changes to the constitution so that communal lands could be broken up and sold piecemeal - in a word, privatized. In 2000, Plan Puebla Panamá was unveiled; the Plan sought to link southern Mexico with Central America through a series of networked megaprojects. But a strong wave of community resistance pushed the plan into the corner. Many say the plan is back, moving ahead with all cylinders, under a new name: Plan Mesoamerica.

In April, dozens of grassroots groups came together in Oaxaca to discuss these developments at a forum titled, "Weaving Resistance in Defense of Our Territories." The forum's declaration, signed by participating communities and organizations, denounced, "A privatization of our territories and natural resources is clearly being pushed forward, and the majority of this is located in rural and indigenous communities."

At the meeting, representatives of rural and indigenous communities all share similar experiences to those of their counterparts in San José del Progreso. The common denominator is the everyday struggle of life in Oaxaca where endemic and structural poverty has left 76 percent of the state's population in desperation. Those affected by the mine described it as a "virus" that was gnawing away at their land, leaving it infertile and taking away their only sources of livelihood - agriculture and cattle.

Residents also complained the mine would pose a health hazard through the poisoning of their clean water sources with chemicals such as cyanide and arsenic, which are used to extract precious metals from the ore. The mine would also drain scarce water sources. "A mine will use more water in one hour than an entire family uses in one year," says Raymundo Sandoval from the Project for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, a Mexico City-based organization.

"It is not right that foreigners come here and steal our natural wealth," complains community resident Dominga Rodríguez. And this wealth could be significant. Though the project is still in its exploration phase, Fortuna Silver Mines expects the mine to yield 50 million ounces of silver worth about $700 million.

The community says neither the government nor the company consulted it about the mine - that's pretty much par for the course for these kind of projects. In March, municipal authorities ignored complaints from residents about dynamite blasts damaging their homes and cattle dying after drinking contaminated water. Rodríguez believes the municipal officials had already "sold out to the mine company."

After the community took over the mine in March, the army set up camp a mere 100 meters from its entrance. Though the soldiers said they were there to remove explosives from the mine, the foreboding message was clear: When it comes to the $35 million that the company has invested in the project so far, there is little room for dialogue.

The events of May 6 confirmed the army's implicit threat. Agripina Vásquez, one of the people arrested in the massive police raid, told the Oaxacan daily *Noticias*: "What we wanted was dialogue, but they didn't give us the opportunity. The police simply surrounded and arrested us." The magnitude and brutality of the police raid was an eerie reminder for locals of Oaxaca's months-long social conflict in 2006; the uprising was met with brute force by police. The government's response was a human rights disaster by any measure and has yet to be resolved.

In recent visits to Mexico, high-level U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have failed to acknowledge the country's deteriorating human rights situation. Washington has moved ahead with its $700 million military and police aid package - with another $470 million in the pipeline - for Mexico known as the Mérida Initiative. As security forces use this aid to fight the drug cartels, it is at least indirectly supporting repressive police operations such as the one seen in San José del Progreso that are literally shielding private companies from legitimate community grievances.

In an unguarded moment, Thomas Shannon, the Bush administration's top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, admitted last year that Washington was in the process of "armoring NAFTA." Although Shannon was just replaced by the Obama administration, it does not look like the Democratic president is inclined to rollback this "armoring" of the trade agreement.


Forum of People in Resistance
Local Oaxaca Priest Backs Auto Determination and Defense of Environment
By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca
19th April 2009

The national and international forum "Weaving Resistance for Defense of our Territories" (Tejiendo la resistencia por las defensa de nuestro territorios) took place on Friday and Saturday April 17 and 18, 2009 in one of thirteen tiny towns in the municipality of Ocotlán, Oaxaca. The town has no restaurants, no hotels, no bus service. A van came by every half hour to drive people into the city of Ocotlán. The town is small in everything but resistance.

According to numbers last published in 2000 by the national government, the economically active population totals 380 persons. The taxi driver guessed the entire population is maybe 1,500 inhabitants; a total of 79 persons still speak Zapoteco. In Ocotlán County (municipio), San Pedro Apóstol is typical. The entire municipality, including its city head, holds about 20,000 people, mostly indigenous.

Neoliberal projects historically target areas of poor or indigenous people, whether they live in Mexico or Guatemala, or the USA. These are the people of whom it could always be said: they are defenseless, they have no power, they have no political clout. In the case of Ocotlán, the land beckons investors with its mineral resources: gold, silver, and nickel. But to extract them, earth and water are irreparably damaged with no regard for the local inhabitants. The federal and state government of Oaxaca has leased over 300 concessions to foreign mining companies, the majority of them Canadian, like Fortuna and Continuum.

Tejiendo la resistencia forum indicates that the days of the indigenous and/or poor surrendering their land and livelihoods, their health and their drinking water without a struggle have ended. Marcos Leyva, a director of the non-governmental organization EDUCA, opened the forum with the question: Why are we holding this forum? And the reply : Because resistance by individuals, organizations, towns, states and nations, all working to defend their territories from mines, wind generators, transgenic corn, single crops, privatization of water, dams, air pollution, trash pollution, and other problems of so-called "development", now requires joint efforts.

The first speaker, a Guatemalan woman named Eloida Mejia is president of an organization of women affected by mining in the area of Lago de Izabal in Guatemala. She related that not only are women the first to notice when the children sicken and potable water vanishes, but they provide the main support for families when the men migrate. Guatemala's income source is similar to that of Oaxaca: remittances and tourism. But the environment is being destroyed by petroleum, mining and a large monopoly cement company. Canadian mining in Guatemala holds hundreds of concessions. Not surprisingly, they locate in the poorer regions. One mine contaminates 200,000 liters of water daily. Cracks have appeared in house walls from dynamite explosions. This continues despite environmental reports. Worse: oil has been located beneath Lake Izabal, where presently 40 different species of fish live and provide a food staple. Concessions for the mining companies take precedence over indigenous communities who have no "legal" rights and are evicted from their land to make way for the mines.

By noon on the first day at the forum site in San Pedro Apóstol 380 people had registered, and more were entering the hall. They represented international, national, state and local geographic places and grassroots organizations. Many women wore traditional aprons over their dresses, the supportive (and honest) town authorities who came wore their campesino hats. Other participants came from areas more sophisticated, such as Mexico City, the largest and dirtiest city in the world. The forum provided food, and places to sleep.

Over lunch break (papayas, bananas) in the event salon, conversation included the question: what is development? What are its limits? When the environment is exhausted, what then? These questions were posed by the guest from Honduras, Adalberto Padilla, whose organization is aptly named Economy for Life. Life and wealth for the few is destroying the finite biosphere, he said, and by definition, infinite growth is impossible, especially development which does not pay the costs to either environment or people. For the local Ocotlán people, mining presents the most dangerous and imminent foreign threat. Nobody in Ocotlán will benefit; the rape of the land for gold and silver resurrects the worst days of Spanish rule.

San Pedro Apóstol was chosen as the forum's site not only for its proximity to the San Jose mine La Trinidad, but because its pastor, Father Martín Octavio Garcia Ortiz has been denounced by the mine supporters. In a published reply, the Diocese Commission for Justice and Peace points out that the priest does not direct any group, organization or people; his work is spiritual and religious, and in social matters he has been only and exclusively offering education and information. The coordinator of the church Commission, Father Wilfrido Mayrén Peláez, (who answers like all priests, to the bishop) added that a mine representative, asking only to give the people information, visited the Oaxaca auxiliary bishop a few years ago. Then Father Martin indeed began giving out information. He encouraged forums.

To prepare for a 2008 April 17 forum, participants in a prior national forum went from San José del Progreso (the neighboring Ocotlán village) to learn what the mining company Continuum had done in the mine called Natividad: bad damage. Subsequently the first public information meeting followed in San Pedro Apóstol in May of 2008. The authority of San José del Progreso, who sides with the local mine subsidiary for reasons we can only guess, did not attend.

At that time, the organization "Project for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (Proyecto de Derechos Económico, Sociales y Culturales" A. C.) came from México City. They explained the Mining Law and possible ways the community of San Jose del Progreso could legally defend itself against the mining companies. Also present was the Inspector of Calpulalpam de Méndez (Comisariado de Calpulalpam de Méndez) who revealed that the mining enterprise Continuum had drained dry thirteen water springs, after which the company's permission to mine was withdrawn by the government agency SEMARNAP: too late. Photos showed the damaged river; the number of cancer deaths caused by contaminated water was revealed

A second forum in October of 2008 in San José del Progreso brought scientists from the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) who explained the dangers of the chemicals used to separate gold and silver. An economist explained what the mining company gained and why the crisis in the USA was attracting interest in gold and silver, metals which also are used in manufacturing components of electronic systems .

Two further meetings took place with the mining company. Priests at the deanship level expressed their concern for the environmental impact and pointed out there is no benefit to the communities. A third forum took place, educating the people about the experiences of Latin America.

Father Martin's efforts continued. The Church recognized that the indigenous people "suffered low self-esteem, which the government takes advantage of." So the parish began classes in "self-esteem" and human development, to break their dependence on government authority, Father Wilfrido explained. .

Meanwhile the parish of San Pedro Apóstol planted l, 300 trees in the Ocotlán communities, as well as promoting other environmentally friendly systems such as dry baths, low wood- consumption stoves, cisterns to capture rain water, wells, composts, worm composting, etcetera. These efforts were inhibited by certain authorities. The catechists of San José del Progreso were refused a place to plant their trees. In Santa Lucía Ocotlán, after parents of families said no to a greenhouse project of Fortuna's subsidiary mining company Cuzcatlán, the green area which the catechists had sown years ago mysteriously caught fire and burned.

The catechists played a strong role, abetted by their priest, very similar to that played in Chiapas prior to 1994. The parish of San Pedro Apóstol informed the townspeople about the treaty signed and ratified by Mexico, Convention 169 of The International Labor Organization (ITO in its Spanish initials), the UN agency that promotes decent work ethics throughout the world. A final decision about accepting mining was left to the communities.

Father Martin, who has been attacked personally, legally and directly by the "affected party" does not stand alone. The Church supports him. Oaxaca's Bishop Botello usually defends the status quo. To those who accept bribes, he proclaimed that they must not compromise with truth, justice, the common good and the life of the peoples. Platitudes of that sort are his daily offering. But he has given a free hand to those serving directly under him, such us Fathers Wilfrido and Martin, and the social movement's Padre Uvi. Am I seeing a resurrection of liberation theology? Church actions suggest it.

With self-determination, 300 townspeople of San Jose del Progreso blocked the entrance to La Trinidad on March 16, 2009 and declared it won't be worked. Violence seems to be an instant away. The blockade installed an encampment at the mine's entrance and fortified their numbers. The military came in helicopters on March 24 and removed the mine's dynamite supply. State police arrived at the site.

In this tense stand-off, with 300 townspeople facing 70 authorities of other towns plus the police, Father Martin, clad in T-shirt, jeans and glasses, took an active role in the April 17 forum.

The forum concluded on April 18 by articulating strategies for actions the people can take to defend their homes. Clearly the idea is to link one geographical area with another throughout Mesoamerica, hence the name of the forum, whose thirteen originating organizations established the first pathways. The most salient quote: "We who live here are the judges of what you can do on our land, not the federal or state government."

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