Foreign investment in Mexico’s mining sector has expanded dramatically over the past decade… and not everyone is happy with that trend. The most contentious conflicts have arisen in indigenous communities where residents say the government failed to inform and consult local populations before handing out 50-year mining permits to foreign investors. In Oaxaca, one permit would re-open a mine which local communities fought to close down. Shannon Young reports.
(Sound of town center and music school rehearsal)
Capulalpam de Mendez is a picturesque mountain community. It’s the only village in the
state of Oaxaca with the special designation of “magic town” – a title given by the federal government to promote tourism.
Capulalpam also has a history of gold and silver mining going back more than two centuries. But now town residents are in a determined fight against foreign mining interests.
Salvador Aquino is a member of Capulalpam’s Council of Elders, an important advisory body within the local indigenous governance system.
SALVADOR AQUINO: “Precisely because of our experience of knowing what it means to be a miner, what mining work entails, and what the consequences mean in terms of water pollution, of the devastation of acquifers, of the destruction of forests, and of contamination of communal land. The legacy of these 200 years of experience led the community and the Council of Elders to the conclusion that it was no longer possible to continue with the exploitation of minerals considering the experience left us with devastation – in terms of lives and communal territory.”
When Aquino was young, his father worked in the nearby Natividad mine and died of silicosis – an occupational lung disease. Aquino says decades ago, Capulalpam was known informally as The Widow’s Town due to the high death rate for miners.
(Fernando Felix Mendez speaks in Spanish, reporter interprets)
Another resident with 14 years experience in the Natividad mine is Fernando Félix Méndez. He says workers were given helmets, lamps, and gloves – but no masks or respirators.
FERNANDO FELIX MENDEZ: “That’s why all of us who worked inside the mine have lung problems because part of the job involves working with machines which use air pressure and are heavily greased so as not to seize up. So, inside of the mine there’s a type of haze that forms from all of the dust which even the water sprayer can’t control completely and, over time, it affects the lungs.”
Mendez stopped working in the mine in 1997, when it was still under Mexican ownership.
The gold mine is now owned by Vancouver, Canada-based Sundance Minerals.
In 2006, the town won a temporary stay of operations over environmental code violations – including the illegal dumping of hazerdous waste and the mine has been inactive ever since. But the federal government could reverse the stay if it determines certain regulatory conditions have been met.
(Vicente Aranda speaks in Spanish, reporter interprets)
Vicente Aranda is the Director of Industries and Mines at Oaxaca’s State Secretary of Tourism and Economic Development. He says work safety and environmental standards have improved in the last 20 years. And while Canada’s laws don’t apply in Mexico, he points to its regulatory standards as further evidence that foreign companies will respect Mexico’s environment.
VICENTE ARANDA: “In order to be able to do businesses as a company on the Canadian stock market, they have to be seen in a good light.”
Aranda also says foreign mining companies contribute to local infrastructure projects in the communities where mines operate and help fund economic programs.
But people living in Capulalpam remain opposed to the resumption of regional mining activities because of concerns over what the operations could do to the local environment.
In recent years, Capulalpam has developed its own sustainable economic model based on its communally-owned natural resources. In addition to its nationally-recognized ecotourism project, it also bottles water from its mountain spring, runs a sustainable forestry service, and has a small-scale gravel quarry. All of these projects are cooperatively administered by the town assembly.
Salvador Aquino of the Council of Elders says the mining company’s offer to fund local projects doesn’t compare to the what the town already has.
SALVADOR AQUINO: “Mining companies give us money to fix up the church, give us money for a school and a hospital, and to pretty up the town. That’s what they proposed in exchange for us giving them permission to come in and exploit gold and silver resources. When we said no, they said we opposed progress. What we oppose is the devastation of our resources. For us, progress isn’t about looting gold and silver, it’s about the protection of our resources because they have a moral and ethical meaning for us as a community.”
People in Capulalpam remain concerned that despite their opposition, the federal government will allow mining operations to resume. They’ve also heard of plans to license an open pit gold mine above the town’s remaining acquifer. They are promising to do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening.
Shannon Young, FSRN, Oaxaca
(NOTE: This report aired in the July 31, 2013 broadcast of FSRN. A shorter version was originally produced for the CBC’s “The World This Weekend”.)