A Mine, a Movement and a Town Divided


By Liam Barrington-Bush and Jen Wilton, Today, TheTyee.ca – http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/09/30/Canadian-Mining-In-Mexico/

Date of publication: 
30 September 2013

In Mexico, local resistance to Canadian mining companies is growing as the industry booms.

Since Vancouver-based silver and gold mining company Fortuna set up shop in a small town in southern Mexico in 2005, violent attacks have left four local residents dead and many more wounded.

Fortuna has not been charged, nor is it the subject of any criminal investigation. However, similar violence has broken out at other locations where Canadian-owned mining companies — an astonishing 75 per cent of all such companies world-wide — operate.

Thanks to the generosity of donors to The Tyee Fellowship Fund, journalists Liam Barrington-Bush and Jen Wilton spent four months earlier this year investigating the conflict in San José del Progreso, Oaxaca, Mexico. This is the first of their four reports from the field.]

Paulina Agripina Vásquez Sánchez stared out across her family’s modest patch of arid land in the mid-May dustbowl of the Ocotlán Valley, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The less-than-ideal farming conditions in San José del Progreso are low on Paulina’s radar though, as she points to one of the five remaining avocado trees on an otherwise barren property. Two months earlier, an attack she blames on thugs in the pay of the town’s municipal president uprooted 56 other trees in what was once an orchard.

Paulina’s husband, Andres, and their son, Bernardo, had planted the trees four years earlier to provide the family with a basic income selling fruit in the local markets. It was a practical and sustainable alternative to working at the old silver and gold mine, then being expanded in San José del Progreso by Fortuna Silver Mines Inc., a company based in Canada.

Bernardo disagreed with the mine expansion. In the early weeks of 2012, he began receiving death threats. Then on March 15, 2012, unidentified gunmen opened fire on Bernardo and two fellow members of the environmental and human rights group Coalition of United Peoples of the Ocotlán Valley (CPUVO using the Spanish initials) as they were driving home from the Oaxaca airport. Bernardo died in a hail of bullets. The car’s other passengers received serious injuries but survived. Days after the first anniversary of Bernardo’s assassination, the Vasquez’s crops were destroyed — a blow clearly aimed to injure his surviving family’s livelihood, but also a symbolic posthumous attack on Bernardo’s activism.

Far from an isolated event, this kind of story has played out across Latin America, Africa and beyond when Canadian mining firms set up shop. When, occasionally, violence at distant mining sites comes to the attention of Canadian investors or the public, corporate officers typically deflect responsibility onto ‘pre-existing conflicts’ — old rivalries or local power struggles given fresh fuel by the injection of mining money.

A mineral empire: companies registered in Canada, although often owned elsewhere, operate on every continent.

What we found in Oaxaca, however, was that those ‘pre-existing’ conflicts are far from petty or ancient feuds. Instead, they reveal serious and deep differences of opinion in affected communities about whether the kind of industrial development a mine offers is a driver for community benefit, or a threat to traditional culture and more sustainable livelihoods. As the lure of personal gain subverts authentic community priorities, local democratic processes are often among the first to fall victim.

Water at the root of conflict

Many of the communities in Oaxaca affected by Canadian mining companies are agriculturally based, and there is a growing movement of people who value agriculture’s longer-term environmental sustainability over the short-term economic gain offered by the mines. Local resistance movements have secured the suspension of a number of extractive projects in Mexico in the last year — posing a growing threat to the industry’s ambitions there.

CPUVO is part of this growing movement in San José del Progreso, an hour’s drive from Oaxaca’s state capital. CPUVO’s history predates the current mining near the town. The organization previously challenged a range of other projects aimed at commercial or industrial development in the Ocotlán Valley, including a dam, a highway and another mining site not far from the town.

But since 2005, when B.C.-based Fortuna (TSX listing: FVI) began work to industrialize an 140-year-old artisanal mine at Cuzcatlán, it’s been the focus of CPUVO’s efforts, due to grave concerns about the threat that the operation poses to scarce water supplies in the region. Under its former manager, the mine removed about 100 tonnes of rock per day; Fortuna has been extracting 10 times that much, with plans to nearly double the figure to 1,800 tonnes per day later this year, according to a recent financial report. According to Neftalí Reyes Méndez, a co-ordinator with the Oaxacan Collective in Defence of Territories and Educa Oaxaca, a state-wide civil resistance group, farmers in the drought-prone Central Valley of Oaxaca have faced state-imposed restrictions on their water usage since the 1970s, making it more difficult to maintain crops.

In January, 2012, residents of San José del Progreso gathered to protest the construction of a water pipeline that many feared was meant to divert municipal water to the Cuzcatlán mine. When tensions rose, a municipal police officer fired into the gathered crowd. Seven bullets struck local resident Bernardo Méndez Vásquez, who later died. While Fortuna and the municipality have adamantly denied that the town’s water supply is used by the mine, much scepticism still exists, and tensions around water use remain high.

A drive a little further north through the Oaxacan mountains reveals the very real consequences that mining can have on water.

Capulálpam de Méndez, an indigenous Zapotec community in the Sierra Juárez mountains, organized against the local operations of B.C.-based Continuum Resources Ltd. (now a subsidiary of Fortuna). Following complaints about the mine’s environmental impacts, Mexico’s federal environmental regulator, Profepa, suspended the mine’s operations. Profepa later verified local tests that showed a river had been poisoned with lead and arsenic tailings from the mine. Thirteen local springs had also been entirely depleted by the mine’s water use.

Similar stories are told in other places where Canadian mining companies have established operations throughout Latin America, Africa and even in parts of Europe, from Spain to Russia. “Wherever Canadian mining firms are to be found,” wrote Alain Deneault and William Sacher in their 2012 exposé on the Canadian mining industry, Imperial Canada, Inc., “the same extremely serious allegations are heard: allegations of massive pollution and eco-system destruction, brutal eviction at the hands of paramilitary forces, corruption, tax evasion, and even the murder of people opposed to mining activity.”

With such allegations ubiquitously associated with the Canadian-registered extractive sector abroad, Deneault and Sacher argue that, “the multiplicity of these denunciations lends support to the idea that Canada today is the keystone of a predatory international mining resource system.”

Canada’s corner on world mining

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Canada is the corporate home to 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies. While many of these do not mine in Canada, the legal, financial and government support to be found for the industry here have encouraged many international ventures, seeking a friendly corporate home-of-convenience, to set up a Canadian office. Their enthusiasm for Canadian domicile has also helped funnel billions in global investment into TSX-listed companies. Many of these, Deneault and Sacher write, would struggle for financing, or even listing, on other, more regulated exchanges.

Meanwhile, Canada has become the fourth largest foreign investor in the Mexican economy, in significant part due to the mining industry. In 2012, Canadian companies also provided three-quarters of the total foreign mining-related investment in Mexico. According to Gaëtan Lavertu, Canada’s former ambassador to Mexico, “The bulk of investments are from British Columbia,” where a tradition of free-wheeling financing of resource and other long-shot ventures on the now-defunct Vancouver Stock Exchange have made the province a popular home for new junior mining companies with prospects in Mexico and elsewhere.

‘A struggle of concepts’

When it comes to developing those prospects however, the distant investors often do more than simply speak a different language from the families their mine may affect.

In San José del Progreso, the battle isn’t simply over whether the Cuzcatlán mine should remain in operation. CPUVO members certainly argue that the risk of water depletion and contamination by the mine is too great. But even more fundamentally, they say that many in the community reject the entire model of economic development that mining represents.

Paulina Agripina Vásquez Sánchez looks out across the barren field where her family’s crops were cut down by alleged mine supporters. Paulina believes that “cutting down a tree is a grave crime, like killing a person.”

“The people, in their own way, say ‘Hey, we live well! The government calls us poor but we live well,’” Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez told Canadian journalist Dawn Paley in January, 2012, two months before his murder. “For us, the idea of development is a struggle of concepts. The government has one idea of development and the people have another. And the people say, ‘We don’t want luxurious houses, or luxurious cars. We need water for our crops, we need food, that’s all we want.’”

By way of illustration, Vásquez recounted how dedication to traditional ways frustrated one of Fortuna’s attempts to win local hearts and minds. The company distributed eco-friendly stoves and dry toilets to hundreds of homes in the community. But much of the equipment was left unused, as households preferred their traditional open fires and latrines.

“It’s a very reduced vision that the company has,” Vásquez said. “It’s like a package that they apply in every country and they think that people in every country are going to respond the same way.”

Vásquez’s cousin, Rosalinda Dionicio, was in the car with him when he was shot. Her own injuries left her walking with a cane. Speaking with us, Dionicio echoed her late cousin’s assessment of their struggle:

“Right now it’s the mining company, but later it could be a logging company. We are going to do everything possible to get the company to leave, but the idea is to bring people together to defend the rest of our resources. We have rivers, we have the forest, and above all we have our customs. That is something else they could take away from us.”

Trading blame for the violence

The struggle may be one of concepts, but it has had deadly consequences. Since 2005, two CPUVO members have been murdered, six more shot and wounded, and several assaulted. Others have received death threats scrawled on walls or left on handwritten signs outside their homes. A priest who worked to inform local people about the potential costs of mining was assaulted and, by his account, kidnapped for three days in June, 2010.

The violence has not been limited to mine opponents. San José‘s former municipal president, a pro-mining advocate who approved the town’s formal agreement with Fortuna, was also killed in June 2010, along with the town’s health secretary. The man currently serving as municipal president, Alberto Mauro Sánchez, was shot in the same attack, and claims to have survived five other attempts on his life.

Pro and anti-mining factions both maintain that they are non-violent, each blaming deaths on the other side (contentions yet to be examined in court). Both also say that inaction by the state government has allowed the violence to continue.

“Look, you know what would put an end to the problems in San José del Progreso?” Mauro asked pointedly during an interview with The Tyee. “If the law were enforced.” He is adamant that the mine has been of great benefit to the community, citing over 500 jobs linked to Fortuna’s activities. “Believe me when I say that we see the company as a good thing.”

The municipal president blames the appearance of opposition on, “very radical groups…[with] leaders who involve themselves in trouble all over the place.” According to Mauro, CPUVO’s members told people who leased land to Fortuna that if the mine were forced to leave town they could get their land back and keep the money they received. “All of those people who are against the mine are the ones who sold their land,” Mauro alleges.

If strictly true that would number nine opponents, according to Fortuna purchase records, at just 30 people in a town of 2,400. Protests against the mine, however, have often numbered considerably more than that.

A ‘very supportive’ state

For his part, Fortuna’s Peruvian president, Jorge Ganoza, paints a picture of a violent and power-hungry Vásquez family, including the aging parents of the murdered CPUVO leader, with their uprooted avocado trees, fomenting the violence. By his account, “there was clearly a very nasty, ongoing and deep-rooted political struggle in the town between the Vásquez family and the current authorities [before the mine arrived].”

Ganoza praises Oaxaca state governor, Gabino Cué Monteagudo, as “very supportive of [Fortuna’s] activities in the state.” According to the mining executive, “[Governor Cué] requests that we continue investing in Oaxaca.”

But after losing one son to a deadly ambush and another who fled the community in fear of his life, Paulina Agripina Vásquez Sánchez feels betrayed by her state government’s inaction. Sitting with her husband to sip a cool glass of fruit juice in the mid-afternoon heat, she blames the calculated destruction of their orchard, the insults from neighbours and targeted murder of their son squarely on the family’s stance against Fortuna’s mine.

Even so, she remains civil. When asked what she would say to Ganoza, given the chance, she replies calmly but firmly: “We don’t want any more trouble, for them or for us…With respect, please leave.”

Jen Wilton is a journalist and researcher who reports on social and political issues in Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at revolutioniseternal.wordpress.com.

Liam Barrington-Bush is a U.K.-based activist, journalist, social change consultant and author of the new book, Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movement can help your organisation to be more like people. Liam tweets as @hackofalltrades.

To carry out this series, Jen and Liam received a $5,000 grant from the Tyee Investigative Reporting Fellowships, funded by donations from readers.