In the middle of October, the Juicio Popular y Comunitario Contra el Estado y las Empresas Mineras (People’s Trail against the State and the Mining Companies) was carried out in Oaxaca City, Mexico. The participating organizations denounce that in the Central Valleys, the most populated region in the state, 80% of the territory is awarded to mining companies from Canada and the United States.

In Oaxaca, 332 licenses have been awarded to mining companies to extract silver, gold, copper, and zinc, principally. The Central Valleys is where the majority of the licenses, a total of 87, are concentrated.

“We live on the production of Mezcal, of vegetables, nopal (prickly pear), corn, beans. We do not eat gold or silver. We have an established form of living in our community,”this was part of the complaint from the agrarian authority from Santa Catarina Minas, a Zapotec community located in the Central Valleys. Around 50 Oaxacan communities and 36 civil-society organizations participated in the trial, with the objective of making visible and denouncing the violations of the rights of the towns, indigenous communities, and farmers for the licenses and mining projects.

The international companies are the main owners of the licenses in the Central Valleys: the Canadian Fortuna Silver Mines have control of approximately 80 thousand hectares (around 197684 acres) in Oaxaca, and the American Gold Resource Corp (GRC), which has a subsidiary in Mexico with Don David Gold Mexico S.A. de C.V., monopolizes almost 70 thousand hectares (around 172973 acres) of land in the Central Valleys and also in Sierra Sur.

One investigation made public by the social organization Servicios Universitarios y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca (SURCO), studied seven projects of the American mining company, entitled Oaxaca Mining Unit, that compromised 30 licenses of authorization, mainly in the Central Valleys. The licenses are distributed to the following projects: El Rey (exploratory stage), El Chamizo (exploratory phase), Cerro Colorado (exploratory phase), Alta Gracia (production phase), Las Margaritas (exploratory phase), El Águila (production phase) and El Fuego (exploratory phase).

The production of the Oaxaca Mining Unit in 2017 totaled, in accordance with the GRC website, 28,117 ounces of gold and 1,773,263 ounces of silver. The company has paid back more than $110 million to shareholders in monthly dividends since starting commercial production on July 1, 2010. Gold Resource Corp is the only company that offers to their shareholders the option of converting their cash dividends into physical gold and silver.

The Canadian company Fortuna Silver Mines controls 26 licenses in 35 municipalities in the Central Valleys, in the districts of Ocotlán, Ejutla and Tlacolula. The total surface area is equivalent to 10 times the size of Oaxaca City. In the district of Ocotlán the “San José” project is operating, which has expanded their ability to exploit gold and silver in the last two years.  The company, with headquarters in Vancouver, unlawfully holds the licenses through four of their subsidiaries, Geometales del Norte-Geonorte S.A. de C.V., Minerales de Oaxaca S.A de C.V., Plata Panamericana S.A de C.V. and Compañía Minera Cuzcatlán S.A. de C.V.

A country franchised to transnational corporations

Oaxaca follows the national trend in Mexico in terms of mining concessions. In 2017, data from the Mexican Government reported that 24,709 mining licenses occupied 20.79 million hectares (approximately 51,373,209 acres) of the national territory.

“This context was possible by a set of normative modifications passed in Mexico’s legislation. For example, a number of laws such as the Mining Law, the Environmental law, the Foreign Investment Act, which violate the rights of the peoples, were approved. Although these changes were approved by the local and federal Congresses, the truth is that they cannot be explained without taking into account the strong economic pressure exerted by large corporations and international financial institutions,” said Carmen Santiago Alonso for the Asociación Civil Flor y Canto – Centro de Derechos Indígenas (Center for Indigenous Rights).

“We do not want that these foreign companies to come damage our springs, pollute our rivers, take away our land, that for centuries was cared for by our grandparents and are now cared for us by our children and grandchildren can they can also know and enjoy them,” said the representative from Santa Catarina Mines.

Problems of Misinformation

The researchers of SURCO, in their report, made an alert regarding the veracity or accuracy of the information disclosed by the federal government and by the authorities of the State of Oaxaca in respect to the mining licenses.

“The concern was raised after reviewing several stages of mining projects in the state of Oaxaca, most of which were issued by requests for access to public information and others by the Panorama Minero del Estado (State’s Mining Panorama). These databases lack the breakdown of the licenses that make up each project. However, in many cases they only mention one municipality for each project although the licenses include more than one municipality, in other cases they mention municipalities that are not part of the licensing area. There are also various details related to the mining projects in the official sources that contradict each other,” says the report.

“The inconsistencies encountered with GRC are not isolated cases. In terms of the official information, we question why there are there so many out-of-date publications by the institutions in charge of providing information to the citizens of this country, even in reply to requests for access to public information. What is the role of institutions devoted to transparency? What legal implications or social motivations do they have for indicating a municipality different from the one they had licensed in a territory? Whom does this disinformation benefit?” they inquire.

Central Valleys: Forbidden Territory

In July 2018, 30 indigenous and rural communities from the Central Valleys –Tlacolula, Ocotlán, Ejutla, Zomatlán and Miahuatlán – and 25 organizations gathered in San Antonino Castillo Velasco and formed the Asamblea de los Valles (Assembly of the Valleys).

Anti-Mining Centers: “our territories were licensed without our consent. These companies have promoted Oaxaca as the eighth state of the Republic in gold and silver exploitation, however for our communities its operation has resulted in violence, murders, physical assaults, irreversible damage to our environment, breakdown of the social fabric, divisions and confrontations,” says a statement from the Assembly.

It indicates: “For more than ten years we have denounced before the federal and state instances, the enormous violence with which the above-mentioned companies produce in our territories. However, we have not received any response from them, so in exercising our right to self-determination and autonomy, the Zapotec communities of the Central Valleys declare our territories as ‘forbidden for any prospecting, exploration and mining activity.’”

Some of the agreements of the peoples gathered in the Assembly are: 1) our common lands and communities are prohibited territory for mining, such prohibition includes any activity aimed at modifying or extracting the common goods of our territory; 2) we will not sign or authorize any kind of permission, agreement, contract, document or legal instrument, intended to extract our common goods; 3) we will not authorize the change of land use to carry out mining activities in the municipal territories; 4) we reject the Programa de Regularización y Registro de Actos Jurídicos Agrarios (Program of Regularization and Record of Agrarian Juridical Acts) (RRAJA-FANAR) which puts our social property at risk.

The Assembly also issued a series of demands: 1) the immediate cancellation of the Corredor Industrial Minero  (Mining Industrial Corridor) which they intend to impose in the Central Valleys, in particular, we demand the cancellation of the mining projects “San José”, “Trinidad Norte” and “El Águila”, operated by the companies Fortuna Silver Mines and Gold Resource Corp, in the municipalities of San José del Progreso and San Pedro Totolapan; 2) we demand justice for Bernardo Mendez and Bernardo Vásquez, murdered in 2012, for their work in defense of the territories in San José del Progreso; 3) we demand a stop to the criminalization and aggressions toward the supporters of the movements and media in defense of the territories.

Social property, private benefits

Mexico is an exception in the world. About 50% of its national territory is comprised of collective property, constituted like common lands, inhabited by indigenous peoples and rural communities who live under their own modes of organization.

“This proportion is not repeated in any other country in the world. The country that is closest to Mexico is Bolivia, which has 33% of social property,” clarifies lawyer Claudia Gómez Godoy, a specialist in Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples and member of the Red Mexicana de Afectados por la Minería (REMA)—a Mexican network for those affected by mining.

In the state of Oaxaca, the proportion is even greater than the rest of the country–about 78% of its territory is composed of social property, which represents 7,359,680 hectares (approximately 18,186,165 acres). In this territory, there are 16 indigenous communities living in accordance with the customs maintained for centuries. “Indigenous communities have a deep relationship with the land, a situation that is reflected in many ways, as in the cultural and environmental diversity of the region”, evaluates Carmen Santiago Alonso of the Civil Association Flor and Canto-Center of Indigenous Rights.

Precisely due to the degree of preservation achieved by the people who live there, these lands are under a new extractivist wave, the most aggressive to date. In the colonial period in Mexico, which lasted around 300 years, 182 tons of gold were produced. Now, between 1994 and 2016, 1,150 tons of gold were produced with new technology. The new technologic developments were created in the years 1970 and in the years 1980 is when mining took flight again in the world and intensified the environmental impacts, especially by the excessive use of water and of toxic chemicals during extraction.

The mining brands are registered in the history of the peoples of Oaxaca. “We already suffered this mining problem in the year 1582 when the Spaniards discovered that there were minerals in the hills near our community. Many Spaniards arrived and settled near our village. This caused our mother tongue to disappear from our community and also eliminated our name, which was Santa Catarina Martio Zozoquiapan, as detailed in the books we have from the 1600s, and they gave us the name of Santa Catarina Minas. We are aware that our fight is for the defense of our territory,” says the agrarian representative of Santa Catarina Minas.

Legislative Assembly

Magdalena Octolán is located 40 km outside of Oaxaca.  The mine, Cuzctalán, a subsidiary of Fortuna Silver Mining Company, has insisted that the town authorize their entrance into the community. “The previous administration stepped forward on this issue, as to if they wanted to give permission.  However, they reacted in time and the community would not allow it.  And we will not allow it.  We know that the mine is bad for our health.  But the company gives misleading information, in an attempt to lie to the people. State actors also try to lie to the people so that they sign the permission for the business. But we are clever, and we will not allow it,” explained an agrarian community representative**.

There was a spill of Cuszatalán’s (subsidiary of Fortuna Silver Mining Company) impoundment dam on the 7thof October, provoked by heavy rain.  The dam is operated by the San José mine, which has been in commercial production since 2011, in San José del Progreso, which shares a border with Magdalena Octolón.  “The Coyote River was painted white. The company’s waste spilled out into the river, leaving the people are alarmed. A few meters from the river, there are wells that supply water to my community.  We do not know whether it is this white water.  The concerns regarding a possible spill of the impoundment dam have already been expressed by the Oaxacan Collective in Defense of the Territories. Nevertheless, the state institutions never pay attention,” explained the representative. Other communities have already been affected since the Coyote River runs all the way to San Matías Chilazoa, San Pedro Apóstol, San Felipe Apostól, and Tejas de Morelos.

Magdalena Octolán was one of the 22 cases presented to the legislative assembly, which serves the 26 municipalities of Oaxaca.  Nine communities from the central valley, four from the southern mountain range, one from the northern mountain range, three from the Mixteca[i]and 5 from isthmus of Tehuantepec, presented their evidence of the mining companies’ violations on their territories to the judges.

The jury consists of a leader of the town of Otavalo de Ecuador and representatives from the Wayuu Women’s Coalition of Columbia, from the Western Guatemalan Villages Board and from the Coalition Against Mining from El Salvador.  In addition, the legal expert on indigenous rights from the Foundation for Just Trials (DPLF), Daniel Cerqueira; the national award-winner for human rights in Mexico, Miguel Alvarez; the director of the Center for Human Rights of the Tlachinollan Mountain of Guerrero, Abel Barrera and the ikoot[ii]leader from San Mateo del Mar, Beatriz Guitérrez.

A representative from the National Bureau of Metallic Mining for El Salvador and a representative from the Western Guatemalan Villages Board who work to defend their territories from mining in their countries were also invited to the jury. “But, the Mexican authorities rejected the visa, they could not enter the country, precisely due to Mexican migration policies regarding discrimination against towns and communities,” said Neftalí Reyes Méndez, from the Services for Alternative Education (Educa).

The jury has presented a preliminary opinion which places responsibility on the Mexican state for violating the right of villages to notification and transparency. “The state decisions regarding the management of communal natural resources and which directly impact indigenous territories are insensitive to the communities and often, the state provides incomplete or fraudulent information or refuses to supply communities with information of public interest,” explains the document presented by the jury.  In addition, they require the prohibition of mining projects throughout the territory of Oaxaca.

The judges will have the support of specialists, like the Mixtec lawyer who is an expert in indigenous rights, Francisco López Bárcenas, the research professor from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), Carmen Herrera and the economist and national researcher, affiliated with the Institute of Economic Research for the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Ana Esther Ceceña. “This verdict will be for the communities and the communities have the right to decide how they will utilize  it, both in regard to internal questions and in regards to the demands they could make,” said Santiago Alonso, from Flor y Canto.  The public presentation of the decision will be the 10thof December.

USA: Eyes on Latin America

In its latest report, the Strategic Center for Latin American Geopolitics (Celag) highlights that the global competition for natural resources is classified as a national security issue by the United States government, ever since after the Cold War, especially now that one of the biggest problems that faces the northern neighbor is the depletion of its natural resources and the dependency that depletion generates.

The U.S. Department of the Economy of War created two key concepts: That of “strategic minerals” and that of “critical minerals.”  Strategic minerals are those which are of urgent necessity and are indispensable to military industry. In their prime, they were strategic: manganese, chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten, vanadium, magnesium, copper, and quartz.  Critical minerals are those which do not exist in their territory or are very scarce.

The statistics regarding the importation provided by the Mineral Commodity Summaries Report of 2018, published this past 31stof January by the Department of the Interior and the of Environmental Protection Agency, display the United States’ vulnerability in regard to strategic minerals, and the importance of Latin America’s role as a supplier.  Brazil and Mexico are among the principal exporters of many minerals that the United States is completely lacking and that are utilized in a multitude of U.S. industries- asbestos, graphite, mica, niobium, fluoride, and strontium.  The same is true for minerals of high and moderate vulnerability provided by many Latin American countries, which are also fundamental to the United States’ economy.

In accordance with the Multinational Observatory in Latin America, the largest petroleum and mining companies from the United States operate in 370 village sites throughout 36 countries, and in most cases, they extract natural riches with no concern for the rights of indigenous communities.

International responsibility

Of the 885 mining projects in Mexico in 2016, Canadian businesses operated 65.3%, American businesses followed with 13.2%, followed by Mexican businesses with 9.2%.

In 2014, we published a report that studies 22 mining projects throughout Latin America, each of these projects were operated by multinational companies, five in Mexico and one in Oaxaca, in San Jose del Progreso.  Canada has a very important role in these problematic corporate dynamics, for several reasons.  Primarily, because they offer loans which are subsidized by their companies. In addition, they offer political and diplomatic support,” explained the indigenous rights lawyer from the Foundation for Just Trials (DPLF), Daniel Cerqueira.

National and international authorities have prioritized the interests of the mining companies, adds Reyes Méndez.

The judge demands the state and federal government authorities, as well as international states that have investments in Mexico, like Canada and the United States, that there be respect for villages and indigenous communities, for the right of these villages to autonomy and free choice, and for international conventions and treaties,” asserted Méndez.

*The names of the agrarian community representatives were not divulged for concerns of security.

[i]The Mixtecs are indigenous people of Mexico inhabiting the region known as La Mixteca of Oaxaca as well as several surrounding mountain ranges.

[ii]The term ikootrefers to the indigenous Huave people from the village of San Mateo del Mar in Oaxaca, Mexico.