By Gloria Muñoz and Adazahira Chávez.
The ghost town of Real de Catorce comes alive. In 1990, the departure of mining companies who operated there for over 150 years signaled almost the entire exodus of all its inhabitants. The town dropped to less than 500 inhabitants.
But today there are over 1,300, almost all of whom depend on local trade and tourism. Here, says one of the local women, “no one died of hunger when the mines left.”
The five mining projects currently threatening the sacred Huichol site of Wirikuta, which covers 140,212 hectares in the municipalities of Villa Ramos, Charcas, Villa de Guadalupe, Matehuala, Villa de La Paz and Catorce, were discussed publically at a meeting recently. For the first time, people could actually raise questions and state their positions. Supporters and opposition to the mines rallied against each other, although an overwhelming majority reject the projects due to the harmful effects on health and pollution of groundwater.
The strongest opposition comes from the Huichol people. Although they are not from the Wirikuta area in the state of San Luis Potosi—they live mostly in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Durango–they have been making pilgrimages to the sacred place for at least 2000 years. For them, Wirikuta is the origin of the universe, as they come in search of Jicuri (peyote), a sacred cactus that the Huichol consume to receive the “gift of sight”.
The mining companies have been spreading rumors among residents of the area that the Huichol want to take their land. Rogelio Vazquez Menjara, from the community of San Sebastian, Mezquitic, Jalisco, and member of the Huichol Regional Council, said in an interview with Desinformémonos “This is not true.”
“It’s not about taking over the land. It’s simply that most of what is here, the vegetation, are the deities that we inherited from our ancestors. That’s all that the Huichol want to acknowledge”.
In the region there is no local who doesn’t know about the mines, but the desert people’s positions for and against were never able to be aired openly, face-to-face. Envoys of the mines have been commissioned to sow distrust between the sides and, mainly, between residents and the Huichol.
In the meeting, Sebastian Carrillo, ejidal president of Bancos de San Hipólito and also a Huichol Regional Council member, sought to clear up the misinformation, “We did not come to take away even a small plot. There is a recognition that it is theirs.” The audience at the informational forum interrupted him with applause, belying the supposed division that the companies have sought to sow. “They want us to fight each other, but we offer an open invitation to walk together,” Carrillo concluded.
Wirikuta sits between the Sierra de Catorce and the San Luis Potosi highlands. The territory is rapidly being divided into mining concessions. More than 78 percent of the Potosi plateau has been concessioned. Five mining projects operate within the 140,000 hectares of Wirikuta and there are new applications for concessions.
“Mine concessioners come in, they are supported by the federal and state government and they push aside the rights of landowners. I’m not against mining employment, or in favor. 23 years ago I read a study that the Sierra de Catorce is rich in water and minerals that reaches to the Astillero ejido. It’s very dangerous to drill the water, because it gets polluted and that spreads to other places, “said one of the locals of Catorce.
“Soon we will not be able to give our animals clean water and there will be nothing left in the fields. We drink water from the streams and rain, the water is clean but it soon won’t be with all the chemicals,” said Oscar Tovar, from the community Ojo de Agua.
One woman in favor of the mine stood up and stated to the forum, “If there is no development, then there is no work. If it’s not mining, we’ll seek other alternatives, but Catorce has always been one-hundred percent for the mines.” Others agree with the pro-mining argument as a source of work, due to the lack of other options: because “people don’t have income here.”
Her argument is refuted by the fact that out of the 3,100 people affected by mining, only 166 people will qualify for employment, which obviously does not solve the problem of unemployment.
Felipe Diaz, tour guide from Catorce, addressed the claim that the mines will bring progress and sources of employment and that if people do not accept “they will starve”, saying that during the mining boom in Real de Catorce “everybody wanted to enter the mine because they thought it was awesome. In 1990, when they [the mines] left, it was thought that Real would die, but in 1991 it began to be born again, because here even the stones have value”.
Diaz noted the 17 films that have been shot in Real de Catorce, the increase of hotels (currently 33), the 150 horses for rent, and the arrival of conventional and cellular telephone service. All this, he affirmed, “will continue to flourish, but if the mines are accepted in 100 years no one will be here.” The land, he continued, “charges bills; the miner dies quickly.”
In an interview with Desinformémonos, Tristan Arturo Villanueva, a crafts vendor and photographer born in Real de Catorce 60 years ago, reported that his acquaintances who worked in the mines “died from diseases from the mine. It is sad, why should this Canadian mine come to interrupt our way of life when there are alternatives and other ways to survive?”
Villanueva says that last year, “these people from the mine came to try to divide the people through the company’s Mexican engineers, because a lot of people got a job and others no. Fifty people were hired to do cleaning and many people think that job will be able to support them. A few divided the town because we do need jobs, but not in that way. ”
The company, “give payments to employees (150 pesos per day) to convince people from other towns: they lie because they say the Huichol are going to take the land from the peasants, and that’s lie. They do this so that the people will turn against the Huichol and against those who don’t want mining.”
Belenes, also a native of Real de Catorce but now settled in the capital city of San Luis Potosi, says that his grandparents were miners “and suffered the consequences of inhaling many minerals and gases. They died because their lungs were polluted. In those years the way to extract the mineral was easier, but today no. Today it’s even more dangerous.”
Referring to the dangers, Pedro Roquero Tejeda, professor in the Faculty of Chemistry of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) says, “The mines operate for a certain period of time and then leave. They always leave behind waste, often toxic, and toxic chemicals used during the operation. In Mexico there are ecosystems that can endure [the effects of the] mine, and others that can’t. Wirikuta is one of those that can’t. It’s a very small place, with enormous natural wealth, and if we exploit Wirikuta, it’s over.”
The expert warned that often the effects are seen after the mine leaves, as in the case of La Paz. “The mine closed in the sixties, and in the nineties we began to realize that there was a concentration of arsenic contamination.”
In Real de Catorce, Tejeda explains, “The main solid waste would be arsenic and lead, and then there are liquids that can infiltrate groundwater, such as cyanide, carbinols, teophosphinates and the like. Cyanide itself is deadly, and the problem with the others is that there is no clinical toxicology evidence. In the case of the carbinols, they are known to have caused cancer in laboratory rats. Cyanide can kill or cause serious injury in no time”.
In the case of arsenic, the damage to people and animals is in the liver, kidneys and lungs. There are some plants that can accumulate arsenic, but others can’t tolerate it and die.
The mining project in Real de Catorce, from the First Silver Company, includes the exploitation of lead, silver and zinc. “The Universe project will be total devastation since it will be an open-pit gold mine. Since gold is a fine metal, it is very difficult to extract from the rock and therefore cyanide is used. There are cases of similar projects in other parts of the country and you can expect more or less the same, but the problem here is that Wirikuta will be finished, it will do away with this area of high biological diversity,” stated the university professor.
On a more optimistic note, he added, “[This place] is hope. Real de Catorce is the only place that has been able to stop a mining project for several years and that has to do with the fact that it’s a sacred site for the Huichol, and the people are starting to realize and react, but it’s unique”.
Originally published in Desinformémonos
Gloria Muñoz and Adazahira Chávez are director and editor of desinformémonos.org, respectively. Both are collaborators for the Americas Program www.americas.org
Translation: Clayton Conn