The San Jose Project
By Ed Williams
In 2006, the Mexican government ceded over 143,000 acres of indigenous land to a Canadian mining company. When Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver Mines celebrated the grand opening of its first Mexican mine in September, communities on the ground felt some familiar impacts. “We felt a ‘boom’ come from the ground and then there was this crack in the wall,” said Bernardo Vásquez. The cracks would appear, sometimes suddenly, sometimes over time as the ground quivered from explosions as the mineshafts were being hollowed out below.
One of over 60 damaged buildings in the Zapotec village of San José del Progreso, Oaxaca, the Vásquez home is a modest one-room dwelling typical of the area, with a dirt road in front and a milpa, or small cornfield, in back. A menacing, jagged crack splits the mud brick wall next to a makeshift clothes rack. Above, the trunk of a pine tree serving as a roof beam is buckling.
Vásquez points to a discolored spot in the corner of the room where water seeps from another crack when it rains. “We built this house 25 years ago,” he said. “I hope my house doesn’t fall down, but the cracks keep getting bigger. If the walls give way, where will we go? We live in extreme poverty. There’s no future for us.”
Like most Oaxacans, Bernardo Vasquez never made it past the sixth grade. Income is irregular and sometimes dries up completely, so the family relies on its small cornfield in hard times. With no running water, the springs that quench the crops and animals are all that stands between the Vásquez family and nutritional disaster.
(The Indigenous here are poor and have no recourse)
“The mine is a death sentence,” said Bernardo’s brother Hilario. “They poison our corn and our cattle. They dry up our water. They bring in pistoleros to push us around. But everyone knows what happens when the foreigners come. We will shut down the mine, cueste lo que cueste,” whatever the cost. A dozen heads nod agreement.
The family patriarch, Abuelo, or grandpa, mutters from under his cowboy hat that the Canadians’ industrial slurry pond—dug just a few hundred yards from the village’s freshwater reservoir—will contaminate the groundwater like so many other mines have done across Mexico.
“God knows how many microbes I’ve drank in my day,” Abuelo says, “but these chemicals, well that’s a different question.”
Talk turns to the nearly 12 million tons of waste the company predicts it will produce, as well as the villagers’ acquaintances from neighboring towns who ended up with nothing to eat and nowhere to go after gringo corporations finished with similar mining projects.
Seven miles away in San Jerónimo Taviche, toxic byproducts from older mining projects poisoned the soil and groundwater. After losing their farmland, many residents moved to urban slums in the capitol city.
“For years animals were dying in Taviche and the people didn’t know why,” said José David, a veterinarian in the nearby urban center of Ocotlán de Morelos.
When a peasant’s cow took ill in 2008, he knocked on David’s door and asked if he would come take a look. “But when we got to the village, the cow was already dead.”
David took tissue samples from the cow and water samples from nearby streams for analysis. The results confirmed the animal died after ingesting dangerous amounts of arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. Lead levels in the streams were well above Mexico’s health standard.
“We don’t know the extent of the contamination because the government and the companies ignore us. We’re probably contaminated ourselves,” he said.
At another mine site 45 miles to the north, Fortuna’s former partner on the San José Project, Continuum Resources, contaminated the soil with heavy metals and dried up 13 of the 20 springs in the indigenous village of Calpulalpan de Mendez.
Fortuna Silver has opted not to make its environmental impact study available to the Vasquez’s or the hundreds of other concerned residents from nearby villages, insisting that environ-mental concerns are unfounded. With little oversight in Mexico and no disclosure requirements in Canada, Fortuna is the sole arbiter of information. The company’s keeping quiet and the fallout has come in the form of roadblocks, sabotage and all-out raids on the mine’s headquarters.
Mining on Public Land
A few decades ago this kind of project would have been illegal in San José del Progreso. Part of an ejido—communally held indigenous land constitutionally protected by the land redistribution programs of the Revolution of 1910—the land around San José del Progreso was reserved for agricultural use by the community.
But in 1994 President Carlos Salinas repealed those protections to open up the countryside to foreign investors under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Today ejido dwellers are still afforded some measure of control over their land—any industrial project taking place there must have written approval from the ejido council—but the land is no longer viewed as sacrosanct by government or business, even if it remains so in the eyes of indigenous peasants like those in San José del Progreso.
Canadian corporations run 70 percent of the mines currently operating in Mexico. As gold and silver prices reach record highs, the companies are jostling for even more. Amid poor oversight and enforcement by the Mexican government and no accountability laws in Canada for its mining companies operating internationally, cost cutting at the expense of local communities is all too common.
Fortuna never made an agreement with the ejido council, nor did it bother to fill local communities in on its plans before showing up with the rights to a swath of public land five times the size of Paris. But in the six years of construction leading up to the mine’s grand opening in September, the company has enjoyed the full support of the municipal, state, and federal governments.
(Mining is undermining Native homes)
“Native people have the right to be consulted before this kind of project takes place,” said Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez, resident of San José and leader of the Coordinadora de Pueblos Unidos del Valle de Ocotlán, a local anti-mining group. “We make our own decisions about our lands and our communities.”
In 2009, Vásquez Sánchez and other ejido residents passed a referendum calling for the mine’s closure. If the mayor didn’t make the company leave, residents warned, then they would. The mayor didn’t budge. Hundreds of residents from San José and a handful of nearby municipalities set up roadblocks and sent the miners packing—peacefully, but not without ruffling a few feathers. Authorities soon restored order with a full-scale police raid.
Such a brazen challenge of authority irked local politicians. “The mayor walked around with a sawed-off shotgun like in the wild west movies,” said a former soldier who drives a taxi in San José. Right-wing civilian strongmen soon showed up in San José to back the municipal government.
Human rights groups have charged Canadian mining companies with violating laws relating to everything from workplace safety to forced child labor. But with plenty of spare change for the occasional fine from regulators and little media scrutiny, companies are often able to continue mining. In Oaxaca, dissenters tend to be the ones who go to jail. “These conditions allow the companies to get away with almost anything,” said Jen Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator for Mining Watch Canada.
“The majority of the population has supported us from the beginning,” said Manuel Ruiz-Conejo, who runs community relations for Fortuna’s subsidiary, Minera Cuzcatlán. “We’ve been working in relative tranquility, because the population sees the opportunities this investment provides them in development, education and work.”
But residents say Fortuna uses these “community relations” programs to buy support for the project. “People who back the mine and the government are poor just like everyone else,” said a local community radio reporter. “But somehow they can afford new cars and nice houses. Their kids go to private schools in the city. The businessmen offer these things as incentives to people they think are sympathetic. Now those people will fight their neighbors to keep their nice things,” he said.
The Cost of Dissent
“The padre always liked to listen to the Beatles,” said Sergio Perez, the priest’s personal assistant. It was Sunday evening and the old mission-style church should have been bustling with activity, but a sign taped to the sanctuary door read “No Service Today.” Across the highway in San José del Progreso, police stood guard at the vacant city hall. Both buildings were without their masters—the priest in handcuffs at the hospital and the mayor and his health minister in the morgue.
Father Martin’s office was just the way he left it the Sunday before, when he rushed out with Perez for evening mass in San José. “We were running a little late because we had to pick up two women for the choir,” said Perez. As they turned on the exit to San José, a crowd of people blocked the road. “I didn’t recognize any of them,” Perez said. A group of masked men with guns rushed to Father Martin’s car, demanding he get out. One of the men pistol-whipped the priest, shouting that he was going to pay for what he had done. “We didn’t know what they were talking about,” said Perez.
Earlier that day, a group of villagers had stumbled upon members of San José’s municipal government on the outskirts of town. The local officials were armed and flanked by civilian bodyguards. An ensuing argument over the government’s support of the mine culminated in a shootout that left five villagers wounded and the mayor and health minister dead. Mine supporters fingered Father Martin—who preached environmental stewardship and organized forums of scientists and mining experts—as the instigator of the violence.
Now Perez watched in horror as the priest lay curled on the ground, taking kicks from the masked assailants. “I got out of the car and shouted for the crowd to help, but everyone just watched. It was as if they all knew in advance.”
The men dragged Father Martin into a pickup truck and drove to a house down the road. As the crowd dispersed, Perez called the police: “Two officers came an hour later. I told them what happened, that they were holding the padre in that house down the street. But they wouldn’t do anything. They just left.”
After tying Father Martin naked to a chair, beating him senseless, and threatening to set him on fire, the kidnappers drove him to a hospital in Oaxaca City where the police were waiting. The kidnappers handed Father Martin to the officers, who cuffed him and led him to the infirmary. There Father Martin learned he was being charged with instigating the violence that took place earlier. Police moved the priest to a jail cell downtown after his condition stabilized.
Faced with public outrage over the incident, the state dropped the charges against Father Martin and released him. The Church quickly whisked him to an unknown diocese for his safety. There was no investigation into the incident. Though the identities of the kidnappers are widely known, they have never been charged.
(The Fortuna Mine in Oaxaca, Mexico)
In Oaxaca, decisions come from the top down, explained Flavio Sosa, leader of the 2006 teacher strike that paralyzed the state for nearly a year. Barring a democratic revolution, he said, we can expect impunity for businesses and repression for dissenters to continue into the future. “Sixty percent of the land in Oaxaca is public property. The government cannot continue governing this way, supporting this type of project, without running up against resistance,” Sosa said. What the future holds for the company and for the villagers remains to be seen.
This article first appeared in Z Magazine and was reprinted with permission of the author.
Ed Williams is a reporter at KDNK FM in Carbondale, Colorado. His work has appeared on national Public Radio and in Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman, and other media outlets. Photographer unknown.?