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CAPULÁLPAM DE MENDEZ, OAXACA -- It is an open secret that throughout the Americas and the world, people are struggling against the intrusion of Canadian mining companies and their short term "get the gold and get out" strategies. The backlash against Canadian mining companies has, in some cases (particularly in Guatemala and Peru), strengthened broader social and political movements re-vindicating local control over land. In Oaxaca, Mexico, the struggle against a Vancouver based mining company is unifying an isolated Zapotec community, and bringing their struggles to state and nation-wide attention.
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"Welcome to Ixlán: Our land is communal land, not to be bought or sold," pronounces a rusting billboard just outside regional centre of Ixlán, 60km north of the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca’s capital city, Oaxaca de Juarez.
A couple of bumpy, graveled kilometers from Ixlán lies Capulálpam, a remote mountain village flanked by locally owned riverside eco-tourism getaways. The town center is but a square block, as the majority of community members are rural indigenous Zapotec farmers, who farm to support their families.
"The whole territory of Capulálpam is communally owned," explains Francisco Garcia López, a member of Capulálpam’s Commission of Communal Goods, standing on a rock above a river valley and indicating with a sweep of his arm the forests, rivers and mountains that comprise the municipality.
He then points down to a series of white buildings, with mining carts on tracks leading to openings into the earth.
"For 230 years, gold and silver mining companies have been exploiting tunnels in the mountains," he explains.
Thousands of people from Calpulálpam worked in the mine, until the union was broken in 1993. Only a few hundred people, mostly from the nearby town of Natividad, stayed on. In the last few years, there has been little activity at the mine.
Today, residents of Calpulálpam as well as former miners from the town have agreed that reopening the mine will not benefit the community. "The quantity and quality of our water supplies have been negatively affected by mining activity, that’s the main reason we’re demanding the cancellation of all mining concessions in our communal land," says López.
Skyrocketing gold prices, favorable mining laws and a recent flood of speculation-linked financing for junior mining companies have opened up the way for Vancouver-based Continuum Resources to buy up the majority of the mining concessions in the state of Oaxaca. The reactivation of the historic "Natividad" site, reportedly Oaxaca’s richest gold and silver mine, has been spearheaded by Continuum, majority owners in a joint venture which started up in 2004 with a Mexican firm. At the Natividad project alone, Continuum holds more than 54,000 hectares of concessions.
Underneath the entrance to the mine, an area where waste rock, chemicals and tailings have been thrown directly into the river below for centuries looks like a sagging black stain on the hillside. But it gets worse. Out of service electrical transformers, once used to power the mining operation, are now generating toxic Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which community members fear could be entering the water system.
According to López, over the last few years, 13 streams have disappeared completely because of Continuum’s exploration activities. The National Water Commission (Conagua) has confirmed that during the course of their activities, Continuum Resources captured underground water, which resulted in the disappearance of springs. The company maintains that "the mine and the mining activity are not responsible for the disappearance of the springs."
"People in Capulálpam know that mining isn’t sustainable" says Aldo Gonzales Rojas, a member of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez (UNOSJO), an organization devoted to popular education and farmer-to-farmer outreach. In addition to dried up springs and contaminated water, "people can’t use sand from the rivers anymore because it’s contaminated, nor can we capture the frogs that are part of our diet without leaving our traditional territory," says Rojas.
Roadblock for Negotiation
"All of our complaints to the government were falling on deaf ears," says López, referring to the dozens of attempts by the municipal council and community organizations to have the federal or state government intervene in environmental conflicts with the company.
In October of 2007, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (Profepa) ordered Continuum to halt all exploitation activities at Natividad due to environmental complaints. Locals were glad that the government stepped in, but remained concerned that the company would continue exploration work.
"We decided to take collective action," says López, referring to the decision by members of the community, including the mayor, to block the main highway out of Oaxaca City.
"On October 16th, we blocked the highway with fifty pickup trucks for five hours, demanding the permanent closure of the Natividad mine." They withdrew the roadblock once a working dialogue with the Secretary of Economy, the sub-Secretary of Government and Profepa was agreed upon.
Profepa issued another document in November of 2007, noting that among other infractions, Continuum had not carried out hydro-geological studies required of it, because "[the company] lacks permission from the authorities of Capulálpam to enter in their jurisdiction or territory."
Continuum acknowledges in official documents that it has received environmental complaints and that Natividad has been subject to temporary closure. The company does not appear to have adopted a protocol on corporate social responsibility.
Mexico has ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, Article 16 of which reads "In cases in which the State retains the ownership of mineral or sub-surface resources or rights to other resources pertaining to lands, governments shall establish or maintain procedures through which they shall consult these peoples, with a view to ascertaining whether and to what degree their interests would be prejudiced, before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to their lands."
López, a lifetime resident of Capulálpam, says that neither the government of Mexico nor the company has consulted with the people of the village. The main prospects for Continuum’s expansion of the Natividad mine lay under communally owned property in Capulálpam.
"Protest and Violence" in Context
"Investors may be aware that political and social tension has lead to incidences of protest and violence in Oaxaca over the past six months," warns a promotional piece for Continuum Resources prepared by Fundamental Research Corporation in April of 2007.
In her new book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein summarizes recent events in Oaxaca in the context of popular resistance to the current economic model in Mexico. Klein writes, "...the right wing government sent in riot police to break a strike by teachers who were demanding an annual pay raise. It provoked a statewide rebellion against the corruption of the corporatist state that raged for months."
The scale of repression is captured in part by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, which reports that stemming from the repression of the teachers’ strike in Oaxaca, between June and December 2006 20 people were killed, 25 people were disappeared, 349 people were detained and 370 people were wounded. The report notes that "the sections of the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) that intervened to restore public order have used repetitive and excessive violence."
The International Civilian Commission for Human Rights Observation describes the state repression of the uprising as "a juridical, police, and military strategy... whose final objective is to intimidate and gain control over the civilian population."
Stripped of its context, the "protest and violence" referred to in Continuum’s promotional material is rendered innocuous, and the company unabashedly capitalizes on it: "While other companies have shied away from exploration due to the violence in Oaxaca, Continuum has been able to acquire highly prospective properties with very large land areas due to a lack of interest there."
Continuum has made good off of "protest and violence," doing deals with Oaxaca’s corporatist governments, and joining a host of other mining companies, like Vancouver’s Eurasian Minerals in Haiti and others in Colombia, aiming to make a profit in parts of the Americas where repression and violence are often directed against popular movements.
In the city of Oaxaca today, there is little more than graffiti as physical evidence of the 2006 rebellion. The full-scale repression intended to decimate the popular movements seems to have worked, at least temporarily.
On my first evening in Ixlán, I went to a gathering place behind the church to watch a fireworks display in honor of the city’s patron saint. Less than a block away was a military jeep with six heavily armed soldiers, monitoring the crowd.
A man approached me, and noticed I was looking at what seemed like too many soldiers for a small town festival. "They’re not here to protect us," he said quietly, "they’re scared of us. We supported the resistance in Oaxaca City, they know we’re strong."
For his work advocating for the rights of the 70,000 Zapotec people in the Sierra Juarez, as well as his stand in solidarity with the popular uprising in Oaxaca in 2006, Aldo Rojas from UNOSJO has received email death threats from unidentified individuals, and has reportedly appeared on military black lists, accused of being a guerilla.
Rojas continues his work for justice in the area, as do the citizens of Capulálpam, regardless of intimidation from a government that has proven it is willing to kill, torture and imprison its citizens in the name of control.
It is in this climate of "protest and violence" that Continuum Resources is determined to carry its project forward, and the likelihood is that the mainstream media and the Canadian Government rallies behind them in promoting the extractive industry’s "development" model in Southern/Indigenous territory.
For communities struggling against the extractive industries, consensus around who benefits and who pays is perhaps more easily reached than it is around other issues. As the popular Latin American folk song reminds us, "El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido/The people, united, will never be defeated."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.