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A Mining Refugee in Canada

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Issue: 55 Section: Accounts Geography: Canada Mexico Topics: Mining, migration

December 2, 2008

A Mining Refugee in Canada

Can one country be the hero and the villain?

by Veronica Islas

Enrique Rivera receiving medical attention after he was attacked and told, "If you continue talking, you are going to die." Rivera was forced to claim refugee status in Canada after his life was threatened in Mexico while speaking out against a Canadian-owned mining company. Photo: Mauricio Palos Gutiérrez

MONTRÉAL, QUÉBEC–For some, Canada is a place to call home. For Enrique Rivera, it is a place where he's safe from thugs working on behalf of mining corporations.

Rivera fled to Canada to escape a Mexican mine's ever-expanding power and reach. A Canadian mining corporation owns that mine.

Rivera arrived in Montreal two years ago, demanding refugee status. Life for him in Canada is very different from his life in San Luis Potosi, his hometown in Mexico. Rivera washes dishes in Montreal. In Mexico, he was a lawyer.

"I cannot work as a lawyer here. I cannot even think about it. First of all, I have to learn the language and then I have to study Canadian and Quebec law. It will take me three or four years to be able to work as a lawyer here," he says.

Rivera has no family in Montreal. He misses the people he grew up with and the places he grew up in.

"I miss the food, the weather, my friends, the streets, my parents, my brothers and sisters, the gardens, the landscapes, my town. I miss the life that I had to leave behind and I wish to have it back again one day," he says.

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Rivera's life changed when he started working as a lawyer and activist with Frente Amplio Opositor (FAO), known in Canada as the Broad Opposition Front. The FAO is a non-partisan grassroots organization that is trying to stop an open-pit cyanide-leached mine in Cerro de San Pedro, Mexico. Canadian company New Gold owns the mine.

New Gold is the result of a recent merger between three companies, including the Canadian mining company Metallica Resources, which owned the mine before the merger.

Rivera was working with FAO when several men attacked him on April 4, 2006, striking him repeatedly on the head.

Witnesses report they heard his assailants shouting, "If you continue talking, you are going to die."

On May 1, 2007, Rivera was called to represent five students who had been detained in a protest against the mine. He learned then that the students had been tortured to obtain their signatures on a document meant to incriminate him.

Rivera was forced into hiding and escaped Mexico as quickly as he could. He is now seeking political asylum in Canada.

"I had to leave my country since Mexico politically prosecuted me because I was defending Cerro de San Pedro," says Rivera.

"It has been a very tough and sad experience for me. What hurts the most is to be forced to leave it all because you did your duty as a human being and for following what your professional ethics dictate," he says. "To know that authorities in your country want to destroy you to protect corporate interests and that a transnational company can corrupt in such a way the institutions that are supposed to protect the law is what hurts the most. Fortunately I come from a family that is used to fighting for social justice and to protect human dignity and that makes it less tough on me."

Rivera misses Mexico immensely, but, "Given the violence and the human rights violations that are now prevalent in Mexico," he says, "I cannot think of going back."

Rivera's problems began when he got involved in the fight to protect Cerro de San Pedro in San Luis Potosi.

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Cerro de San Pedro (translated as Saint Peter's Mount) was founded in 1592. It was the site of the first strikes of gold and silver in the area and its mines gave rise to the city of San Luis Potosí, now the state capital.

The Mount was the founding site for the town and is a symbol on the state's coat of arms. In September 1993, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History [INAH] recognized the history of the region by declaring it an ecologically protected area. INAH even recognized the lack of water in the area as a fundamental problem and noted the need to protect it from heavy pollution and over-consumption. The town is one signature away from becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The missing signature belongs to the Governor of the state of San Luis Potosi, whose reluctance to sign has been attributed to political alliances and collusion with the mining company.

Now Cerro de San Pedro is literally half gone - blasted away by dynamite - and the region is embroiled in one of Mexico's most important legal, social and environmental conflicts.

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In 1993, Cerro de San Pedro and the surrounding region was accorded legal environmental protection due to its ecological fragility. The region is semi-arid and the local aquifer is already overburdened. Metallica's own environmental impact assessment recognizes the possibility of water contamination by cyanide and certain heavy metals.

Metallica Resources' environmental impact assessment acknowledges air pollution caused by the mine. Tons of dust resulting from the daily explosions mix with the chemical explosive TNT and approximately eight million litres of the water and cyanide combination (cyandric acid) evaporates into the air daily. This deadly mix lingers not only in the Cerro de San Pedro community, but also reaches the capital city of San Luis Potosi, which is fewer than 12km away and home to more than one million people.

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In 1996, Baltazar Reyes, mayor of San Pedro, was gunned down. His son and successor Oscar Laredo publicly announced that high-ranking officials threatened to shoot him as well, unless he signed the permit that would allow the mine to operate. He had no choice but to sign.

Rivera says that Metallica (now New Gold) has used several tactics to scare off opposition to the mine.

"They weave webs with local government, with mass media, with enterprises, with some locals who [sic] they hire to physically attack any opposition," says Rivera.

This year, Mario Martinez Ramos, another activist who has been fighting to stop the mine in Cerro de San Pedro, was also beaten up. As a hydraulic engineer, Martinez Ramos had been very vocal about the long-term repercussions the mine's operations will have on the aquifer, such as water depletion and cyanide pollution.

Martínez Ramos says he was insulted and attacked by members of the Marquez family, a family whose members work for the mining company and who are known for their scare and bullying tactics. At the time of the attack, they were armed with machetes and guns.

The husband of the new mayor of Cerro de San Pedro attacked several townspeople this year - including a pregnant woman - by charging his van into a crowd during a demonstration against the mine.

Nobody has been charged for any of the attacks. Rivera believes that, like in his case, nobody will ever be charged.

Metallica Resources - now New Gold - has also been operating without several permits by using injunctions whenever they lose a case in court regarding their status.

"I am sure they are colluded. From the moment that the Environment Secretary disregarded the order of a judge which stated that the mine shouldn't work and gave a ‘permit’ that is clearly illegal, the collusion between Metallica and the PAN’s government became evident," says Rivera.

Rivera says corporations like New Gold take advantage of weak institutions and exacerbate the corruption that is rampant in countries like Mexico.

"These companies are very powerful. They have allies in all government structures. The difference will have to come from a grassroots movement and with the help and participation of Canadian civil society," he says.

While he awaits an answer regarding his refugee claim, Rivera has been trying to create awareness about the actions of Canadian mining corporations in the south.

"It is important to get Canadian civil society involved in these problems to stop these predatory enterprises," he says. "If we allow states and corporations to be the only ones involved in these issues, there will be no advances and projects like the Metallica one will continue to mushroom throughout the world."

Verónica Islas is from Mexico and has seen first hand the destruction of Cerro de San Pedro. She is currently completing a Masters degree in Public Policy and Public Administration at Concordia University.

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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.

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