By Andrea Caraballo*
Translated by Scott Campbell
“…In Mexico they have been beating us down a lot with these mines. There are several activists who have been murdered, there is a lot of persecution; but life goes on through the communities and countries.”
These are the words of Rurik Hernández, member of the Broad Opposition Front (F.A.O.) to the San Xavier Mine, in the municipality of Cerro de San Pedro, belonging to the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. This is an open-pit mine extracting gold and silver, where cyanide is used as an extractor in the heap leaching process. After ten years of legal rulings, the F.A.O. has won some victories; the company doesn’t have permits, they were able to cancel the project. However, the company keeps mining.
But the F.A.O. also participates in advising groups, peoples, communities and movements who are facing off against other mining ventures.
Many are aware of the gold extraction process, but what can you tell us about the iron mines?
To understand the matter we have been investigating the iron mines; mainly here in Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca. In Santa María Zaniza, called Zaniza Project. It’s a Mexican company affiliated with the Chinese – half of the company is Chinese. The processing of iron is dangerous, principally because they are huge open-pit mines and the means of obtaining the mineral is by very finely grinding all of the earth. Then they use magnets and the iron has the ability to be attracted to this magnet; so they magnetize and pull. The dust that remains, which doesn’t have the mineral they need, is usually put in the tailings dams or piled on the land around the pit.
What risks are there to the health of those nearby?
The main risk that we’ve detected up to now in what we’ve investigated is that the rock is so finely ground it is like powdered sugar. So the wind carries it very easily and the people inhale it. This dust they remove the iron from is generally in very mineralized areas, it has different minerals, not just the ones they’re looking for: it also has lead, arsenic, heavy metals; and it is those that create health risks. The wind carries this dust, bringing it to rivers, streams, lakes; it contaminates the water sources the people drink from. It also gets in their houses; even their food, without us being aware of it.
To have contact with heavy metals in this way causes cancer and many illnesses. Here in Mexico there is the example of Lázaro Cárdenas, in Michoacán, where there is an iron mine. The dust kicked up contaminated the water. The people from that community have an elevated rate of cancer in the region and basically it is due to mining activity.
As well, the open-pit, as we have seen in many places, removes all the trees and removes everything; it has a very severe impact on the environment. They get rid of mountains and valleys over great expanses, they impact rivers, be they on the surface or underground, and where a mine arrives, that area can’t be planted due to the serious environmental destruction and the huge consumption of water.
What is the iron extraction process?
Usually, where the extraction project is they put in a pelletizing plant or they build a pipeline which transports the ground up iron, they mix it with water and pump it through this pipeline for hundreds of kilometers to the where the pelletizing plant is; and in the pelletizing plant they pack it and ship it. If not, they put a blast furnace in the area which melts it and they just take the plates or beams for export to the market, principally to Asia, given all the growth. The impacts of iron mining on the environment are very severe, because they are very large projects and usually are projects that operate for a long time. Gold extraction doesn’t last more than 13 or 14 years, but iron extraction can go on for 40 or 50 years, depending on the size of the deposit.
What have you learned through this experience?
Well, what we have learned in the end is that the mining companies are very organized. They have a defined strategy, a work plan that they have copied from mines all over the world; they have learned from all over how to get these projects underway. First they go to the government, they see how the mining legislation is, what the regulations are, and they look at how convenient it is. If it doesn’t suit them, they push from some reforms or legislative changes, they undertake campaigns to say that the mining and megamining industries are good for the national economy because it brings work, it brings investment; and that is something that many governments go for. The idea of saying that they are going to bring in billions of dollars with this investment and they are going to give work to thousands of families, they see it as a part of development, of progress for the communities; and they don’t repair much of the environmental damage because it doesn’t suit them.
But something else that we’ve learned, that we still find difficult, is the division it creates in the communities. The companies carry out social work, anthropological studies, in order to learn what they can do in order to divide the communities and then they start to detonate these points of division. It creates fights inside of families, it creates fights between people, misunderstandings and disagreements begin and it gets to the point where they won’t even talk; and so some go over to the company’s side and they are easily bought off. They offer them work or give them a little money and they make them believe that the people who oppose the mining project are against them, that they are against progress, against their right to work, their right to seek well-being and that is how they are able to make these issues personal.
Could you tell us more about the strategies these companies use?
There are well-defined strategies for community division, for coopting the authorities, the corruption of judges and primarily to see that in any place, at any cost and by any means the mining project is imposed. The mining projects don’t accept “no,” they accept a “no” from the communities; but the minerals are there, they’re not going anywhere. The minerals are going to remain underground and they have all the time in the world to create the conditions in the region, be they social, political or economic, so that the project is imposed.
We see that the main indications are that roads or highways are being built where before they weren’t necessary, and we also see that government officials from various agencies or ministries begin to show up, the environmental authority, the secretaries of the economy, who are the ones which regulate the concessions here in Mexico; it is a broad network and they seek out the corruption at all levels of government, well, so that the projects, when the communities don’t want them, they are imposed. And they condition support for the towns based on signing on that they accept the mining project.
What message would you give to other places that are facing megamining?
The message is to resist; life continues. Here in Mexico they have been beating us down a lot with these mines. There are several activists who have been murdered, there is a lot of persecution; but life goes on through the communities and countries, and, well, the greeting that is sent from Mexico, from the Broad Opposition Front, is that they know that they are not alone, that we are here in Mexico, but also in Argentina, Chile, Peru or in Colombia there are other organizations facing the same thing, and to seek out contact for a continental alliance; we look to the south in order to learn from the peoples and to see that we are one people, just at different latitudes, but from Mexico to Patagonia we are one people. Greetings to everyone in Uruguay, who are resisting the Aratirí and Zapucay mines.
How can one contact you or learn more about the work of the F.A.O.?
* Andrea Caraballo is coordinator of the C.A.S.A. Collective, based in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a member of the Colectivo Contraimpunidad in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Edits: Ana De León and Saúl Hernández.
colectivocasachapulin (at) gmail.com
This post is also available in: Spanish