Magdalena Ocotlán: From Hope to Resistance

The inhabitants of this small town in southern Mexico have been denouncing the environmental effects of one of Oaxaca’s largest mining projects for years. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, they are preparing to protest a new contamination of their waters and to demand answers from a government that has turned its back on them.

By Santiago Navarro F., member of the CONNECTAS journalistic community.
Translated by El Enemigo Común.

The lands of Magdalena Ocotlán, a small town in southern Mexico, are fertile and rich in gold and silver. Here most of the women are engaged in embroidery, tortilla making and trading the crops their husbands produce on the communal lands. In May, the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) included the village in a list of ‘Municipalities of Hope’, 324 territories that could continue with their economic activities because no cases of covid-19 were registered. 

Hope was short lived in Magdalena Ocotlán. This Oaxacan municipality, like its neighbor San José del Progreso, registered its first infection shortly after the Cuzcatlán Mining Company – a subsidiary of Canada’s Fortuna Silver Mines – resumed operations on May 27. This had to do with the May 13 federal government classification as “essential activities” the automotive industry, construction, and mining; these sectors have full government support for continuing with their operations.

From that moment on, a terrible distrust assailed the people “because workers come from abroad, from the north of the country and from other cities,” said worried peasant farmer Felipe Martínez. Some of the town’s inhabitants also work in the mine. In fact, according to community authorities the person infected was the mother of a local mine employee who died from the virus, and they claim that there are other cases hidden by the company.  Although the sanitary filters and the protocol implemented during the quarantine are maintained, there is no longer any assurance that covid-19 will not spread.  

Corn crops in Magdalena Ocotlán
Corn crops in Magdalena Ocotlán are located less than three hundred meters from the Cuzcatlán mining site. Photo by Santiago Navarro F.

Of the 324 Municipalities of Hope, there are only 40 left without covid-19. The state of Oaxaca, the third poorest in the country, already had around 10,000 infections and 800 deaths from the coronavirus as of July 26. Today, Mexico is the country with the forth most deaths from covid-19 in the world and the sixth in number of infections. The story of Magdalena Ocotlán is that of a people who resist abandonment and, now, the measures implemented by AMLO to reactivate the economy over health. 

Tests for covid-19? Fans? They never reach these communities, because not even the main cities in Oaxaca have what it takes to contain the rapid increase in infections and deaths from the coronavirus. There are municipalities with more than twenty deaths that do not appear in the figures, because they simply consider it a waste of time to report them. While this is happening, in the middle of the pandemic, the city of Oaxaca was awarded as the best tourist city in the world in the contest The World’s Best 2020, by the magazine Travel + Leisure. It also won with its typical dish, the tlayuda, in Netflix’s “Street Food: Latin America” survey. 

Cuzcatlán Mining Company maintains operations in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Cuzcatlán Mining Company maintains operations in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Santiago Navarro F.

Less than an hour from the tourist capital of Oaxaca, the campesinos of Magdalena Ocotlán face a double challenge: to protect themselves from the pandemic and from the effects of the “essential activity” of mining. On July 10, they noticed that the water from one of the dams they built to capture rainwater was contaminated. A reddish substance painted the water, which was previously crystal clear, and a kind of white mud floating on the surface gave off a foul smell. It seems that this strange substance was washed away by the rainwater runoff from the mining company’s tailings dam, which means that the crops may also be contaminated.

A substance that has contaminated the water in the pools from which the campesinos’ cattle in Magdalena Ocotlán drink water.
A substance that has contaminated the water in the pools from which the campesinos’ cattle in Magdalena Ocotlán drink water. Photo by Santiago Navarro F.

An old fear was revived among the villagers. It was not the first time their waters were affected by the activities of the Cuzcatlán Mining Company, which operates less than 300 meters from the town’s water dams and corn fields. Although contamination was only recorded in 2018, strange pigmentations have been found on the banks of the streams. “This is the third time we have registered visible contamination, but we are sure that there are other forms of contamination that we have not yet identified. That is why we no longer drink water from our wells, and although purified water is very expensive, now we all buy it,” said Olivia Sánchez, Ecology Councilwoman in Magdalena Ocotlán. 

According to Cuzcatlán director Luis Camargo, the mining company “extracts 8 million ounces of silver and 50,000 ounces of gold per day. It is one of the three mining projects in the exploitation phase out of 355 mining concessions in this state of Oaxaca. Two active concessions are located in the territory of Magdalena Ocotlán and are subsidiaries of Fortuna Silver Mines. Together with the Gold Resource Corporation project, they exploit an area of 120,000 hectares. 

Perhaps the level of contamination on this occasion is not comparable to the spill from the same mining company’s tailings dam that occurred in October 2018, but it is enough to alert the residents of Magdalena Ocotlán. That year, according to the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa), the spill spread approximately four kilometers over the course of El Coyote stream, whose waters flow into the Magdalena River, and this in turn, into the Atoyac River. This directly affected the Magdalena Ocotlán drinking water well, and that is why people began to buy bottled water.

On July 16, the authorities of the community of Magdalena Ocotlán took samples of contaminated water to Profepa and the National Water Commission (Conagua), but they were told that they did not comply with the necessary requirements, so the samples were not accepted. It took government officials seven days to arrive. 

With good reason, the community’s inhabitants are doubtful of the environmental authorities, because their rulings show a certain servility towards the company, just like what happened with the 2018 spill. “We detected irregularities on the part of these institutions, who argued that they did not have the technical capacity. So it was the company that had to do and pay for all the tests to prove that there was no contamination,” explained lawyer José Pablo Antonio, Executive Services Coordinator of the Mixe town who is legally handling the Magdalena Ocotlán case. 

Although they await the response to the complaint filed with Profepa and Conagua, the people of Magdalena Ocotlán know that their only option is to protest and resist. They sense that if before the pandemic these entities claimed not to have the technical capacity to deal with the problem, this time the response may be even worse.

Traditional authorities of Magdalena Ocotlán publicly denounce possible contamination by the Cuzcatlán Mining Company.
Traditional authorities of Magdalena Ocotlán publicly denounce possible contamination by the Cuzcatlán Mining Company in Oaxaca City. Photo by Santiago Navarro F.

In 2018 the community had to mobilize to get a response from the authorities. Today, despite the health risks involved in a protest, the inhabitants of this municipality are also willing to make themselves heard. “We are preparing, because we are not going to wait any longer. We are going to carry out mobilizations and blockade the highway because the President of the Republic committed to send a commission in 2019 to evaluate the effects and he did not send anyone”, said the campesino Felipe Martínez.

The campesinos are worried about this contamination in the midst of the pandemic, but they are also angry. They received López Obrador in their community three times and told him all about the problem of contamination, but today they feel he has turned his back on them. “We feel betrayed, because he told us he was going to solve the problem and simply ignored us,” said the Ecology Councilwoman.

To have considered Magdalena Ocotlán as a territory of hope and, at the same time, mining as an “essential activity” has been a mockery for these campesinos. However, the resistance of this small population to one of the largest extractive projects in the state does constitute a symbol of hope for many other Oaxacan peoples who oppose the indiscriminate advance of the mining business.