Features  Exploitation and activism

Cleve Higgins digs into the history behind mining opposition

In the past two weeks, one of Mexico’s highest courts confirmed that the environmental permit for the Cerro de San Pedro mine was issued illegally – what those who are opposed to the mine have been saying for decades. The government, therefore, is obligated to cancel the permit and shut down the mine by November 13. If this ruling is enforced and the mine’s operations are stopped, this would be a significant victory for many involved in the worldwide struggle against the exploitation caused by Canadian mining companies, inseparable from issues of autonomy, indigenous land rights, and international trade agreements.

On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was formally implemented by Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. On the same day, the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (Ejercitio Zapatista de Liberacion Nationale or EZLN) launched an armed indigenous uprising against the Mexican government in the southern state of Chiapas.

The Zapatistas are part of a long history of rural Mexican revolutionary struggle stretching back to Emiliano Zapata. During the 1910 Mexican revolution, Zapata and his rural army fought for the collective landholding rights of peasants and small farmers (campesinos), which were eventually guaranteed by the new Mexican constitution.

The EZLN timed their 1994 uprising with the implementation of NAFTA because, as part of the trade agreement, the Mexican government amended the constitution to weaken the collective landholding rights of campesinos – including many indigenous people. This change was part of a large set of neo-liberal legal and economic changes implemented along with NAFTA that made it easier for corporations from Canada and the U.S. to exploit workers and the land in Mexico.

These changes opened up major profit-making opportunities for the Canadian mining industry. It was now free to exploit Mexican mineral deposits. In the mid-nineties, Canadian mining companies began exploring for gold and silver at Cerro de San Pedro in the state of San Luis Potosi.

Soon after mining companies began pursuing an open-pit gold and silver mine at Cerro de San Pedro, civil society groups began organizing opposition to the project because of its destructive environmental effects in a historically significant region. This opposition movement eventually culminated in the formation of the Broad Opposition Front (Frente Amplio Opositor or FAO), which, in 2007, had its first delegation to Canada and formed the solidarity group FAO-Montreal as a QPIRG-McGill working group.

Following 12 days of combat that accompanied the 1994 uprising, the Zapatistas initiated a peace negotiation process with the government, eventually reaching an agreement for the constitution to recognize the autonomy of indigenous peoples within Mexico. However, in 2001, the government betrayed the agreement by implementing an “indigenous law” that failed to address the issues raised by the Zapatistas. In response, the Zapatistas decided to ignore the Mexican government and began to focus on building autonomy without any legal recognition.

For the Zapatistas, autonomy has meant the creation of their own institutions and services, such as health care, education, media, water, and justice – to address the needs of their communities in Chiapas without government intervention.

The resources to sustain these autonomous institutions often come from solidarity groups based in areas with wealthier economies, such as Mexico City, Europe, the U.S., and Canada. The QPIRG-McGill working group Students Taking Action with Chiapas (STAC-Montreal) is one of these solidarity groups, and how I first became involved in Canadian-Mexican solidarity.

STAC-Montreal helps economically support Zapatista autonomy through a project in collaboration with the First of January Boot Cooperative in the Zapatista regional centre of Oventic. The farmer-volunteers of the cooperative make leather boots by hand for their own communities and to sell to Zapatista supporters. STAC-Montreal student-volunteers are able to transport the boots and sell them in Canada, and then send all profits back to the Zapatistas. The Zapatista Solidarity Boot Project has officially launched and the boots are currently for sale.

Recently, the Zapatistas declared that they are an anti-capitalist movement: the Primero de Enero cooperative, working in collaboration with STAC-Montreal, runs under a similar ideology. Both the cooperative and STAC-Montreal operate by volunteer basis rather than by wage-labour. The workers of the cooperative own the means of production for the boots, and surplus from the sales goes entirely to poor rural communities in the Global South. This is a small example of the kinds of economic institutions and relations that can be created in opposition to the capitalist system.

While building alternatives to capitalism is important, it is always a very limited endeavour. Global capitalism continues to operate smoothly, and corporations are able to continue exploiting people and the land around the world. The global mining industry, largely based in Canada, is a clear example of this exploitation.

Mining exploration companies are searching the entire planet for minerals. Once they find a potentially profitable deposit, millions of dollars flow from investors in the U.S. and Canada, giving the company overwhelming resources to co-opt, corrupt, divide, and repress all those who might stand in the way of their project. Nearly all of the mine’s profits flow back to the investors until the companies abandon the mine, leaving the local communities to deal with the environmental and social effects.

The struggle of the FAO against the mine at Cerro de San Pedro is the most prominent case of resistance to Canadian mining in Mexico, though there are similar struggles happening all over the world. Nearly every country in Latin America has a national network in opposition to destructive mining. There are approximately 500 Canadian projects underway, with more in Mexico than any other country.

With so many communities involved in similar struggles, the FAO has recently formed a Mexican network of communities affected by mining (REMA). Together, these communities and opposition groups can forge a united front against the money and power of Canadian mining companies.

Here in Montreal, we have also broadened the struggle while working with other Canadian solidarity groups opposing mines in different countries around the world. Through these connections, we have come to see that the problem is in fact like a huge monster: each mining project is like a separate arm, but all of them connect back to the brain here in Canada.

This is not just a problem for people elsewhere in the world. The problem is rooted in Canadian companies – mining negatively affects Canadian communities too. For this reason, we have tried to create links between the struggles against mining here in Canada and similar struggles in other parts of the world, and to inform Canadians of mining’s impact in their own backyard.

All over the world, it is most often indigenous communities that are being affected by and opposing mining projects. Indigenous peoples usually have a relationship to a certain territory, and it is often on this basis that they mobilize to defend the land against the destruction and environmental harm that come with most mining projects.

This was the case two years ago in Ontario when leaders from the communities of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) and Ardoch Algonquin First Nation were arrested and imprisoned for blocking mining exploration on their territories. Determined opposition of this kind can also be seen in the southern states of Mexico such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, which both have large indigenous populations and strong traditions of popular struggle.

This August, I visited Chiapas to pick up an order of Zapatista boots from the Primero de Enero cooperative, and also to attend a statewide gathering of the REMA. Participants were diverse, including groups opposing Canadian mining in Guatemala and FAO delegates coming from San Luis Potosi. Many delegates emphasized the global nature of the mining issue – how there are projects all over the world, and how the effects of these projects reach beyond the areas surrounding the mines. They shared stories and strategies to better prepare those who were anticipating the arrival of mining companies in their communities.

I spoke briefly about international solidarity, how there are many people in Canada who oppose what the mining companies are doing, and that we can try to work in collaboration with local opposition groups to discourage investors from putting their money toward certain projects to ensure that they won’t be funded.

Following the recent ruling in Mexican high court, the coming days and weeks will determine whether or not the Cerro de San Pedro mine continues to operate. FAO-Montreal will be working with the rest of the FAO to do everything we can to ensure that this specific instance of exploitation stops. Though this is only one mine, the struggle against it is so well known in Mexico, and a victory by the FAO would undoubtedly have ripple effects, impacting other mining struggles across the country.

Business and political elites in Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. have invested considerable effort into setting up exploitative economic and political relations within and between these countries through institutions such as NAFTA and the Canadian mining industry. Groups in Mexico such as the Zapatistas and the FAO are actively struggling against these institutions, and ultimately against the power of the elites whose interests the institutions represent. In Canada, and right here in Montreal, it is possible for us to support and participate in struggles for social and environmental justice, and to help build a world in which destruction and exploitation earn fewer profits, and autonomy, dignity, and self-determination exist for all.

To find out how you can get involved with FAO-Montreal, email them at cerrodesanpedro@gmail.com or visit faomontreal.wordpress.com. To buy boots and help sustain autonomous Zapatista communities, email stacmontreal@gmail.com