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Nahua community in Mexico resists Canadian mining

Government undermines Indigenous sovereignty, says Mexican activist

Updated October 7.

Zacualpan is a community of mostly Nahua people in the state of Colima, Mexico. In Fall 2013, members of the community approached the organization Bios Iguana, a non-governmental organization, to help them decide whether or not to declare their community mining-free (a common practice for communities seeking to keep mining companies out) after they had been approached by Gabfer, S.A. de C.V., a mining company seeking a concession for the exploitation of gold, silver, copper, and manganese in the area.

Rural communities in Mexico contact environmental groups like Red Mexicana de Afectadas por la Minería (REMA), and Movimiento Mesoamericano contra el Modelo extractivo Minero (M4), of which Bios Iguana is part, once a North American mining company expresses interest in the area. These groups then work together with the scientific, journalistic, and local authorities to educate the population on the risks of allowing mining operations to happen in their communities. Many of these rural communities are Indigenous communities with a history of abuse from multinational extractive companies and the government of Mexico. People working with Bios Iguana have recently received many threats from individuals linked to the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which was formed by people who split from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1988.

The Daily spoke with Esperanza Salazar, a member of Bios Iguana who has been forced out of her community and country by repeated threats against her life.

The McGill Daily (MD): Could you tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to Canada?

Esperanza Salazar (ES): I am here because I had to leave my community and my nation. I am Esperanza Salazar, and I belong to an organization called Bios Iguana. We work in the province of Colima, Mexico, which is the [fourth] smallest province in Mexico. In Colima, two years ago, a community [Zacualpan] approached us to solicit our help, because a Canadian [mining company] showed interest in mining gold in their territory. The concession that they sought was for gold, silver, copper and manganese. [The people] had a few assemblies to vote on these issues.

[…] In [these] communal assemblies, they decide what to do when things are happening to the land. […] There had been assemblies where mining operations had been proposed and the community had said no. [Usually] the presidente de bienes comunales [elected executive official of the Indigenous community, who was Carlos Guzmán in Zacualpan] is supposed to bring this decision to those concerned and say, ‘No, this community does not want a mine here, please stop the project.’

However, [Guzmán] kept insisting. […] He was giving money to people in the community to vote in favour of the mine. The people of the community came to us and asked for our support so that we could come and explain the risks involved with a natural resources project like this.

“I want the Canadian government to know that they have a major role in the violence in Mexico.”

We did some video screenings. Within a few days of arriving in Zacualpan, we showed videos and photos of the damage caused by the mine at Carrizalillo in Guerrero. [Guzmán], immediately told us, “I do not want you here in our community. You are not welcome; you have come only to misinform the people.” The public garden where we were showing our videos was where the attacks began.

Later, we continued doing meetings with the people, giving more information and one day we were […] preparing to present a video about the mining in Central America, Latin America, [and] one of our comrades was illegally detained.

Salazar also explained that Bios Iguana faced many more direct threats. At one point, they decided to hold an event, where they brought scientists, journalists, and members of communities affected by the actions of mining companies. The event was sparsely attended, because, as Salazar found out later, there was a bomb threat that their opponents employed in order to prevent people from hearing what they had to say. Eventually, Salazar explained, Guzmán was removed from his position, but the two women who replaced him, according to Salazar, were not able to fully do their jobs due to government intervention.

MD: Two years ago, REMA began to work on a new legislation in the Mexican parliament that would prohibit open-pit mining, as has been passed in Costa Rica. I would like to know if these efforts have been successful, or if not, how has the process been so far.

ES: In fact, REMA has left the legal process because there was a manipulation of the participation of the social organizations within the Senate of the Republic [national senate], where this proposal was presented. First, we, the many organizations that make up REMA, worked on the proposal. […] Well, [the Senate] got the proposal, but it wasn’t the one that we had worked on. And after this, we said that it is not acceptable to put forward a proposal that isn’t ours. If the proposal they receive is not the work of the communities and the organizations, we cannot sign it and we cannot be a part of this process.

Without consulting us, [PRD] put this proposal to the Senate as a part of the Party’s political project. And we, the social organizations, including Bios Iguana and other people that are inside the REMA, we are not part of any political party. And we do not support any political party. And we support even less those political parties that use our work and the work of the people to make a power move. […] This same party, on the same day, put forth its own proposal to a different deputy, a different senator, but from the same party. This new proposal was actually in favour of the mining companies.

We realized that there was manipulation and a political game that we did not want to engage in, and we retreated. From then on, REMA and Bios Iguana decided that our time would be best spent working on prevention within the communities instead of the courts.

MD: Canada keeps a list of countries that it recommends Canadians avoid travelling in – Mexico is not on this list. There are regional advisories against travel in the northern states, but the whole country remains ‘safe’ for Canadians. What are your thoughts on this?

ES: I want the Canadian government to know that they have a major role in the violence in Mexico. This violence toward rural communities is a consequence of the entry of Canadian mining companies and is fomented by the companies’ disrespect for the people attempting to defend their territory.

There are two kinds of violence to consider here. There is physical violence which spills into the streets, which is often tied to organized crime. The Mexican government responds to it with more violence, sending the military and police into the streets to fight it. They tell the people they are ‘defending’ them, when in reality they are bringing terror directly to the people living in these communities. This campaign of terrorism against social organizations like Bios Iguana is a specific example of [state-sponsored] physical violence.

The title of this article has been changed from “Esperanza in Canada” to “Nahua community in Mexico resists Canadian mining.”

A previous version of this article referred to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as the political party that has been threatening Bios Iguana. In fact, this party has been the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The Daily regrets the error.