More than 500 people from 12 countries travelled the sinuous mountain road from Oaxaca, México to the small Zapotec community of Capulálpam de Méndez to attend the “Yes to Life, No to Mining” Forum of Mesoamerican Peoples, held January 17 – 20, 2013. Community activists and indigenous leaders came to share experiences of resistance, forge and strengthen alliances, and develop strategies for defending their territories against the onslaught of ongoing and planned mega-mining projects that threaten their communities.
Capulálpam de Méndez has a history of gold and silver mining spanning two centuries. Today the community is an inspiring example of a people unified in remembering and understanding that painful past. Capulálpam is one of the few communities in Mexico where community members have successfully said “no” to continued mining in their territory.
The international meeting showed the growing power of trans-border activism in opposition to destructive extractive mining projects. Organized by the Oaxacan Collective in Defense of Territories, the gathering signaled a new surge of organizing to resisting the huge growth in extractive mining projects to pull gold, silver and other precious metals from indigenous territories in the region and beyond.
During the forum activists and community leaders from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Canada repeated a tragic refrain on the devastating impacts of extractive mining on their communities — severe health harms, environmental destruction, and the ripping apart of social and cultural fabrics.
In Mexico, legislation passed in recent years has created a highly favorable environment for exploitation of resources by transnational companies. The new mining laws allow companies to extract vast wealth, while paying few or no taxes on their earnings. As a result there has been a boom in mining activity throughout the country; the Mexican government has granted roughly 12 thousand mining concessions just in the past few years..
Gustavo Castro, of Chiapas, Mexico non-governmental organization Otros Mundos, spoke of the dire implications of the new rush for gold, silver and other precious minerals.
“Basically 70- 80 percent of the mining industry is open-pit which means they must destroy forests, and nature cannot regenerate itself after these impacts — acid drainage from these mining activities will affect these areas for thousands of years. And that’s to say nothing of the vast displacement of populations.”
Community activist from El Salvador, David Pereyra, cited health harms related to exposure to the toxic chemicals used and heavy metals released during extractive mining. He corroborated the dynamic of governments creating laws to encourage mining at the expense of communities, stating that the Salvadoran government is pushing to “create norms that promote mineral exploration, such as favoring investors to promote a market economy in the country.”
John Cutfeet, a Canadian indigenous activist and author from the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug community in Ontario, traveled to the Southern Mexican town to open possibilities for solidarity and effective combined action. The Canadian connection is key since Canadian mining companies, backed up by the Canadian government, are leading the charge to mine indigenous territories throughout the hemisphere, often in violation of international laws and treaties.
Participants in the Mesoamerican forum agreed that their governments typically grant concessions to transnational mining companies long before people in affected communities have any idea that they are poised to enter their territories. National laws and international accords such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 supposedly guarantee indigenous people’s right to free, prior and informed consent via public community consultation about the potential social, health and environmental impacts of any proposed mining project.
“The consultations are an ancestral right of the indigenous people to define their way of life and defend sustainable living,” said Mayan activist Francisco Rocael. But he went on to tell of repeated consultations held in Mayan communities that collectively refuse mining projects, usually to no avail — the Guatemalan government refuses to honor those consultations.
Communities are almost never fairly consulted on mining projects. And even when indigenous communities voice united opposition, they are usually ignored, or worse, silenced. Participants in the forum told tragic stories of the widespread violent repression and bloodshed against community defenders.
Representatives from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras all spoke of the ominous and pervasive dynamic of the criminalization of public protest. The Oaxacan community of San José del Progresso is an example of the brutal repression of community defenders. In 2012, gunmen assassinated two environmental activists opposing the Canadian Fortuna Silver mine in their community. Witnesses linked the assassins to the mining company and the municipal president, who actively supports the mine. Five other activists in that community were shot and others brutally beaten in 2012 for their opposition to the mine.
The second day of the forum fell on the first anniversary of the Jan. 18, 2012 killing of community activist Bernardo Méndez. An indigenous ceremony, led by Carmelina Santiago Alonso of Flor y Canto Center for Indigenous Rights, commemorated the slain community leader. The ceremony also paid homage to Bernardo Vásquez, another activist killed last year in an ambush outside of San José del Progresso, and honored countless other rights defenders throughout Mesoamerica who have been victims of violent repression for their resistance.
“On the one hand governments talk of development. But on the other we see violence. Much of the violence we´re seeing is related to the extraction of resources,” said Dr. Juan Almendares of Honduras.
“They like to blame the violence on youth, on gangs. But we have to understand that this exploitative, extractive mining is a war against our peoples — to seize control of territories and cultures. The companies that mine lead from our lands use the same lead in the form of bullets against our people.”
While sadness, mixed with angry indignation, floated in the air at times during the forum, there was also a pervasive sense of unified struggle… and of hope.
Community authorities of Capulálpam de Méndez shared their story of the fight to successfully close the mine that for two centuries had ravaged their town, bringing disease and death to workers, contaminating their lands with arsenic and lead, and causing the disappearance of thirteen of the community’s aquifers. Working collectively seven years ago, the town successfully pressured the federal government to suspend activities of the Canadian mining company Continuum Resources due to egregious environmental violations. Today the community openly and unanimously opposes any new mining in their territory, and offers a hopeful message to others.
“Capulálpam has an experience it wants to share with other peoples and communities,” said Salvador Aquino Centeno, Capulálpam town official. “Calpuálpam has proposed a different alternative to that of exploitation and plundering of vital resources promoted by mining companies. The community proposes the sustainable management of our territorial resources based on our models of communal use rather than indiscriminate exploitation.”
The Canadian indigenous activist Cutfeet spoke of similar dynamics related to mining in his territory in Ottawa, and throughout Canada. He described the successful efforts his peoples, Kitchenumaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), to force mining companies off of their land. Cutfeet also spoke of the importance of the growing national, and international, movement, Idle No More movement.
“Idle No More is calling for the Canadian government to create legislation that recognizes the rights of indigenous nations to uphold their own laws, systems of government, traditions and territory,” Cutfeet explained. He emphasized that since the Canadian government does not honor it’s own laws regarding indigenous territories, indigenous peoples must apply their own traditional laws to defend their communities and Mother Earth.
“During this forum I have seen that the situations faced by many in Mesoamerica are quite similar to those we face in Canada. There is a great effort underway to push people off their lands, and new laws are being created for those purposes. So it’s been very good to see here an expression of support for a global movement…and a commitment to put pressure on governments to protect the rights of people, particularly as related to the extraction of resources,” Cutfeet said.
He added, “I believe that when people are unified, change will happen. And it is a change that is greatly needed, not only for indigenous peoples, but for Mother Earth.”
The consistent call for unity and collective global action resonated clearly throughout the Mesoamerican forum, and is reflected in the final declaration issued at the event’s closing.
The declaration, signed by 480 participants from 50 communities and 80 organizations throughout Mesoamerica, calls for an immediate cancellation of all mining projects where communities oppose them. It also emphasizes that government’s absolute power is a thing of the past, and that it is time for a new relationship with governments, in which indigenous people decide the destiny of their own territories. To work toward these goals, participants in the forum stated:
“Faced with a development model dependent on extractive industries, we have decided to build relationships between our processes of resistance, through the strengthening of our community structures such as assemblies, community authorities, maintaining communal territorial control, and through strengthening our historical memory.”
“(W)e call out to the peoples and communities of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Canada and Mexico to strengthen our networks of resistance and to build broad alliances based on our knowledge, where the defense of territory forms the basis of our connection.”
Forum participants also proclaimed in their final declaration their alliance with the global action campaign “Idle No More”, enacted by original peoples in Canada in their rejection of destructive mining practices and the protection of their natural commons.
The closing words of Guatemala Mayan activist Pascual Martín sum up the spirit and essence of the proposed strategy.
“Humanize the peoples’ struggles”, he said. “And globalize their hopes.”