Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Civilian Observation Mission Explores the Devastating Effects of Canadian Mining Company in San Jose del Progreso, Oaxaca

By Moravia de la O, former Mexico Team member

Bernardo Vazquez Sanchez's father (right)
demands justice for his son's death (Photo: Sara Mendez)
“All I want is justice for my son’s death,” said a tearful Mr. Vazquez as we sat around him under the shade of a willow tree in the Oaxacan community of San Jose del Progreso. His son, Bernardo Vazquez Sanchez, until recently a prominent leader of the Coordinating Committee of the United Villages of the Ocotlan Valley (CPUVO by its initials in Spanish) was assassinated in March 2012 for his outspoken opposition to a Canadian-owned mine’s operations in their community. His brother, Arturo Vazquez Sanchez, and his cousin, Rosalina Dionicio Sanchez, were seriously wounded in the ambush as well.

Around Mr. Vazquez sat other family members and victims of the violence that has gripped this once sleepy indigenous Zapotec town nestled in Oaxaca’s Ocotlan Valley. For over three hours, they gathered to tell us about the extent to which the social fabric in their community has been torn apart by the arrival of the mine.

Since 2007, residents from San Jose del Progreso and nearby towns have been in resistance against the gold and silver mine, which is owned and operated by the mining company Cuzcatlan S.A. de C.V., a local subsidiary of Canada’s Fortuna Silver Mines, Inc. In the last year, the conflict over the mine has turned increasingly violent, resulting in the deaths of anti-mine activists Bernardo Vazquez and Bernardo Mendez.

“It is the mine’s fault. They have stepped all over us, they have humiliated us,” said another community member whose son was also a victim of aggressions for his opposition to the mining project.

A Mexican flag reads "Long Live CPUVO" and bears
the portraits of Bernardo Mendez and Bernardo Vazquez,
the two anti-mine activists
who were killed in early 2012 (Photo: Sara Mendez)
From November 19th to the 21st, the Witness for Peace Mexico Team and representatives of 18 other Mexican and international organizations gathered these testimonies, and dozens more, as part of the “Justice for San Jose del Progreso” Civilian Observation Mission to the town and nearby communities.  The goal of the mission, organized by the Oaxacan Collective in Defense of the Land, was to “highlight the human rights violations, risks, and vulnerability that members of the CPUVO and residents of San Jose del Progreso face, as well as the violations committed by the mining company and the municipal, state, and federal authorities.“

Over three days, mission participants met with community members opposed to the mine, local and state authorities, and representatives for the mining company.  The picture that emerged after talking to all these actors was one of impunity, corruption, repression of those opposed to the mine, as well as deep divisions within the community. The consensus among those we spoke to is clear: the root cause of all these problems in San Jose del Progreso is the mine.

Unfortunately, the situation in this small Oaxacan town is not unique. All across rural Mexico, communities are being torn apart and repressed for opposing the efforts of large transnational corporations to develop projects on their land. According to researchers from Mexico’s Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM by its initials in Spanish), “There are 52 points of conflict where we observe how national policies do everything necessary to funnel resources in the service of international capital.” These mines, dams, and wind-power farms, collectively known as mega-projects, are possible because of Mexico’s adoption of U.S.-backed neoliberal economic policies in preparation for the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The End of the Ejido

One of the few victories for Mexican campesinos, or small-scale farmers, that emerged from the 1910 Revolution was Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. Article 27 emphasized land redistribution and the adoption of a model of collective landholdings called the ejido. During the 20th century, pro-campesino policies, like Article 27, resulted in the redistribution of 52% of Mexico’s territory and the creation of over 30,000 ejidos.

Graffiti on a bridge in the entrance to San Jose del Progreso
reads "Cuzcatlan Mine Out" (Photo: Moravia de la O)
However, Mexico’s agrarian policy drastically changed as the country began reorienting its economy to fit neoliberal policies pushed by the World Bank and the United States. In 1990, the World Bank published a study on Mexico’s countryside that recommended halting land redistribution efforts and eliminating the ejido in favor of private landholdings. By 1992, Mexico had adopted a reform to Article 27 that promoted individual title deeds and eliminated barriers to foreign investment in Mexico’s countryside in order to meet the criteria to enter into NAFTA negotiations.

To further the efforts to foster foreign investment in Mexico’s countryside, in 1993 the Mexican government began PROCEDE, a program to award ejido members individual land titles. Far from being a useful tool for campesinos, PROCEDE opened up the door for transnational corporations to buy up ejido land for resource extraction.

This was the case in San Jose del Progreso, where this program was implemented in the early 2000s. According to community members interviewed during the observation mission, ejido members were encouraged to apply for individual land titles through this program so that they could have their land valued. However, full adoption of this program meant that individuals would not have to have the approval of the rest of the ejido members when selling their land, making it easier for the mine to purchase land in the community. For citizens of San Jose del Progreso, it is very clear that without the adoption of this program, the mine could not have established itself in their town without the consent of the community.

In spite of these efforts to privatize land in Mexico, there are still nearly 10,000 ejidos where communal ownership continues to be practiced – though their days may be numbered.  Former president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa announced a plan in November 2012, just days before leaving office, to further reform agrarian policy to speed the process of land privatization. If passed, this reform would be the last nail in the coffin for the ejido system of land ownership and would essentially eliminate the last important barrier to foreign investment and resource extraction in Mexico – and with it, one of the last protections for campesinos seeking to defend their land.

Pillaging Mexico’s Minerals

The entrance to the mine in
San Jose del Progreso (Photo: Moravia de la O)
Another important reform to Article 27 in 1992 concerned natural resource exploitation. After this reform, it was possible for the federal government to grant concessions to companies to exploit the country’s mineral resources. A new Mining Law was also passed in 1992 that eliminated previous restrictions on foreign investment in the industry and prioritized mineral extraction over other land uses, such as agriculture. Together, these policies allowed an unprecedented number of foreign companies access and control over Mexico’s mineral resources.

These policies were so effective in granting transnational mining corporations access to Mexico’s mining sector that now, 20 years after their implementation, a full 25% of Mexico’s land mass has been awarded in concessions to these companies. These are by and large Canadian companies, though there are a few important U.S.-based mining corporations as well, such as the Coeur D’alene Mines Corp. and Cotton & Western Mining, Inc.

Despite the promise of economic development, which was the pretext under which policies like the Mining Law were passed, mining in Mexico has left little more than environmental degradation and intra- and inter-community conflicts. This is unsurprising, as mining corporations only pay between $0.38 USD to $8.60 USD per metric hectare (2.5 acres) to the Mexican government for mining rights, leaving little behind to compensate for the environmental degradation they cause.

Investigative reporter Erika Ramirez found that the transnational mining companies’ payments to the Mexican federal government for the rights to mineral exploitation in the country amount to only 1% of the total value of the minerals they extract. And this pittance only goes to the federal government. According to another study by the UAM, the Mining Law “prohibits states and municipalities from imposing fees on mining activities, and therefore deprives them of any income from those activities that might benefit them.”

The situation in San Jose del Progreso mirrors that of the national context. By the company’s own estimates the San Jose mine was expected to produce about 15,000 ounces of gold in 2012. That translates to roughly $23 million USD in gold production revenue alone (based on average gold prices per oz in 2011). In contrast, the mine only pays roughly $310,000 USD per year to the Mexican federal government for the concessions it holds, as company representatives stated during a meeting with members of the observation mission. So while foreign companies earn huge revenues from resource extraction, towns like San Jose del Progreso face the devastating consequences of the mine’s presence in their communities.

Mission’s Findings and Demands

Members of the observation mission present the
preliminary report at a press conference in Mexico City
(Photo: Dave Mitchell)
After three days of interviews with relevant actors, the “Justice for San Jose del Progreso” Civilian Observation Mission found that there is a pattern of systematic violations of the human rights of community members, corruption of the local authorities by the management of the mine, deep divisions among the community, and negative health and environmental impacts.

One of the foremost violations that the mission documented was the Right to Consultation outlined in the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 169. This Convention “requires that indigenous and tribal peoples are consulted on issues that affect them. It also requires that these peoples are able to engage in free, prior and informed participation in policy and development processes that affect them.”

However, in San Jose del Progreso, no such consultations took place. The mission found that “the mining company never consulted the assembly of citizens of San Jose del Progreso, meaning that the company did not obtain the population’s consent to establish the mine.” This was even recognized as “extremely problematic” by the director of the Coordinator for the Attention of Human Rights of the State of Oaxaca in a meeting with mission participants.

The mission also documented human rights violations against 16 members of the CPUVO. One of these cases was that of Guadalupe Vazquez Ruiz, who was wounded in the arm and leg in June of this year while playing basketball in the town square. In the afternoon of June 16, a local official who supports the mining project began insulting and waving a gun threateningly at Guadalupe and his friends, yelling, “You are going to die.” Minutes later, he fired on the group, injuring Guadalupe in the arm and leg. Guadalupe and his friends were targeted because they are members of the CPUVO, and adamantly oppose the mine’s operation in their community.

As with this aggression, in most of the cases documented during the mission, the aggressors were local authorities or their proxies. These violations included arbitrary detentions, torture, and excessive use of force by security personnel. During a meeting with Oaxaca’s human rights ombudsman as part of the observation mission, the ombudsman stated that in San Jose del Progreso there exists a pattern of systematic violations to the human rights of community members.

Guadalupe Vazquez Ruiz shows the scars
from the gun wound he suffered (Photo: Sara Mendez)
The aggressions against these 16 members of the CPUVO also underscore one of the most problematic issues that the mission observed: the deep divisions within the community as a result of the mine’s presence in the town. This division has extended to all parts of community life, including the local schools and church. In interviews with mission members, mothers in San Jose del Progreso testified about the anxiety they suffer fearing that their children will be victims of the violence that has gripped the community.

To read the mission’s preliminary report, which includes more of the mission’s findings as well as its demands, click here.


The changes to Article 27 of Mexico’s Constitution and the 1992 Mining Law were some of the 120 modifications that were made in preparation for NAFTA’s ratification. Most of these neoliberal reforms were pushed by the U.S. and international financial institutions, like the World Bank, with the explicit intent of opening up Mexico’s economy to foreign investment and transnational capital. Twenty years later, we are seeing the consequences of the adoption of these policies in communities all across Mexico. In particular, the crisis in San Jose del Progreso illustrates how much national sovereignty the Mexican state has ceded in the service of transnational corporate interests. In the case of San Jose del Progreso at least, it is clear that free trade and neoliberal policies have brought nothing but violence, division, and human rights violations to the people of Mexico.

The mission participants listen to testimony
 from members of the CPUVO (Photo: Sara Mendez)
Despite the repression and violence they face, community members in San Jose del Progreso have vowed to continue resisting and organizing against the mine until it stops operating in their community. And they are not the only ones continuing to struggle against megaprojects being imposed without consultation in their communities. All across Mexico and Latin America, people are defending their land against transnational corporate interests that would destroy their environment and the social fabric of their communities. Networks like the Network of Those Affected by Mining (REMA by its initials in Spanish) are forming to strengthen these efforts. It is important for us, citizens from the countries where these companies are based, to stand in solidarity with these communities in resistance by educating ourselves and working to pressure these corporations to end their destructive practices abroad.

For more information on the conflict in San Jose del Progreso check out these sources:

-Witness for Peace interviews local activist Carmen Santiago Alonso about the conflict

- “Blood on the Silver: The High Cost of Mining Concessions in Oaxaca” by David Bacon

- “Tensions Flare over Vancouver-owned Mine in Oaxaca” by Dawn Paley

- “Bullets and Blood: The High Price of Anti-Mining Resistance in San Jose del Progreso” by Jonathan Treat

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