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MEXICO: Peasants Seek Ways to Block Canadian-Run Mine

Diego Cevallos* - Tierramérica

MEXICO CITY, Aug 31 2008 (IPS) - The Canadian mining corporation Minefinders has explored a rural area of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua for 14 years. But as it gets ready to begin mining gold and silver there, its plans are threatened by peasant farmers' protests.

The Minefinders corporation in Huizopa, Mexico.  Credit: Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Minefinders corporation in Huizopa, Mexico. Credit: Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The discontent with Minefinders after such a long time is due to the fact that "we became aware of the trickery, the abuse from the company," campesino (peasant) spokesperson David de la Rosa told Tierramérica. "We became aware of the inequality of the relationship," added Mario Patrón, an attorney who advises the group.

The residents of Huizopa, an enclave community in the Western Sierra Madre made up of 230 farming and ranching families who are self-sustaining, have maintained a camp since May near the not-yet-operating processing plant of the Compañía Minera Dolores, a subsidiary of Minefinders in Mexico.

Entire families from the Huizopa communal ownership association take turns there to ensure an uninterrupted presence. Although they do not get in the way of the mining company's work, their demands and the potential for escalating their protest keep the Minefinders plans on edge.

The corporation holds a concession granted in 1994 by the Mexican government. With that authorisation and the initial approval of the peasants it made around a thousand perforations in search of gold and silver.

To initiate mining of the precious metals, in 2006 it signed an agreement with the Huizopa community leaders, stating that it can operate on some 1,200 hectares. However, a large portion of the community maintains that the required consultation process never took place.

"The agreement signed with the mining company is illegal because it was not studied and was not voted on by the community assembly, and furthermore it is unequal; it doesn't have even the minimal principle of equality," attorney Patrón said in a Tierramérica interview.

In addition, say the campesinos, the mining company has appropriated nearly 3,500 hectares of the 86,000 belonging to Huizopa.

A minority group among the residents supports the company, which has built houses and roads, but the majority wants a new agreement that includes financing for a community development plan, annual rental payments per hectare of mining, a system for participation in the profits, and environmental studies.

Minefinders says on its web site that it is 100-percent owner of the property at the Dolores mine, which it plans to exploit through open-pit operations for 15 years.

This is not an isolated conflict. In the last decade, recurrent problems have come to a head between the mining industry and the labour unions and residents in several Latin American countries, coinciding with the boom in international prices of precious metals.

In the past four years, gold prices have gone up 219 percent and silver 149 percent in a cycle that has brought multi-million-dollar profits for the companies and a jump in tax revenues collected by governments.

In Peru, there were 26 mining strikes in the first half of this year, just three fewer than the entire year of 2007. In Central America, where mining companies have identified at least 23 minable zones, citizen groups are on war footing, arguing that the mining executives are getting rich while destroying the environment and hurting the populations living near the mines.

The conflict between the government of Mexico and the leadership of one sector of the mining unions has continued since 2006.

The campesinos of Huizopa "will not fall into violence, but we will not give up until we achieve real benefits from Minefinders, because we know it is going to see heavy profits," said spokesperson De la Rosa.

They estimate that in 15 years the mining company will take in about 3 billion dollars and could cause serious damage to the surrounding environment. The operations for extracting gold and silver from the rock will involve toxic sodium cyanide.

The company says those economic calculations are mistaken. In Huizopa there are reserves "equivalent to 3 billion ounces of gold," president Mark Bailey said in March.

The corporation, which is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange and has three other projects in Mexico, informed its shareholders on Jul. 25 that because of an "illegal blockade" and "threats of violence from demonstrators," its operations in Huizopa are on hold, but assured that in the following quarter it will begin full operations for gold and silver mining.

Police are guarding the mine and, according to reports from the campesinos, the Mexican army has been called in to conduct intimidating patrols.

On May 27, federal forces used tear gas to disperse about 100 campesinos who were conducting a sit-in, and two days later two Huizopa leaders were detained, but they were released soon after due to lack of charges.

Minefinders has not acted in an honest manner, say the Huizopa association and the non-governmental Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a group to which jurist Patrón belongs.

The company says it has spent 12.7 million dollars on assistance for the community that owns the land and that it has financed student scholarships in geology at a university in Chihuahua.

In a bid to end the conflict, it is offering six million dollars more and to sponsor social programmes and activities focused on protecting the environment, and alleges that the campesinos have been egged on by people involved with the left-leaning and opposition PRD, Democratic Revolutionary Party.

"What they are offering proves the close-mindedness of the company. We have to take into account that they will be here for many years and we want good neighbourly relations and benefits that are equitable for all," said De la Rosa.

The representatives of Minefinders in Mexico declined to make any further statements to Tierramérica, stating that the negotiations with the campesinos are now under way.

On Aug. 12, a committee in the Mexican Senate called on several government entities to investigate possible human rights violations of the people of Huizopa, to help establish a dialogue amongst the parties involved, to study environmental and social impacts of the mining, and to report on the presence of the army in the area.

The campesinos' spokesperson said that as a result of efforts by the state government it was possible to begin dialogue with the company, but that there have been no results so far.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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