If many locals have their way, Canada's Mexican gold rush won't extend to the southern tip of Baja California. Planned for a site within the Sierra de la Laguna biosphere, the Paredones Amarillos gold mine is awaiting approval of a land use permit from federal authorities that could pave the way for the extraction an estimated 1.2 million ounces of gold over a period of 9.3 years.
But plans for the open pit mine proposed by Canadian-owned Vista Gold Corporation are sparking opposition from environmentalists and residents. Critics contend that metals and chemicals used in the mining process could contaminate precious groundwater supplies, scar a fragile ecosystem and threaten public health. Further, they fear critical sea turtle and whale habitats could be jeopardized from the construction of a desalination plant designed to pipe in water for mining operations from a coastal site at Las Playitas.
Ariel Ruiz, spokesman for a local citizens' movement gaining steam in Todos Santos and nearby communities, said opponents have gathered 3,000 signatures on a petition against a mine.
"What we are really talking about is that all the water we consume comes from the (Sierra de la Laguna)," Ruiz said. "People are opposed because it is a high price they might have to pay for this investment."
Boasting mixed stands of pine and oak, and recognized by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a world biosphere, the Sierra de la Laguna is the source of groundwater for a wide swath of Baja California Sur.
Vista Gold President Fred Earnest and project manager Carlos Calderon both dispute environmentalists' contentions that Paredones Amarillos would cause ecological harm. According to Calderon, Vista Gold will utilize environmentally sensitive, state-of-the-art mining technology and practices and uphold "the highest international standards" like the International Cyanide Management Code.
Projected to create nearly 400 construction and 300 mining jobs if it moves forward, the Paredones Amarillos mine will entail an investment of $170 million, according to Earnest. Also serving as Vista Gold's chief operating officer, Earnest pledged his company will establish a foundation to support health care and education in Baja California Sur.
"We want to be a responsible corporate citizen in Baja California Sur," Earnest said.
A decision on Vista Gold's land use permit application is expected sometime early next year.
The Paredones Amarillo controversy is among the latest ones to arise from the aggressive expansion of Canadian mining companies in Mexico. Already dominating foreign investment in the country's fast-growing mining sector, 200 Canadian companies are reportedly scouring 400 places in the Mexican Republic for possible new mines.
The surge in Canadian mining activities in Mexico and other parts of the world is being enthusiastically underwritten by the Harper administration. According to a compendium prepared by the Halifax Initiative, a coalition of non-governmental groups founded to press for reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, numerous government programs help subsidize Canadian mining companies through direct loans and guarantees, insurance, foreign aid policies, and stock investments from public pension funds.
The central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi is another front in the mining vs. environment battle. A long-running fight between local landowners and a national network of environmental and human rights activists on one side, and the Vancouver-based New Gold Incorporated on the other, almost came to a head last month when Mexico's Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) revoked an operating permit for the company's Cerro de San Pedro mine.
Reiterating charges that New Gold's operations were provoking public health problems from cyanide and mercury emissions, as well as causing damages to a historic church and other buildings, opponents applauded the decision. This month, however, a Mexican court threw out Semarnat's decision. Withdrawing the mining permit, the court stated, would adversely impact 500 direct and 1,500 indirect jobs linked to the mine. New Gold, the court ruled, "has always respected environmental rules that regulate the activity it pursues."
A citizen complaint about the mine was rejected earlier this year by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The Montreal-based commission is charged with investigating and issuing records of fact on environmental problems in the three member nations of the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA].
In some places, violence has been directed against mining opponents. After months of reportedly suffering threats, jail and even physical assault, Mariano Abarca, a prominent anti-mining organizer for the Mexican Anti-Mining Network (REMA) in Chiapas, was shot to death November 27 in the town of Chicomuselo, where farmers have waged a struggle against a barite mine run by the Canadian-Mexican firm Blackfire Exploration Ltd.
Earlier this month, Chiapas state law enforcement officials arrested three men purportedly connected to Blackfire Exploration Mexico for Abarca's murder. Citing environmental violations, the Chiapas state government also ordered the Chicomuselo mine temporarily shut down.
Samuel Ruiz, the former bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, spoke out against the murder of the environmental activist. In order to prevent more deaths like Abarca's, Ruiz appealed for an end to the "criminalization of defenders, as well as the stigmatization and repression of organized peaceful protest."
A growing international scandal surrounds the Abarca murder. According to Rick Arnold, coordinator of the non-government organization Common Frontiers-Canada, documents in the possession of REMA and its supporters show that Blackfire was funneling $1,000 monthly into an account controlled by Chicomuselo's mayor for the purpose of keeping company opponents "under control."
The activist's slaying is helping stoke a rising debate over the conduct of Canadian companies abroad and the Harper government's role in promoting resource extraction in the developing world.
Opposed by the Harper administration and the mining industry, a piece of legislation pending in the Canadian Parliament, Bill C-300, proposes to make public financial and political support for private mining companies contingent on meeting human rights, environmental and health standards. A second bill, C-345, would permit foreigners to sue Canadian companies in Canadian courts for human rights abuses committed abroad.
Ottawa is clearly concerned about the ramifications of the Abarca murder. Two high officials, Canadian Governor-General Michaelle Jean and Peter Kent, junior foreign minister for the Americas, visited Chiapas shortly after Abarca's slaying, but did not meet with REMA members, as was requested by the group.
On December 18, four Canadian organizations — Common Frontiers-Canada, Mining Watch Canada, United Steelworkers, and Council of Canadians — jointly announced they would pursue legal charges with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police against Blackfire for violating the 1998 Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act.
There was no immediate comment from Blackfire, but an undated statement posted on the company's website lamented violence in Chicomuselo and expressed sympathy with family members of victims.
Sources: Miningwatch.org, December 18, 2009. Press statement. El Universal, September 7, 2009; December 9, 14 and 15, 2009. Articles by Alberto Aguilar, Gladys Rodriguez, Oscar Gutierrez and Adriana Ochoa. Narconews.com, December 14, 2009. Article by Kristin Bricker. El Diario de Juarez, November 13, 2009. Greenpeace Mexico, November 19, 2009. Press statement. Ecoamericas, November 2009. Proceso/Mining Watch Canada, August 26, 2009. Article by Isain Mandujano and Sandra Cuffee. Commission for Environmental Cooperation, July 15, 2009. Press statement. Halifaxinitiative.info. Blackfireexploration.com.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State UniversityLas Cruces, New Mexico