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[Editor's note: Mines run by B.C. and other Canadian-based companies are at the centre of numerous local conflicts and environmental grievances around the world. But as the industry's unsavoury reputation has spread, so have stories of towns that have successfully rejected mining. They offer hope, encouragement and ideas to other communities seeking to refuse mine development. Thanks to the generosity of donors to the Tyee Fellowship Fund, journalists Liam Barrington-Bush and Jen Wilton were able to visit the towns of Capulálpam de Méndez and Magdalena Teitipac, in Oaxaca, Mexico, to better understand what has allowed these Zapotec communities to successfully resist the imposition of mining on their traditional lands. Last of four. Find the series in its entirety here.]

A steady stream of visitors trickled into Capulálpam de Méndez as dusk fell upon the Sierra Juárez mountains in southern Mexico one cold January evening. Despite the frosty overnight lows, over 400 farmers, indigenous leaders and environmental activists from throughout Latin America had joined roughly 1,400 residents of the Oaxacan mountain town to exchange experiences in the fight against mining companies in their respective communities.

It was no coincidence that Capulálpam was playing host to the "Yes to Life, No to Mining" event, a hemispheric grassroots gathering aimed at sharing lessons learned among mining-affected communities. In 2007, the town succeeded in having the operations of Vancouver-based Continuum Resources' Natividad mine suspended indefinitely, after demonstrating that it was behind both the contamination of a local river by arsenic and lead, and a decline in the local water table that dried up 13 local springs.

In its success, Capulálpam has become a model of indigenous self-government and sustainable, community-led alternative development. The lesson many draw is that when communities retain traditional decision-making practices, they have a better chance of resolving internal differences and enforcing their local priorities.

Each morning, before participants arrived at the town hall for the day's program, teenagers swept Capulálpam's streets. While the municipal president addressed the audience, local police officers served meals that many in the community had helped to cook: each family was responsible for making 17 tortillas to feed the gathered activists.

"In other places, the police are beating us. Here, they're serving us coffee," remarked Carmelina Santiago, a Zapotec activist for an indigenous-rights group known as Flor y Canto (the name means Flower and Song) -- highlighting a particularly stark difference between the host community and many other towns in the region.

As a Zapotec community, Capulálpam practices a form of participatory democracy found in many indigenous communities in Oaxaca, known simply as usos y costumbres (traditions and customs). Decisions are made in general assemblies open to all residents, and are only considered legitimate if they have been approved by a majority of the community. Residents are also expected to perform unpaid community service (cargos) throughout their lives, for anywhere up to three years if they become municipal president.

As part of his community service, Francisco García López, a small business owner in Capulálpam, worked as the secretary to the town's Committee of Communal Property for a year. García said that what distinguishes this form of government from others in Mexico is that, "Here, the authorities are representatives of the people, but they do not decide. Any decision that they take, especially in relation to the land, must be reviewed and approved by the assembly."

Expanding on the values that underpin local governance in Capulálpam, current municipal president Juan Pérez Santiago explained: "Our way of thinking, our ideology, the agency that we bring from our ancestors, is the care and conservation of our environment, our traditions and our customs."

Some argue that this traditional form of self-governance is at the core of Capulálpam's success in fighting off the mining industry and the wider Western industrial development model that it is part of. When communities are actively involved in discussions about the future of their territory and the entry of development projects, they are more likely to oppose them, than are communities where decisions are made by individual leaders subject to the temptations of Mexico's endemic corruption.

Neftalí Reyes Méndez, a coordinator for the Oaxacan Collective in Defence of Territories and Alternative Education Services Oaxaca, describes Capulálpam's success this way: "It is an indigenous Zapotec community and all along they have maintained a process of reclaiming historical memory, through their assemblies. That is to say, there is a natural process in the community of passing on [the stories of] all of the problems that occurred with the arrival of the mine. ... It is not enough that [the structures] are adopted, if the historical memory of the people of the community does not exist."

Resistance is fertile

Though there were initially considerable differences of opinion about the mine among townspeople, through dialogue and debate in the town's general assembly, they came to a consensus agreement that they did not want to jeopardize their long-term future for the short-term financial benefits that mining offered. In 2007, the community blocked the main highway to Oaxaca City to support its request that Mexico's federal environmental regulator confirm its own tests' finding that mining activity had contaminated local water.

In 2012, along with four neighbouring towns, the community decided to impose a 100-year ban on mining within its territory. "Any development that is not sustainable is not development," declared the head of the Sierra Juárez tourism network at a gathering celebrating the anniversary of that decision.

582px version of Mining gallery embed
The local basketball court in Magdalena Teitipac looks out at the silver-rich hills which surround the town.

Instead of mineral mining, with its toxic associations, the residents of Capulálpam have opted for more sustainable local economic development through community-owned enterprises. These include a responsible forestry program and a stone-crushing operation that provides material for construction projects in the region. Ecotourism has proven to be the community's most successful endeavour, offering jobs while continuing its stewardship of the environment.

Javier Cosmes Pérez, a lifelong resident of Capulálpam de Méndez, has worked his way through the cargo system, serving as both municipal president and land commissioner, the two most senior roles in the community. Explaining the town's emphasis on creating alternatives to the mining industry, Cosmes told The Tyee, "We have worked hard for Capulálpam. We have created community businesses. They do not belong to a group, but rather to the community. They generate jobs for people here."

And more than that, he added, the profitable operations, "generate resources that are for the benefit of the community. For what? Education, health, social works, roads, drainage; anything the community wants is where money from the businesses is injected."

Capulálpam's rejection of mining emerged from a kind of participatory democracy that has a strong history in Southern Mexico. Inclusive local deliberation encourages people to become more informed about local issues, which in turn increases their participation. So when an issue like a proposed mine emerges, it is less likely to descend into pro-and-anti polarities. There's a better chance for community history and shared values to influence opinions. The aim is not simply for majority rule, but for a collective consensus in which all residents -- not just local elites -- feel invested.

The ugly alternative

But such consensus-making is far from the rule where Canadian mining companies operate abroad. To see that, one need only venture down the mountain to Oaxaca's Ocotlán Valley.

In San José del Progreso, less than an hour south of the state capital, the gradual entry of B.C.'s Fortuna Silver Mines between 2005 and 2008 coincided with deepening social and political divisions. Since 2010, four murders, several shootings, a kidnapping, and numerous assaults have been associated with conflicts around the mine.

While similarly officially governed by assemblies called under the norms of usos y costumbres, the political process in San José has been marred by irregularities. An observation mission of Mexican and international NGOs to San José in Nov. 2012, reported that, "There is currently a problem of lack of communal governing structures [in the town], reflected in the absence of a Commission of Common Goods, or a Vigilance Council."

Those entities normally make decisions affecting communal land, and are responsible for convening assemblies. With their functions suspended intermittently in recent years, assemblies have not taken place. The municipality has refused to share details of its formal agreement with Fortuna, leaving many residents unsatisfied with the adequacy of protection for local water resources, an issue which has sparked several clashes.

Widely acknowledged corruption discourages many residents from seeking to enforce their opposition to mining through Mexico's legal and political systems. Likewise, Canadian law offers little traction for foreign citizens seeking to bring Canadian-registered mining companies before Canadian courts. The lack of legal recourse in either has turned the focus of mining opponents increasingly to local resistance.

We found that in Magdalena Teitipac, a town of 4,300 people located 45 kilometres northwest of San José del Progreso in the Ocotlán Valley of Oaxaca.

In 2009, Minera Plata Real, a subsidiary of Bermuda-based Los Gatos Ltd. (later bought by U.S.-based Sunshine Silver Mines Ltd.), signed a five-year contract with the municipality allowing the company access to communal lands to explore for silver in the hills surrounding the town. Both the agreement and the company's activities -- sinking a number of exploratory bore-holes -- quickly became bones of contention in the community.

"They arrived here in our town and committed ecocide, destroyed the trees, made an opening [in the ground], all without the consent of our community," declared one resident, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal by the mining company. Several others spoke of a local river turning white following the company's initial drilling.

The validity of the company's contract to access communal land also came into question. Although the town held several usos y costumbres assemblies before signing its agreement with Los Gatos, according to current Council Treasurer Fernando Martínez Molina only 15 of the approximately 400 comuneros (communal land owners) were present at the signing of the contract. In Martínez's view, the company's local agreement, "was not contracted legally, but rather by means of deception, by obtaining the signatures of a few people by saying that they were going to support [the municipality] with the amount of $15,000 per year."

To many, it was not even entirely clear with whom the municipality was doing business. Some residents and local media reported that the driving force behind the exploration was B.C.-based Linear Gold Corp. That assertion may have been based on the fact that Philip Pyle, an executive with Linear until 2008, signed the contract with Magdalena Teitipac the following year on behalf of Plata Real.

Linear is no longer in business, however, and Minera Plata Real's current corporate parent, Sunshine Silver Mines Corporation, is a privately owned company that makes virtually no information available, leaving residents to guess at the ultimate ownership of the mining concessions.

No means no, for now

Nonetheless, in Feb. 2013, hundreds of townspeople from Magdalena Teitipac gathered in a general assembly more like the ones used in Capulálpam, and made the collective decision to expel Plata Real. While the mine still had some defenders, a body of residents put their decision into action and formed a blockade, preventing mining company trucks from reaching its work site.

Plata Real suspended its activities, and in July the company removed its machinery from the area altogether. Pyle, now its vice president of exploration, distanced that decision from the community's blockade. "We have not identified sufficient targets during our exploration program," Pyle told the Tyee. "We are hopeful to return in the future and are working with the community to maintain a strong relationship."

His optimism isn't widely echoed in Magdalena Teitipac. When The Tyee met with Treasurer Martínez in May, he said the mining project "has caused a division in the town, almost to the point of erupting into violence, which is exactly what we don't want."

Indeed, within days, over 500 people attended a meeting to confront local leaders who continued to support the mining project. Some of those in attendance claim that Marcelo Fructuoso Martínez, a mine supporter and president of the Consejo de Vigilancia (the local body that ensures decisions made by the assembly are carried out), threatened violence against a number of women in the audience. What's clear is that after his outburst, Fructuoso received a non-fatal knife wound from unidentified assailants and was taken to hospital for treatment.

"If we live as poor people, that's okay, but we don't want to live with [violence]," Martínez Molina said. "That's what we're working on now: to find a solution to these problems."

The ripple effect of success

Meanwhile, others in the community regard its victory over the mine as strictly temporary -- only the first skirmish in a contest that may endure for generations.

Plata Real "will possibly leave [the site] dormant for a few years," Yolanda García Hernández told us. "But they will return. [The concession] is for 50 years, which we have to remember very well. Maybe they will return in 10 years, possibly in 20. The adults that are here now, unfortunately, will not exist by then."

"We, as people, have the right to clean water, to clean air, to the Mother Earth, to health," García holds. And she insists that any decision affecting those must rest with the community: "Here in Magdalena Teitipac, those who make the decisions, give their opinions and have the authority," she says, "are the people."

Increasingly those values are being shared and reinforced among communities in Oaxaca, across Mexico and beyond. For some, it is a wake-up call to the risks associated with mining -- or even to the local presence of mining. "Many communities do not know that concessions have already been given [for] their land," one resident of Magdalena Teitipac told us.

Such early awareness is often key to success for local efforts to resists mining projects.

"During my time in a variety of mining-affected and at-risk communities throughout Mexico and Guatemala," said Jonathan Treat of Academic Services and Knowledge Networks of Oaxaca (SURCO by its Spanish acronym), a Mexican NGO, "it has become clear that it is exceedingly difficult (though not impossible) to stop a mine once their operations have begun."

"What is crucial," Treat continued, "is for communities to understand fully the health, environmental, social and cultural impacts of mining projects before the project is initiated."

While mindful of the tensions that continue to disrupt many communities associated with foreign mines in Mexico -- the majority of them Canadian-owned -- Treat is optimistic for the future. "The united opposition within those communities is a powerful force," he observes, "within the growing social movements to defend territories against the ongoing plunder happening throughout Mesoamerica and beyond."

Or as another resident of Magdalena Teitipac put it, in more ringing tones: "Marginalized communities, wake up! Remain alert. Because the moment to fight for our territory has arrived. Wherever you are, you are not alone."

With translation support from Joel Zurita and Lindsey Bryan. Find this series in its entirety here.  [Tyee]

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