Saturday, May 23, 2009

Actions Strengthen Against Mining in Oaxaca Teachers Union Declares Broader Mission to Include Social Justice and Community Education

By Nancy Davies Commentary from Oaxaca

May 19, 2009

“Mexicans are screwed,” asserted Juan Carlos Ruiz Guadalajara of the Broad Opposition Front (Frente Amplio Opositor) of San Luis Potosi. He participated, along with representatives of other organizations, at the second forum For Life We Defend Our Mother Earth, convened in Ocotlán by the Committee for Rights of the People (CODEP), on May 16 and 17, 2009.

D.R. 2009 – Photos Nancy Davies
They are screwed, he declared, because in Mexico there is no justice. Laws are ignored, judges and lawyers are bought off, and environmental regulators take bribes. In his own experience in San Luis Potosi, the small town at Cerro de San Pedro, San Xavier, residents voted 97-99 per cent against the mining project in Cerro de San Pedro, in a statewide public referendum held in October 2006. The project moved ahead anyway. San Xavier, outside the capital city, was devastated by the Canadian gold mine. Ruiz Guadalajara told the forum that by the time the people of the town had won in court recognition of their rights and of the environmental depredation, it was a pyrrhic victory: the water and land had been irrevocably poisoned, and this happened within kilometers of the “cultural patrimony” of the capital city.

Ruiz advised the people of Ocotlán not to rely on the non-functional Mexican law but to go for direct action. His warning to the activists of Oaxaca did not fall on deaf ears; Oaxaca has been targeted for 13 different mining projects. The state is rich in gold, silver, copper and uranium. Furthermore, most of the land involved is sparsely populated by marginalized indigenous peoples, a population with absolutely no power –or so the mining companies hope.

The main purpose of the forum was to bring together the many small organizations and groups who presently struggle alone, to form a united front. A first forum began this work on May 5.

Present at the second forum, on May 16, was the representative from the Isthmus, Carlos Beas Torres of the Union of Communities of the North Zones of the Isthmus (UCIZONI, in its Spanish initials), which has faced the same scenario of overriding the local population’s rights, in two violations: the wind generators, and the cement manufacturer’s removal of literally entire hills for their sand. The organization CACTUS represented the Mixteco area which holds uranium. Other panelists included the wife of Augustin Rios Cruz, People of Cuicatecos, Filemon Sanchez from San Jose del Progreso, and the Chiapas group FMIN (front against mining).

The Sierra Sur contains gold and silver as does the Central Valley of Ocotlán. According to Beas Torres, what happens repeatedly is that the mining companies – almost all Canadian transnationals– contact the federal government to purchase a concession to extract the underground minerals, because by the constitution, everything beneath the surface of Mexican territory belongs to the nation. The companies pay the federal and state governments a fee, which may include one to three percent of declared future profits. It is not known how much was paid for Oaxaca’s concessions, nor where the money is, or went. However, neither government informed the local people on whose land the transnationals intend to excavate; no public information was made available about the mines or their environmental consequences, in violation of Treaty (Convenio) 169 of the International Work Organization which Mexico signed, and in violation of indigenous land rights.

San Luis Potosi struggled for fifteen years to win a court acknowledgement of the legal violations, but by then it was too late. The gold mine in San Luis was an open pit mine which proceeded during all those years to more or less carry away a small hill, leaving irreversible water and soil damage. The Canadian companies must obey environmental laws in Canada; in Mexico (and in Africa and in Latin America) they pay for favorable environmental reports, or may simply bribe officials to overlook what is going on, according to Ruiz.

In 2006, the Fortuna Silver company sent engineers to explore the feasibility of mining in Ocotlán, and to lease thirty-year concessions from about thirty owners. (This is now ejido, privately owned land due to the work of privatizing communal land which was set in motion by Carlos Salinas de Gortari.) Unfortunately, water and soil do not respond to land boundaries, so the entire area will be affected by any water pollution. Opposition activists have entered the mine tunnel which inclines downward to 960 feet. There the water begins, and is rising.

One of the collateral consequences of a thirty year lease means that the original owner will leave, and his children with him. Where will they go? Often to add to the ring of impoverished dwellers around big cities, that is, to urban slums, with concomitant job, housing and water problems, as has happened in Mexico City. How much money does each lease pay to the owner? That information is not available.

Beas Torres points out that not all those who leased their land for wind generators on the Isthmus could speak Spanish, or read it. They were initially offered 100 pesos per year per hectare, and a long struggle has followed to amend that unjust quantity. It is curious that nobody names owners in Ocotlán who signed leases; to shield them, or perhaps that information was false ― it was sent to me in an email from a Fortuna Silver Mine office. Perhaps only the governments received money.

Cástulo Lopez Pacheco, a member of both the Committee of Defense of the Rights of the Peoples (CODEP), and the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), described the current situation as “a rabid campaign of threats, hostilities and repression” against the people of San Jose del Progreso Ocotlán in complicity with Fortuna’s front company Cuzcatlan, owner of the Trinidad mine. Protesters camped at the mine entrance were attacked by the Federal Preventive Police on May 6 after a month-long blockade. One local activist, Augustín Rios Cruz was badly beaten, but his immediate arrest was avoided because of media observers. Rios Cruz, an Ocotlán dentist, has been hiding and healing since then, but participated by telephone in the forum. The arrest order against him accuses him of injuries, pilfering, and attacks against access to roads.

On the second day the forum discussion focused on how to implement a push-back against both the military force and the pro-mine policy of the government.

Meanwhile, on Teachers Day, May 15, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) marched in force. In the zocalo at the conclusion of the march, the secretary general Azael Santiago Chepi re-affirmed that Section 22 will work not only for education but also for justice. He specifically mentioned political prisoners, Ocotlán, and the toll highway being constructed around Oaxaca City to reach the coast; it crosses indigenous lands. On May 16 SNTE was in assembly; on May 17 they headed to Ocotlán.

About a hundred representatives of the union, another hundred from the APPO, and an equal group from San Jose del Progreso staged an inaugural celebration in Magdalena, with a ribbon cutting ceremony for its new municipal building. The benediction was offered by the priest Martín Octavio García Ortiz, of the parish of San Pedro Apóstol, Ocotlán. In other words, the supporters stated, “We are here.”

On Monday, May 18, Section 22 opened a “permanent” site in the city of Oaxaca to serve for denunciations and forums. Azael Santiago Chepi repeated again the new stance of the union. Their mission, he assured the audience, must include not only student education and needs such as sanitary facilities inside schools, but also social justice, and what Santiago Chepi calls “alternative education”. That, he defines as a community interaction between parents, teachers and students, to overcome lack of knowledge and/or dependence on the government agents.

Opposition activities to the government neoliberal policies of “development” now include the hydroelectric dams, the new toll highway, and the Wind Corridor on the Isthmus. Many of the same national organizations, such as Frente Amplio Opositor of San Luis Potosi, and those who opposed the international airport in the Mexico City Valley and Atenco, as well as the hydroelectric dams in the state of Mexico and in Guerrero, have linked up. At the Ocotlán forum on Saturday the parents of Alexis Branamiel, the student killed in the attack on Atenco, were present.

Thus we are in mid-May, the traditional time for teacher negotiations and strikes. Thus far the union has said that the government’s contract offer is unsatisfactory. For Wednesday May 20 a one-day work stoppage has been declared. The encampment in the zócalo of Oaxaca keeps people informed. I asked the teachers’ leader of the Central Valley district if the union will, like some politicians, advise the townspeople of Ocotlán to negotiate with Fortuna, which has already offered school computers and some infrastructure repairs. His reply: “There’s nothing to negotiate”. A mine will contaminate to as much as thirty kilometers distance. And, he added, “We don’t make their decisions, we do what the town assemblies want us to do.”

Along with Fortuna Silver, the other companies named by CODEP as preparing to violate Oaxaca lands include Aura Silver, Intrepid Mines, Continuum Resources, Chesapeake Gold Corporation, Consolidated Spire Ventures Ltd., Horseshoe Goldmining Ltd, Linear Gold Corp., Mauricio Hochschild, Mercantile Gold Company and Pinnacle Mines Ltd.

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