Arriving in Cerro de San Pedro is like taking a step back in time. The original framework of the town remains semi-intact, with winding cobblestone streets and houses nestled into the sides of the hills. The tranquility of time past rests over the surrounding desert landscape of the altiplano potosino. But beneath this quiet veneer lies a story of conflict — evident in the missing face of the cerro [hill] of San Pedro, now vacantly overlooking the town.
All I knew prior to my arrival was that a controversial-Canadian company had constructed an open-pit mine literally a stone’s throw away from the townsite, as well as relocated the neighbouring hamlet of La Zapatilla to make room for the mine’s processing facilities. There were rumours of sicknesses that people didn’t want to talk about. A lawyer opposed to the mine faced so much persecution that he had to flee the country and claim refugee status in Canada. A former municipal president who pushed back on the permits for the mine was found with a bullet in his head.
Two years after the ratification of NAFTA and opening of Mexico’s borders to increased international investment, the Canadian-owned Metallica Resources announced its plans to construct what it claimed would be one of the greatest open-pit gold and silver mines in the world. Plans for Minera San Xavier (MSX) were met with a mixture of apprehension, anticipation and opposition by the residents of Cerro de San Pedro and the nearby state-capital of San Luis Potosí (SLP). While the mine brought promise of renewed economic development in the historical-yet-dying mining town, it also raised significant environmental concerns over the use of cyanide and large amounts of water. An opposition movement known as the Frente Amplio Opositor (FAO) [Broad Opposition Front] emerged, comprised of key community members and citizens from the city SLP. After years of lengthy court battles to challenge the federal and state permits issued to the mine, FAO eventually won a number of key cases. But the rulings went either unforced or overturned, and the mine commenced operations in 2007.
Now, some twenty years after exploration began, MSX has completely mined out the cerro [hill] of San Pedro, which serves as both the state emblem and namesake of the town. As the mine moves into its closure phase, residents who have been dependent on the mining industry since the town’s inception are left with questions of what’s to come. Opponents, jaded by the actions of both the Canadian and Mexican governments, continue to dispute the legitimacy of the mine’s existence to this day.
I spent four months in Cerro de San Pedro, talking to people on all sides of the story — residents, opponents, and employees at the mine — to document their stories and reflect on how the events that unfolded with MSX in Cerro de San Pedro relate to broader social, political, and economic factors between Mexico and Canada: both at the height of the conflict, and now.
The story is that they [the Spanish] arrived here in Cerro de San Pedro on the fourth of March 1592, whereas Christopher Columbus had first arrived in 1492. And so they arrived, and the order that the Spanish brought at this time, Miguel Caldera, these conquerors — not the first ones but those who arrived 100 years later — was to obtain potosís [“fortunes”] for the Spanish crown. Because the Cerro of Potosí they had found in Bolivia was a super rich hill that had a lot of silver. And that’s what they had come looking for, silver. … So to enter here they had to use a person, that was Miguel Caldera, he was the son of a Guachichil woman and a Spaniard — a mestizo. So he knew how to speak Guachichil and so this is how he could communicate with the people. So, the order was this: silver for the crown. When they arrived here, already the Franciscan missionaries had arrived before them, and they arrived in Mezquitic de Carmona, over there, north of the city, and settled there and started to send people to search, to do their explorations. So along comes Miguel Caldera and a Guachichil, who showed him a rock that had gold. They already used it in their earrings and necklaces and jewelry. So Miguel Caldera asked him where they got it and the Indian showed him the hills, these ones. And so they sent these expeditions, they sent Pedro de Anda, and came to search in the cerros where the Indian told them this rock was. They come across this cerro, at the top, the Guachichiles — it’s the mine of La Guachichila, where they started at first to take the gold and then discovered that this mountain is full of minerals. … So the Spanish came and since 1592 started making holes all over the place. In 1611, the story goes, they called this cerro San Pedro [Saint Peter], because there were 7 or 8 Pedros in the group, so they named it Cerro de San Pedro mines of the Potosí in relation to the Potosí in Bolivia. So that hill, they [mined] it until it caved in. So it looked beautiful — you could see how it was all hollowed out in the middle. And this other one was called El Pópulo. But this one [Cerro de San Pedro] was the emblematic one. But from there, they took gold to Spain like you have no idea. … And so for us it was very important, our cerro — that’s where our name came from, Los Potosínos. And it is the origin of the foundation for SLP. Because here they couldn’t find water so they had to go down to the valley to look and there they made the first settlements and the haciendas de beneficio that are now the municipalities … all of these were different Spanish people that opened their haciendas to beneficiate the minerals, but they all came to Cerro de San Pedro to take the mineral. So this [Cerro de San Pedro] is the birthplace of the city of SLP. This is important for us.
- Ana María Alvarado Garcia
The extraction of natural resources, and mining in particular, often results in a clash over who determines the use of a resource or landscape. To understand how a mine like MSX can arrive to a place like Cerro de San Pedro and succeed in destroying that which defines the not only the identity of an entire town but also an entire state — requires taking a step back to look at the larger context of mining in Mexico.
The country’s long and complex history of land reforms is rooted in people’s struggle to maintain a collective identity through their connection to the land. In the post-Revolution era, large swaths of land — previously owned by the elite ruling class as haciendas — were redistributed back to the working class. The ejido and comunidad agraria (communal agricultural tenure systems) emerged as a result of these reforms and continue to exist to this day. Both collective and individual land ownership within these systems provides a strong sense of identity to its members. Membership is passed down generationally and serves as a culturally and legally recognized mechanism by which people are connected to a particular land-base.
After navigating one of the country’s largest depressions in the 1980’s, the Mexican government introduced a slew of neoliberal reforms throughout the following decade in an effort to stimulate the economy and attract foreign investment. These included incentives for ejido members to privatize individual parcels of land or lease communal land, namely to foreign mining companies. Additional reforms to the Mexican mining code resulted in the designation of mineral development and extraction as a preferred land use over all other types of land use — positioning it in direct conflict with agrarian land rights under the ejido system. But despite these reforms, the ejido system persists to this day, which is in part due to the sense of cultural identity associated with ejido membership.
When the federal government grants a mining concession, a company’s ability to extract the mineral deposit within that concession depends on obtaining surface access permits from ejidos and relevant local authorities. However, even if communities are in opposition to a mine, the revised federal mining code states that concession holders have the right to be granted all necessary land through “expropriation, temporal occupation or rights of way.” Didi Stoltenborg and Rutgerd Boelens highlight this their research on the conflict in Cerro de San Pedro, stating: “If landowners do not agree to a lease contract [with the company] they risk losing everything, with no compensation, through temporary occupancy.” As one ejido member from Cerro de San Pedro told me, “we are living in another conquista.”
Canadian companies lead the world in the development of mineral commodities and mining is crucial to the Canadian economy. An estimated 20 billion dollars of taxpayer support flows through Export Development Canada to the mining industry each year, by way of subsidized financing and insurance backing for Canadian firms operating abroad. A report from MiningWatch Canada and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group states, “60% of mining companies in the world [are] listed on the Canadian Stock Exchange” and that an estimated “32% of Canadian mining firms have been involved in reported mining conflicts.” Canada and Mexico have a close economic relationship through NAFTA, and Canada was heavily involved in the widespread economic restructuring throughout Mexico and Latin American in the 1990s. As a direct result, it is estimated that Canadian mining companies now own up to 70% of the mining concessions in Mexico.
Cerro de San Pedro is one of the oldest mine sites in Mexico, and the townsite serves as a living museum for the historical mining heritage of San Luis Potosí. The hills surrounding Cerro de San Pedro bear witness to centuries of subterranean mining activity as various companies passed through the town. According to Aristeo Gutiérrez Chávez, a long-time resident of Cerro de San Pedro, over 3000 people lived and worked there at one time.
But the days of bustling mine activity were all but ancient history by the time Metallica Resources came on the scene. When the company announced its plans for the open-pit mine in 1997, it was one of the first instances of a Canadian mining company taking advantage of the investment opportunities presented by NAFTA and the mining reforms of the 1990s. The news of the mine was met with mixed reactions from the residents of Cerro de San Pedro. The last industrial player in the community, the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), had left the region almost 50 years prior. Founded as a mining town, inhabitants were no strangers to the boom and bust cycles of the industry. As a result, the town was almost deserted, save for the families that stayed to do artisanal mining in the old mine workings. Over the years, many families left to search for work in the capital of San Luis Potosí or moved to other states.
Ana María Alvarado Garcia, who studied Agronomy at the University of SLP, fondly remembers the time she spent in Cerro de San Pedro as a child with her grandparents. They too left as the town dwindled in the prior decades, but their house remains. Ana María returned there when she finished university and recalls what Cerro de San Pedro was like when Metallica Resources arrived.
MSX uses the heap-leaching method to extract gold and silver from the ore that is taken from the open-pit. First, large amounts of rock containing tiny particles of gold and silver bearing minerals are blasted from the hill. The rock is trucked to another area and piled into a leach pad. This new mountain (the heap) of material is then irrigated with a cyanide solution that leaches the gold, silver, and other minerals from the rocks into a heavy sludge. Recovered minerals are then smelted into gold/silver bars known as doré, which are shipped elsewhere for further refining. This is a relatively new method of mining as opposed to conventional subterranean mining, which tunnels into the hills along well-established mineral deposits.
Technological advances in open-pit mining and heap-leaching methods have made mineral deposits that were previously not economically viable for extraction, viable. These methods also present much greater environmental risks due to the scale of the destruction, the use of cyanide, and the need for large amounts of water. Concerns over the environmental damage that stood to result from this type of mine formed the cornerstone of the opposition movement against MSX.
Mario Martínez was one of the first people from the community of Cerro de San Pedro to sound the alarm bells on the plans for the mine. He understood, perhaps better than anyone else, the significant differences between the conventional subterranean mining of Cerro de San Pedro’s past, and the open-pit mine proposed by MSX. Mario’s family is from Cerro de San Pedro. He left for university and later worked for various mines as a geological engineer in the neighbouring states, where instances of open-pit mines had already surfaced — like Real de Angeles in Zacatecas. The mine there remains unmitigated to this day, and the opponents to MSX pointed to it as an ominous example of the environmental and social devastation that can result from open-pit mining.
In 1993, the region surrounding Cerro de San Pedro was declared a protected ecological zone, for fear that additional industrial pressure would permanently damage the aquifer that supplies water to the city of SLP’s more than one million inhabitants. But this didn’t stop MSX from obtaining state and federal permissions for the mine. Once residents of caught wind of the plans, a small but well-organized movement of key community members from Cerro de San Pedro and concerned citizens from SLP — including academics, professionals, lawyers, ecologists, and the like — was formed. Collectively referred to as FAO, the opposition movement’s main concerns were the threat to Cerro de San Pedro’s historical heritage by the proposed relocation of the town, the environmental impacts from the mine due to the extensive consumption of water in a water scarce area, and the use of cyanide in the heap-leaching process. The movement is recognized as one of the first instances of resistance to a transnational, open-pit mine in Mexico, and members of FAO have worked to support similar movements against open-pit mining across Mexico and Latin America.
The problem was that the project wasn’t a conventional mining project; it was an open-pit mine. Something that was totally different. It wasn’t reactivating the mines; it was putting a model of extractivism that practically destroys everything. This is what was happening in 1999, the people of CSP organized and allied with people of SLP in the valley, [and] started a resistance, a legal struggle, a social mobilization, a political strategy — to nullify the permissions that the company claimed to have and prevent Cerro de San Pedro from being destroyed by a project like this.
- Juan Carlos Ruiz Guadalajara
In 2000, Vicente Fox was elected as Mexico’s first president from the National Action Party (PAN), ending the 70-year monopoly of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and restoring faith in Mexico’s democratic process. People were hopeful that this change would address government corruption and boost the economy. But the political will for the mine, regardless of the rule-of-law both at federal and state levels, became clear as FAO won key cases in court but the rulings were either unenforced, overturned, or by-passed through the use of temporary occupation permits.
Juan Carlos Ruiz Guadalajara, a well-respected historian-turned-activist through the case of MSX in Cerro de San Pedro, explains how the opposition’s struggle wasn’t just against the mine; it was against how things were being handled by the Mexican government.
At the time the opposition was challenging state and federal permissions, the mine was seeking access permits from the ejidos and the municipal government of Cerro de San Pedro. The company had previously secured ejido permissions, but it later turned out that the original signatories were not the rightful ejido members. Ana María, who holds a seat on the ejido, described the situation to me like this:
It was since the conflict that the company started to see how to tear down the town to make the mine inside the town. It was when we started looking for ways to make a legal case. … There was an agreement between the company and people who weren’t ejidatarios [ejido members], but they said they made a contract to rent [the land]. This was in 1997. And so, our first legal action was to challenge this document. Why are they renting it? They aren’t ejidatarios. So we, the ejidatarios, we wanted to challenge this. Because we are the owners of this place. And so we started our first legal action. … We started this case in 2003. The trial was in 2005. The [agrarian] tribunal decided in our favour that yes, this isn’t a contract. In 2005, the mining company lost land, due to this resolution. And what did they do? They go to the Secretary of Economy, and the Secretary of Economy grants them a temporary occupation. … But [they] were wrong in granting it. We made another case against the Secretary of Economy. Why did [they] grant it? How is it possible to give this permission? Because in the law it says that expropriation can only be granted for public ends, like making a highway — work that benefits the public. But this is a private company. And so, they granted it in 2005 and we opposed it. But here is where all these questions of mafias and illegal things come, of corruption and all of that.
- Ana María
The Canadian-owned New Gold Inc. is currently the sole owner of the Mexican subsidiary Minera San Xavier, which it purchased from Metallica Resources in 2007. According to New Gold’s website:
The Cerro San Pedro Mine has a history of ongoing legal challenges related primarily to a land use dispute, which challenges have been successfully overcome. The municipality of Cerro de San Pedro has a municipal land use plan (Plan) that clearly designates the area of the Cerro San Pedro Mine for mining. In August 2011, Semarnat approved a new EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] for the Cerro San Pedro mine based on the Plan. The Cerro San Pedro Mine has an enviable record of compliance with Mexican and international environmental, health and security standards and enjoys overwhelming local support as a trustworthy corporate citizen.
While approval for the mine’s revised EIS was granted in 2011, MSX began operations in 2007 — despite ongoing protestations from the opposition that it had no right to do so.
In 2007, while the opposition was forced to continue the whole legal path to show that these new permits were illegal and that this project was already nullified, taking advantage of the slowness of these legal administrative processes, and taking advantage of the complicity of all levels of authorities — federal, state and municipal — the Canadian mining company decided to start the project without the permits.
- Juan Carlos
This was until 2007 when the whole project started, started the blasting of our emblematic mountain; it was representative of who we are, of our state.
- Ana María
Well, the first thing the company did was to capture the population, to try to take advantage of the ignorance but as well to take advantage of the economic incapacity.
- Ana María
… It was a relief when the company arrived, because we said [that] we are not going to live in poverty, and they are going to give us work and everything.
- Cruz Alejandra
… The debate wasn’t if there’s employment or no employment, the battle was if this was permitted by the law, or not. And if it was in violation of the law, or not.
- Juan Carlos
The municipality of Cerro de San Pedro is the smallest in the state of San Luis Potosí. It encompasses 14 hamlets and small towns spread out between the hills and webbed together by roads worn in by hundreds of years of use, alongside new ones — freshly paved by the mine. The townsite of Cerro de San Pedro is almost completely empty during the week, save for the handful of families who live there full-time and the locals from neighbouring towns who come to take care of business at the municipal office. It has two beloved churches and sits at the base of the emblematic hill of San Pedro, now completely transformed by MSX. In response to the opposition and resistance from the community, the mine altered its original plans of relocating the townsite. As a result, the mouth of the open-pit is only a few hundred meters away from the edge of the town. While the preservation of the historical townsite helped win additional local support for the mine, some maintain that the company used divisive tactics to capitalize on social rifts in the community in order to get the permissions needed for operations.
Oscar Loredo, the former municipal president of Cerro de San Pedro, has felt the social tensions presented by the mine perhaps deeper than anyone. In 2004 and at the age of only 21, he was elected municipal president of Cerro de San Pedro — six years after his father had served in the same position. Both he and his father, Baltazar Loredo, were presidents within the timeframe the mine was petitioning the municipality for the land-use and construction permits.
In 1997, my father was the successful candidate for the municipal president. Unfortunately, after only 6 months — on the 21st of March 1998, he was assassinated and they made it look like a suicide. But during this time, when my dad was a candidate and the president, they started to review all the information on how the company started to buy properties in irregular ways. Properties that didn’t have an owner, where the owners had emigrated or passed away, properties that were part of the municipal patrimony, but in one-way or another, were sold to the company. … In this way, the company started to get the properties.
… Apart from properties being illegally obtained by the company, company managers arrived who weren’t very trustworthy and [they] started to have improper dealings with the municipality, and this is the way they advanced the project. They advanced with exploration, in the construction of all the facilities: preparing the pit, the area for the heap leaching, laboratories, offices — this was between 1995 and 2003. In 2004 … I won [the election] and I started, like my father, to review the whole project, all the information, apart from the little I knew and we started to realize that the project had a lot of irregularities, and more than anything, left more damages than benefits for the municipality. So the moment the company started asking for the renewal of construction permits and for its permanence in the municipality, we realized that the mine had lots of privileges. … [That permits had been] granted at a very low price … [and] didn’t reflect any accountability of the company towards the municipality. … So in all that, the state and federal permits were already approved [and] they were only missing our consent, like they say, the consent on a local level.
- Oscar Loredo
The murder of Oscar’s father speaks to the tensions in the community that were fuelled by what certain individuals stood to gain or lose with the mine’s approval. Oscar says that his effort to review the municipal permits for the mine was part of his administration’s attempt to ensure that the project would bring more benefits to the community than damages. He also wanted to make sure that the taxes the mine paid went back to the community — not into the pockets of individuals in the presidency. But this cost the company time and money. According to Oscar, the managers of the mine were accustomed to coming to the municipal presidents and getting what they wanted without being questioned about it. When he started pushing back, it generated concern at much higher levels. On July 29, 2004, Oscar attended a state dinner with all the presidents from the municipalities in San Luis Potosí. The President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, and the governor of San Luis Potosí, Marcelo de los Santos, were also in attendance. Oscar’s interaction with President Fox at the state dinner had a profound influence on the future of the mine.
Oscar was still a university student during this time and recounts how after his interaction with President Fox, he’d receive phone calls directly from the Governor’s office to his cell phone. State representatives would wait for him outside his classes, pressuring him on the timelines for getting the permissions signed. Oscar says that at that point, he realized he didn’t have a choice. He was up against the political will at the national level in Mexico that was bent on ensuring that foreign investment remained attractive — regardless of the cost at the local level.
But for many people living in the municipality of Cerro de San Pedro, including the town of La Zapatilla, the mine also presented an economic opportunity for the immediate future. Aristeo Gutiérrez Chávez, also an ejido member, was one of the most vocal supporters of the mine during the time the FAO was fighting against it. Aristeo was born in Cerro de San Pedro and started working in the mines at a young age.
When mining work was scarce, Aristeo went north to the United States to work in agriculture, but he didn’t like the work: “There was a lot of sun, [it was] very hot.” He preferred working in the coolness of the mine, closer to home. Aristeo returned to Cerro de San Pedro to work as an artisanal miner when the price of mineral commodities recovered. He was able to make more money this way — working in small groups with other men to extract minerals from existing subterranean mines — as opposed to working directly for a company. But he supported MSX when it arrived because he knew others wouldn’t have the skills necessary to make a living from doing artisanal mining on their own.
For Aristeo, FAO consisted mostly of people who weren’t from Cerro de San Pedro, and who didn’t have the right to be standing between the mine and the benefits it could bring to the town. This sentiment wasn’t uncommon amongst community members. Tension existed between the concerns FAO was raising and the pressures of daily life people in Cerro de San Pedro faced. “There was a certain criticism from the people of Cerro de San Pedro towards the people from SLP,” says Lorena Gil Barba, a former member of FAO from SLP, “This was notable.” While people living in the community may have been concerned about potential impacts, many didn’t feel comfortable openly siding with FAO. Lorena’s husband, Enrique Rivera Sierra, is a lawyer who was involved with FAO at the height of the conflict over MSX. He recounts that the ties FAO had to the community were mostly through people like Mario Martínez and Ana María: people whose families were from Cerro de San Pedro, but had since moved elsewhere when work in the community was scarce. Even to an outsider like me, the divide between the people that return to family homes in Cerro de San Pedro on holidays and weekends or after retirement, as opposed to the locals who stayed and suffered through decades of economic drought, is evident.
Ernestina Alvarado Castillo grew up in the old La Zapatilla. She and her husband both work for the mine and now live in La Nueva [the New] Zapatilla, along with Ernestina’s siblings, their children and grandchildren. The community leaders of the old La Zapatilla signed a deal with the company to relocate the town in exchange for new houses, employment in the mine, and land. Tonnes of material blasted from the mountain of Cerro de San Pedro was trucked four kilometers away to the leach pad built over the old La Zapatilla, this new mountain growing at the same rate Cerro de San Pedro was being destroyed.
Similar to the neighbouring towns in the municipality, La Nueva Zapatilla consists of a handful of family groups, a few tiendas, and a church, alongside the small medical clinic and kindergarten built by the mine. The new houses are constructed with cement, as opposed to the traditional adobe homes in the old La Zapatilla. Ernestina tells me that many people still think the old La Zapatilla was better, “It’s very beautiful, how I remember my Zapatilla, where I was a girl,” she says, “There was a lot of shade, here there is almost no shade.” Ernestina recalls how the houses were bigger, and the layout of the town much more spacious. The only structure that remains at the old townsite now is the church. Part of the original agreement the community made with the mine when the town was relocated was that the church would remain, undestroyed. Community members can go back to visit it if they make arrangements with the mine. The church is the cultural cornerstone of communities in Cerro de San Pedro. From weekly mass to celebrations of the patron saints, people’s identities consist of their family name, where they were born, and what church they were either married, baptised or buried in.
Cruz Alejandra Alvarado was born in the old La Zapatilla and relocated to La Nueva Zapatilla with her parents when she was three. She recalls her grandparents’ lives as farmers in the old La Zapatilla, and how hard it was for them. Both of her parents work for the mine, and she is the only person in La Zapatilla attending university.
Going to university is no easy feat for someone from a pueblo like La Zapatilla, where just finishing basic education is a challenge. When Cruz was little, she and the rest of the children would walk through the desert from La Zapatilla to the neighbouring town of Portezuelo to get to school. It’s about a twenty-minute walk for an adult — Cruz says it took her an hour when she was little. Once, a pickup truck followed a group of the students on their way home. After it passed by them a few times, the older kids got suspicious. “It gave us a lot of fear, we thought they were going to kill us,” Cruz recalls. They dropped their things and scattered, eventually making their way back to La Zapatilla. Families were obviously concerned, as violence is not uncommon in this region. In response, the mine set up transportation to the school in Portezuelo. They also offer adult education programs in the communities to support people who want to finish their schooling. This is huge for communities like Cerro de San Pedro and La Zapatilla, where public transportation is scarce, and access to education can be difficult.
Without basic education, it is hard to find work even within the industrial sector of San Luis. Ernestina spoke with me about these challenges at her home in La Nueva Zapatilla.
Me: And what are the other options for work here? Aside from the mine?
Ernestina: A lot of people go work in San Luis. In the industrial zone. Yeah, they go there, to San Luis. There in the zone they go work for Bimbo, there in the factories, where the factories are.
Me: And what do you think is better? What form of work do you think is better? In the mine, or the factories in the industrial zone?
Ernestina: I say that, well, it’s good over here. Here it’s good because even if you don’t know anything they hire you, and in other factories, they want you to have studied, and you might not have studied. And here they give us the possibility to have work without [education]. And in other places, something better, I wouldn’t be able to. Because I am not educated. This is what I think.
Me: And right now, your son is studying?
Ernestina: Manuelín is a student. He’s in secondary school, he’s about to finish. And Miguel, well he already finished his high school. So he’s now working in a fabrica [factory] right down there. And I told him, “Ah, Miguel, you ought to go to the university.” But he said that no, because, well, … it’s hard. So I tell Manuelín, work hard in high school, work hard, because it’s really hard, the life.
Me: The life to study or the life without having studied?
Ernestina: Ándele, you have to study to move forward, right?
Oscar agrees that the mine presented employment opportunities to people in the community who didn’t finish school and who wouldn’t have the same opportunities in the industrial zone of SLP. But this is countered by risks of working in the mine. “The more risk the work has, the better the pay is,” Oscar says.
The existing fabrication sector keeps the city of one million plus churning and provides work for many people in the satellite communities, such as Cerro de San Pedro. But transportation to the industrial zone can be up to an hour or more each way, and for basic jobs, the pay is usually minimum wage. With the mine in Cerro de San Pedro, people didn’t have to travel to get to work, could obtain work even without basic education, and had a higher earning potential depending on the position. So the idea of a mine in a location like Cerro de San Pedro is an understandably attractive one for residents who don’t have a lot of other options. This is why education is so important. People believe that if they make enough money to get their kids through school and into university, that this will pave the way to a better future with more options for their children.
When I asked Cruz what she wanted to do when she was done studying, she told me she wanted to travel. But when it comes to settling down, she didn’t hesitate to answer where she saw herself.
Well, I will live here. I never will change the city … since I was small I have been here, I was never was in another place. Because when my grandparents were around I told them that I wanted to be here, where they were born, and where they died, and they gave me the desire to do that. I want to die where I was born. This is what I want. I don’t want to stay in another place more than here. In my life, yes I want to go to other countries to visit, but at another point, I will return.
- Cruz Alejandra
Family and sense of place are paramount in towns like La Zapatilla. I didn’t meet anyone from here who wanted to live somewhere else, despite that they are now living at the base of a toxic leach pad. MSX entered its closure phase in 2014, triggering the first wave of layoffs and subsequent ripple effects across the communities. As the heap-leaching process continues in La Zapatilla, residents anticipate having employment for the next few years. But the impending closure of the mine is raising some big questions for the future of families that are dependant on employment from the mine. What will happen when the mine closes?
Well this is what I am asking, what are we going to do? Go to other employment? This is what I told you, if the mine leaves — if only there were more employment. If only someone came to put another — if only there was work. If not, what will we do? Where are we going? What will happen? The older people who can’t work, where will they live? Naturally, those who have animals, have that, but if you don’t have money, if there’s no work, how will you keep your animals? How will you manage them, if there’s no money? I want to know what’s going to happen. When the mine finishes what will happen?
Juan Carlos was critical of the “jobs” argument for the mine from the start. He argues that the debate was about whether the mine was permitted by the law, not about employment. Now that the mine is closing, the ephemeral nature of the kind of work it generated has come full circle.
When work was scarce in the communities of Cerro de San Pedro, some people moved to San Luis or traveled to other states in search of work — or the United States, like Aristeo. But others didn’t have the means or mobility to do so. When I met with Marc Davila Harris, the Director of Sustainable Development for New Gold, he organized for us to have lunch at the house of Doña Rosa. A small, determined-looking Mexican granny, Doña Rosa’s creased skin and sharp eyes tell of the years she has weathered in Cerro de San Pedro. She represents the people here who have lived through the boom and bust cycles of the industry. New Gold supports people like Doña Rosa through their recently formed Groupo de Desarrollo de Cerro de San Pedro [Development Group of Cerro de San Pedro]. The focus of the group is to cultivate and support community entrepreneurship in order to leave alternate local economies behind as the mine enters its closure phase.
As a social and cultural anthropologist, Marc has had an interest in the interactions between mega projects and communities since the beginning of his career. He tells me he has been trying to understand “why we love technology, why we love transportation, why we love all the ultimate things in our comfortable lives, but we are against the activities that create part of those benefits for our way of living.” For Marc, the debate on mining shouldn’t be framed as for or against — mining just is. It is a part of our culture.
... When I dipped into the mining sector, I realized that the debate or the conversation is completely sterile, if we think that mining is good or bad. The debate is how the mining companies are interacting right now, with the local environment, with the communities. Are those companies following the best practices? Are those companies working together [to try and] share their benefits with the local communities, with the society, with the employees? And are those mining activities preventing conflicts?
- Marc Davila
Before the arrival of MSX, the old La Zapatilla lacked basic services and like other towns in the municipality was connected by very poor roads. Marc points out that even though Cerro de San Pedro is only 13 kilometers from the state capital, the people here are living in a totally different reality. SLP is growing and has well-off districts, but there is little focus on the satellite communities. Mining companies are then left to temporarily “fill the empty power void” in providing communities with what they are lacking in government services, like health care, education, roads, water, and electricity. The difference, Marc explains, is how “ethical and unethical companies” occupy the power void where the government is absent.
Like many of his colleagues in SLP, Marc was concerned when he first heard about the plans for MSX. But he left to work in Europe for a few years shortly after and was gone during the height of the conflict. The main mistake of the previous owner, according to Marc, was creating division in the community. He explains that when New Gold bought MSX from Metallica Resources in 2007, they bought the commitments Metallica Resources made to the community, as well as “the good steps along with the bad ones.”
MSX is the first mine New Gold is closing. Maintaining investor confidence throughout this process is crucial to keep money flowing for other projects. New Gold’s Rainy River project in Ontario, Canada began production in 2017, after being beset by project delays and going 195 million dollars over budget during the construction phase. Silvana Costa, Senior Advisor in Environment and Social Responsibility at New Gold’s head office in Toronto, explains that New Gold needs to demonstrate to shareholders that they can go through a project’s closure phase with positive results. “We have been working diligently to align community relations at MSX with New Gold’s corporate values” Costa says, “the aim is to ensure a consistent approach to community engagement across all our operations and to go through closure without conflicts and with a clear focus on [a] long-term, sustainable legacy for the local community.”
Marc tells me now the community and MSX “have a better way to communicate between each other”. The biggest challenge for the future, according to Marc, is how the town is going to succeed after the mine.
How are we gonna keep the social fabric of the town? Because you can’t deny the mine is the magnet of the community right now. When the mine leaves town, I mean in few years but [the day will come], what’s gonna be the magnet of the community? ... Right now Cerro de San Pedro is a very well developed tourist place with not enough services. ... We had a very important diagnostic in social tourism here and we shared [it with] the community ... now we have a parking lot, we have better infrastructure, we are working [...] to create the Paseo Patio Victoria which is going to be a rebuilt mining area as an open museum for mining history and Cerro de San Pedro history in a remediated area from the historical waste of ASARCO. So it’s going to be a heritage and that’s going to be another magnet to keep people’s activities here because people deserve to survive here, right? No one should leave, no one leaves [their] hometown if [they] don’t need to ... people deserve to stay here and we are doing our best to participate in that process.
- Marc Davila
The mine’s investment in Cerro de San Pedro’s tourism potential is a major pillar of their closure plans. On the weekends, people from the neighbouring towns and the capital of San Luis Potosí come to enjoy food vendors and artisans that line the town square and wind up the streets. Cerro de San Pedro is referred to as un pueblo magico [a magical town], as many of these historical and picturesque towns across Mexico are fondly referred to. The Mexican government even created a program with the same namesake (Pueblos Magicos) to promote tourism in towns like Cerro de San Pedro. While there is no doubt that the community benefits from the infrastructure investments and support for local entrepreneurs that the mine provides, both Juan Carlos and Ana María are deeply critical of the idea that the mine is leaving a legacy of tourism in the town.
... The defense of CSP wasn’t just for the environmental issues, no, but also for the historical significance that this town has, and the mountain that they destroyed, all this significance it had, was the only thing that we managed to save. Which is a lot. It’s a lot. Because the company didn’t venture to go forward with the plan to relocate the town. For now, for now. And so, like any good company of criminals, when they saw all the arguments of the resistance, in terms of the historical patrimony, they had no choice but to respect the historical site. And now they exploit it. Now they exploit it. They say, “Ah we are so good, that we are going to help the town.” And so they converted it to this, to what it had always been. Before there was the mine, Cerro de San Pedro was a weekend town. This isn’t something new.
- Juan Carlos
Always [we had] an alternative proposal: to reconstruct the town to give it cultural and historical context and give it this value, the architectural and cultural value that it has. And our proposal was — we presented several projects to the government to counter the mining project — to restore the farms, to promote tourism, but we didn’t achieve [it] because the economic interest of the mine was stronger.
- Ana María
The opposition argued that MSX threatened the cultural heritage of the town — its very foundation as a tourist attraction. FAO focused much of its efforts on promoting the tourism potential of Cerro de San Pedro, arguing it didn’t need the mine for economic development. They organized annual music festivals and promoted performances and cultural events in Cerro de San Pedro during the weekends. These events continued even after the mine started operations, as a way of continuing the resistance and raising awareness around the issues surrounding the mine.
Ironically, the conflict over the mine likely contributed to putting Cerro de San Pedro on the map for increased tourism. People wanted to see what all the fuss was about, including researchers from all over the world who came to do projects about Cerro de San Pedro and the FAO movement. “If we didn’t have the mining project, we wouldn’t have so much [publicity],” says Ana María, “but never again are we going to return to the life of mining, and never again are we going to have the emblematic mountain that we had, nor the cultural landscape. We lost a lot.”
FAO focused the majority of its resistance efforts in preserving the townsite of Cerro de San Pedro — the home of the emblematic cerro. New Gold’s effort in fostering the tourism industry as a transitional economy once the mine closes has also mainly focused on Cerro de San Pedro, where the historical infrastructure exists. La Zapatilla never received the same level of attention from FAO and in many ways, is the forgotten town in this story. While the residents have received the benefits the mine promised — including a medical clinic, kindergarten, and new roads — they are faced with the most uncertain economic future as the mine enters its closure phase. Having sacrificed the cultural patrimony of the town to relocate for the mine, the residents of La Zapatilla don’t stand to benefit from tourism opportunities like Cerro de San Pedro does.
The final legacy of Minera San Xavier in Cerro de San Pedro has yet to be seen. But the events that unfolded since the arrival of MSX till now have already had lasting impacts on individuals, communities, and landscapes. These events carry a message regarding Canada’s role in regulating the mining industry abroad, as well as Mexico’s role in promoting the interests of mining companies at home.
Enrique Rivera Sierra and Lorena Gil Barba met in the resistance: Enrique, a fiery, outspoken lawyer in his early thirties at the time, and Lorena, a soft-spoken university student. In addition to the legal services Enrique provided to FAO, he and Lorena helped organize numerous events and demonstrations against MSX. Their relationship bloomed as they worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the environmental damages posed by the mine, as well as the issues with the state and federal permits. Among those opposed to the mine, Enrique and Lorena’s story reflects how conflict around mining is often symptomatic of deeper social issues.
During Semana Santa [Easter week] in 2006, Enrique and Lorena were in Cerro de San Pedro — talking to locals and handing out information about the work FAO was doing — when they were attacked by two men who allegedly worked for the mine. Enrique sustained head injuries from the metal headlamp that he was struck with during the assault. Tensions were high in the community at the time, and the experience shook both of them badly. It was the first time physical force had been used against members of FAO. A photographer from the local newspaper photographed Enrique’s injuries. The story ran in the paper, but the authorities did nothing about it. After that, Enrique says that they just tried to be more vigilant as they carried on with their work.
The following year during a protest in SLP, some students who were involved with FAO were arrested and jailed. When Enrique went to inquire about their release, the students informed him that they were told they would not be released until they signed some papers. Enrique says he told them, “Well sign it! Let’s go!” But the papers falsely accused Enrique of providing the students with drugs and money to come to the demonstration and be disruptive, and the students had refused to sign them. That is when Enrique learned of the authorities’ plan to try and incriminate him. Their logic, he says, was “to try and make an example of a few of us to scare people away.” At that time, FAO was receiving a lot of media coverage for the demonstrations they were holding not only in San Luis but also in Mexico City. This was making state officials uneasy.
Even after this incident, Enrique says that they tried to continue on with normal life. But the following Sunday, as he and Lorena were on their way home from an event, a friend spotted them en route and warned Enrique not to go back to his house — it was surrounded by the police.
At that point, everything changed.
Enrique took hiding in the house of his sister until he was able to get his documents organized to escape the country for Montreal. During the course of the FAO’s resistance to MSX, a relationship formed between the opposition and researchers from the University of McGill, mainly through Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, a professor in Latin American and environmental studies. Studnicki-Gizbert established the McGill Research Group Investigating Canadian Mining in Latin America in 2007. He and his students worked closely with members of FAO to generate awareness and research focused on Canadian mining conflicts in Latin America. Enrique tells me that when Studnicki-Gizbert heard of his situation, he encouraged Enrique to come to Canada, where he could continue to denounce the mine while being protected from the escalating persecution he faced in Mexico. Prior to the events that led to his exodus from SLP, Enrique says, “I didn’t even know where Montreal was on a map.”
Ana María recalls how similar events across Mexico put a chill on FAO.
I think the movement lost a lot strength. For everything that is happening in San Luis and Mexico. I saw that since Felipe Calderon came into power, with the war against drugs, all this deal with shootings and all that. All of this is influencing the people, and people feel like it’s better to stay quiet and under the radar. So from here people in our movement started to leave, they were fearful to come to San Pedro, and the people started to distance themselves from the movement. ... And for us here, with the legal recourse, exhausted, with the company going on, with these intimidations and everything. What movement? What do you end up with? I continue here because here I have to do something. But alive, because if you’re dead, what do you do?
- Ana María
Enrique claimed refugee status when he landed in Montreal. During the three years he waited for a hearing on his claim, he worked low-wage jobs while continuing his activism against MSX and the political injustices that forced him from Mexico. Delegations from FAO in San Luis Potosí also came to Canada to raise awareness of the issues they were facing at the hands of a Canadian mine in Mexico.
Lorena flew back and forth from Mexico every six months on a tourist visa to see Enrique. They got married in Montreal in the spring of 2010, just prior to Enrique receiving refugee status. In response to the evidence presented during his hearing, the ruling states:
There is a reasonable possibility that [Rivera] would be persecuted were he to return to Mexico today and in the future. He has not been able to get state protection; in fact, the state, both at the state and federal levels, has been the persecuting agent.
A report from the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project found that between 2000 and 2015 there were 44 deaths, over 400 people injured, and over 700 cases of criminalization in connection to 28 Canadian mining companies operating in 13 different countries across Latin America.
The Canadian government provides support to the mining industry abroad through financing, insurance, diplomatic support, tax incentives, and research and development funding. Despite having signed onto frameworks to address social and environmental issues abroad, the former Conservative government was heavily criticized for not doing more to meaningfully address these issues. In 2009, Liberal MP John McKay introduced Private Member bill C-300 — legislation that would hold mining companies listed on Canadian stock exchanges accountable for their actions overseas. The bill was narrowly defeated in 2009 and again in 2011 under the Conservative government. Those opposed felt that it would be overstepping diplomatic boundaries to regulate companies outside of Canada, claiming that Canadian companies were already subscribing to “world class [corporate social responsibility (CSR)] initiatives.”
In 2016, New Gold ranked fifth in the ‘Future 40 Most Responsible Corporate Leaders in Canada’ by Corporate Knights. In 2015, it was recognized as one of the top five socially responsible mining companies by Maclean’s/Sustainaliytics ‘Top 50 Socially Responsible Corporations in Canada’. The same year, MSX received the ‘Outstanding Business Award’ for their Social Responsibility performance in 2015 from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Mexico (CANCHAM). They also received ‘The Socially Responsible Company of 2015’ award by the Mexican Center for Philanthropy (CEMEFI), for the sixth year in a row. An impressive list of accolades, but it is worth noting that these awards are generated by self-regulatory and corporation-sponsored systems. They are not government regulated, nor held to legislated guidelines.
The idea that CSR alone, in the absence of monitoring or enforceable standards, can meaningfully mitigate environmental or social impacts of Canadian mining abroad has been widely criticised by academics and NGO’s. The Justice and Corporate Accountability Project has “documented troubling incidents of violence associated with Canadian mining companies in Latin America,” and concludes “[i]n general, neither the Canadian government nor industry are monitoring or reporting on these incidents.” An article published by the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, highlights the “economic benefits of foreign extractive options tend to overshadow home governments’ desire to enforce stringent regulations and standards.”
In January of 2018, the Liberal government announced that an independent ombudsperson would be established to resolve conflicts between Canadian companies and local communities overseas. It will also have the mandate to investigate human rights abuses and withhold governmental support. This is welcome news to groups such as MiningWatch Canada, who have been advocating for this type of oversight since 2005.
Increased accountability for Canadian companies is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t stop at the border. As Ann Helwege points out in her research regarding the challenges in resolving mining conflict in Latin America, the investigation into environmental and criminal transgressions may “reduce the sense that Canadian firms act with impunity ... [but] the real work must be done in Latin America.”
The solution to [mining conflict] goes beyond the provisions of law and translates to the plane of political struggle. [Translation]
- F. López Bárcenas, M. Montserrat & E. Galicia, El Mineral o La Vida: La legislación minera en México
Two years after receiving the refugee status ruling, Enrique and Lorena decided to come back to Mexico to work in their chosen professions and start a family. A new state government had been elected, and the resistance movement had devolved into a fragment of what it once was. Enrique and Lorena say that now the biggest concern for people living SLP is the narcos [drug traffickers]. According to Lorena, if the mine arrived now, people wouldn’t even pay attention to it.
Enrique is actively involved in support of MORENA, the left-leaning political party in Mexico led by the two-time presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The campaign is in full swing now for the upcoming federal elections in June 2018. Enrique is hopeful that a change in state and federal governments will address corruption in Mexican politics, which he believes is at the root of the conflict around mines like MSX.
… With NAFTA, with all these ingredients, you won’t be able to dismantle these injustices. No matter how many speeches are delivered by our representatives or how many agreements are signed, the only way [forward] is for there to be a plan of the government, a plan of the country that acknowledges that foreign investment is necessary, that development in communities is necessary, that mining is necessary — obviously it’s necessary. No one is saying that it’s not, but there are ways of doing it. There are referendums that you have to make in the communities. You have to ask the people, “Listen, ladies and gentlemen, indigenous communities, farmers: are you in favor of an open-pit mine, which will endanger your goats, your sheep, your chickens, your river, your water?” They will say no. Or perhaps they will say yes. But ask them. And give them the information. This is what you do in a country [that is] said to be democratic. This won’t happen in Mexico while the same [criminal] gang is in power. And so I am of the belief that if we want this country to change in the matter of mining and in other matters — but we are talking right now of transnational mining and the hurt they are causing — in 2018, once again, we have a new opportunity. And the time is near. ... I think it’s really clear what plans for the country are being proposed, and I think Mexicans already know what to do.
- Enrique Rivera
A photo of Oscar seated between Vicente Fox and Marcello de los Santos hangs in his office in the industrial zone of SLP. He is finally putting his degree in industrial engineering to use working for a manufacturing company. It took him a while to find work after leaving office — he tells me it is often difficult for former politicians to find work in Mexico as they are assumed to be corrupt. Oscar doesn’t have any aspirations to return to local politics, but he remains committed to the municipality of Cerro de San Pedro where he continues to live. He too is hopeful for change with better local governance.
… I think that tomorrow we have the opportunity to elect a better authority that works in support of the local government [and] in support of the people, so that the municipality — despite being a small municipality, the smallest in the state — may become great because of its people, for its motivation to be better, to move forward. … Not just waiting for a mining project, or handouts from the municipality, or things like that, no. Have hope to be better, because you want to do it, you want to work, want to struggle to be better. And this all makes your surroundings become better. … I think [Cerro de San Pedro] has changed. It hasn’t changed how I would have liked, but in the end, it’s important that if...that the little bit that we have left here, has made some change.
- Oscar Loredo
Even without the emblematic hill and after the mine has come and gone, Cerro de San Pedro remains. It belongs to the people; they are the ones who stay, they are the ones who will return.