Esperanza Salazar is a fighter. You can tell by the way she keeps her chin up when she explains why she had to leave Mexico and move to Canada, why she can’t return home.
Esperanza comes from Colima, the fourth smallest province in Mexico. She is the General Coordination of Bios Iguana, a Mexican organization that operates in the city of Zacualpan against the government imposition of a mining concession for the company Gabfer to extract gold on indigenous communal land.
“Gabfer is a small company owned by Tech, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company Tech Resources,” Esperanza explains. “Since the government opened to concessions, two years ago, Gabfer has been trying to build a gold mine on indigenous land, only 800 meters from Zacualpan.”
Before the project could start, the Nahua indigenous community living in Zacualpan contacted Bios Iguana asking for an analysis of the effects that mining activities would have on their territories. For Esperanza, the situation wasn’t new. Only in Colima, in a territory of 5,5000 square meters, the government had already issued 800 concessions. A total of 27,000 all across Mexico.
Giving the green light
In terms of mining investments, the country ranks fourth in the world, and first in Latin America. During the past decade, the Mexican government has given the green light to a growing number of companies, often without any prior consultation with the local communities. While the national government provides the facilities, the federal government in Colima has been trying to change the status of the communal land through the Agrarian Attorney, to make it easier for companies to access the territory at the locals’ expense.
Reporting on the situation, Bios Iguana declared that the proximity of the mine to the water sources would cause pollution and environmental degradation, with deadly consequences on the local community.
“After informing the people in Zacualpan about the risks of mining activities, we started working with the community on preventing strategies,” Esperanza recalls. “We organized visits to mines already in operation so that people could talk to the local communities and find out more about their experience.”
The contamination of water sources, along with dust and soil pollution, has tragic consequences on people’s health. In several mining areas across Mexico, the cancer rate is on the rise as well as the number of miscarriages, premature births, and births with malformations.
With the information collected by Bios Iguana, the community in Zacualpan held a public meeting in which they voted against the mining project. Since then, organization members have received threats from individuals linked to the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), formed by people who split from Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1988.
“Women are called prostitutes, their families are threatened, their animals are killed,” Esperanza explains. “We have been threatened of being cut into pieces, our phones are always under control, and we have been accused of being part of the organized crime, of selling drugs, and of hiding arms in the community.”
“Someone has to listen.”
The situation kept escalating until Esperanza received a voodoo doll with her name on it. That was when she realized that she wasn’t safe any longer and she was forced to leave the country.
Following the events, Bios Iguana reported to the national and federal departments of human rights, and filed a series of criminal complaints that remain unanswered. “We have also filed complaints with UN Special Rapporteurs and signed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,” says Esperanza. “Someone has to listen.”
During the past decades, disputes over indigenous rights to land and resource development have become increasingly heated. In 1992, Roger Moody published The Gulliver File, a 900-page book in which he listed the major mining projects and their parent companies around the world, giving an account of their history and environmental impact. In a region like Latin America, where most of the rural land is inhabited by approximately 40,000,000 indigenous peoples, the issue continues to be felt.
On the policy level, major steps have been taken thanks to the publication of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), a guide to facilitate the application of human rights principles within business activities. Despite international legislations on the matter, the dialogue between governments, mining companies, and indigenous people is still arduous.
Esperanza seems hesitant on the matter: “The only way to promote a dialogue is to respect the self-determination of indigenous people and their decision to declare their territory mining-free,”
She continues: “You cannot start a constructive dialogue when 200 hectares of land have already been given in concession to mining companies for the next 50 years, without any prior consultation. You can’t start a dialogue if you feel threatened or if you are forced to leave your home. It’s just not the way it should work.”