Natural resource corporations are flocking to the mountainous Sierra Norte of Mexico’s Puebla state. In recent years, this remote area has seen an explosion of investment, and today is considered the next frontier for everything from gold mining to hydraulic fracturing and hydroelectricity.
Leftist and environmental activists in this region of Central Mexico say the companies are bringing drugs, crime, and ruining the ancestral lands of indigenous Mexicans.
For some of those living in the Sierra, the flurry of investment has brought the region economic opportunities that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Others say the boom has exacerbated water scarcity, polluted the natural environment, and drawn organized crime to once idyllic mountain villages.
Activists now collectively label these resource initiatives with the catch-all term “proyectos de muerte” – death projects.
“Why do we call them death projects? Because they just destroy everything,” said Jesus, a farmer from the town of Tepango de Rodriguez who declined to give his second name.
Today, the struggle between the so-called death projects and activists has left the Sierra with the unwelcome title of worst place in Mexico in terms of mining-related conflicts, according to the Mexican Network for Those Affected by Mining (REMA).
“The only thing they have achieved with their progress and development is a generation of dreadful environmental burdens, irreversible damage to health, dispossession and forced displacement of entire peoples,” REMA stated.
Is the Sierra’s resource boom bringing progress and development to a long-neglected corner of Mexico, or is it destroying the traditional way of life for hundreds of thousands of largely indigenous Mexicans?
Puebla’s Boom Town
From the moment you hit the highway out to the Sierra, the classic boom town feel hits you. As the verdant green mountains rise up on the horizon of Puebla state’s central plains, the traffic increases and the highway becomes unexpectedly congested. Up in the highlands, heavy industrial vehicles roar through awkward dirt roads that wind between small plots of corn, apples, beans, and coffee. Mining concessions dot the map, and signs of industry are everywhere. Backroads once trodden by little more than donkeys and the occasional pick-up truck are now packed bumper to bumper with tractors, heavy vehicles hauling drilling equipment, earthmovers, and other behemoths of the road.
To supporters of the resource boom, the purring of engines and the sounds of industry mean three things: jobs, fresh investment, and opportunities for young people. That last one is critical; across Mexico, small towns and rural communities like those of the Sierra Norte have long been bleeding their youth, with young adults being forced to search for work in the cities or abroad. According to the Mexican National Population Council, half of all Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. are from rural communities, despite the fact that these communities only account for around a quarter of the overall population of Mexico.
Now some are moving back, at least in the Sierra Norte, where mining advocates say the work is good, and the money is better. One company that says it has developed a positive relationship with local communities is Almaden Minerals Ltd, which operates near the town of Ixtacamaxtitlan.
“Almaden Minerals Ltd. has been working … [in the Sierra] for more than 10 years, and throughout all these years, we have generated more than a cordial relationship with the community of Ixtacamaxtitlan,” said Daniel Santamaria Tovar, the vice president of Almaden’s local exploratory subsidiary, Minera Gorrion S.A. de C.V.
The company’s flagship exploratory project in the region, the Ixtaca Zone, is a lucrative deposit of gold and silver that Almaden has described as “one of Mexico’s premier precious metals deposits.”
The site is still under exploration, but Almaden is optimistic that it could “produce a total of 724,000 ounces of gold and 49 million ounces of silver over a 13-year mine life.”
However, Almaden and Minera Gorrion’s activities in the area have been met with controversy. Earlier this year, a coalition of four environmental and community groups issued a report alleging the company’s activities have harmed the local population, including around Ixtacamaxtitlan.
“The company has already affected the right to a healthy environment for the population of Ixtacamaxtitlan,” the report stated.
Specifically, it alleged any communities within 5km of the Ixtaca Zone may already be suffering dangerous levels of “atmospheric contaminants” and “significant concentrations of dust.” The dust in particular is a common complaint for locals, who argue the influx of heavy vehicles has turned the region’s poorly maintained dirt roads into clouds of irritating particulate.
“The concentrations of atmospheric contaminants principally during the day … can result in health risks, [and] already surpass 50ug/m3 in a radius of 5 kilometers,” the report found.
It concluded, “The populations situated within an area of 5 kilometers would suffer significant concentrations of dust.”
“They [Almaden] don’t respect the people,” said Silvia Villaseñor, a community organizer from the Mexican Institute for Community Development (IMDEC). Her organization was among the co-publishers of the report, though she argued the impact of Almaden’s activities could go much deeper than respiratory illnesses.
Indeed, the report alleged Almaden’s operations could be contributing to a “domino effect” of erosion and deforestation, and an “aridification” of the Sierra Norte. It also claimed Almaden has a track record of understating the full extent of its operations.
“[Almaden] says there’s no [environmental] damage because they’re only exploring. But our research clearly shows there is,” she said, warning the growth of the mining industry has the potential to devastate the region’s traditionally agricultural base.
“There’s just two things the people need: their land and their water. And right now, the miners are putting both those things at risk,” Villaseñor said. In particular, she warned of water shortages with the potential to cripple small-scale farms – shortages she claims may have been exacerbated by the mining industry.
“Currently, the mining law says mining is a preferential economic activity. This means it’s even more important than food. So [the miners] get priority for the use of water,” she said, explaining how locals in many areas only receive water three times a week.
“Meanwhile, the miners can use as much water as they like,” she said.
Santamaria responded to the claims by stating, “None of the allegations made on that report are true.”
“To this date, we have an excellent relationship with local communities, municipal, state and federal governments, and have respected all the Mexican institutions that regulate our work, such as SEMARNAT and PROFEPA,” he said.
The company also says it works hard to give back to the local community, including through “health and social welfare projects.”
“To date, we have helped with local construction and improvement projects including work on a school, public bathrooms, a community hall, a local church and a hospital,” Almaden stated.
However, Almaden and its subsidiary are far from alone in coming under the spotlight of activists, who lump the company in with the rest of the “death projects.”
To Villaseñor, the influx of mining activity has simply gone too far.
“In all the state of Puebla, there’s at least 753 concessions,” she explained. She pointed out that nationally, close to 30 percent of Mexico’s territory has already been handed to resource companies in the form of such concessions.
“They [miners] get federal authorization, and if the local communities complain … well they can just send in the army,” she said, lamenting the battle over the “death projects” has already led to “some big confrontations.”
One such confrontation allegedly took place in the community of San Mateo Tlacotepec in January of this year. According to activists, the clashes occurred after a government official accompanied representatives of a hydroelectric project to speak with residents. Witnesses alleged a group of local women grew furious, and accused the unnamed official of being in the company’s pocket.
Somebody in the crowd suggested a citizen’s arrest, which was how the official ended up being pushed, shoved and dragged through the village towards the local jailhouse. Seeing them coming, a police officer tried to bring the situation under control. He pulled out his sidearm and fired a single shot in the air. A second later, he was overwhelmed by a mass of calico skirts, gaudy sashes and plaits. Someone tore the pistol from his hands, and cracked him over the skull.
Walmart’s Hydroelectric Dam
The clash was just one chapter in a long-running dispute between the town and the companies behind the dam: Deselec 1 and Comexhidro. These companies specialize in providing energy for private businesses. Under a recent wave of energy sector reforms in Mexico, businesses can save money by producing their own power, either by themselves or through third parties like Deselec 1 and Comexhidro. Put simply, these domestic companies build hydroelectric dams in places like San Mateo Tlacotepec, then sell the power directly to large corporate clients.
Comexhidro counts major retailers like Walmart and Suburbia among their customers, despite growing controversy in communities where they operate, such as in San Mateo Tlacotepec.
Advocates of this privatized energy model argue it will ease strain on Mexico’s electricity grid while promoting investment, particularly in renewable energy. Critics, however, say this system is just another way for companies to carve up and privatize the natural resources of rural communities.
“The people don’t want the hydroelectric dams, because they already have electricity. It’s all just for the companies,” said Villaseñor.
According to Villaseñor, projects like Deselec 1’s dam near San Mateo Tlacotepec disrupt communities, while providing few – if any – benefits for locals.
“The energy reform has facilitated the privatization of our natural resources. It’s a despotism, and a sad reality,” she said.
Like in much of the Sierra, in San Mateo Tlacotepec the biggest complaints include a lack of consultation, though activists also allege critics of the dam have faced harassment and intimidation.
“We don’t want the rich and the entrepreneurs, we want them to return to where they came from,” protester and painter Paloma Rodriguez told local newspaper El Sol de Puebla.
“We don’t want the hydroelectric plant,” Rodriguez said.
Whether it’s a dam or mine, as industry rolls into these backwater communities, activists say that the drug cartels – or narcos – quickly follow.
“In many regions there’s the presence of these groups,” said Ruben Luna, who works with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History to educate indigenous communities about their rights.
“Luckily, there are no narcos here,” he said while taking a break from a community meeting in the hillside village of Ahuacatlan. A few dozen people from across the region had attended the meeting. Drooping cowboy hats, mud-caked boots and pristine, pressed button-down shirts were in vogue. Almost all the participants were small plot holders – farmers who had never protested in their lives, and were now receiving a crash course in Mexican mining regulations, international law, and the rights of indigenous peoples. The meeting went slowly, as Spanish was a second or third language here. Everything had to be translated – first, into the gentle, fluttering Nahautl language, and again into the guttural, sharp Totonac tongue.
Despite the pace, Luna said things were going relatively well.
“In other communities, we’ve held meetings and the narcos just come in and tell everyone, ‘okay, let’s go,’” he said, explaining how he’s had to face armed groups that simply shut down community meetings like this one.
He sighed, “They come with arms and everything.”
“There’s ways to deal with them, but it’s never easy,” he added, lamenting that the cartels often act almost like parallel governments in some communities, and are one of the main impediments for activists trying to organize against the so-called death projects.
“They’re just part of the process,” he shrugged, arguing that the cartels are simply drawn to these communities when the money starts flowing.
Villaseñor agreed, explaining, “When the miners arrive, they bring money, and that brings in the criminals, too.”
“In one case in the municipality of Zacatlan … there were criminal groups armed with goat horns,” she said, using a slang term for AK-47.
“The authorities do nothing. Nobody helps us,” she said, rubbing her forehead in frustration.
A Sense of Powerlessness
Indeed, throughout the Sierra Norte, the common refrain of activists, community organizers, and disgruntled farmers is a sense of powerlessness, a feeling that although development has arrived in the Sierra, it is not for the Nahuatls and Totonacs who work the land. Whether it is Almaden and its Canadian profits, or Comexhidro exploiting local waterways to power Walmart outlets in distant cities, the narrative among many locals is that their ancestral lands are being carved up and dissected without their consent.
The ultimate fear is that when the boom passes the jobs will again disappear, and these agricultural communities will be left with exhausted soil, polluted water, and a population too sick to toil in the fields that sustained their ancestors for centuries.
“Nearly half a million people live in this area,” Villaseñor explains, “and many of these people are now at risk of displacement.”
To her, the conflict in the Sierra Norte is part of a larger, global problem.
“Just look at Canada – the mining is terrible there, too. We’re all suffering the consequences of big capital destroying our Mother Earth,” she said, arguing that regional conflicts like that of the Sierra Norte are inseparable from broader issues like climate change.
“We need a bigger world view. This isn’t just about my community or my culture – we’re talking about the destruction of humanity … the loss of earth’s ability to support human life,” she said, warning that the problems faced by the Nahuatls and Totonacs of the Sierra could soon arrive on anyone’s doorstep.
“We all need to stand up and fight for justice; for life, and against capitalism,” she said.
Ryan Mallett-Outtrim is an independent Australian journalist living in Mexico. More of his work can be found at dissentsansfrontieres.com.