November 19, 2018
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Mexico
Mining a Village

What happened after Big Gold came to town

Five years ago, a new neighbor arrived in Mazapil, promising employment, medical services and general development for the central Mexican peasant communities of Cedros, Las Palmas and El Vergel.

The Canadian-owned Peñasquito mine produced its first bar of gold in 2008, but was not officially inaugurated until March 2010, by Mexican President Felipe Calderon. It is one of the three largest mining operations in the world, and Latin America’s largest gold producer.

Unfortunately, the new neighbor has failed to deliver, and the locals’ hope for a brighter future has dimmed.

In fact Peñasquito, owned by the conglomerate Goldcorp, has turned out to be a very troublesome addition to the community, as its main contributions involve environmental contamination and guzzling of scarce water.

Contamination and Water Guzzling

Mazapil, one of the largest municipalities in Mexico, covers an area of 12,063 square kilometers and is located on a high plateau, roughly 2,000 meters above sea level. Its climate is classified as semi-desert.

Founded in 1568, Mazapil is is one of the poorest and most marginalized municipalities in Mexico.

Even though it has been a mining town by tradition, Mazapil has never been prosperous. Its population has managed to survive from agriculture and the raising of livestock.

The ejido system still prevails in this part of the country. It consists of community members, known as the ejidatarios, sharing a common landholding, both for agricultural and living purposes.

Though there’s little rain, the community draws water from massive aquifers that provide vital groundwater, used primarily for the irrigation of crops.

The main underground water reserves are located directly underneath the ejido of El Vergel.

“Our life support system depends on water, because we live off what we harvest!” said Irma Hernández Herrera, a resident of El Vergel. “Here we grow chili peppers, alfalfa, corn, beans, squash, and our lives depend on this, because this is what we eat.”

Nevertheless, since 2007, groundwater levels have been deemed as critical statewide, as the water tables have suffered an annual deficit of 220 million cubic meters. There is barely enough water for farming.

Project of Mass Destruction

Peñasquito, an open pit mine, will require thousands of liters of water per hour in order to operate during its estimated 22-year lifespan.

Before operations began, a contract between community members from the ejido of El Vergel and Goldcorp stipulated the perforation of only 10 water wells for industrial use. Nevertheless, by the end of 2009, Goldcorp was already operating 30 wells, residents say.

Joel Mancilla, Commissioner of El Vergel, accuses the mining company of using in one hour the amount of water a local family would use in 25 years.

What locals call Goldcorp’s disregard for agreements, and the mine’s inordinate use of an already-scarce groundwater supply, have caused widespread uneasiness locally.

“The mine’s wells reach 300 meters below the surface, while ours at El Vergel only reach 100 or 130 meters,” said Armando González Alvarado, a resident of El Vergel and a member of the committee that negotiated with the mining company.

Local residents also justifiably fear for the contamination of the aquifers, due to cyanide leaching processes used in Peñasquito. A cyanide solution is irrigated over mounds of soil in order to separate gold particles from the rock product.

The cyanide filters through the raw mineral, gathering gold and other metals and pushing them to the bottom of the mounds. From here, the concentrated particles flow towards a pool known as the tailings pond, where gold is recovered via the absorption of carbon.

Cyanide leaching is a risk, although the toxic pools are lined with layers of high density polyethylene.
Short-term exposure to high levels of cyanide, be it inhaled, consumed in food products, drunk, or absorbed through the skin, is extremely toxic, even lethal. Long-term exposure to low levels of cyanide can result in serious respiratory problems, affect the nervous system and damage the digestive tract.

Another Goldcorp mine, in Honduras’ Siria Valley, relied on the same cyanide leaching method. Ten years after it established operations, adjacent communities, particularly Palo Ralo and Pedernal, have reported hundreds of health issues involving intestinal and/or renal cancer and nervous system disorders, and research from a 2006 study found that 96 percent of the population suffers from rashes and other skin problems most likely caused by exposure to toxic materials from the mine.

Strange Odors and Dying Livestock

Residents of Cedros and El Vergel are already complaining about strange odors, water shortages, respiratory problems, and deaths of cattle and wildlife near the mine. They also report seeing new crop diseases.

The mine is expected to produce about 500,000 ounces of gold, 28 million ounces of silver, 450 million pounds of zinc and 200 million pounds of lead, for each of the 22 years of its projected useful life.

With gold valued at about $1,200 per ounce, Goldcorp can expect to earn some $600 million per year from this mine, from the gold alone.

The residents see little of this. For several days in May 2009, community members blocked the entrance to Peñasquito, demanding an increase in rent for the 6,000 hectares they’d leased out to Goldcorp. The company agreed to pay 30 million pesos, or about $2.5 million, over 30 years.

Lauro Herrera, community leader from Cedros, claims Goldcorp “took advantage of our ignorance and poverty.”

Local ejido leaders now state that they are owed at least 100 million pesos [about $8.3 million] per year, under the terms of Mexican mining law, retroactive to 2006. And they’ve called on the National Water Commission to reprimand Goldcorp for the likely contamination of the underground aquifers.

Protests and Disillusionment

In May 2010, another sit-in by the locals halted operations for about a week. This time, disgruntled community members demanded higher wages, as hundreds of workers ?earn 800 pesos ($65) a week for 12-hour workdays,” and hadn’t had a wage increase in three years, a spokesman said.

?Yes, we are very disillusioned with how things have worked out,” said one protester. “We expected differently. Our husbands who do work there earn very little.”

Mazapil Mayor Vicente Pérez Esquivel has stated that Goldcorp made all the previous arrangements with the federal government, and since 2007, when the first stage of operations began, the municipal government had not received any tax payments from the mining company, not even the construction license fees.

Just from property taxes, the municipal government should be receiving one million pesos annually from Peñasquito, under the law. Such revenues would come in very handy in a municipality where only 30% of the population has running water, 65% have electricity, 18% sewer service and 3% garbage pickup service, and just 7% of the roads are paved.

?We are not against employment,” Herrera Medez, of Cedros, said. “On the contrary! But the truth is that the company has not hired many locals.

“We want the governments to take action and be more proactive about the contamination, the environmental impact. But one thing I do tell you: we are not going to stop until we find a favorable solution for everyone here. We have seen elsewhere the destruction and well, death, that is left behind wherever an industrial mine like this one passes through.”

?In the future, I see a deserted image of what once was this town,” said El Vergel resident Hernández Herrera. “It makes me very sad, especially for the children who will live such a situation. We have had a very hard life and struggled enormously to upkeep this ejido. We have already suffered so much, and now, this monster comes to devastate our land.

“What will we do once the water runs out? And it is clear that it will run out! Because in every place where a mine establishes itself, the water eventually runs out.”

James Rodriguez, an award-winning photojournalist who has worked extensively in Mexico and Central America, is now based in Nairobi, Kenya.

2 comments about “Mining a Village”

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Big World Magazine » Mining a Village [bigworldmagazine.com] on Topsy.com says:

    [...] Big World Magazine » Mining a Village bigworldmagazine.com/mining-a-village/ – view page – cached Because there’s more to life than life on the block. Tags [...]

  2. PhillDanze says:

    What a conundrum. I hope that Mazapil can find a way through this and that the Canadian owners of the mine start treating the ejidatarios as they would their own citizens.

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