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Between January 17th and 20th, nearly 500 activists from across Mexico, Central America and beyond, gathered in the Mexican mountain town of Capulálpam de Méndez, Oaxaca, to support a growing tide of resistance to the human and environmental impacts of the extractive industries in the region.
'Yes to life! No to mining!,' organized by the Oaxacan Collective for the Defence of Territories, was one of the largest anti-mining gatherings the region has seen, as local opposition to some of the many thousands of individual extractive projects in Mesoamerica has grown dramatically in recent years.
Canada in the hot seat
The perpetuation of violence against activists, the patterns of water and soil contamination around extraction sites, and the total disregard for the autonomy of indigenous communities, were as familiar to the Guatemalans, El Salvadorians and Hondurans, as they were to Mexican activists present. John Cutfeet, a guest from the KI Nation in Northern Ontario and active participant in the Idle No More movement, brought parallel stories from his own community.
When asked how the experience of a community in Northern Canada related to those of the people of Mesoamerica, he explained that indigenous peoples of the North and South "face similar experiences and similar tactics," in which "companies and government ... try to access lands and rob us of our birth rites to those lands."
And while Cutfeet’s contributions were received with great enthusiasm, Canadian companies received a consistently strong rebuke throughout the weekend’s events. Delegates and speakers also criticized the Canadian government, and the Canadian Ambassador to Mexico, specifically, for playing an active role in promoting policies abroad which favoured Canadian mining interests at the expense of indigenous communities, human rights and the environment.
According to Canada’s Department for Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), more than 75 per cent of the world's mining companies are Canadian-based. William Sacher and Alain Deneault, in their 2012 exposé on Canadian mining, Imperial Canada, Inc., argue that so many extractive companies choose to make Canada their home due to a combination of preferential tax loopholes, minimal legal recourse against the actions of Canadian companies abroad, and the unwavering support of government for the industry on the international stage.
The bloody cost of silver
Event attendees also heard from residents of another Oaxacan town, San José del Progreso, where two activists critical of the practices of Canadian-based Fortuna Silver Mines were murdered in 2012.
Rosalinda Dionicio from San José del Progreso attended the event in Capulálpam.
Dionicio received gunshot wounds in the leg in March of last year and still walks with a cane as a result of the attack. She is also the cousin of another anti-mining activist, Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez, one of the two community members murdered in 2012.
There were many eyewitnesses to the most recent shooting of anti-mining activists in the town last June. These witnesses identified two of the shooters involved as an employee of Fortuna Silver and the son of the former municipal president (a strong proponent of the mine), respectively. The company and the municipality have both denied any involvement in the attack, dismissing the violence as the results of pre-existing conflict.
For the people of San José del Progreso and other communities affected by mining, the site of the conference was significant, as Capulálpam de Méndez is one of only a few towns in the region that has succeeded in suspending all local mining activities. Due to water contamination, the nearby Natividad silver and gold operation (run by another Canadian firm, Continuum Resources) had its operations suspended indefinitely by the federal prosecutors for environmental protection in 2007.
After the closure, Continuum Resources Ltd. became a subsidiary of Fortuna Silver Mines. The company is still actively lobbying to re-open the mine, as the people and municipality of Capulálpam de Méndez continue to fight against its imposition.
A growing sense of solidarity
The event focussed on finding ways that affected communities across the hemisphere could work in solidarity with one another to challenge the mining industry and its political backers. Through stronger networks, participants felt more confident that their local struggles were not isolated instances, and thus could be challenged by a range of other communities with connections to the relevant aggressors.
John Cutfeet described how this approach was being used by First Nations communities within Canada. When one community was facing territorial conflicts, others would spring to action across the country, increasing pressure on particular companies and government agencies from many different angles.
Stronger networks, many participants felt, meant their small-scale struggles for land, water and basic human rights, had the potential to challenge the power of large multi-national corporations and the governments that support them, as both the KI First Nation in Ontario and the people of Capulálpam, Oaxaca have been able to demonstrate in recent years.
While the stories of the weekend were often harrowing, the energy was high, with a sense of the collective power that comes from knowing there are countless others facing similar struggles, and some who have even managed to win, against significant odds.
"Five years ago we were the only ones in the country with the strength to resist these mines," said Rurik Hernández, an organizer with the Broad Opposition Front (FAO in Spanish) from Cerro de San Pedro, one of the first communities in Mexico to challenge mining in their community.
"Now a lot of communities have this strength ... They know that they are not alone."
Liam Barrington-Bush currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico and tweets as @hackofalltrades