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Mexican Indigenous Protests Shine a Spotlight on the Damage Done by Canadian Mines

Protesters from six states have converged on Mexico City to demand new laws to protect their rights.

by Nathaniel Janowitz
Apr 13 2016, 8:50pm

Imagen por Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News

Indigenous groups and small farmers from six Mexican states have been marching in the capital this week with a long list of demands. These range from policies to reactivate the rural economy to greater legal protection against massive infrastructure projects on their land.

The thousands of marchers — most of them wearing traditional clothes or cowboy hats and large belt buckles — have caused several days of traffic chaos. They have also set up a tent city around the interior ministry.

Francisco Jiménez, one of the main organizers of the protests, said the most immediate demand is for talks with Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.

"We want the government to address our issues," said Jiménez. "This march is for the defense of our territories, our dead, the political prisoners, the lack of water, and the revitalization of the Mexican countryside."

The group had converged on the capital from Guerrero, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Veracruz and Chiapas — all of them resource-rich states in the south or center of Mexico with significant indigenous populations who often suffer acute levels of poverty.

Protesters at an occupation camp outside of the interior ministry. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)

Jiménez, who is from Chiapas, put particular emphasis on the demand for a new law giving local communities more say over concessions to exploit mines, and build hydroelectric plants, as well as other major infrastructure such as highways.

"In our communities, there's gold, there's silver, and there's gasoline, but the money these generate does not support us and only benefits the international companies and the rich elites," the activist said. "Mexico needs legislation that requires the authorities to consult the local residents before giving concessions. And the wealth made must be shared."

Jiménez took particular aim at Canadian mining companies, claiming nearly 70 percent of the country's mining concessions are Canadian owned.

He specifically pointed at Goldcorp, a Toronto-based company, which owns many major concessions throughout Mexico and has several functioning mines already at work. One of these mines, in Mexico's violent Guerrero state, was the focus of kidnapping attempts by local cartels that saw a number of employees extorted and murdered last year. Goldcorp was criticized for not finding ways to protect its workers.

Related: Mexican Workers at Canadian Mines Are Under Constant Threat of Cartel Kidnappings, Killings

"Canadian mining companies are disproportionately at the centre of conflict in countries like Mexico and in many other countries around the world," said Jen Moore, the Latin America program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, a non-profit organization based in Ottawa that focuses on Canadian public policy and mining practices.

Moore said 60 percent of the world's mining companies are based in Canada, and that number jumps to 70 percent in Mexico, as Jiménez also claimed. She mentioned eight different Mexican states specifically that are currently facing environmental or human rights concerns due to Canadian mining operations.

"The self-determination of affected communities is violated from the moment a mining concession is granted without a community's free, prior, and informed consent," she said. "This has happened all over Mexico and in many other places and is part of how the current mining model is structured to violate affected peoples' rights from the get go, well before any mine is built."

This week's protests in Mexico City were timed to coincide with the 97th anniversary of the assassination of Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. He was killed in 1919 after he rose up against the revolutionary government he had helped install after it began reneging on promises to prioritize rural communities.

The symbol of Zapata has become a rallying cry for the movement. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)

Many of those on the march feel that Zapata's focus on rural rights is as relevant in Mexico today as it was then.

"We're living in a crisis, of hunger, misery, poverty, and a lot of emigration. The farmers, and the young people especially, are abandoning our land, and leaving their families, for the United States," said Caralampio López, raising his voice over a loud ska band playing rebel music to entertain and rally the protesters nearby.

López, the local leader from the state of Chiapas who led a group of 200 to join the Mexico City protest, had particularly harsh words for mining companies.

"The government allows the mining companies to operate, but we don't," said López visibly upset, his voice rising as he spoke. "They pollute our resources, they contaminate the air and water. They're polluting Mother Earth."

Related: Raped by Canadian Gold Mine Guards, These Women Are Looking for Justice

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz