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Reporter’s Notebook: Fortuna Silver in Oaxaca

Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.

Original Peoples

The story of Fortuna Silver in Oaxaca is one of the most complicated mining stories I've worked on. There were so many interesting things to pick through in order to tell the story without ending up in a labyrinth of detail that would detract from the central focus: many in the community want the company out.

That said, shortly after I published this story about the conflict in San José del Progreso, I got an email from someone. Let's just say he's in the mining industry, as a manner of speaking, and is familiar with many of these conflicts. 

His first question to me was: why there is so much opposition to the mine in the first place? Maybe it seems like an obvious question, but if you've been to the site, you will see that relative to other open pit projects it is a relatively small operation and it is also located on a brownfield site.

My response: I think much of the opposition comes from the fact that it seems there was no consultation with the community. Here's a snippet from an interview with Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez that I think goes a long way to explaining why folks got so pissed:

In 2008, people started to notice the arrival of new cars, new trucks that people here don’t have, that only politicians have. They arrived and here in the municipal hall, in the front, there’s a meeting room. There’s big mirrors there, and the people could see that these business people were inside there, talking for hours with the mayor. So we asked him, there were various meetings between the ejidal commission and the mayor, and the people asked, ‘who were those people?’ until the ejidal commission finally realized it was a mining company that wanted to exploit the material.

So the people asked ‘who gave them permission to be there working, by 2007 they had already brought in machines… the drills, and they started drilling holes all over the place. So people started to ask themselves, who are these folks, why are they here, what do they want? And manyejidatarios were tricked, they were told that they were just going to make a few little holes, and that they would take a sample, and if there was gold well they would offer to buy their land or not if they didn’t want to sell.

So [the company] went after the folks in the ejidal commission individually. They started to negotiate one by one with the company. But as there is an ejido here, supposedly everything here passes through an assembly before these types of agreements are made. The owners of the lands went and talked to their neighbors, saying ‘hey, get this, they’re paying me X amount of money to make a perforation on my land.’ So the others, who were also ejidatarios, but who weren’t in the zone, knew that they should be consulted through an assembly, and they started to protest, and to question the commission what this was about, and who gave them permission if the assembly wasn’t consulted.

Second question: Yes, for sure, consultation is important. But there was already a mine there before Fortuna came around, they just modernized/expanded it and employed more locals. Still don't get it, what's the big deal?

My response: One difference is that this company had landmen go in and split up lands that had been communally held for a long effin' time. The other thing here is that the local governance structures had actually been anti-democratic (mayor and council equivalents named by their successors, not elected through assembly) for generations, the hacienda owner stayed living there until 1958 (many assume that all of the hacendados were kicked out after the mexican revolution... well, not here).

So locally there was a very complex situation which was not well understood by Fortuna (giving them the benefit of the doubt) or perhaps it was, and they understood how easy it would be to buy permission to operate without actually doing any of the hard stuff, pulling the pin off the grenade in terms of community tensions and throwing it back at the people. 

Here's a great quote from Vásquez:  

And the people [in San José del Progreso], in their own way, say ‘hey, we live well!’ The government calls us poor but we live well. For us the idea of development is a battle of concepts. The government has one idea of development and the people have another idea of development. And the people say ‘we don’t want luxurious houses, or luxurious cars, we need water for our crops, we need alimentos,’ that’s all we want, we don’t even need work. There’s a lot of work! What we don’t have is someone to pay us for it. We have fields and lands, we have work, what we don’t have is cash to get paid in, and the company isn’t giving us money, they'll give you chickens or little things like that, which the people don’t need.

Like they gave out 50 energy saving stoves that are unused, because they only gave them out to buy people off, but also, they never worked, so the people are still cooking in the traditional way, and as nice as the new stove is, people are used to their way of doing things.

It’s an investment that’s basically thrown away, they made ecological toilets, some use them others don’t. It’s a very reduced vision that the company has, it’s like a package that they apply in every country and they think that people in every country are going to respond the same way.

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