Mining and resistance in Oaxaca, Mexico


Rufina Sánchez, mother of murdered activist Bernardo Vásquez, stands by a mural at her house that says,
“If you love life, fight the mine.” Vásquez was gunned down in 2012 presumably for his leadership against the Fortuna Silver mine in Oaxaca, Mexico.

by Nicole Mance

Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, runs a government that has pushed structural reforms to enable land dispossession in rural and indigenous areas of Mexico. Mass demonstrations in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas have ended in violent state- and corporate-backed repression. In many cases, the mining industry is at the center of the land dispossession battle.

It can be challenging to understand why there is such protest when the mining sector promises jobs. But many rural Mexicans see mining as a threat to their land and livelihood.

In March 2012 Bernardo Vásquez,
a vocal Zapotec activist, was shot and killed in Oaxaca. To many, this was a political hit. His adamant resistance towards the Canadian mine company, Fortuna Silver, is what ultimately made him a target.

Protests erupted near the mine and continue nearly five years later. Protestors say there has been no justice for Vásquez or their communities, only oppression as the mining project is expanding with protection of state and federal authorities.

Vásquez’s murder for his opposition to Fortuna Silver is not an isolated event. Rather, it must be read as one example of the global economic crisis, where investors seek to secure their profit. Currently in the state of Oaxaca, according to Mexico’s Secretary of Energy, more than 15 percent of Oaxacan territory is leased to mining companies for exploration and exploitation. It must be questioned why the Mexican government has changed the constitution to allow an avalanche of mining permits, and what their interests are in this case and others like it.

In order to adequately address these questions, these government policies in history must be thoroughly investigated.

Recent rise in large-scale mining

More than 400 mining projects exist in Oaxaca. None of them have the consent of communities and indigenous peoples living in these regions alongside these projects. Forty-eight communities gathered last February and demanded the cancellation of all mining projects in Oaxaca.

“With no real restrictions on foreign ownership, an incredibly low tax regime, and no royalties, simplified administrative procedures and environmental laws that are not enforced in practice, Mexico has become the number one destination in Latin America for foreign direct investment (FDI) in mining,” according to Henry Veltmeyer and James Petras in The New Extractivism. In 2005 the Mexican mining sector attracted $256 million in FDI. By 2011 it was $559 million.

Though foreign investment in extractive industries has reached new heights in Mexico, it is an extension of colonial patterns of exploitation and dispossession.

Mining and colonial extraction

Extractivism has evolved throughout history and currently fundamentally involves the state. The state has contributed to development policies, like the one in Peña Nieto’s Mexico, that ignite problems, mainly social conflicts, within society. This is rooted in rapid growth of the industrial development that initially took place in Europe that transferred to the Americas via colonization. The land was expropriated and “landless” human beings were created. The demand for raw materials during this revolution required colonial relationships,
as platforms for land occupation, the exploitation of natural resources and new markets were developed.

While colonization is not the current issue in Mexico, these same principles and practices can be applied to the current situation. Capitalism is rooted in colonialism and modernity, according to Carlos Sempat Assadourian, “as its methods are dispossession of resources and trade relations in which value is transferred in a single direction, situating colonized nations as satellite entities with new differences between them.” Latin American economies became dependent on the outset due to the system of trade that developed between colonies and European metropoles.

With the development of capitalism came a requirement for an expansionist strategy: the search for new lands and resources. The outcome is economic activity based on extractivism, more specifically, the appropriation of land and its inhabitants. Though capitalism is very different today than it was in the colonial era, we can see similarities between colonial extraction and what is currently taking place in the mining sector in Mexico.

Development model deepens inequality

Neoliberalism has become a staple of international economic policy, replacing the previous national development model in Latin America. The neoliberal state model has the government facilitating private interests while the state is hollowed out. In other words, “Neoliberalism emphasizes economic self-interest that justifies elevation of market principles as the organizing principle of society, where private interest transcends the public good,” according to Philip McMichael in Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective.

Latin America fits into the neoliberal model as a region targeted for its natural resources. A marker of these practices is the development with a focus on mineral extraction. Companies performing extraction are export-focused and the local economies, as well as social and environmental considerations, are neglected. The neoliberal model isn’t working for a vast majority of Mexicans.

These policies have intended to bring Latin America out of its debt crisis and into the global economic fold. In Mexico, neoliberal policies attracted and permitted entrance of FDI in many areas. Mineral extraction by private foreign enterprises is profit-driven and as a result has caused the country low revenue, loss of income derived from tax payments and a variety of social and environmental problems.

Though Mexican politicians have helped to make Mexico into an ideal location for exploitation, evidently this problem is not unique to Mexico. It is a part of a global economic trend emerging from the 2008 crisis, where mining projects have spiked internationally.

Final thoughts: Mineral Mexico today

Natural resource exploitation has a long history that in the current environment is protected by governments aiming to attract investment to their countries. This permits the exploitation of resources by companies that contribute little to the development of the host country but rather create and perpetuate social, economic and environmental backlash and consequence.

National development is torn between private interests and the survival of diverse rural and indigenous cultures living in zones that are of interest to extractivist activities. Mining has been a major draw for foreign investment in recent years. State earnings through tax payments and/or duties and royalties is far less than those of the profits earned by the mining companies.

Large-scale corporate mining is bad for the communities where it takes place and has resulted in protests and deaths in numerous communities throughout Mexico. The social impact is increasing discontent with the actions of the mining companies as communities fight against the contamination of their territory and respect for their basic rights and traditions.

In many cases mobilization has not yet succeeded and mining continues. In others, communities have managed to temporarily halt or even cancel projects, bringing to light the destructiveness of the economic model highlighted through corruption and poor management on a national and international level.

Nicole Mance is a senior at Ithaca College studying Journalism. She is pursuing
minors in History and Spanish.

One response to “Mining and resistance in Oaxaca, Mexico

  1. Pingback: Espacio Kruz ¡Viva!  Family bonds furnished in the struggle for a campesino livelihood. – real-wok·

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