• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mexican Gold

Air Date: Week of

Across the Mexican state of Sonora, US and other foreign mining companies are searching for gold, and creating local jobs. But some say this income bears a high cultural and ecological cost to Mexico’s Indian communities. Sandy Tolan reports.


CURWOOD: Centuries ago, in the days of Coronado, gold mines dotted the landscape of Mexico. Indians worked the mines as slaves, and bricks of gold were sent on ships back to Spain. Thus began a long history of foreign ownership of Mexico's wealth. After the revolution, Mexico outlawed foreign control of its natural resources. But today, nationalistic pride has given way to the pressures of global trade. Since the crash of the peso a year ago, Mexico has been desperate for investment, and is now allowing foreigners to own Mexican resources. Across the northern state of Sonora, dozens of US and other foreign mining companies are now searching for gold and creating local jobs. But some say this income is coming at a high cultural and ecological cost, especially to Mexico's Indian communities. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has more.

(Sound of a bulldozer)

TOLAN: In a vast open pit, a yellow bulldozer with 6-foot tires scoops up 20,000 pounds of ore and wheels over to a 50-ton dump truck.

(Ore being dumped)

TOLAN: This is the sound of foreign investment in Mexico, in the age of free trade. As Mexico beckons with its minimal red tape, US companies like Hecla Mining stream south in search of gold.

MAN: This is the beginning of the process. After that, the second step is explosives...

TOLAN: Each month, rock crushers pulverize 200,000 tons of ore, all to produce a few hundred pounds of gold. Every few weeks a plane leaves the Hecla airstrip with more than a million dollars worth of gold bound for the US. The gold is buried on Indian lands, near the Tohono Oodham village of Quitovac. Acres of high Sonoran desert have been scraped clean, but my manager Ignacio de la Fuente says the area will be restored.

DE LA FUENTE: After we're finished here, all the, we're going to try to leave the area more or less the same way that it was -- not the same way that it was before, because we mined the area. But we want to use it like agriculture or something, there are going to be flood areas, so they can use it.

TOLAN: Beyond the yellow haze of the Hecla Mine, mesquite trees and barrel cactus slope of the Sierra Pinacate, toward the heartland of Tohono Oodham Indian country.

FLORES: Those big machines come in there and start digging and destroying the Earth, all kinds of stuff, and they're blasting and all that stuff.

TOLAN: Fifty miles north, on hard-packed terrain covered by ocotillo and jumping cholla, an old car bakes in the sun. A couple of old men sit in the shade of a lean-to. Ernest Flores and Angelo Matilla are Tohono Oodham elders. This is Arizona ground. The Oodham nation has been sliced in half by an international boundary. Sitting here in the quiet north of the line, the men are worried. The mine, they say, sits on sacred land, and it threatens Quitovac's springs, site of the people's origin ceremony.

FLORES: That's our roots down there, and I hate to see it go, because every year we go over there. There's the only church we have over there. And the white people, why they want to destroy it? Why destroy our church and contaminate that place? You know what roots is, it goes under the ground, it feels like it belongs to the Indians.

MATILLA: We come from that Pinacate Mountain, while back. And then when the people scattered around, and part of it that way, and part of it this way, all ways to up to the Salt River, and then we settled down right there, to Quitovac.


GARCIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: This is a sacred place, where our ancestors met for many years.

TOLAN: Back across the border in Mexico, in the other half of the biforcated Oodham nation, elementary school teacher Rafael Garcia stands in the dusk, in an oasis . Reeds surround pools of still waters, reflecting the fading light at Quitovac Springs.

GARCIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: This is a place where they did their ceremonies, and smoked the peace pipe. So that they received good things and that everything in nature will be good. And that there will be water. This must remain a sacred place. We are really worried. We consider it very grave. The man is contaminating, animals are dying.

(An engine runs)

TOLAN: There's no evidence that the mining has killed animals. Mining officials say modern techniques and precautions ensure against contamination from the cyanide used in the process. The cyanide is sprayed on a pile of ore. This pulls the gold out, downward into a stream. It's called heap leaching. Triple safety liners manager De La Fuente points out, lie under everything.

DE LA FUENTE: We make all the things careful, because we don't want to contaminate anything. You have to be careful every time that you make something like this. After we put some liner, we make a good inspection. And we invite the government people to make that inspection with us. After that we put the sand, and we put another liner. And that's the way because we want to be sure that we don't, we will not contaminate it.

TOLAN: But ecologists say there are no guarantees. For example, in Summitville, Colorado, a leaking heap leach gold mine sent tainted water into a mountain river. The company went broke, and it's costing taxpayers more than $120 million to clean it up.

GREGORY: To say that the modern mining is going to be protective of the environment is just plain out false.

TOLAN: Michael Gregory, director of Arizona Toxics Information, says there are long-term dangers posed by the new mines in Mexico. Dangers accelerated by Mexico's economic crisis.

GREGORY: The modern techniques themselves involve high quantities of hazardous materials. And those hazardous materials have a way of getting out into the environment. It's been well-advertised by mining companies themselves that they go to Mexico to escape environmental law. There is no question that the environmental laws in Mexico, which have the potential for being even stronger than US law, in fact are weaker because they are not enforced. There is just not the money to do the kind of enforcement that needs to be done.

TOLAN: And in some cases Mexican officials do seem willing to bend the rules for foreign investors. They've allowed Hecla to operate without a license for 8 months. And unlike in the US, the company is not required to post bond, to guarantee they'll clean up the site once the gold is gone. In Hermosillo, the state capitol, the director of the state mining office says he understands the concerns, especially of the Indians in nearby Quitovac. But Eduardo Mendoza says these worries are not based on fact.

MENDOZA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The Hecla mine is not contaminated. We can control the mine before there's any harm to the groundwater. And there is even less chance that the community of Quitovac can be heard, because their water comes from a different aquifer. I understand -- people are worried about their environment. For the place where they have always lived. I think their doubts and concerns are healthy. We have tried to teach them and show them how the mine operates. The Hecla mine has no secrets. But it's very difficult to explain and convince these people. So we have to educate them, and give them more information and culture.

(Children shouting and playing)

TOLAN: In Quitovac, Rafael Garcia teaches Oodham traditions to the children in the elementary school. It's not culture he's looking for from the government, but he and his neighbors would like some information, and he says the government is not forthcoming.

GARCIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Well, this government, people are covering themselves. Not long ago they had a meeting at the mine with all the government officials from the state of Sonora and from the Federal government in Mexico City. And instead of inviting the people who are involved in this, the people who want to understand the problem with the mine, they brought in other people. Not people from Quitovac. The people who are affected by this, they didn't invite. I think that says it all. When are we going to see some results? Maybe it's going to be our children who find out.

TOLAN: People from Quitovac are suing the mine and the government to void the contract because the community never voted for it. An early agreement, they claim, was made bogus when the past president of Quitovac pocketed the money. But Mexican law makes mining the highest priority. Officials say local people can be forced off the land to get at the wealth underground, and as more foreign companies come in, in search of those minerals, the conflicts are bound to increase. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth