- Two controversial mining concessions on Indigenous land were canceled after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that residents were not consulted.
- The municipality of Ixtacamaxtitlán, located in the state of Puebla in central Mexico, has around 7 million ounces of gold and 1.4 billion ounces of silver that a Canadian firm wanted to extract.
- While the case is a major win for the Tecoltemi community, the ruling didn’t set a new precedent for understanding Mexico’s mining law, suggesting that similar issues could arise in other Indigenous communities near mining concessions.
A ruling by Mexico’s Supreme Court this month canceled two controversial mining concessions in Indigenous communities, which have been fighting to stop the projects for nearly two decades.
The Nahua community in Tecoltemi won its Supreme Court case against the Secretariat of Economy for illegally granting mining concessions to a Canadian company that planned to extract gold and silver in open-pit mines.
“Canceling the concessions is the correct decision,” said Itzel Silva of the Fundar Center for Analysis and Investigation, one of the organizations representing the communities in the lawsuit. “It means these violations will be corrected.”
A mining concession is a license or contract granted by the government to a private entity to extract minerals from a plot of land. Impact studies carried out beforehand are supposed to predict the amount of deforestation, pollution, erosion and other forms of land use change the area will experience.
The municipality of Ixtacamaxtitlán, located in the state of Puebla in central Mexico, has around 7 million ounces of gold and 1.4 billion ounces of silver, according to mining company Almaden Minerals, which purchased land there in 2001. Residents of several surrounding communities said they were taken by surprise by the arrival of machinery, which they had not been told about beforehand, according to Fundar.
The lawsuit they filed claimed that the “prior consultation” process — in which Indigenous communities are informed of a project before giving consent — was never carried out. Mexico signed the international treaty for prior consultation in 1990 and has passed its own laws to ensure the treaty is properly applied.
However, in this case, the Secretariat of Economy argued that the communities near the concession were not Indigenous enough to require prior consultation and had not adequately demonstrated their connection to the territory.
In 2019, the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) published a statement saying there were in fact 71 Indigenous communities in the municipality, nine of which were within the concession’s “area of influence.”
The conversations the companies did try to have with the communities were informal and even illegal, constituting bribery, according to Fundar. In March 2020, representatives of Minera Gorrión, a subsidiary of Almaden Minerals, allegedly tried to offer 20 jobs to Tecoltemi community leaders if they agreed to “unblock” the injunction. They later allegedly increased the offer to 35 jobs.
The Secretariat of Economy and Almaden Minerals didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. However, on its website, Almaden Minerals said it has a track record of making “a long-term commitment to socially-beneficial and sustainable mineral development.”
Constitutional challenges come up short
Another part of the communities’ lawsuit argued that certain articles in Mexico’s national mining law were unconstitutional. But the court decided that the law was created to regulate mining activity, not the rights of Indigenous people.
“We regret that the Supreme Court has lost the opportunity to thoroughly analyze a law that, by giving preference to mining activities, violates the right to land and territory of Indigenous peoples,” said Fundar and the Tiyat Tlali Council, the other organization representing the communities, in a statement after the ruling.
The way Mexico’s national mining law is currently written, it assumes that mining has more value than other activities that could take place on the land. That effectively means the government can decide “on behalf of the communities” how they should best use their territory, according to the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat).
“There is no doubt,” Semarnat said in a joint statement with INPI and Agrarian Attorney General’s Office, “that the preference established by the mining law runs contrary … to the right to a healthy environment, as well as to the preferential use and enjoyment of the natural resources of the places inhabited and occupied by Indigenous communities.”
By Semarnat’s count, there are more than 32,000 agrarian communities in Mexico, including the communal land ownership territories known as ejidos. Of those, around 5,000 have mining concessions, many of which leave behind a host of environmental and public health problems.
Had the Supreme Court ruled against the mining law in this lawsuit, it would have established a new precedent for future cases involving mining concessions on Indigenous territory. However, only legislators can rewrite the articles deemed unconstitutional.
Silva, of Fundar, said the organization and the communities it represents will continue to publicly fight the wording of the national mining law until it is no longer a threat to Indigenous groups.
“We call on the legislature to look into the content of it,” she said. “The mining law violates the land and territorial rights of Indigenous peoples and their right to ejido properties.”
Banner image: Residents of the municipality of Ixtacamaxtitlán spell out “today we fight for life.” Photo via Fundar.
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