PBI-Canada’s Paul Bocking reports on his field visit to Mexico
Toronto-based Peace Brigades International-Canada Board of Directors member Paul Bocking recently travelled to Mexico. This is his report:
On Tuesday, June 25, I met with Virry Schaafsma, the advocacy coordinator for PBI-Mexico, and representatives of several international and Mexico-based human rights groups (including Oxfam, UNHCR, CNDH, PRODESC, PODER, etc) at 4 am, at the Mexico City airport.
The team of about a dozen of us drove for four hours into the countryside to the small community of Ixtacamaxtitlán, in rural Puebla, through beautiful landscapes of small farms, rolling hills, mountains and rivers.
We were to monitor a community information meeting convened by the Mexican ministry of the environment (SEMARNAT), where a Canadian mining company would promote a proposed mining development, and residents would have an opportunity to ask questions, and potentially deliver comprehensive presentations in response.
The Canadian company, Almaden Minerals Ltd (which goes by the name Minera Gorrion in Mexico), had already begun exploration (i.e., drilling activities) despite the contested nature of its permit.
The company has not acknowledged claims by Indigenous communities in the area, which should legally require a higher level of informed consent to development.
Many residents are also concerned about the project’s potential to contaminate their water systems, and the general environmental consequences in an area that’s both very biodiverse, and with lots of existing human activity (farming, etc).
Our concern at the meeting was that opponents of the mine would have the opportunity to voice their concerns and not be threatened by the mine company or its supporters.
When we arrived at the meeting hall, we could see that roughly half of the 1400 attendees were wearing yellow hats and t-shirts distributed by the company that said, ‘Yes to the mine, yes to jobs’.
We were sure to be as visible as possible, introducing ourselves to the police (whom we later learned had some relationship with the company – feeding them during the day, and had arranged for their presence), government officials and the company reps themselves.
The meeting began with a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation by the company, first emphasizing the jobs that purportedly would be created and the taxes paid, and then entering into detail on the protection of animals, forests and water systems.
Next, 24 people who had registered earlier, each delivered a five-minute presentation. Many were grad students, some were with local groups and NGOs. Around 20 were critical of the mine. Their presentations ranged from the highly technical, with 3D presentations of projected rainfall, and a level of detail that made the audience’s eyes glaze over, to very hard hitting.
The most provocative projected photos of mining disasters elsewhere in Mexico, and illnesses from exposure to toxic chemicals. “Is this what you want?” leading opponents to shout “No!” while supporters generally booed and heckled. The presenter closed stating, “Enjoy your t-shirts and free sandwiches, because that’s all you’re going to get from this company!” The hall erupted in cheers and jeers. I was briefly worried a big fight would break out.
On the other hand, we also heard a memorable presentation from a college of mining and metallurgy, titled ‘Mining in our lives’. The mining rep asked people to pull out their cell phones and look up at the steel beams holding up the ceiling: “The products of mining are all around us!” (his presentation was censured by SEMARNAT, who told him this didn’t count as an informative deputation). A rep from an explosives company began, “The history of dynamite starts in the 16th Century…”
During the course of these presentations, it was my impression that many of the yellow t-shirts and hats began to disappear. Wearing them also did not prevent one from clapping for opponents of the mine.
We later heard that people had been paid 150 pesos and the promise of a meal to visibly support the mine. Others were told they had to show up, if they wanted to get a job there in the future. Of the thousand or so people remaining in the hall, it really appeared that there were a few dozen very vocal supporters of the mine. Overall, it was a fascinating day.
The following Friday, June 28, I met at the offices of the Comite Cerezo in Mexico City, which was formed in the late 1990s to campaign for the release of political prisoners. It’s since been known for delivering human rights training to NGOs and political groups, and more recently, engaging in labour rights advocacy.
Alfonso Cerezo described some of their work supporting subcontracted custodians who clean Mexico City’s high schools. The workers were endeavouring to unionize, but the company pressured them to join a fake company-controlled union. Others were fired or didn’t have their contracts renewed. Unfortunately, this is very common in Mexico. A legal campaign continues.
The Comite Cerezo has received threats over the years from various authorities due to their advocacy work, hence PBI’s accompaniment.
I was proud to see the great work of PBI-Mexico, and glad to have met Virry.
Paul Bocking is a lecturer in labour studies at McMaster University and geography at the University of Toronto, and an elected local officer of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. He studies labour internationalism, geographies of labour, and teachers’ work in Canada, the US and Mexico.