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Reopening Silver Mine Could Save Town, But Destroy the Sacred Site of the Huicholes

The lands that comprise the Wirikuta Reserve in the San Luis de Potosí state of Mexico are full of covetable wonders. On the surface grow the plump peyote plants that the Huichol (or Wixáritari) people depend on for their ceremonies and traditions. Below the surface, veins of silver snake through rock, tempting anyone keeping up with the high price of silver. And although technically right on the border outside of the reserve, the mountain called the Cerro Quemado—sacred site of the Huicholes, birthplace of the sun—rises up out of the land shrouded by green shrubs and cactuses and towers over the natural marvel that is this landscape.

The Huicholes have been making an annual pilgrimage to the Cerro Quemado from their native lands some 250 miles to the west for as long as anyone can remember. And the miners, too, have been following the tails of the veins here since silver was found in the late 1700s. Real de Catorce, often shortened to Real, one of the bigger towns on the reserve, was built as a mining town. Wirikuta is protected for its biodiversity and cultural importance and has its allies. “For more than 200 years, the miners, tourists to the town of Real de Catorce, and the [Huicholes] have lived together and nothing has happened. This situation has always existed,” says a local mining engineer, Ricardo Flores.

The mines have been closed since 1991, however, when silver prices slumped, and the town has come to think of itself as a tourist haven, leaning on its colonial charm and religious pilgrims. Expats opened up hotels, New Agey visitors came for peyote. But with a worldwide recession and heightened fear of travel in Mexico due to narcos, the tourist business is slumping, too. Real’s population is down to just 1,000 residents.

Minera Real Bonanza (MRB), a Mexican subsidiary of Canada’s First Majestic Silver Corp., wants to reopen the old shafts in a venture called the La Luz Silver Project. They have more than 6,000 hectares containing an estimated $1.3 billion worth of silver. But this time the complex relationships of the peoples that use this land are strained.

MRB’s project manager for La Luz, Flores, says La Luz is the most controversial project he has worked on in almost four decades of his career. The town of Real de Catorce and the larger population in surrounding villages is desperate for jobs; the region has one of the highest emigration rates, in large part due to lack of work. The town’s business owners need tourists, whom they are afraid an active mine would drive away. Residents complain that there have been few public meetings and insufficient details provided about the project and there is widespread uncertainty about questions as simple as whether La Luz will be an underground or open-pit project. Community members worry that other companies will not provide loans—a normal practice for companies working in Mexico in the past—or social security for workers. On a larger scale, companies do not pay royalties, and taxes on their earnings go to the federal government, and often do not return to the community. Activists and locals, increasingly wary of dirty mining, are concerned about potential environmental contamination of Wirikuta and their own water supplies. And there is the question of sustainability, of what people will do once the 15 years of projected operation are up.

MRB is diligent in addressing these concerns in their public relations. Jobs will come, says Flores. With actual mining work not slated to start until 2014, the company has already received more than 300 job applications and has promised to hire locally—500 direct jobs and 1,500 indirect positions—if qualified applicants present themselves. At the same time, mine entrances and tailings will be tucked into the landscape and invisible to tourists. MRB opened up a one-room storefront in town to explain the project to passersby. MRB’s legal representative, Juan Carlos Gonzalez, said the company will provide workers with loans and social security and that, indeed, they are required by law to do so. Flores says that MRB will not touch the town’s water supply, and the company has proposed to build a water-

treatment plant—Real’s first—to treat “black water” instead of expulsing it directly into streams, as is done now. The company is preparing a closing plan, which will involve total remediation of the site, though they do not leave any sort of bond with the state in case remediation is not completed properly or something goes wrong. And Flores proudly showed off an already functioning silver workshop—part of a sustainable development portion of La Luz—that is training stay-at-home moms and dropout teenagers to craft silver jewelry. Along with a tourist mine, a planned multimedia museum about mining, and music and crafts workshops, the silver workshop constitutes part of a plan to develop infrastructure and jobs that will contribute to a tourist industry, which MRB envisions as taking over as a job source when the mine shuts down. Like the extant tourist industry in Real, the success of such initiatives will depend on an improved economy and better control on narco-trafficking activity in the region.

In addition to this standard confluence of interests, La Luz also has to contend with a new group of activists: those defending the Huicholes and the Huicholes themselves. In the early 1990s, around the same time silver mines were closing down due to low prices, and in reaction to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico’s Zapatistas (EZLN) staged an uprising that put indigenous rights once again on the map in Mexico. EZLN gave other indigenous communities both voice and motivation. Since then, the Mexican government has participated in national and international efforts to support indigenous communities to various degrees of dissatisfaction within those communities. In 2008 the president of Mexico signed the Hauxa Manaka Pact for the Preservation and Development of the Huichol Culture, which guaranteed the protection of the Huicholes’ culture and sacred places.

The Huicholes stance is that the mine doesn’t really fit into the pact’s promises. And they have proven to be a formidable force. The main activist group, the Defense Front of Wirikuta, has organized forums, celebrity support, concerts to raise money with audiences 50,000 strong, media blitzes at Huichol pilgrimages and beyond. The Huicholes are, perhaps for the first time, standing guard of their most consecrated site—the Cerro Quemado itself and the desert where the sacred peyote plant grows—and their culture.

Flores says the Cerro Quemado will not be touched, on the surface or below it, which should render the current struggle moot. “If we’d continued working, nothing would have happened,” said Flores, lamenting the new environment that mining companies have to contend with.

Flores was born in the reserve. He knows the poverty of many of its residents, and he watched long lines of Huicholes making their way towards the Cerro Quemado in his childhood. In the company’s offices hangs a piece of Huichol art depicting a slice of Huichol mythology, all psychedelic colors and dreamscape. “Everyone wants to hate the big guy,” says Flores, referring to the mining company, “but in this case the big guy is actually good.”

But there’s some doubt regarding whether plans will actually come to fruition. María Teresa Sánchez Salazar, who teaches in the geography department of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says that throughout the country promises and laws aren’t the problem. “The issue is for them to actually abide by the legislation,” she says. “There isn’t supervision strict enough to make them fulfill [their obligations].” The environmental activist group MiningWatch Canada—the vast majority of mining companies operating in Mexico right now are Canadian—has also said that Mexican law enforcement is not consistent.

It’s not surprising, then, that Huicholes and activists are wary of the promises MRB has made. Flores says that “we have promised that we’ll respect the customs of

the [Huicholes],” and he says MRB has made a concentrated effort to dialogue with the Huichol community. But the Huicholes, to some extent, see the federal government as the besieger, not MRB. When asked why the Huichol community has not sat down at the table with MRB, Angel Carrillo, who works in a Huichol arts store in Real, said that “it’s not necessary to talk with First Majestic because at the end of the day it’s the government that handed [them the land]. And it’s from them that we have to demand answers.”

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In late February, a judge suspended all mining activities in the concessions on Wirikuta. This was seen as a big win for the groups that have been working to stop development. But the company shrugged it off. “We haven’t even started anything,” said Flores, standing on the cobbled road that winds up to Real and overlooks the old tailings piles, everything in tan tones. Elizabeth Medina, a student at the University of San Luis de Potosí in Mexico and an activist who has mostly worked against mining in the troubled Cerro San Pedro, located in the same state, said that the suspensions “are superficial, to not have bigger problems.” She recounted a recent meeting between an activist group working at La Luz and a senator: “He welcomed them and then retired; and in the end they had a forum for themselves, the same people that already support [the cause], the indigenous people that traveled for the action, and no one else.”

On May 24, in another conciliatory move, MRB ceded 761 of its nearly 6,000 hectares of mining concessions, the majority on the Wirikuta reserve, back to the federal government. It will continue to conduct studies on its remaining concessions and hopes to start mining once it receives all the necessary permits. The main ceremonial sites, like the Cerro Quemado, do not contain silver and therefore the company’s mining work should not be affected.

According to the Defense Front of Wirikuta, MRB previously offered to gift the same concessions to the Huichol community. That gesture was rejected because, as the Defense Front famously stated, the land already belonged to the Huicholes, and they were fighting to protect the whole reserve, not just a piece of it. This time around, too, members associated with the Front called the announcement a media trick designed to undercut public support for the Huicholes, pointed out that companies with concessions are not actually affected by the loss of lands, and stated that the Huichol community was not consulted by the government in the choosing of their own sacred sites and, consequently, land.

Now it will be the federal government that is once again responsible for the parcels.

Currently, the entirety of Wirikuta is a UNESCO site, and the sector that lies within the borders of the state of San Luis de Potosí is a State Natural Protected Area. The federal government, through its environmental agency, will conduct studies on the land. The goal, according to Secretary of the Environment Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, is to convert the land into a Federal Natural Protected Area, which will prevent future concessions on that plot of Wirikuta. The rest of the mining concessions within Wirikuta will stay active.

Cipriano Hernandez Toar works the rest rooms by the tunnel that leads out of Real de Catorce. When the mines in the region were open, however, he was a miner. “There was no other work here,” he said, “Here, the kids would turn 18, and into the mine they went.” Now, he said, many in the town make their living off commerce, but tourism is down and so are incomes. He says it would be good if the mine opened. “For me, no. But for my sons, yes,” Toar said, adding that most locals want the mine to open. It’s those that come from elsewhere, he said, referring to both the Huicholes and expats who have settled down in the pretty town, that are against it.

Toar’s son, Juan, takes tourists around on horses. He has golden eyes and a bristly mustache that makes him look young, perhaps just 18. Juan isn’t interested in going into the mine and is adamant that it shouldn’t open. He said that though his income is modest from the horse tours, it’s better than risking his health in the mine.

Salazar says that “young people, even if they come from mining families, prefer to leave, to emigrate to the U.S. or other places where they can think about other types of less risky work with possibilities of greater benefits, than stay behind in mining sites.” That’s part of a larger cultural shift: Workers and other citizens are becoming more conscious of the baggage that mines bring with them and, more significantly, they are voicing their concern. “Perhaps the first companies found it easy to establish themselves in places, but as time goes on it won’t be so,” she says.

But Flores hopes that the town’s mining past will help them, this time. He led the way into an old mine called Santa

Ana, that has 250 miles of tunnels and will be refurbished to accommodate tour groups. The air inside the main tunnel was cold and wet. The little train that the tunnel swallowed in its darkness shook with such violence and rattled so loudly that when it reached the end of the line, the surrounding gray rock suddenly yawned a great stillness. We continued on foot, our headlamps fishing for traction in the blackness. We entered an enormous room, with high ceilings and columns like an abandoned ballroom. The room grew as our eyes adjusted, pushing out into cavernous proportions. Machinery was stored here when the mine was in operation. “Some activists say that when we enter the mountain, we will take out the heart and the veins of their gods,” said Flores. “To start, we are [four-and-one-half miles] from the main ceremonial center, the Cerro Quemado. And as you can see, there’s already a lot of work done in the 200 years of mining history.” In other words, the heart’s already missing a significant lump.

But Marciano de la Cruz Lopez, who sells the bright and intricate beadwork the Huicholes are known for on a Real street, says it’s worth defending what’s left. “It’s hardly 10 or 20 years since we have the right to defend, we have the right to opine, or have the right to a voice and a vote. Before, some say they killed you, punished you or took away what you had, or they didn’t pay you. It was very difficult because we didn’t have anyone supporting us.” Today, support mostly comes in the form of a relatively small but dedicated core of activists, though support is gathering momentum nationally and abroad. And at least there’s a process, Lopez seems to imply.

Carrillo echoes Lopez’s sentiment and says that “now that we have the opportunity to defend our interests, I think that it would be good for us—as the Huichol community—to defend our beliefs.… And now we have the tools to be able to do it.” Both Carrillo and Lopez say they understand and empathize with the locals’ need for jobs, as well.

Atop the Cerro Quemado, with other low mountains all around, is a small chapel surrounded by unlit candles melting slowly in the hot, Mexican sun. The rocks are covered in these warped candlesticks, as well as small, colorful offerings made of beads brought during a recent pilgrimage. Many of the offerings depict a blue deer, the Huichol symbol for peyote. And there are crosses, too. When the sun starts to set, everything glows as if lacquered with gold.

“We have to fight, because we are defending as if we were defending a church. Because one doesn’t get to knock down a church so easily,” says Lopez.