Vancouver mining company opponent killed in Mexico pipeline clash

Published in the Vancouver Observer | January 28, 2012 | Circulation 100,000 unique monthly visitors

Canada’s embassy in Mexico City faced protests yesterday over the killing of a prominent opponent of Vancouver-based mining company Fortuna Silver, Mexican media reported.


Bernardo Mendez Vasquez, a member of the Coalition of United Peoples of the Ocotlán Valley (COPUVO) in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, died on January 19, a day after he and another demonstrator were shot in a skirmish over a water pipeline in the town of San José del Progreso.

Opponents of the mine were protesting a pipeline they allege was diverting scarce water from their village to the controversial Trinidad mine, operated by Fortuna Silver’s subsidiary company, Cuzcatlán. Three people have died since the mine was established in confrontations between the mine’s backers and opponents in the town of San José del Progreso.

The shoot-out occurred when local residents accused Cuzcatlán company of cutting off their water supply, according to Noticias, Oaxaca state’s largest newspaper.

“The bloody events occurred at noon on Wednesday,” the newspaper reported, “when a group of inhabitants of San José del Progreso, Ocotlán of Morelos and the Coalition of United Peoples of the Ocotlán Valley (COPUVO) protested against the mayor of the community, Alberto Mauro Sánchez Muñoz, and Cuzcatlán mining company for the work they are doing which caused the water to be cut off.”

COPUVO claimed the pipeline was drawing water from a deep well without the local population’s consent, in an area which has suffered water shortages over the past decade, and channeling it to the Trinidad mine, reported La Jornada, Mexico’s second-largest national newspaper.

But a spokesperson for Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver denied the water pipeline had anything to do with its Trinidad mine, and insisted the tensions were a regrettable escalation of divisions which predated the company’s arrival in the area.

“This was a municipal pipeline – nothing to do with us,” said Ralph Rushton, spokesperson for Fortuna Silver in Vancouver. “We have no connection or association with the acts committed, or the funding or installation of the drinking water pipeline that was the subject of confrontation – absolutely nothing to do with Fortuna Silver.

“We’re one of the largest employers – and one of the largest taxpayers – down in that part of Oaxaca. It’s an unfortunate part of our presence there that, from time to time, our name is dragged into, pulled into or used in local political situations. But this particular incident was nothing to do with us.”

Fortuna Silver employs roughly 450 people, Rushton said, approximately half of them local residents of the area. He added that the company recently repaired a local sewage treatment plant and consults with the communities in the area.

“We consult with the community every step of the planning and development of the project,” he told the Vancouver Observer. “We maintain close relationships with all the communities around there, and do what we can to improve the situation economically.”

While several leading Mexican newspapers identified the water pipeline as mine-related – claims Rushton dismissed as “misinformation” – three of Mexico’s largest national newspapers (El UniversalLa Jornada andMilenio) reported that, in any case, the confrontation stemmed from tensions directly related to the Trinidad project.

“In the town where the shooting occurred, the population is divided into two groups, one that supports mining by a Canadian company and one that opposes it,” wrote El Universal, Mexico’s largest newspaper. “The dispute between the two groups started in the community on June 19, 2010, when mayor Venancio Oscar Martínez Rivera was murdered.”

Fortuna Silver’s subsidiary, Cuzcatlán, have faced opposition in the community since it started work in 2009, reported Noticias newspaper.

“The trouble began when the Cuzcatlán mining company began operations in the Ocoteca community on March 14, 2009, when inhabitants took over its facilities for two months until they were evicted by police,” Noticias reported.

Canadian mining companies have come under increased scrutiny throughout Latin America over human rights and environmental concerns.MiningWatch Canada has launched campaigns against a number of Canadian mining corporations – including Goldcorp in Guatemala, First Majestic Silver in Peru, and Inment Mining Corporation in Panama. He said that, in many communities, violence between pro- and anti-mine factions is exacerbated by a lack of adequate community consultation and weak regulations both domestically and international.

“There are a number of situations where there are conflicts,” said Jamie Kneen, spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada. “There are an awful lot of Canadian mining companies in Mexico, and there’s a number of these situations.

“A lot of the conflict is around water – much of the country is dry, so water is a precious resource. Essentially, the concerns centre around the water supply. The company has argued they’re not going to disturb the water supply.”

Kneen agreed with Mexican media claims that the water pipeline was directly associated with the Trinidad mine. But regardless of whose pipeline it is, he argued, companies are responsible for respecting communities in which they operate, and protecting human rights.

“It’s a project that has been vociferously opposed by a large portion of the local population,” he said. “To some extent, if the company insists on pushing the project ahead in face of local opposition, they would deservedly be accused of being part of the problem.”

But Rushton said the community factions existed before Fortuna Silver’s involvement in the region.

“You need to understand that in that part of Oaxaca, it is extremely politically volatile – it has been for many years and it continues to be,” he said. “We see that at the state level, and we see it at the local municipal level.

“It’s something that does happen from time to time, it’s extremely regrettable that it gets to the point where people are getting killed. But it was going on before Fortuna was present in that area, and it is continuing.”

MiningWatch responded by saying the tensions have significantly increased as a result of the unpopularity of the Trinidad project. Arguing that conflict predated the company’s presence, Kneen said, does not absolve Fortuna Silver from responsibility even if it not legally liable.

“They weren’t killing each other before,” Kneen said. “This is happened directly as a result of the company’s efforts – they’re trying to establish a mine against the wishes of a sizeable chunk of the population.

“It doesn’t take much imagination to think what’s going to happen next. There’s a growing internal consensus that mining companies or any corporate investor has a responsibility to protect the human rights of the communities they’re working in. A responsible operator confronted with a situation of violence would at least take a pause, to allow things to cool off – to wait until the threats have subsided.”

Kneen said the recent violence add ammunition to his group’s campaign for stronger laws around mining companies abroad.

“Overall, it really highlights the need for much more stringent regulations – not just voluntary codes – on companies’ behaviour, both internationally and within Canada, so we’re not just relying on Mexican authorities,” he said.

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