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Natural Protected—and Exploited—Areas in Mexico

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For Pepe, a local resident of Álamos, Sonora, Mexico, the survival of the Sierra de Álamos–Río Cuchujaqui Natural Protected Area is at risk. The beautiful landscape that surrounds it—home to a wide variety of species of flora and fauna like ceibas, cedars, green macaws, and some of the great felines of Mexico like jaguars, cougars, wild cats, margays, and ocelots—is in danger. His concern is real; in this Flora and Fauna Protection Area, mining companies carry out exploration and mineral extraction activities that, among other impacts, produce toxic waste that damages the environment.

Gina mining graphic 1 - English

In November 2018, the Canadian company Minarum announced the discovery of “Alesandra,” a vein of gold in a mine that is located within the zone also known as the Álamos Reserve. Its exploitation requires sulfuric acid and other highly toxic substances that are absorbed into the soil, causing serious damage to ecosystems. Minarium is not the only company targeting the Álamos Reserve. In the same year (2018), the company Bylsa Drilling began mining explorations within this Natural Protected Area (NPA).

Mining is a longstanding economic activity in the state of Sonora. However, in recent years it has become a latent threat to conserving the natural heritage of Sonora residents and the entire Mexican population. Pepe and other Álamos residents have witnessed how mining has damaged the region’s environment. In fact, some civil organizations have denounced that opening roads and allowing heavy machinery to enter the “protected” area is severely damaging flora and fauna species, as they destroy soil and vegetation.[1] In addition, the use of machinery produces loud noises that drive away wild animals. Specialists point out that this protected area is of vital importance for collecting water for human consumption, so mining also endangers the health of people who depend on the bodies of water downstream.

Why are natural protected areas necessary?

NPAs[2] are essential for protecting Mexico’s enormous biodiversity and natural wealth. According to the official definition, they are “terrestrial or aquatic portions of the national territory that are representative of the diverse ecosystems, where the original environment has not been essentially altered and that produce ecological benefits.”

The aim of creating NPAs is to conserve biodiversity, preserve the ecosystems that host it and ensure the provision of environmental services.[4] The latter are the resources and processes provided by nature that make life possible: oxygen production, the hydrological cycle, tides, winds, etc.

The specific standards that exist in Mexico to ensure the proper care and management of NPAs include: each NPA’s Management Program, the Ecological Management Program,[5] and the General Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA is its acronym in Spanish).[6] These programs establish activities that are permitted within each protected area according to specified categories, as the areas are subject to special protection, conservation, restoration, and development regimens.

Mining in Protected Areas: A Contradictory and Absurd Combination

As the case is in Sierra de Álamos, in several protected areas of Mexico, activities involving the exploitation of metallic and non-metallic minerals are carried out, which are authorized by environmental authorities even though highly toxic substances are used for their extraction in many cases.

It is a fact: mining activities in NPAs are protected by Mexican law. The Mining Law establishes the preference granted to mineral extraction over any productive activity or land use. Article 6 of this law states: “The exploration, exploitation, and benefit of minerals or substances are of public utility;[7] they shall be preferential over any other use or exploitation of the land, subject to the conditions established therein.” The only exception concerns exploration and extraction of oil and other hydrocarbons. In this case, an economic interest prevails over the human right to a healthy environment.

According to official information, there are dozens of concessions and active mining projects within federal NPAs. As of 2017, official figures show that “a total of 2.22 million hectares, equivalent to 7.2% of the national land area, have been granted to mining within the NPAs.”[8] The Secretariat of Economy has granted almost 60,000 hectares of mining concessions within the core zones of the federal NPAs alone.[9] As explained by the specialist Manuel Llano, the concessions are not exploitation activities that are currently being carried out, but they should be considered as lands that have been authorized to be explored and subsequently exploited.

That said, official data indicate that “73 of the main mining projects [catalogued as such by the Mexican Geological Survey] are located within Natural Protected Areas and Wetlands (Ramsar Sites).”

Existing evidence on the harmful effects of mining in NPAs adds to this information. The Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources has a record of “contaminated sites deemed as environmental liabilities (Semarnat 2012), due to the release of hazardous materials or waste that were not remedied in a timely manner to prevent the dispersion of contaminants.” This record includes 84 sites contaminated by mining activities, 11 of which are located within NPAs: El Vizcaíno, in Baja California Sur; Sierra Gorda, in Guanajuato; Mariposa Monarca, in Michoacán; Sierra de Huautla, in Morelos; and El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar, in Sonora.[10]

The far-reaching effects of mining in NPAs 

Most mining within NPAs is of gold, silver, and copper. The process of extracting these metals requires enormous amounts of water and produces large volumes of toxic substances such as cyanide, mercury, copper, lead, and arsenic,[11] which seep into the soil, permanently altering the environment and the ecological balance.

The negative consequences that mining may have on the Álamos community raise concerns among area residents for many reasons; these concerns are mainly based on the mining “accidents” that various communities in Sonora have suffered. One of them, considered the largest socio-environmental mining disaster in Mexico, occurred on August 6, 2014 when the tailings dam at the Buenavista del Cobre mine in Cananea spilled 40,000 cubic meters of copper sulfate, a toxic substance that quickly dispersed into the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers.[12]

This spill caused serious damage to the environment and directly affected 22,000 people living in seven state municipalities: Arizpe, Banamichi, Aconchi, Huépac, San Felipe, Baviácora, and Ures. Water sources and soils were contaminated with heavy metals, which damaged people’s health and reduced agricultural and livestock production in the Sonora River basin.[13]

To date, two surveys by the National Autonomous University of Mexico show the presence of residual contamination—related to the spill caused by Grupo Mexico mining company in 2014—that persists after the application of remediation measures.[14]

Sonora is Mexico’s leading state in mining production, with forty medium and large scale mines that operate there. It is the main copper producer, and 24% of the country’s gold is extracted from its entrails. In addition, according to official data, there are ten mines located within four NPAs and one Ramsar site, from which mostly gold, silver and copper are extracted.

Gina mining graphic 2- English
Official data as of 2017. Source: M. Llano. La actividad minera en las Áreas Naturales Protegidas (“Mining Activity in Natural Protected Areas”) (2017), In: Las actividades extractivas en México: minería e hidrocarburos hacia el fin de sexenio. Anuario 2017 (Extractive Activities in Mexico: mining and hydrocarbons towards the end of the six-year presidential term. Yearbook 2017).” Fundar. Mexico.

The damage caused by mining is also evident in the community’s social fabric and well-being. In Álamos, there is a confrontation between those who oppose mining and those who believe that extractive activities are a source of employment and development.[15] This situation could turn into a socio-environmental conflict that confronts the population and leads to acts of intimidation and violence. Pepe and other members of his community consider it necessary for authorities to intervene and call for a dialogue between the community and the mining companies. This dialogue should clearly state both the process of mineral extraction and the risks that these activities pose to people’s health, as well as the conservation of the environment and protected area, which provides a home and refuge to the region’s wildlife.

For Pepe, mining threatens the protection of nature: “Drilling, the exploitation of deposits, the extraction of metals, and the exposure of toxic waste in vessels or tailings dams—to a greater or lesser degree—damage the conservation of the NPAs, wildlife, and the well-being of the people who live near the mines.”

In September 2018, two bills were presented to the Senate of the Republic with the purpose of banning mining activities within NPAs.[16] Both are in the hands of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Climate Change Commissions, the Second Legislative Studies Commission, and the Mining and Regional Development Commission. To date,  these initiatives are awaiting resolution by these commissions, which must assess them in light of public interest, namely to safeguard the natural heritage of the entire Mexican population.

In short, these initiatives can contribute to curbing the deterioration of NPAs caused by mining and its related activities as well as to establishing real protection for our most important natural spaces.

Nature and Culture International’s Mexico Program contributed to this information. 

Sources and more information: 

[1] “Exploraciones mineras en Área Natural Protegida de Álamos dañan vegetación y fauna silvestre” [Mining Explorations in the Álamos Natural Protected Area Damage Wild Vegetation and Fauna]. Proyecto Puente [Bridge Project]. March 3, 2019.

[2] Mexico’s Natural Protected Areas (NPAs) are divided into federal, state, municipal areas, and Voluntary Conservation Areas. www.conanp.org.mx

[3] National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP, for its Spanish acronym), 2019. See: www.conanp.org.mx 

[4] NPAs are created through a presidential decree or through the certification of an area that is allocated to conservation by the owners’ decision. For more information, please see: www.conanp.gob.mx

[5] The aim of the Ecological Management Program is to define a pattern of land occupation. It seeks a balance between productive activities and the protection of natural resources. For more information,  see: https://www.gob.mx/semarnat/acciones-y-programas/ordenamiento-ecologico. The management programs (PM, for its Spanish acronym) establish the characteristics of the areas, activities, actions, and basic guidelines for managing the NPAs and promoting their sustainable development and preservation, CONANP, 2019.

[6] Article 45 of this law, enacted in 1996, states that the establishment of NPAs is aimed at preserving the natural environments representative of the different biogeographic regions, ensuring the balance and continuity of evolutionary and ecological processes, safeguarding the genetic diversity of wild species, ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and biodiversity, and preserving endangered, threatened, endemic, and rare species.

[7] “The public utility provides concessionaires with access to land that belongs, whether owned privately or socially, to third parties for exploration, extraction, or mining benefit activities. The public utility may justify, in light of the Expropriation Law, the alienation of land that belongs to third parties in favor of the mining concessionaire.” For a critical analysis of the Mining Law, see: Francisco Cravioto, “La normatividad minera en México [Mining regulations in Mexico]” (2019), Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry, Mexico.  

[8] Llano, Op cit., pp. 25–26.

[9] Llano. M. “La actividad minera en las Áreas Naturales Protegidas [Mining Activity in Natural Protected Areas]” (2017), in Las actividades extractivas en México: minería e hidrocarburos hacia el fin de sexenio. Anuario 2017 [Extractive Activities in Mexico: mining and hydrocarbons towards the end of the six-year presidential term. Yearbook 2017], pp. 19–31. Fundar, Center for Analysis and Research. Mexico. Available at: http://fundar.org.mx/anuario-2017-las-actividades-extractivas-en-mexico-mineria-e-hidrocarburos-hacia-el-fin-del-sexenio/

[10] Llano, Ibid.

[11] “The extraction of gold, silver, and copper produces a higher concentration of toxic waste, in addition to those mentioned above; other pollutants that are more frequently found are: cadmium, selenium, zinc, and nickel. […] Both rocky waste and waste resulting in tailings, if not treated properly, are highly polluting to the environment.” Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) 2014. Buenas prácticas que favorezcan una minería sustentable. Las problemáticas en torno a los pasivos ambientales mineros en Australia, Canadá, Chile, Colombia, Estados Unidos, México y Perú [The Problems Surrounding Mining Environmental Liabilities in Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the United States). Consultant: Miryam Saade Hazin, pp. 9–10.

[12] Buena Vista del Cobre, in the municipality of Cananea, one of the largest copper mines in the world. For more information, see: https://agua.org.mx/tag/rio-sonora/

[13]Alejandra Aparicio and Pedro Hernández. 2017. “Gestión de riesgos y desastres socioambientales. El caso de la mina Buenavista del cobre de Cananea [Socio-Environmental Risk and Disaster Management. The case of the Buenavista del cobre mine, in Cananea)”. Investigaciones geográficas, (93). Available at: http://www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S046112017000200009

[14] The Diagnóstico Ambiental en la Cuenca del Río Sonora afectada por el derrame del represo Tinajas 1, de la mina Buenavista del Cobre, Cananea, Sonora [Environmental Diagnosis in the Sonora River Basin affected by the Tinajas 1 dam spill, from the Buenavista del Cobre mine, Cananea, Sonora] develops sufficient elements to prove “the environmental damage and the causal link between the impacts on the ecosystem and the spill, and it justifies a monitoring system that must be implemented to measure the evolution of the environmental impact caused by the spill in the long-term.” Available at: http://www.fideicomisoriosonora.gob.mx/docs/Estudios%20y%20Proyectos/INFORME%20FINAL%20UNAM.pdf

Document: “Indicadores indirectos de contaminación residual en suelos y sedimentos de la cuenca del río Sonora, México [Indirect Indicators of Residual Pollution in Soils and Sediments of the Sonora River Basin, Mexico].”  Available at: https://www.revistascca.unam.mx/rica/index.php/rica/article/view/RICA.2019.35.02.09/46833

[15] “Ejidatarios de Álamos exigen a Semarnat permisos para explotación minera [Álamos Landholders Demand Mining Permits from Semarnat]” La Jornada, February 20, 2019. Available at: https://www.jornada.com.mx/2019/02/20/politica/014n2pol?partner=rss#

[16] For more information, see: http://comisiones.senado.gob.mx/ambiente/iniciativas.php

Translated by Victoria Arellano

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