MINERS AND FARMERS CHALLENGE MEXICO’S COPPER GIANT
Traveling west across the Sonoran desert, just south of the U.S. border on Mexico’s Route 2, is the world’s second largest copper mine - Cananea.
As the highway approaches town, it passes a huge white concrete water tank and adjacent pumping station. Normally its huge pipes would be humming from the water flowing through them to the mine. For two weeks, though, the pumps have been silent and the flow halted.
This planton, or occupation, has successfully shut most operations at the mine.
Many of the planton’s residents are miners who went on strike in 2008. Two years later the mine was reopened by massive police intervention. Since then it has been operated by contracted laborers recruited from far distant parts of Mexico. This time, however, strikers didn’t stop the operation by themselves. Half of the people with them here are farmers -- residents of the Rio Sonora valley, angry over a toxic spill that upended their lives in August last year.
Over the years since, the mine first belonged to U.S. corporations, and then was taken over by the Mexican government. In 1990, however, the mine was sold to Grupo Mexico that produces two-thirds of Mexico’s copper and has the largest copper reserves in the world.
Under Mexican law, an enterprise that is on strike cannot continue to function, so the mine stopped operation. But Grupo Mexico the president, Felipe Calderon, to declare the strike illegal. In spite of court decisions upholding its legality, the government complied. Grupo Mexico created a new business entity, Buenavista de Cobre, to hire workers through contractors to replace the strikers.
Then last August 40,000 cubic meters (10.5 million gallons) of concentrated sulfuric acid and heavy metals was released from a holding pond at the mine into the headwaters of the Sonora River.
And although the spill began on August 6, the company didn’t tell the river communities until August 8. Many only discovered what had happened when the river turned orange. The children got extreme rashes, and doctors finally told her they were due to heavy metal exposure. Other residents began to experience more serious health problems.
The family’s business making sweets and cheese folded when customers in the state capital didn’t want to buy any products from the river towns.
Another was Laura Gutierrez. “Our town, San Rafael, is made up of farmers,” she explains. “We plant corn and peanuts, and we didn’t harvest anything last year. The crops were just thrown into the trash. Now we have nothing to live on.”
Approximately 24,000 people live along the river. Three hundred wells were closed after the spill.
The purpose of the planton, he says, is not just to stop the mine’s operation. The union and residents have organized a coalition, the Sonora River Front. It is demanding that the government force Grupo Mexico to clean up the river and take responsibility for the health and lost income of residents. It also seeks to restore the strikers to their jobs.
Part of this effort also includes the U.S. union for copper miners, the United Steel Workers (USW).
The U.S. union is trying to renegotiate a contract with Grupo Mexico. As a result of buying ASARCO, the company is now the new owner of mines where the Steel Workers represents the miners. Two years ago the Mineros and the USW agreed to join to form a single union. The merger has not been completed, but they now support each other in dealing with their common employers, and look to the day when their bargaining can be coordinated.
Jesus Rios Leon holds a list of all the heavy metals found in a test of his blood.
Miners from all over Mexico march in Cananea to support the strikers and farmers.
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