Extractivism…synonymous with development?

By Raquel Juárez

The mineral wealth of Mexico has been coveted since the Spanish invasion. When Hernán Cortés set sail for the land of the Aztecs in 1519, his mission was to seize indigenous gold. Upon their arrival in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec king Moctezuma said that the Spanish were suffering from a peculiar heart condition that only gold could cure. In one way, this was true: the conquistadors—as well as the noblemen and bankers that funded them—were sick with greed. However, the gold that they obtained seemed only to exasperate this illness, leading to innumerable atrocities committed against the Indigenous population.¹

The shameless robbery that began 500 years ago seems to have no end—or, at least, there is no end in sight. The lack of ethics in the extraction of mineral resources combined with the poor ability of the Mexican government to restrain transnational businesses has contributed to the dispossession of native populations in some areas of the country, who have also seen their right to decide what to do with the land that birthed them (which is, in the indigenous cosmovision, their mother) violated.

Today, Mexico continues to position itself as a leading producer of mineral resources at the global level. To that end, in recent decades, the government has attempted to boost the country’s mining sector, so much so that it has adopted a law that protects it. Lamentably, far from seeking development for all, with a nod to public utility, there has been increasing inequality as large transnational companies have been allowed to control more than 30% of the land. Ironically, in areas where silver is produced, 60% of the population is impoverished, a third of the population lacks basic services and housing, and a quarter lack proper education. Furthermore, one in every three people lacks sufficient income to provide for basic staples. Extractivism is not synonymous with development.

But that’s not all. Hunger for goods derived from extractivism and the plunder of mineral wealth have led to the continued destruction of large tracts of farmland and biodiversity, where native peoples obtain water and food. Likewise, Indigenous human rights have been violated, considering that the majority of land that is taken is rural. These violations have taken the form of dispossession, murders, and disappearances of environmentalists, social activists, campesinos, Indigenous people, and community leaders.

We should not forget that subsistence agriculture and the production of raw material—activities that satisfy the basic needs of a population—are the main economic activities of Indigenous locales. To these we can also add the sale of land. In incentivizing extractivism in these areas, the natural process of production and lifestyle of the inhabitants are interrupted. It is ironic that while Article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes that native people should not be dispossessed of their land or territory by force, Mexico’s federal laws in contrast place the mining industry over the rights of nature, cultural patrimony, and the rights of communities. For these reasons, we frequently read news stories about opposition to megaprojects as affected communities seek to protect their rights.

In the northern sierra of Puebla we are fighting a battle that stems from the fact that the government never consulted with inhabitants on the issuance of hydraulic fracking licenses in this area populated mainly by Nahua, Totonac, Otomi, and Tepehua people. A total of 35 municipalities, where since 2016 fracking has been used to dig 233 wells, are involved. This manifests the vulnerability of the rights to access to information, participation, self-determination, and prior informed consent.

Environmental rights also form a part of this equation, as now more than ever the public agendas of governments have been concerned with the environmental crisis. The United Nations has also manifested its interest in sustainable development with the 2030 Agenda. But deforesting 500 hectares for the construction of the Mayan Train is not sustainable, nor development. Supporting the megaprojects of foreign businesses is not the path to clean energy. Passing laws that prohibit the use of plastic bags or Styrofoam just so that we can feel ecofriendly does nothing if on the other hand we support the development of megaprojects in biodiverse areas.

I am certain that the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico should assert their rights in the face of extractive projects, which must comply with the human rights of Mexico’s Indigenous Peoples, safeguarding land rights, territory, natural resources, their own ways of organizing, nondiscrimination, their participation in and consultation on public policy decisions that affect them, and the right to economic and social development. We must seek new ways to grow and drive development through the promotion of agriculture. We are not against the market, but there are other ways to support society in general and for these we need effective State policies that care about Indigenous peoples.

The government, in turn, should urgently review the regulations and requirements for mining licenses, and should propose fiscal policies that benefit the economic growth of the country, as until now the mining industry has only contributed 1% of the GDP, so it isn’t even beneficial to the economy, but rather a corrupt system that benefits a select few and not the common good. Equally, the State should commit itself to implementing environmental policies that protect natural areas and defend vital resources like water, as they have not been given proper consideration. Last, but not least, it is time to assert the rights of the indigenous, legitimizing their decisions with respect to their land and integration in the public decision-making process, so that their rights exist in more than just theory. Now is a good moment to give a voice to native people and start to use the ethics of discourse as a means of making decisions that are important in the lives of all.

In light of the economic, social, political, and environmental challenges we currently face, it is time to have new dialogues and rethink strategies to achieve development in Mexico and Latin America as a whole. Without belittling the voices of those who have been forgotten or ignored in the decision-making process, the State needs to take on a central role to develop strategies with long-term vision and consideration of indigenous people and the environment so that discourse can give way to true results.

—Raquel Juarez Tirzo is originally from Hueytlalpan Puebla and belongs to the Totonac culture. She is studying for a degree in Public Administration and Political Science at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. She has notably participated in the 22nd Mujeres en Vida Story Contest, which honored María Luisa Bombal, where she was awarded and honorable mention. She was also a speaker at LASIRC’s 1st International Virtual Researcher’s Congress.

¹(Henry Velmer, 2014)