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Effects of Silver Mining on Indigenous People in Mexico Essay

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Updated: Jan 21st, 2020


Indigenous people own most of the expansive strips of undeveloped land in Mexico. These lands are renowned for holding numerous unexploited minerals, and in this respect, most of the mining companies target these lands leading to conflicts between the companies and the indigenous people.

According to Anaya (2000), the conflict drastically affects the sustainability of the land pieces. Mining may have positive impacts on the lives of the indigenous people.

For instance, it may give the indigenous people a chance to realise their goals through revenue generated from the mining industry.

On the other hand, mining may offer employment opportunities to the indigenous people and thus alleviate their living standards.

Nevertheless, if not well managed, mining may have unpleasant effects on the livelihood of the indigenous people. It may pose numerous insolvency threats and threaten their sovereignty (Armienta et al. 2007).

Indigenous people hardly hold their wealth in the form of income. Rather, their wealth is in the form of resources such as land that they associate with cultural values, environmental awareness, and institutions (Aronson 2009).

The cultures of the indigenous people act as timelines that help members retrace their past, understand their present, and forecast what the future holds for them (Ballard & Banks 2003). The timelines are restrained and hard to transfer to a different locality meaning that displacement of the indigenous people makes it hard for them to follow their development course.

This aspect underlines why indigenous people are capable of surviving in marginalised areas that non-indigenous people are incapable of thriving in without relying on external resources like technology, capital, and energy.

Modern human activities like mining have adverse effects on the indigenous people. Indigenous people in Mexico stage demonstrations against mining companies as an indication that they hardly benefit from the companies. This paper will focus on the effects of silver mining on indigenous people in Mexico.

Encroachment into the sacred sites

Most of the mining contracts in Mexico are awarded without consultation with the indigenous people. Besides, the government does not give the mining companies the actual demarcation of the area to carryout their mining activities.

The companies end up extending their operations to territories owned by the indigenous people thus destroying their sacred sites. Failure to consult the indigenous people leads to mining companies encroaching into areas held sacred by the indigenous communities (Herringshaw 2004).

The companies carryout their mining activities along routes used by indigenous people during their pilgrimage journeys. Besides, they excavate lands where indigenous people buried their ancestors.

This scenario poses spiritual and social threats to the communities as the mining companies disrupt the peace of their ancestors.

In 2011, a Canadian company entered into conflict with the Waxarika community after it won a contract to mine silver in San Luis Potosi. The region where the company was to mine silver is along a route used by Waxarika people on their way to pilgrimage journeys (Melinda 2012).

Besides, most of their ancestors are buried in this area. Allowing the company to go on with its mining process would have resulted in disturbing the peace of the ancestors. In most cases, indigenous people relocate their shrines and other sites where they hold religious ceremonies due to mining activities.

Silver mining companies excavate their sacred sites forcing the communities to look for alternative sites (Tetreault 2011). Furthermore, the noise from the mining machines does not allow them to hold their religious ceremonies peacefully.

For peaceful celebrations, indigenous communities relocate their sites to areas that are located far from the mining site.

Environmental risks

The environmental benefits and risks linked to mining may lead to inequality. From the start, the location of minerals sites determines which communities will benefit from the mining activities (Ali 2009).

Since minerals are normally concentrated in one area, some groups of people may continue getting rich while others continue languishing in poverty. In addition, different regions suffer from the environmental damage caused by mining activities differently.

The mode of mining, transportation facilities, and nature of the minerals dictate the level of environmental damage caused. At times, local people are left to deal with toxic substances left behind by the mining companies after completing their mining processes.

In addition to encroaching into sacred sites owned by the indigenous people, silver mining in Mexico poses environmental risks to the indigenous people. The mining process leads to ruin of vegetation cover and pollution of water and soil.

Moreover, the process lowers the amount and quality of water and negatively affects the biodiversity of a place. This aspect in return affects the ability of the indigenous communities to acquire these significant resources. Normally, indigenous people depend on their environment for everything.

They acquire most of their basic needs from their surroundings (Bocking 2012). Since mining disrupts the natural growth of the environment, the process makes it hard for nature to sustain the indigenous people.

During the nineteenth century, silver mining in Real de Catorce led to degradation of vegetation cover in the area and contamination of water. Before then, the area was covered with a forest, but the process converted the area into a desert.

In Natividad, mining activities led to water contamination in the area. Four years after the mining process started, the area experienced water shortages, which compelled environmentalists to order the closure of the mining company (Dore 2000).

The company was accused of annihilating the aquifer that the community depended on for water supply.

Mexico is popular for stringent environmental policies. Nevertheless, the country has limited number of government and private institutions that implement these policies.

Consequently, the indigenous people end up paying the cost of environmental degradation caused by mining companies (Chapa 2006). During the mining process, companies use varied chemicals to extract ores. Regrettably, these chemicals are not treated before being released to the environment.

Therefore, they pollute the air and damage crops exposing the local communities to health hazards and drought. Moreover, the mining companies use cyanide to extract silver and exposure to this chemical leaves the indigenous people vulnerable to impaired vision, headaches, and breathing problems (Hayden 2003).

One of the challenges that the indigenous people face is the limited account for the environmental effects of silver mining. Hence, no matter how hard the aboriginals resist the activity, it is hard for them to receive full support from the government since they hardly substantiate their claims.

Besides not treating chemicals before releasing them to the environment, silver mining companies do not dispose wastes left after silver extraction (Martinez-Alier 2001).

Once they exhaust minerals in an area, the companies just reallocate to a new area leaving the Mexican government with the responsibility of disposing the waste. The government takes long to dispose these wastes subjecting the indigenous people to health problems.

Loss of sovereignty

One of the reasons why indigenous people resist mining activities in their areas is because mining takes away their sovereignty. Mining often affects institutions and indigenous lifestyles affecting their ability to provide for themselves (Gordon & Webber 2008).

Globally, indigenous communities observe their autonomous rights as equal members of the society in the state. Hence, the indigenous communities value their sovereignty just like the non-indigenous people, and use all means to preserve it whenever they sense any threat.

Sovereignty does not only stand for sea rights and indigenous land (Hilson 2002a), but also refers to the ability of the indigenous communities to sustain themselves both politically and economically. Silver mining in Mexico affects the sovereignty of the indigenous people since it denies them the right to manage and control their lands.

Besides, it becomes hard for communities to pass on their culture to subsequent generations. The establishment of mining activities comes in handy with foreign cultures. For instance, the Canadian silver mining companies operating in Mexico led to the introduction of Canadian cultures to the indigenous people.

Interaction with the miners made it hard for the indigenous people to uphold their culture thus adopting some cultural practices from the miners.

Indigenous people strongly attribute their sovereignty to land and thus they highly value their land (Stromberg & Tellman 2009). The survival of these people depends on the land and its resources.

Hence, it is hard for the indigenous people to let go their land knowing that their life depends on it. Silver mining in Mexico deprives the indigenous people of their sovereignty since it leads to their displacement from their ancestral land.

Normally, mining leads to privatisation of land that the aboriginals own communally. As mining companies assume ownership of these lands, the indigenous communities relocate to new areas. Initially, the Mexicans had the right to the land, and on the other hand, the nation had the right to all that was beneath the land.

Hence, the indigenous people had influence on how the land was utilised in the country. It was hard for the authorities to initiate mining activities before getting the consent of the aboriginal communities.

However, in 1990s the government came up with mineral reforms, which oppressed the aboriginals. The reforms gave miners the right to access lands without having to consult the people that own the land. Eventually, the indigenous people lost control of their land to foreign miners.

Silver and gold mining in Mexico has led to loss of life, damage of property, impoverishment, and land destruction.

Canadian mining companies have taken control of indigenous lands in Mexico, and in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico ended up amending its constitution. The amendments made it possible for land privatisation leading to the entrance of foreign companies into the country.

In addition, constitution amendment led to the massive sale of indigenous lands (“ejido”) to foreigners (Dhillon 2007). For decades, these lands were communally owned under the control of the indigenous people. The government had no control of these lands.

However, changes made to the mining laws gave exploitation and exploration of minerals precedence over the landowners. Hence, the indigenous people who used their land for agriculture and hunting had to give up the land to miners.

In opposition to this move, some of the indigenous people ended up losing their lives or suffering permanent injuries. For instance, Bernardo Sanchez lost his life as he tried to mobilise people to oppose the activities of Fortuna Silver Mines (Weinberg 2007).

According to Sanchez, the mining company had misled the community to allow it to operate on its land without clarifying on the consequences of the mining activity (Weinberg 2007).

In addition, Sanchez claimed that the company was responsible for water shortage in the area and other water-related problems like contamination that the community experienced.

Culture destabilisation

Another effect of silver mining in Mexico is cultural destabilisation and disunity among the indigenous people. Before the mining companies arrived in Mexico, indigenous people coexisted in harmony. They practiced a common culture.

However, mining companies led to division among the communities (Murillo 2009). After the indigenous people opposed the establishment of mining activities on their land, the companies devised mechanisms to win the trust from some of the people.

Some people were promised jobs, which compelled then to accept and welcome the companies. Division emerged within the indigenous communities where some people opposed the mining companies while others embraced them.

The companies took advantage of the level of poverty amongst indigenous people to win their trust. For instance, to win the trust from the local people, First Majestic Silver Company hired some of the local leaders in Wirikuta.

The move aimed at creating a lift in the community thus polarising its opposition. The community could not speak in one voice since some leaders benefited from the project and could not accept to forfeit their jobs.

Besides the division in the communities, silver mining led to the abolishment of communism among the indigenous people with most of the people adopting an individualistic culture.

Today, most of the indigenous people that work in the mining companies do not share their proceeds with others unlike in the past where people used to gather food and share as a community. Today, wages shape most of the cultural values of the indigenous people in Mexico.

Individualism caused by the silver mining activity has disintegrated the social fabric of the indigenous people. It has not only broken up the extended families, but also led to disunity in the community. In the past, parents had time to stay with their children and teach them their culture.

However, today parents spend most of their time in the mining companies leaving their relatives with the responsibility of taking care of the children. This has resulted in weaker interactions within families and the community at large.

Apart from culture destabilisation, silver mining in Mexico led to the disruption of leadership and social organisation. Initially, the indigenous communities lived in groups, and they had stable leadership systems. The leadership made all decisions on matters affecting the community.

Nevertheless, when the mining companies came, they targeted individual leaders within the indigenous communities and used them to polarise the communities’ influence. Leaders were given jobs and promised monetary rewards if they could help the companies establish their operations.

Prior to his death, Sanchez asserted that the mining companies entered their land and talked to individual landowners without consulting the entire community. The move disrupted the social organisation that the community had hitherto maintained.

Leaders could not speak in one voice to oppose the companies, as some of them already had personal interests in the companies’ activities. The leaders gave up the interests of the community to pursue personal interests, and it was hard to convince them that allowing the mining activity to take place would have negative effects on their social and cultural values.

Displacement and relocation

A study on the Mexican neoliberal laws like NAFTA policies has shown that silver mining led to immense displacement and migration of the indigenous people. Since 1994, “more than fifteen million indigenous people in Mexico have relocated or been displaced from their ancestral lands” (Alexandra 2006, p.116).

The mining industry in the country upholds a myth that mining is crucial for economic growth of the state. In spite of the mining companies offering jobs to the local people, most of these jobs are temporary and poorly paying. In Cerro de San Pedro, the indigenous people lost their lands and homes to the mining companies (Dunbar-Oritz 2007).

They were displaced from their lands to give the mining company an opportunity to carry on with the mining activities. The move deprived the indigenous people of their right to live and work on their ancestral land. Moreover, relocation to new localities made it hard for communities to carry on with their cultural practices.

Indigenous people have lived in their ancestral lands for decades. Hence, their culture and economic activities are entrenched into the land.

Therefore, displacing the indigenous people from their ancestral land means breaking the course of their culture, as it is hard for them to relocate with all their cultural values, most of which are attached to their land.

Impoverishment and wealth risks

Activities that incapacitate people’s ability to improve, accrue, maintain, and pass on their affluence to subsequent generations seriously challenge the sustainability of the affected people. Individuals that are alien to indigenous culture may claim that mining activities do not pose wealth and impoverishment risks to the indigenous people (Hilson 2002b).

They may argue that indigenous people suffer from unemployment and have limited wealth or revenue, and thus introducing mining activities in their areas would hardly affect them. Those supporting the mining activities would argue that the endeavour would facilitate in reducing poverty in the area.

Individuals supporting mining activities in indigenous lands claim that the government and the mining companies compensate the affected people by creating jobs in the mining companies.

Nevertheless, not every effort that the government and mining companies make to reimburse the affected communities facilitate in mitigating the principal sustainability and impoverishment threats that the mining activities pose on the indigenous people.

The earned revenues characterise only a diminutive fraction of the indigenous wealth. The wealth that props up the maintenance of the culture of indigenous people in Mexico lies on environmental awareness, institutions, and resources like land, which they attribute to some cultural values (Postero 2008).

Silver mining in Mexico denies the indigenous people the opportunity to access mutual resources, culturally fitting housing, identity, social support, food security, and localised prestige. The activity deprives the aboriginals the right to continue farming on their ancestral land, thus predisposes these people to food shortages (Swaney & Olson 2007).

Before mining companies arrived in Mexico, indigenous people were depending on their environment and resources that nature provides for them for sustenance. They depended on proceeds of the land for survival.

Silver mining in Mexico subjects the indigenous people to impoverishment and wealth risks in varied ways. The mining activity breaks the course of economic and social life.

Normally, local people abandon some of their economic activities and relocate to new places to give room for the mining companies (Van Young 2008). This affects the course of their social life as well as economic activities.


Silver mining in Mexico affects the indigenous people negatively. One would think that the aboriginals would benefit from job opportunities created by the mining companies. Silver mining has resulted to encroachment of sacred lands once held by the indigenous people.

Some of the mining sites lie on the routes used by the indigenous people on their pilgrimage journeys. Besides, some mining activities take place on lands where indigenous people buried their ancestors.

The mining activities lead to vegetation degradation coupled with water and soil contamination, which makes it hard for communities to depend on their land.

Indigenous people lose their sovereignty as they no longer have control of their ancestral land and cannot go on with their cultural practices without interference. Miners target individual leaders within the community to win their trust and get permission to operate in the area.

In the process, they disrupt social organisation and destroy the leadership system used by the indigenous people. Silver mining leads to displacement and relocation of the indigenous people. Hence, silver mining seriously challenges sustainability of the indigenous people in Mexico.

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