QUITOVAC, Sonora - On a warm winter day, Esther Velasco Ortega greets visitors from a chair in the front yard of her cinderblock house. One of her visitors is Gary Nabhan, an ethnobotanist who buys saguaro fruit jelly from her every year. But Nabhan is not here to talk about jelly.
anyone from the mining company explained to you what their plans
are?" he asks her in Spanish.
"No," says Ortega,
a grandmother who is the secretary of her O'odham community,
population 28. "They have not told us anything. One day we hear one
rumor, and the next day we hear something
According to Mexico's environmental
regulations, no public hearings are necessary to apply for a mining
permit. In fact, say Nabhan and O'odham activists, not much is
required at all.
Last month, Hecla, an
Idaho-based mining company, began blasting and drilling seven miles
south of town. Using cyanide to leach ore, the company plans to
extract 150,000 ounces of gold from 4 million tons of rock over the
next two years. After that, prospects are "outstanding" to mine
nearby sites, according to company
From the day Hecla applied to the
Mexican government for a permit to the day it was issued, a total
of eight months passed.
"In the United States, it
would have taken five years," says Hecla spokesperson April
Robertson. "The Mexican government encourages mining, not
In the last two years, Mexico
has opened its doors to foreign mining companies. Before that,
foreign companies were not permitted to lease land directly from
Thanks to a $345 million economic
development loan from the World Bank, Mexico now allows foreigners
total ownership of ore veins they discover.
1992, investments in new mining projects amounted to $189 million,
a 257 percent increase over 1988, according to the Mexican weekly,
El Financiero International.
At least 120 foreign
mining companies have filed applications in Sonora, the state just
over the border from Arizona, says the paper. Phelps Dodge,
Kennicott and the Vancouver-based Placer Dome have all reportedly
found large deposits.
In Quitovac, two elders
signed a one-page contract allowing Hecla to mine the La Choya
site, according to Fernando Valentine, an American Hia-Ced O'odham
environmental activist. Three other men also signed, but they live
in Puerto Penasco, 45 miles away. The Quitovac men told Nabhan the
piece of paper they signed was blank.
terms of the contract, the community is to receive $100,000 over
three years, and that's for a $60 million mine," says Wendy Laird,
director of the borderlands program for the Sonoran Institute.
"There was a total imbalance of bargaining power. We'd like to see
the contract renegotiated when the community is more informed of
the mine's impacts to the water and the
Valentine says Quitovac is a sacred site
for the O'odham, who perform their annual ceremony of rejuvenation
there every summer. He also says Hecla has taken advantage of
Quitovac. "I think the Quitovac community has not been given enough
information. They have not been told about the cyanide; and the
company does not know it is mining on sacred burial
Hecla's Robertson says the mine is not
near any burial grounds. "This isn't even tribal land," she says.
"Mexico doesn't recognize tribes. These are not Indians; they're
Mexicans, and a Mexican is a Mexican is a
Robertson also says all the same
environmental precautions will be taken in Mexico as are taken in
the United States. The company prepared a document similar to an
environmental impact statement.
Nabhan, who has
studied the rich biological diversity of the region, calls the
document inadequate. He says the company has underestimated water
needs and neglected to mention any impact to the Quitovac springs -
the only artesian springs for 40 miles in any direction - even
though Hecla plans to use its water.
At least 18
plants protected by Mexican law grow in the area of the mine, but
Hecla has targeted only three common cacti for
"Even these species do not
transplant well," Nabhan says. "By any professional standards, the
environmental assessment upon which Hecla received its mining
permit from the Mexican government was flawed, if not
The biggest problem facing many
critics of the mine is that they are not from Quitovac, or even
Mexico. Sylvester Listo, the chairman of the Tohono O'odham nation,
wrote a letter to the Mexican government in December requesting
additional studies and public meetings. But Listo lives in Arizona,
and Valentine wonders how much pull he will
For now, the Sonoran department which
oversees mining has agreed to meet with the departments which
oversee archaeology and the environment. That, says Nabhan, is a