There's gold, and no controls, in Mexico's hills

  • Ocotillo outlined at sunrise over Sonoran range

    Jack W. Dykinga
  • O'odham children in Quitovac, Sonora

    Florence Williams

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, On the borderline.

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.

"Has 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 different."

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 documents.

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 discourages it."

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 the country.

Thanks to a $345 million economic development loan from the World Bank, Mexico now allows foreigners total ownership of ore veins they discover.

In 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.

"Under the 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 land."

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 grounds."

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 Mexican."

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 transplanting.

"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 deceitful."

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 have.

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 start.

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