2010-08. Project of Mass Destruction: Goldcorp’s Peñasquito Mine
August 10th, 2010.
Issue: MiningFive years ago, a new neighbor arrived in Mazapil promising employment, medical services and general development for the peasant communities of Cedros, Las Palmas, and El Vergel, among others. Unfortunately, the new neighbor has failed to deliver and hope for a brighter future has dimmed among the locals. In fact, the new neighbor, Goldcorp’s Peñasquito Mine, has turned out to be a very troublesome addition to the community as its main contributions involve environmental contamination and guzzling of the scarce water sources. (1)Life in the Zacatecan Semi-desertMazapil, one of the largest municipalities in Mexico, covers an area of 12,063 square kilometers and is located on a high plateau roughly 2,000 meters above sea level.As annual rainfall hovers between 200 and 400 millimeters, Mazapil’s climate is classified as semi-desert.Founded in 1568, Mazapil is “one of the poorest and most marginalized municipalities in the country.” (2)“Even though it has been a mining town by tradition, [Mazapil] has never been prosperous. Its population has managed to survive off agriculture and the raising of livestock.” (3)The Ejido system still prevails in this part of the country. It consists of community members, known as the ejidatarios, sharing a common landholding, both for agricultural and living purposes.A wedding in the ejidoof Cedros coincided with MiMundo.org’s visit to Mazapil.
Water: Source of Life
Despite having an annual rainfall lower than 400 millimeters, the local ejidos have managed to subsist thanks to the existence of massive aquifers that provide vital groundwater, used primarily for the irrigation of crops.
“Our life support system depends on water, because we live off what we harvest!” declares Irma Hernández Herrera, resident of El Vergel. “Here we grow chili peppers, alfalfa, corn, beans, squash, and our lives depend on this, because this is what we eat.”
Nevertheless, since 2007, groundwater levels have been deemed as critical statewide, as the water tables have suffered “an annual deficit of 220 million cubic meters.” There is barely enough water for agricultural purposes. (4)
Peñasquito: Project of Mass Destruction
The Canadian-owned mine produced its first bar of gold in 2008, but was officially inaugurated this past March by Mexican President Felipe Calderon. “Peñasquito is one of the three largest mining operations in the world, and Latin America’s largest gold producer.” (5)
This panorama shows two massive mounds from the mining complex very near Mazapil’s municipal capital. Peñasquito, an open pit mine, will require thousands of liters of water per hour in order to operate during its estimated 22-year lifespan.
Before operations began, a contract between community members from the ejido of El Vergel and Goldcorp, stipulated the perforation of only 10 water wells for industrial use. Nevertheless, by the end of 2009, Goldcorp was already operating 30 wells. Joel Mancilla, Commissioner of El Vergel, accuses “the mining company of using in one hour, the amount of water a local family would use in 25 years.” (6)
Armando González Alvarado, resident of El Vergel and member of the Negotiation Committee with the mining company, asserts: “The mine’s wells reach 300 meters below the surface, while ours at El Vergel only reach 100 or 130 meters.”
Aside from the harsh competition for groundwater between company and communities, local residents justifiably fear for the contamination of the aquifers due to cyanide leaching processes used in Peñasquito. As the above image shows, a cyanide solution is irrigated over mounds of soil in order to separate gold particles from the rock product. “The cyanide filters through the brute mineral, gathering gold and other metals and pushing them to the bottom of the mounds. From here, the concentrated particles flow towards a pool known as the tailings pond where gold is recovered via the absorption of carbon.” (7)
“Cyanide leaching has an elevated environmental cost… Drippings from the tailings ponds contaminate underground aquifers. Even though these toxic pools are lined with layers of high density polyethylene, these tend to tear due to a variety of factors.” (8)
“Short-term exposure to high levels of cyanide – be it inhaled, consumed in food products, drank, or absorbed through the skin – is extremely toxic, even lethal. While long-term exposure to low levels of cyanide can result in serious respiratory problems, affect the nervous system and severely damage the digestive tract.” (9)
This image from another Goldcorp-owned mine, the San Martin Project in the Siria Valley, Honduras, shows the same cyanide leaching method by ways of irrigation. Ten years after having begun operations, the environmental disaster in the Siria Valley is evident. Adjacent communities, particularly Palo Ralo and Pedernal, have reported hundreds of health issues involving intestinal and/or renal cancer, nervous system disorders, and research from a 2006 study found that 96 per cent of the population suffers from rashes and other skin problems most likely caused by exposure to toxic materials from the mine. (10)
Community members from the ejidos of Cedros and El Vergel are already complaining about strange odors, lack of water, respiratory problems, cattle and wildlife showing up lifeless near the mine, as well as crop diseases never experienced before. In this image, Mr. Santiago identifies the fungus affecting the bean crops.
Deceptions and Social Conflict
“Peñasquito is expected to produce about 500,000 ounces a year of gold, 28 million ounces a year of silver, 450 million pounds a year of zinc and 200 million pounds a year of lead, over a 22-year mine life.” (11) As of August 11th, 2010, an ounce of gold was valued at US $1,197. If the price of gold per ounce remains this high, Goldcorp can expect to earn around US $598.5 million per year, just from its gold production.
Despite the exorbitant earnings, profits do not benefit locals in Mazapil. For several days in May 2009, community members blocked the entrance to Peñasquito, demanding a monetary adjustment for the 6,000 hectares leased out to Goldcorp. Lauro Herrera, community leader from Cedros, claims Goldcorp “’took advantage of our ignorance and poverty by drafting a lease contract in which they agree to pay us only half a Mexican Peso per square meter during 30 years.” (12)
“Leaders from the ejidos state that, according to Mexican Mining Law, local residents must receive a compensation of at least 100 million Mexican Pesos for every year the company works their land, this being retroactive to 2006. In addition, the National Water Commission should severely reprimand Goldcorp for the likely contamination of the underground aquifers.” (13)
Felipe Pinedo, member of the Zacatecas Popular Front for Struggle (FPLZ), considers the claim from local ejidatarios to be legitimate: “the mining law requires Goldcorp to pay the peasants from Zacatecas a percentage of the annual earnings, which roughly stand at 17.5 million pesos per day.” (14)
In May 2010, another sit-in by the locals halted operations for about a week. This time, disgruntled community members demanded higher wages as hundreds of workers “earn 800 pesos a week for 12-hour workdays.” Most believe this is unfair, particularly taking into consideration the massive earnings from the Canadian corporation. (15)
Vicente Pérez Esquivel, Mayor of Mazapil, states that Goldcorp made all the previous arrangements with the federal government and since 2007, when the first stage of operations began, the municipal government has not received any tax payments from the mining company, not even the construction license fees. (17)
Just from property taxes, the municipal government should be receiving one million pesos annually from Peñasquito. Such revenues would come in very handy in a municipality where: only 30% of the population has running water, 65% has electricity, 18% has sewage, 3% has a garbage pickup service, 50% enjoys public security, and 7% of the roads are paved. (18)
Lauro Herrera Médez, from Cedros, declares: “ Here, no one will be able to avoid the consequences. We are not against employment. On the contrary! But the truth is that the company has not hired many locals. We want the governments to take action and be more proactive about the contamination, the environmental impact… But one thing I do tell you: we are not going to stop until we find a favorable solution for everyone here. We have seen elsewhere the destruction and well, death, that is left behind wherever an industrial mine like this one passes through.”
Irma Hernández Herrera, community member from El Vergel, concludes: “In the future, I see a deserted image of what once was this town… It makes me very sad, especially for the children that will live such a situation. We have had a very hard life and struggled enormously to upkeep this ejido. We have already suffered so much, and now, this monster comes to devastate our territories. What will we do once the water runs out? And it is clear that it will run out! Because in every place where a mine establishes itself, the water eventually runs out.”
To view this photo essay in flash, click here.
Version en español aquí.
1 Jiménez , Paulina. “Vecinos incómodos llegaron hace más de tres años a Mazapil”. Zócalo Saltillo. May 27, 2009.
2 Morales Navarrete, Roberto. “Inauguran la mayor mina de oro de México”. El Economista. March 23, 2010.
3 Noriega, Sofía. “El Dorado mexicano. Un pueblo minero por tradición, pero sus habitantes viven de la agricultura y ganadería”. El Diario de Coahuila. April 19, 2010.
10 Trujillo, Daniel. “Valle de Siria: El verdadero rostro de la minería”. Diario Co Latino. September 27, 2008.
11 Hill, Liezel. “Goldcorp ‘weeks’ from big milestone at Penasquito.” MiningWeekly.com. July 30, 2010.
12 Jiménez, Paulina. “Cierran mina de oro ‘El Peñasquito’ por abusos de la empresa canadiense Gold Corp.” Zócalo Saltillo. May 26, 2009.
15 Valadez Rodríguez, Alfredo. “Mineros de Zacatecas protestan por bajos salarios.” Periódico La Jornada. May 22, 2010. P. 30.
16 Op. Cit. Jiménez. May 27, 2009.
17 Op. Cit. Noriega.