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A plan to save the “Place Where the Sun Was Born”

I recently had the privilege of visiting Mexico as part of a pre-hearing on dams for the Permanent People’s Tribunal and while there, visited the Sierra de Catorce area of San Luis Potosi to see the impacts of mining on the Wixarika (Huichol) people and the local environment. Like many Canadians, I am increasingly alarmed by reports of human rights and environmental abuses by Canadian mining companies operating in Latin America and the Canadian government’s refusal to restrain them. Two Canadian mining companies, Revolution Resources and First Majestic Silver Corp, are aggressively moving into this area in search of gold and silver and I wanted to see first hand what the local community is experiencing.

What I found was a people deeply attached to a traditional way of life that is threatened by both new mining projects and industrial agribusiness. The Wixarika people have a rich, deeply rooted spirituality and culture and have practiced their traditions much as their people have done for more than 1000 years. They honoured me by taking me to several sacred places in Wirikuta, where Wixarika people make an annual pilgrimage and renew the candles of life and consciousness in the “place where the sun was born.” Wirikuta mountains and the surrounding desert are rich in biodiversity and of great historic and cultural importance.

However the mining and agribusiness interests aggressively moving into their sacred territory seriously threaten this way of life and the local environment. Although the Mexican government has recently moved to conserve parts of this area as a “National Mining Reserve,” the state has granted 79 mining concessions to mining companies that span 70% of the Wirikuta sacred territory and leave 98,000 hectares unprotected.

Of special concern is the impact of heavy mining on the already taxed water resources of the region, which has experienced serious drought in the last several years. Gold and silver mining has a devastating impact on local water sources, raising acid levels in rivers and lakes and polluting local water with heavy metals and toxics such as mercury. Cyanide used in the leaching process kills fish and other wildlife and is a danger to local human communities. An independent study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that the water sources of half the entire mountain range could be negatively affected and the sacred springs of Wirikuta could dry up if these mining concessions were to go ahead.

The Wixarika people want all mining and agribusiness activity in their territory to be completely forbidden and have asked outgoing President Felipe Calderon to issue a decree with the specifications requested by the Wixarika people to name the entire sacred area of the Wirikuta region a Biosphere Reserve that would ban all mining exploration and exploitation in any form. This would respect the right of the Wixarika people to free, prior and informed consent and protect their rights to maintain their traditions and culture as they have practiced it for millennia as well as the livelihoods of the local population. It would also protect this sacred area, already named as part of UNESCO’s World Network of Sacred Natural Sites, as a treasured inheritance for the many visitors who come every year as pilgrims or seeking spiritual renewal in its unique natural environment.

I, and the 75,000 members of my organization, a national social and environmental justice movement, join the Wixarika people in appealing to President Calderon to save the “place where the sun was born” for all generations to come and name it a Biosphere Reserve. We are joined by other Canadian organizations representing major indigenous, worker, human rights and environmental movements in Canada. They include: The Assembly of First Nations; The Canadian Union of Public Employees; Common Frontiers; Mining Watch Canada; The Sierra Club of Canada; The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs; KAIROS; and Alternatives, a social justice movement from Quebec.

Mexicans and Canadians together can work against mining injustice and save the sacred lands and waters of Wirikuta.

Read the original Spanish op-ed in La Jornada: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/11/17/opinion/018a1pol