Sonora on Lithium – Part 2

Sonora on Lithium – Part 2

By Straquez

The Colonial Years

Of course, Mexico has been in the front line of atrocities and destruction that come out of mining. Mexico is a land blessed with wide biodiversity that includes minerals that have caught the attention of foreign companies who then act as the machinery to do what this industrial culture does best –converting the living into the dead. High revenue for the company stakeholders, negative benefit for the inhabitants and nothing but endless destruction for the land.

It is said that Aztecs used to embellish and protect their bodies with jewelry, such as necklaces with charms and pedants, armlets, bracelets, leg bracelets, and rings. They would also use tools and vases fabricated with precious metals like gold and silver. These metals were found in deposits located on the surface and not underground like nowadays, this allowed the usage of such mineral resources without much effort or effect.

In 1521, Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was taken over by the Spanish army consolidating Mexico’s Conquest. From then on, mining as an industry started in Mexico as Spaniards started to exploit places where mineral deposits could be located. Mining was carried out mostly in the North and Center of what is now modern day Mexico. Many important mineral deposits started to be discovered in places that later would become famous as they would generate wealth (for whom?) and human settlements. It was only a matter of time before the land subject to mining would be turned into cities such as Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Taxco, Chihuahua and Durango.

Mines kept spreading and mining created many jobs and wealth (I hate to be repetitive, but whose wealth?). Is there even a mention of all the evils done to the indigenous land and people? Not at all, the history of mining is portrayed as progress, as an unquestionable good thing, as a victory and in no terms as a defeat or loss. The whole History of Civilization is pretty much like that, now that I think of it.

After Independence

When the Independence movement of Mexico started in 1810, mining projects were negatively affected and had to be stopped. It was not until 1823 when the movement ended that mining activity was restarted. Remember that I mentioned my surname Straffon being from Cornwall, England? Well, it was precisely during these years that the British Real del Monte Company was established thanks to English capital. This company provided both technology and workforce, some of it straight from Cornwall to re-establish silver mines located in Real del Monte, Hidalgo. 1,500 tons of equipment including 9 steam engines with their large boilers, 5 for pumping, 2 for crushing ore and 2 for use in powering saw mills; various pumps; large cast iron pipes to connect the pumps to be placed at the bottom of the mines with the surface. And so started the rebuilding and modernization of the district’s mining industry. The Cornish miners had brought the Industrial Revolution to Mexico.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Mexico was entering a major political transformation as new laws and codes were created. During Porfirio Diaz’ administration, for example, most of the railroad infrastructure was built all through the country, focusing on the main mining centers that were already established. Then the American corporations showed up offering the means for better extraction as mines during the times of Nueva España were certainly used, but could not be exploited to their maximum because Spain lacked the technology and resources to do so.

The Fresnillo Company, Mazapil Cooper Co., Peñoles Mining Co., and Pittsburg & Mexico Tin Mining Co. were some of the companies looking to make a profit out of Mexico’s mines. Parallel industries started to rise, the economy diversified and the country’s elite dreamed of Mexico being on its way to becoming a world economy. Metallurgical processes were improved with maximum return on capital and mineral processing efficiency as the main goal. The bonanza would cease somewhat in the 1960s when the mining industry was nationalized and mine administration passed to the charge of Mexican professionals.

Then came NAFTA, and in 1992 mining laws were modified substantially in order to accommodate the demands of big national and transnational corporations. Compared to the prior 300 years, production of gold and silver doubled even though several communities resisted the exploitation. Social and environmental damage increased substantially as a consequence due to legal impunity and the ability of the mining organizations to trample over human rights. The Mexican Mining Law of 1992 is a unique and unconstitutional piece of legislation, and rides roughshod over earlier laws which allowed for judicial challenges and which consequently made it difficult for companies to carry on their business with impunity. The solution of the mining organizations was, of course, to create a whole web of corruption that extends to the three branches of government. We are still living the influence of NAFTA until this very day. Business as usual.

Keep on Digging

Doctor María Teresa Sánchez Salazar has set out very interesting mine “conflict maps” which consider many parameters including land conflict, environmental conflict, social conflict, labor conflict or a combination of those factors. Data shows that 75% of these conflicts have to do with land, that is, land grabs by the mining companies or due to environmental conflicts, and almost 70% of them happen in open-pit mines. Another interesting number – 60% of the conflicts have involved foreign company owned mines.

She adds that there are places where conflict started due to land grab and the subsequent leasing to mining companies and the implementation of ways to displace people from their native lands. Of a total of 181 natural areas, 57 have been leased for mining. Eight of them focus more than 75% of the surface to this activity. Twenty of them have at least 93% of their surface leased. One example is the Rayón National Park in Michoacan, its land is practically 100% leased for mining as well as Huautla Mountain Range that is between Morelos, Puebla and Guerrero.

Safety is also an issue for the Mexican mining sector. There are powerful cartels that have quite an influence in the entire country, including mining states such as Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Guerrero. Mines have been object of many armed robberies that have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Extortion, threats and employee kidnapping have been the most common crimes reported by the mining companies.

If this was a Robin Hood kind of deal then I should certainly support it, but in the end workers are the most affected, operations are seldom slowed down and the exploitation just does not stop. If the criminal gangs were to take over, not much would change as, let’s be honest, both companies and cartels pretty much operate the same way but at a different scale.


In times prior to the year 1600, this area was inhabited by Opata indigenous settlements. In the year 1645 a mission named San Luis Gonzága de Bacadéhuachi was founded by the Jesuit missionary Cristóbal García. Its current inhabitants dedicate their lives to taking care of livestock and making cheese, bread and tortillas which are sold among themselves; within the world economy, they don’t have much of a choice. Being only 270 kilometers away from Hermosillo, capital of the State of Sonora, the road takes 5 hours to transit due to the uneven and complex terrain that in turn makes it a dangerous travel.

This town is on the same route of the high mountain range that takes you to Chihuahua, its neighbor state. This is a high-risk road as armed conflicts are constantly raging between groups that are looking to take control of this area. Some months ago, armed men went into the municipality creating such a situation and ending the peaceful environment to the point that the Mexican National Guard and the State Police now have to be constantly present.

Bacadehuachi has around 500 houses, most of them made of adobe, occupied by around 1,083 people according to the The National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). It has cobblestone roads and few are made of concrete due to the minimal vehicle transit. It is more common to see people on horses or donkeys than in motor vehicles. Everything is around the corner, there are no gas stations nearby. It has 3 municipal police officers that issue around 10 different fines a year. There is only one health center for basic checkups and a doctor is available every 3 days.

Regarding education, only one preschool, one primary school and one secondary school exist. For those who want to receive higher education, their only choice is to go to Granados, a municipality 50 kilometers away from the town. The road is risky to say the least, young students must stay at the neighboring town and go back to their families at the weekends in a municipality sponsored bus. To go to college is a victory, a luxury, a rare occurrence for the townspeople.

Don’t Know What I’m Selling

Miguel Teran is a farmer and former owner of La Ventana ranch. He sold his land to Bacanora Lithium for the Sonora Lithium Project. He asserts that the first explorations started back in 1994. Geologists came to the La Ventana ranch in government cars. They took some soil samples, came back 8 years later, measured the land and after that they never came back. Ten years ago, Bacanora Lithium carried out some studies. They drilled around 115 holes with the permission of Miguel and then they offered to buy the land.

I told them: you know what you’re buying, but I don’t know what I’m selling. Don’t take advantage of me. That’s how the negotiation started, but they wanted to pay as if it was a mere piece of land.”

Miguel wasn’t disappointed yet he acknowledges that he could have made a better deal as he has since found out what treasure lies in the 1,900 hectares that were sold and integrated into the Sonora Lithium Project. For the time being and until the mineral is extracted, Miguel may allow his cows to graze there as stipulated in the contract.

I am within my rights until I get in the way, but I have already bought some land.” Finally, he adds, “sometimes my car battery would fail and they would tell me that I had lithium here, but I only know about horses and chickens; not lithium.”

The Trauma of Our Technological Selves

As a city-dweller, my experience with Nature has been for the most part parks and decorative gardens. Since I live so disconnected from the land itself, I can only enter into relationship with my own species, our creations and the animals we call pets. For a long time I’ve been scared of insects and even though working in a garden has helped diminish the feeling, I still feel uncomfortable in certain scenarios. Soil and its minerals are even weirder to me, because I had never considered them something other than a resource, a component that can be used for my benefit through technology. They don’t seem alive, they don’t seem to have any other purpose than sitting there for us to transform them into something else.

Perhaps my biggest realization during my journey to connect with the land is the enormous damage that Capitalism, Colonialism and Industrialism have inflicted on the planet. It has reached the point that we are also physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually bent and broken enough for us to barely notice the indifference and violence around us. Indifference and violence done to each other and to ourselves. And yet, those who notice don’t always take action. Even less, those who know and take action don’t have a clear idea, much less a strategy to stop the abuse.

This is not something that modern technology can fix. Not the electric cars, not the solar cells nor the electric batteries. Not the tote bags and the bamboo toothbrushes that you can use as compost. Our home is being gutted and we just stand there watching, unsure on what to do. When you actually want to stop a killer, you go ahead and do it. You don’t offer knives from recycled metal or whips made out of hemp. You go ahead and put an end to the abuse by neutralizing any capacity to inflict damage that the perpetrator might have. You stop the killing, you stop the behavior, you commit yourself to do so.

Today I read that only 3% of world’s ecosystems remain intact. Civilization is going down regardless of what we do. Nothing can grow indefinitely without collapsing. The real question is what will be left when our civilization goes down. Our struggle resides in stopping it before there is nothing left.

Cristopher Straffon Marquez a.k.a. Straquez is a theater actor and language teacher currently residing in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Artist by chance and educator by conviction, Straquez was part of the Zeitgeist Movement and Occupy Tijuana Movement growing disappointed by good intentions misled through dubious actions. He then focused on his art and craft as well as briefly participating with The Living Theatre until he stumbled upon Derrick Jensen’s Endgame and consequently with the Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet both changing his mind, heart and soul. Since then, reconnecting with the land, decolonizing the mind and fighting for a living planet have become his goals.

Sonora on Lithium – Part 1

Sonora on Lithium – Part 1

By Straquez

Mine is the Ignorance of the Many

I was born in Mexico City surrounded by big buildings, a lot of cars and one of the most contaminated environments in the world. When I was 9 years old my family moved to Tijuana in North West Mexico and from this vantage point, on the wrong side of the most famous border town in the world,  I became acquainted with American culture. I grew up under the American way of life, meaning in a third-world city ridden with poverty, corruption, drug trafficking, prostitution, industry and an immense hate for foreigners from the South.

Through my school years, I probably heard a couple of times how minerals are acquired and how mining has brought “prosperity” and “progress” to humanity. I mean, even my family name comes from Cornwall, known for its mining sites. The first Straffon to arrive from England to Mexico did so around 1826 in Real del Monte in the State of Hidalgo (another mining town!). However, it is only recently, since I have started following the wonderful work being done in Thacker Pass by Max Wilbert and Will Falk that the horrors of mining came into focus and perspective.

What is mining? You smash a hole in the ground, go down the hole and smash some more then collect the rocks that have been exposed and process them to make jewelry, medicines or technology. Sounds harmless enough. It’s underground and provides work and stuff we need, right? What ill could come out of it? After doing some digging (excuse the pun), I feel ashamed of my terrible ignorance. Mine is the ignorance of the many. This ignorance is more easily perpetuated in a city where all the vile actions are done just so we can have our precious electronics, vehicles and luxuries.

Mine Inc.

Mining, simply put, is the extraction of minerals, metals or other geological materials from earth including the oceans. Mining is required to obtain any material that cannot be grown or artificially created in a laboratory or factory through agricultural processes. These materials are usually found in deposits of ore, lode, vein, seam, reef or placer mining which is usually done in river beds or on beaches with the goal of separating precious metals out of the sand. Ores extracted through mining include metals, coal, oil shale, gemstones, calcareous stone, chalk, rock salt, potash, gravel, and clay. Mining in a wider sense means extraction of any resource such as petroleum, natural gas, or even water.

Mining is one of the most destructive practices done to the environment as well as one of the main causes of deforestation. In order to mine, the land has to be cleared of trees, vegetation and in consequence all living organisms that depend on them to survive are either displaced or killed. Once the ground is completely bare, bulldozers and excavators are used to smash the integrity of the land and soil to extract the metals and minerals.

Mining comes in different forms such as open-pit mining. Like the name suggests, is a type of mining operation that involves the digging of an open pit as a means of gaining access to a desired material. This is a type of surface mining that involves the extraction of minerals and other materials that are conveniently located in close proximity to the surface of the mining site. An open pit mine is typically excavated with a series of benches to reach greater depths.

Open-pit mining initially involves the removal of soil and rock on top of the ore via drilling or blasting, which is put aside for future reclamation purposes after the useful content of the mine has been extracted. The resulting broken up rock materials are removed with front-end loaders and loaded onto dump trucks, which then transport the ore to a milling facility. The landscape itself becomes something out of a gnarly science-fiction movie.

Once extracted, the components are separated by using chemicals like mercury, methyl-mercury and cyanide which of course are toxic to say the least. These chemicals are often discharged into the closest water sources available –streams, rivers, bays and the seas. Of course, this causes severe contamination that in turn affects all the living organisms that inhabit these bodies of water. As much as we like to distinguish ourselves from our wild kin this too affects us tremendously, specially people who depend on the fish as their staple food or as a livelihood.

One of the chemical elements that is so in demand in our current economy is Lithium. Lithium battery production today accounts for about 40% of lithium mining and 25% of cobalt mining. In an all-battery future, global mining would have to expand by more than 200% for copper, by a minimum of 500% for lithium, graphite, and rare earths, and far more for cobalt.

Lithium – Isn’t that a Nirvana song?

Lithium is the lightest metal known and it is used in the manufacture of aircraft, nuclear industry and batteries for computers, cellphones, electric cars, energy storage and even pottery. It also can level your mood in the form of lithium carbonate. It has medical uses and helps in stabilizing excessive mood swings and is thus used as a treatment of bipolar disorder. Between 2014 and 2018, lithium prices skyrocketed 156% . From 6,689 dollars per ton to a historic high of 17,000 dollars in 2018. Although the market has been impacted due to the on-going pandemic, the price of lithium is also rising rapidly with spodumene (lithium ore) at $600 a ton, up 40% on last year’s average price and said by Goldman Sachs to be heading for $676/t next year and then up to $707/t in 2023.

Lithium hydroxide, one of the chemical forms of the metal preferred by battery makers, is trading around $11,250/t, up 13% on last year’s average of $9978/t but said by Goldman Sachs to be heading for $12,274 by the end of the year and then up to $15,000/t in 2023. Lithium is one of the most wanted materials for the electric vehicle industry along cobalt and nickel. Demand will only keep increasing if battery prices can be maintained at a low price.

Simply look at Tesla’s gigafactory in the Nevada desert which produces 13 million individual cells per day. A typical Electronic Vehicle battery cell has perhaps a couple of grams of lithium in it. That’s about one-half teaspoon of sugar. A typical EV can have about 5,000 battery cells. Building from there, a single EV has roughly 10 kilograms—or 22 pounds—of lithium in it. A ton of lithium metal is enough to build about 90 electric cars. When all is said and done, building a million cars requires about 60,000 tons of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE). Hitting 30% penetration is roughly 30 million cars, works out to about 1.8 million tons of LCE, or 5 times the size of the total lithium mining industry in 2019.

Considering that The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is being negotiated, lithium exploitation is a priority as a “must be secured” supply chain resource for the North American corporate machine. In 3 years, cars fabricated in these three countries must have at least 75% of its components produced in the North American region so they can be duty-free. This includes the production of lithium batteries that could also become a profitable business in Mexico.

Sonora on Lithium

In the mythical Sierra Madre Occidental (“Western Mother” Mountain Range) which extends South of the United States, there is a small town known as Bacadéhuachi. This town is approximately 11 km away from one of the biggest lithium deposits in the world known as La Ventana. At the end of 2019, the Mexican Government confirmed the existence of such a deposit and announced that a concession was already granted on a joint venture project between Bacanora Minerals (a Canadian company) and Gangfeng Lithium (a Chinese company) to extract the coveted mineral. The news spread and lots of media outlets and politicians started to refer to lithium as “the oil of the future.”

I quote directly the from Bacanora Lithium website:

Sonora Lithium Ltd (“SLL”) is the operational holding company for the Sonora Lithium Project and owns 100% of the La Ventana concession. The La Ventana concession accounts for 88% of the mined ore feed in the Sonora Feasibility Study which covers the initial 19 years of the project mine life. SLL is owned 77.5% by Bacanora and 22.5% by Ganfeng Lithium Ltd.

Sonora holds one of the world’s largest lithium resources and benefits from being both high grade and scalable. The polylithionite mineralisation is hosted within shallow dipping sequences, outcropping on surface. A Mineral Resource estimate was prepared by SRK Consulting (UK) Limited (‘SRK’) in accordance with NI 43-101.”

The Sonora Lithium Project is being developed as an open-pit strip mine with operation planned in two stages. Stage 1 will last for four years with an annual production capacity of approximately 17,500t of lithium carbonate, while stage 2 will ramp up the production to 35,000 tonnes per annum (tpa). The mining project is also designed to produce up to 28,800 tpa of potassium sulfate (K2SO4), for sale to the fertilizer industry.

On September 1st, 2020, Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, dissolved the Under-secretariat of Mining as part of his administration’s austerity measures. This is a red flag to environmental protection as it creates a judicial void which foreign companies will use to allow them greater freedom to exploit more and safeguard less as part of their mining concession agreements.

Without a sub-secretariat, mediation between companies, communities and environmental regulations is virtually non-existent. Even though exploitation of this particular deposit had been adjudicated a decade ago under Felipe Calderon’s administration, the Mexican state is since then limited to monitoring this project. This lack of regulatory enforcement will catch the attention of investors and politicians who will use the situation to create a brighter, more profitable future for themselves and their stakeholders.

To my mind there is a bigger question – how will Mexico benefit from having one of the biggest deposits of lithium in the world? Taking into account the dissolution of the Mining sub-secretariat and the way business and politics are usually handled in Mexico, I do wonder who will be the real beneficiaries of the aforementioned project.

Extra Activism

Do not forget, mining is an integral part of our capitalist economy; mining is a money making business – both in itself and as a supplier of materials to power our industrial civilization. Minerals and metals are very valuable commodities. Not only do the stakeholders of mining companies make money, but governments also make money from revenues.

There was a spillage in the Sonora river in 2014. It affected over 22,000 people as 40 million liters of copper sulfate were poured into its waters by the Grupo Mexico mining group. Why did this happen? Mining companies are run for the profit of its stakeholder and it was more profitable to dump poison into the river than to find a way to dispose it with a lower environmental impact. Happily for the company stakeholders, company profit was not affected in the least.

Even though the federal Health Secretariat in conjunction with Grupo México announced in 2015 the construction of a 279-million-peso (US $15.6-million) medical clinic and environmental monitoring facility to be known as the Epidemiological and Environmental Vigilance Unit (Uveas) to treat and monitor victims of the contamination, until this day it has not been completed. The government turned a blind eye to the incident after claiming they would help. All the living beings near the river are still suffering the consequences.

Mining is mass extraction and this takes us to the practice of “extractivism” which is the destruction of living communities (now called “resources”) to produce stuff to sell on the world market – converting the living into the dead. While it does include mining – extraction of fossil fuels and minerals below the ground, extractivism goes beyond that and includes fracking, deforestation, agro-industry and megadams.

If you look at history, these practices have deeply affected the communities that have been unlucky enough to experience them, especially indigenous communities, to the advantage of the so-called rich. Extractivism is connected to colonialism and neo-colonialism; just look at the list of mining companies that are from other countries – historically companies are from the Global North. Regardless of their origins, it always ends the same, the rich colonizing the land of the poor. Indigenous communities are disproportionately targeted for extractivism as the minerals are conveniently placed under their land.

While companies may seek the state’s permission, even work with them to share the profits, they often do not obtain informed consent from communities before they begin extracting – moreover stealing – their “resources”. The profit made rarely gets to the affected communities whose land, water sources and labor is often being used. As an example of all of this, we have the In Defense of the Mountain Range movement in Coatepec, Veracruz. Communities are often displaced, left with physical, mental and spiritual ill health, and often experience difficulties continuing with traditional livelihoods of farming and fishing due to the destruction or contamination of the environment.

Cristopher Straffon Marquez a.k.a. Straquez is a theater actor and language teacher currently residing in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Artist by chance and educator by conviction, Straquez was part of the Zeitgeist Movement and Occupy Tijuana Movement growing disappointed by good intentions misled through dubious actions. He then focused on his art and craft as well as briefly participating with The Living Theatre until he stumbled upon Derrick Jensen’s Endgame and consequently with the Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet both changing his mind, heart and soul. Since then, reconnecting with the land, decolonizing the mind and fighting for a living planet have become his goals.

Railroad Construction Threatens Mayan Land

Railroad Construction Threatens Mayan Land

Chris Straquez describes plans for a 1500 km railway project in southern Mexico, the potential for environmental destruction, and how developers justify their genocide against indigenous people.

The Mayan Train Project: Destruction of Indigenous Land

By Chris Straquez

The history of modern train industry started with the appearance of first steam engines, which enabled humanity to transport goods and people in a faster, reliable and cheaper way into a new age in the life of industrial revolution, human expansion and global economy. This, in turn, caused a great expansion of railways, machine improvements and enabling goods and people to be transported safer and faster. Today diesel engines, electrical trains and maglev high-speed bullet train network the entire earth. All these trains were developed from the steam engine.

Trains allowed us to save time covering long distances with huge cargoes which of course meant huge profits for businesses. People had faster means to get to and come from work. Business profited and personal vacation trips increased considerably. The creation of the regional time zones was due to the necessity to plan for the arrival and departure of trains from station to station. For the first time, geographical zones were divided up and assigned times so the ‘powerful’ railroad companies could organize travel schedules, forever changing the dynamic of time.

An entire nation connected by railroads, the traditional conception of space and time annihilated. Pathways altered to accommodate for terrain, locomotives pathways through the terrain. Tunnels made through mountains and bridges allowed for crossing valleys and rivers. A straight line from point A to point B. This, of course, meant many natural environments had to be gutted for the whole infrastructure of trains and railroads to become a reality.

Is there something Mayan about this train?

The Mayan Train is the signature project for the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s current President. This project will use the right of way of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec Railway all along Palenque to Valladolid. Valladolid current rights of way from different infrastructures such as roads, highways, and drivelines, among others; will be used in order to reduce the environmental impact caused by the project, and reduce the costs of new rights of way. The project includes nearly 1,460 km of railways in the Yucatan peninsula that will connect 5 estates: Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo.

During the Daily Presidential Morning Conference, it was communicated that an investigation carried out by The National Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR in Spanish) found that rights of way of many estates were not ‘recorded’. That a register did not exist, and many claims have been lost by the federal government from people who had never been paid for the rights of way in their lands which amounts approximately $750 million dollars in total. The Mayan Train project, in case you are wondering, will cost around 6 to 8 billion dollars, and is expected to bring more than three million visitors a year to the region; to archaeological sites and the area’s vast biodiversity such as Calakmul and Sian Ka’an.

The principal tourist territories are Cancún, Tulum, Palenque, Chichén Itzá and Calakmul biosphere, which is considered as the main location for the railroad routes, since it harbors 1,729,738 acres of a high biodiversity, considering 1,569 plant, 107 mammal, 398 bird, 84 reptile, 19 amphibian and 48 freshwater fish species.

Experts have warned of environmental risks, including the survival of certain species, disturbances within underground water networks, such as the Sac Actún underwater cave system and the Dos Ojos system in Tulum, Quintana Roo. The aquifers provide nourishment to trees and wildlife as it is one of the biggest fresh water storage areas on the planet. The erosion and fissuring of landings above those aquifers would allow an unbalance on the vital source for the jungle and represent an issue for local communities.

One of the world greatest biospheres in danger.

The Mayan Train’s route covers 15 federal protected areas, 20 state protected areas, rich geological regions and hydrological resources. There is a huge risk of extinction of flora and fauna. In 2018, the National Alliance for Jaguar Conservation conducted a nationwide census, finding that population was around 4,000 across five regions in Mexico, mostly distributed around Yucatán’s peninsula, which is also one of the railway’s main routes. This will make protecting of this species even more difficult for environmental organizations.

The Mayan Train will interfere the Calakmul Biosphere, which is considered the largest forest reserve, containing 6500 well-preserved archeological structures. It is the third most important ecological area and is sparsely inhabited. Once penetrated by the train, the inevitable consequence will be development at the expense of nature.

One of the most crucial areas that would be made vulnerable by the Mayan train routes is Laguna Bacalar in Quintana Roo, already water-polluted by the proliferation of hotels and private houses on its surroundings, an increase in tourism would turn it into a cesspool.

Moreover, the megaproject will bring about the fragmentation and destruction of one of the world’s last pristine rainforests. The railway will cut through the heart of the Mayan jungle, and since the natural wealth will be endangered, the megadiverse ecosystem would be damaged, and refuge for roughly 10 percent of the world’s known species may disappear.

Yet another threat to indigenous ways of life.

The Indigenous Regional Council (a settlement of 82 indigenous communities) across the Mexican Mayan train course estates would be crucially affected. The disruption to the Calakmuk Biosphere Reserve would decrease their economic development, forest resource tracking, as well as their main cultural heritage. I understand that environmentalists and local societies are against the construction of the railway, since ecosystem issues would be highly damaging for the territory.

Indigenous groups, and their conservationist and academic allies, call the train “an act of war” and López Obrador’s bid to ingratiate himself to Indigenous communities “a mockery.” They warn that the train will not only devastate southern Mexico’s ecosystems but also trigger unsustainable development and further marginalize the communities living there. These critics—the most prominent of which are the Zapatistas, who led an armed insurrection against the federal government in 1994—say the project will repeat the mistakes of development in Cancún and Tulum and bring cartel violence, corruption, and mass development (read destruction) to the Mayan forest. The Zapatistas have said they will defend the land with their lives.

These groups also said the Mayan Train poses a risk to the cultural identity of the indigenous people who live in the communities through which the tracks will run. Indigenous culture, namely that of the Mayan people who live in the region, could be marketed as a commodity, they argued. They also renewed their criticism of the Mayan Train consultation process in 2019, which was described by critics as a sham and an empty gesture. A vote on the project found 92% in support but the United Nations said that the entire consultation process failed to meet all international human rights standards.

In their new broadside, the groups charged that the government had made a ‘unilateral’ decision about ‘the future of the communities and indigenous peoples’ through which the train will run under the pretext that they will be ‘the main beneficiaries.’  However, the “main role” of the local indigenous population will be to provide “cheap labor” for the railroad’s construction, they charged, warning that the project will perpetuate the “systematic discrimination” against indigenous people that the Mexican state has promoted for years. The thousands of jobs that will supposedly be created will most probably be precarious, poorly paid, temporary jobs without social security guarantees.

It’s not about the lives or the poor and the oppressed, but a business opportunity.

President López Obrador has said that construction of the Mayan Train will help the economy recover from the coronavirus-induced crisis, asserting that it will create 80,000 jobs this year and 150,000 in 2021. He pledged that the project will be finished in 28 months, or by October 2022, stressing that no excuses will be accepted for delays. The project will be carried out in 7 sections, each one in charge of the following companies:

1ST SECTION: Mota-Engil México, a Portuguese conglomerate that received several profitable contracts in the former Mexican administration, and China Communications Construction Company LTD that has international claims of fraud and blackmailing, most notoriously in the Philippines.

2nd SECTION: CICSA S.A. de C.V. and FCC Construcción S.A. both owned by Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helú. CICSA was one of the key players in the construction of the now failed Mexico City-Texcoco Airport (NAICM) and FCC was involved in the Odebrecht scandal.

3rd SECTION: Construcciones Urales (Grupo Azvi) and Gami Ingeniería e Instalaciones. Gami was also involved in NAICM.

4th SECTION: Ingenieros Civiles Asociados, better known as ICA. Involved in NAICM, too, and it has oil, gas and infrastructure in Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and Quintana Roo.

5th SECTION: Pending, BlackRock Incorporated would be the company that would keep this section of construction that runs from Cancun to Tulum. The area with the most significant economic relevance of the entire project since it launched an Unsolicited Proposal (PNS) two years ago to FONATUR. It is expected to be the winner of the contract that would be announced on August 23.

6th and 7th SECTION: Pending, but believed to be in charge of the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA).

Rogelio Jiménez Pons, director of FONATUR, who is managing the project, said that the Maya Train will help to lift more than one million people out of poverty. In reality, this mega project represents a new paradigm of economic disintegration, regional (under)development and social (in)equity.

Relationship with animals, places and plants.

We name living beings. We name things that are not alive. To draw the line between what is ‘living’ and what is ‘non-living’ can vary from micro to macro, from ideology to religion, from land to empire, but to me a living being is one whom I can establish communication. I have named not only my cats or dogs but I have given a name to each car I had, and also guitars and machines… I can only talk from my own experience, but I can’t remember the last time I had a pep-talk with my mobile screen or an argument with my car. Whereas I have  communicated with animals and sometimes plants. Something or someone I can kill or exploit can’t have a name. I would get too sentimental if I actually had to do that. Naming something gives it some importance; how many of us haven’t named an animal friend or given nicknames to people, plants and places around us?

Naming something undoubtedly establishes not only a reference point but a connection. A connection to the land and its inhabitants boosted by entering into a relationship with these individuals, because that is what they are: individuals. If you spend enough time around them, you will notice that we have so much in common and they can communicate in such interesting ways… if we would only listen. Establish communication with them? That is pure non-sense! These are THINGS, objects, resources. They are not alive. I can’t use and abuse them if I perceive them as a living entity, can I? If I name living entities would I be able to carry out a project, say, a trans-isthmic train through important Mayan archeological sites and natural reserves? It would traverse (read violate) the Yucatan Peninsula, home of human communities such as the Mayan Yucatecas, Choles, Tzetzales, Mixques; land of the green iguana, tapir, mockingbird, swamp crocodile, many different species of bats, felines, primates, insects and even the soil. All these living beings are seldom mentioned in the Mexican media. We only know that “the train will be good for the people of Mexico.” In a country that contains one of the richest arrays of biodiversity, cultures and peoples, I always wonder who exactly these people of Mexico the government talks about are.

Issues with the Environment Impact Manifestation.

One of the biggest arguments against the Mayan train is that a proper environmental impact study was not carried out to assess potential damage by this mega project. After over a year of allegations, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) released a document, an Environment Impact Manifestation (MIA in Spanish) which explains the Mayan Train project and the long awaited environmental impact study. It includes a section called Social Analysis of the Indigenous Peoples in which the concept of ethnocide is explained. What raised the brow of people who have already checked the document is a concept called “ethno-development.”

Rodolfo Stavenhagen, German-Mexican sociologist and anthropologist who specialized in the study of human rights and the political relations between indigenous peoples and states, was a huge critic of the Western concept of “development”. In his book, The Ethnic Question: Conflicts, Development, and Human Rights he portrays how this “Western development” has terrible effects on indigenous peoples. He mentions that development try to promote the idea that the communities will benefit from the capital investments, technological innovations and modernization. The reality is something quite different; these developments have negative and noxious effects on the masses, especially indigenous communities. Such injuries have not been correctly documented or understood, but everyone can think in terms of economic, social and environmental damages instead of benefits.

Stavenhagen defines ethnocide as “the process in which a culturally distinct people, usually named ‘ethnic group’, loses identity due to policies designed to undermine their territory and their base-line resources; language usage and both political and social institutions; customs, art, religious practices and cultural values. When a government applies these policies then it becomes a culprit of ethnocide which can be either economic or cultural. Economic ethnocide when it is made under the guise of development and cultural when it pretends to eradicate ethnical minorities in order to give way to a Nation-State.”

Ethnocide and Ethno-development.

Once the MIA defines what ethnocide means, it states: “Ethnocide can have a positive turn: ‘ethno-development’, which can be possible if indigenous peoples affected by the development are involved in the development process and benefit administration, in this case we can understand it as a participative process for the indigenous communities to become involved not only as established in the OIT 169 Convention, but from the proper plan-ification and appropriation of the development project for their communities in which the benefits are observable.” Ethno-development is defined as the social capability of indigenous communities to build their own future, using teachings characteristic of their own historical experiences, real and potential resources of their culture, in accordance to a project that is adaptable to their own values and future aspirations.

The overall objective of the MIA, is to be a component that fosters ethno-development of the indigenous peoples that are encountered inside the Regional Environment System (SAR). Indigenous communities are being involved with a consultation process, pretending that the project respects and guarantees their rights and seeks to adapt their values and future aspirations to reach sustainable community development.

Sara López, member of the Regional and Popular Indigenous Council of Xpujil (CRIPX), one of the main organizations against the Mayan Train project, said that the mega projects will strip people away from their territory, their life, and under the excuse of development they [governments and corporations] want to eradicate the indigenous peoples. “It is not a mega project for the peoples. For us, the poor, there is no project, we resist and live from what we work and harvest, [the project] is not for us. There are 85 companies that have invested in this project: [the benefits] are for the national and international companies.”

The Power of Association and Relationships.

To be clear: most people don’t give a fuck about animals, rivers, trees, anything non-human for that matter. Even when it comes to our own species, some humans are considered more important than others. Caring about both humans and non-humans requires for us to enter into a relationship with them. Yet, in this throw-away society, it seems that the only long-standing relationship we have is over overconsumption. We name and establish a relationship with cities, tablets, video game consoles, all kinds of machines, however, they cannot really enter into a relationship with us; we use them and dispose of them; another copy, another unit, another gizmo that will become obsolete in a couple of months or weeks.

Our lack of empathy resides in the quality of our relationships. Let’s reconnect with the living and stop transforming the living into dead consumables. Have you looked at your animal companion or a wild one directly into their eyes? Have you noticed all the facial expressions? The sounds they can make? The movements they perform? Everything is so full of expression. Have you contemplated flowers, leaves, trees? How they sway with the wind, how they stretch themselves to the sun? How they sulk when they are hungry or thirsty? Have you just stared at land, sea, mountains? The astounding quantity of voices, and eyes, and hearts pulsating in a symphony so full of movement, sound, color that makes you feel alive? If you can feel the life within yourself, you can feel the life around you.

It is there for us to see… if we would only observe, we would notice it is there and that inexorably changes who you are and how you relate to the environment.

Featured image by DJ Sturm, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Are Indigenous People Backwards?

Are Indigenous People Backwards?

Are indigenous people backwards? Do they really need to be ‘rescued’ from their primitive way of life and introduced to this wonder of human civilization? Or is this a racist simplification?

In this piece Chris challenges the notion that civilization is the ultimate way of life — a notion that has been used to justify genocide against indigenous people for a long time.

By Chris Straquez

The Woe-nders of Civilization

Civilization: the pinnacle of human progress and ingenuity, a myriad of machines and buildings transforming landscapes as proof of MANkind superiority.

Do you need water, food, energy? We got it! For a price, a modest price, these are accessible for everyone (restrictions will apply). You know you want to be here with us—and who wouldn’t? Just ignore the trail of blood and corpses that lie behind of it all and you can reap the benefits of the civilized; everything will be fine and dandy.

We, the civilized humans, are being honest here, no exaggeration, just facts, alternative yet still facts: we are so great, even people from the countryside and indigenous reserves dream of living in our super modern skyscrapers, our theme parks, and especially our humongous and incredible malls.

Are you looking for sneakers with heel lights, fake dog vomit, or a hundred different flavors of whatever shit you want to inhale, inject, eat or consume in whatever fashion you feel like… Guess what? We’ve got it!

Are you lost? Do you feel lonely? An impending feeling of being misunderstood drowns your existence? Are you worried about your physical appearance? Does your skin color have a pesky pigmentation? Should I go on or do you know what we are talking about? You do not have to be particularly smart to understand; as the great poet Axl Rose said: “if you got the money, honey, we got your disease.”

Tell your local shaman or whoever prepares those funky herbs to stop using mumbo-jumbo whatchamacallits because civilized humans have the meds backed up by science done scientifically by scientists who do scientific and technological stuff. We can bring this to you, you can be civilized, just like us, and I do hate being repetitive but are we not great, unique, awesome?

Now, stand-up comedy aside (along with credits to the late, great George Carlin), let me ask you: how many times as a city-dweller have you seen or heard advertisements, politicians or even neighbors not only expressing but embodying such ideas? This is a long-standing, well-oiled propaganda machine to makes us constantly think that being civilized is the best of the best and any other lifestyle is a mistake that must and will be rectified right away. Using force if needed, no hesitation whatsoever.

Are Indigenous People Backwards?

Over generations, tribal peoples have developed complex systems to live well, together, on their land. They may be poor in monetary terms but tribal people living on their own lands are rich in other ways. They have good reason to be proud of their communities and their way of life. Such is the case of the Dongria Kondh tribe whose homeland is in the Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha state, India.

Niyamgiri is an area of densely forested hills, deep gorges and cascading streams. To be a Dongria Kondh is to farm the hill’s fertile slopes, harvest their produce, and worship the mountain god Niyam Raja and the hills he presides over, including the 4,000 metres Mountain of the Law, Niyam Dongar.

On 19 March 2003 Vedanta Alumina Limited applied for environmental clearance from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to construct an alumina refinery project in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.

Vedanta Resources is a London-listed, former FTSE 100 mining company founded by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, who remains its Chairman and owns more than 50% of the shares. Had the mine gone ahead, the Dongria would have suffered immeasurable loss; their present good health, self-sufficiency and, identity as a people would have been damaged. The detailed knowledge of their environment would have been destroyed. A large proportion of the benefits would have gone to one man: Anil Agarwal.

For a decade, the 8,000-plus Dongria Kondh lived under the threat of mining by Vedanta Resources, which hoped to extract the estimated $2 billion-worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the hills. The company planned to create an open-cast mine that would have violated Niyam Dongar, disrupted its rivers and spelt the end of the Dongria Kondh as a distinct people.

All the above in the name of ‘progress and evolution.’ However, whose progress and evolution is seldom directly addressed. I notice it is easy to understand that anything that deviates from this direction tends to be labeled as ‘backwards’ a word we tend to use to disqualify and minimize subjects and matters. One of the meanings of such words implies something ‘towards the direction that is opposite to the one in which you are facing or opposite to the usual direction.’ Do you oppose companies and governments that exploit your land? That is certainly not in the direction we are going so we might as well force our way through.

Another meaning goes like this: ‘returning to older and less effective ways.’ What calls my attention is not returning to older, say, traditional ways, but rather calling it ‘less effective.’ Effective at what? According to who? Looking through the lens of Industrial Civilization means that mountains cannot be exploited fast enough. This is what Civilization has done for most of its existence: perfecting exploitation for the benefit of an elite group of people.

Deviate and We Retaliate

The Dongria Kondh tribe inspired millions when they won a ‘David and Goliath’ battle against mining giant Vedanta Resources. The tribe vowed to save their Niyamgiri Hills and their self-sufficient way of life.

They believe that their right to cultivate Niyamgiri’s slopes has been conferred on them by Niyam Raja, and that they are his royal descendants. They have expert knowledge of their forests and the plants and wildlife they hold. From the forests they gather wild foods such as wild mango, pineapple, jackfruit, and honey. Rare medicinal herbs are also found in abundance, which the Dongria use to treat a range of ailments including arthritis, dysentery, bone fractures, malaria and snake bites.

These people have detailed knowledge of the land they are deeply connected to, like many other indigenous people, such as the Jarawa who have detailed knowledge of plants to eat and use for medicinal properties. However, Jarawa’s neighbors, the Great Andamanese, were brought into the ‘mainstream’ by the British and robbed of their land. They were decimated by disease and are now completely dependent on the government. Alcoholism and diseases such as tuberculosis are rife. These are illnesses that come from a civilized setting not from indigenous ways of life. Go figure!

Are these people “backwards”?

Now the Dongri Kondh lands and lives are under threat again. Their leaders are being harassed by police and imprisoned under false charges. The Dongria feel the government is trying to destroy their community in order to allow mining.

We don’t want to go to the city and we don’t want to buy food. We get it free here. – Malari Pusaka, Dongria Kondh

The Dongria Kondh grow over 100 crops and harvest almost 200 different wild foods, which provide them with year-round, rich nutrition even in times of drought. Life expectancy now is around 60 to 65 years.

Before it was 80 to 90 years. It’s because before [our access to our forest was restricted] we ate tubers, fruits, and other forest products, whereas now the Soliga diet is bad. –Madegowda, Soliga

The Soliga people are another ethnic group of India. Its members inhabit the Biligiriranga Hills and associated ranges in southern Karnataka, mostly in the Chamarajanagar and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu. Many are also concentrated in and around the BR Hills in Yelandur and Kollegal Taluks of Chamarajanagar District, Karnataka.

The Soliga people are one among the few remaining forest-dwelling tribal people in and around the forests in southern India. The forests of BR Hills have held people for time immemorial. Burial sites excavated from several areas nearby date back to 3000 years ago to the Megalithic period. These sites characteristically consist of Dolmens, a circular arrangement of large stones with a central pit, walled off by granite slabs. Although, it is not known if these belong to the ancestors of the present Soliga tribe, having lived here for generations, the Soliga people have an intricate understanding of the flora and fauna.

“You keep talking about this primitive people but I see no development, progress or superiority whatsoever. They think an invisible being gave them the right to rule over land. Isn’t that just backwards?” I’m glad you ask yourself that. It is not like the civilized worship Gods… Well, we do, but it is usually the imported kind because we do love foreign products like that.

No techno? No bueno!

Tribal people’s lives are not static or ‘stuck in the past’ – they adopt new ideas and adapt to new situations just as we all do. It is prejudice to think some peoples are ‘modern’ whilst others are ‘backwards’. This prejudice is used to justify displacing indigenous peoples and push them into the ‘mainstream’ – on the assumption that ‘experts’ know what is best for them.

It’s crazy when these outsiders come and teach us development. Is development possible by destroying the environment that provides us food, water and dignity? You have to pay to take a bath, for food, and even to drink water. In our land, we don’t have to buy water like you, and we can eat anywhere for free. –Lodu Sikaka, Dongria Kondh

Different paths of “development”

One of the wonders of North-East India is an innovative technique developed by villagers to construct bridges and other useful structures out of living aerial roots of rubber (Ficus Elastica) trees. For dozens of years, they train and manipulate the growth of aerial roots, such that with time, they thicken and stiffen and become structural members. Most bridges and structures can be found in Meghalaya state, and lately root bridges were discovered in Nagaland state as well.

In summary, labelling people ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’ is a propaganda strategy. A striking example of this was the argument that mining company Vedanta Resources used to defend the impact that their mine would have on the lives of the Dongria Kondh. The Dongria are united against the mine, they distrust and reject Vedanta’s claim that the company will bring development. Instead the Dongria choose to live their own way of life on their land.

A Vedanta spokesperson said:

‘As enlightened and privileged human beings, we should not try to keep the tribal and other backward people in a primitive, uncared-and-unprovided-for socio-economic environment.’

“In (theft) exchange of their resources we will install our marvelous industrialized food system that provides everyone products with (few) nutrients and (poor) ingredients our body does (not) need?” Sound market logic.

Indigenous peoples’ lands are still being stolen, their rights violated and their futures destroyed. Vital laws protecting their land rights are in constant threat under the flag of progress, the mark of Civilization. Only indigenous people should decide and control what, if any, changes they want in their lives. If living in harmony with the land is ‘backwards’ or ‘primitive’ then perhaps we should step back, listen and observe what is happening around us. We might be surprised what we will find when we look back on the destruction left behind by the “progress of civilization.”