How an Aboriginal Woman Fought a Coal Company and Won

How an Aboriginal Woman Fought a Coal Company and Won

 

Goldman Prize Winner Murrawah Maroochy Johnson talks climate justice and inheriting a legacy of Indigenous resistance.

In 2019, Australia was on the cusp of approving a new coal mine on traditional Wirdi land in Queensland that would have extracted approximately 40 million tons of coal each year for 35 years. The Waratah coal mine would have destroyed a nature refuge and emitted 1.58 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

But that didn’t happen, thanks to the advocacy of Murrawah Maroochy Johnson, a 29-year-old Wirdi woman of the Birri Gubba Nation, who led a lawsuit against the coal company in 2021, and won.

The case was groundbreaking in many ways, but perhaps most strikingly, Johnson’s work helped set a new legal precedent that pushed members of the court to travel to where First Nations people lived in order hear their testimonies and perspectives, instead of expecting Indigenous people to travel long distances to settler courts. The lawsuit was also the first to successfully use Queensland’s new human rights law to challenge coal mining, arguing that greenhouse gas emissions from the Waratah coal mine would harm Indigenous peoples and their cultural traditions. Because of the litigation, the mine’s permit was denied in 2022, and its appeal failed last year.

Because of her work, Johnson is now among several of this year’s winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize honoring global grassroots environmental activism.

The last few years have been transformative for Johnson, who is the mother of a toddler and expecting her second baby in a few weeks. Grist spoke with her to learn about what motivates her, how she views the climate crisis, and what other young Indigenous activists can learn from her work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. You have been working on behalf of your people since you were 19 years old. What drives you to do this work? 

A. It’s definitely not a choice. First contact here was just 235 years ago. At that point, terra nullius was declared, which said that the land belonged to nobody, which essentially means that the first interaction with colonizing invading powers was one of dehumanization. They saw us here, but to say that the land belonged to no one really says that we are subhuman. They deemed us of a status where we couldn’t own our own land even though they saw us here inhabiting our own lands, living and thriving. And so there’s a long legacy of resistance in first contact frontier wars but also through advocacy over the generations. I’m just a young person who gets to inherit that great legacy.

I was raised by very strong parents. My father, my grandfather, my great grandparents, were all resistance fighters. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with inheriting that legacy and feeling like you need to do your part. But also, I feel like it’s not a choice because at the end of the day, what’s real is our people, our law, our custom — no matter the colonial apparatus attempts to disappear us, dilute us, absorb us into homogenous Australian mainstream and complete the assimilation process. To me, that’s continued injustice that our people face. And every First Nations person, I feel, every Indigenous person, has an obligation to resist that as well. Because at the end of the day, we First Nations people here in Australia, we are the oldest continuous living culture on the planet, and what comes with that is the fact that we have the oldest living creation stories, we have the oldest living law and custom. That in and of itself is so significant that we can’t just allow it to be washed away. I think that there has to be a continued active effort, by my generation and all future generations, to maintain our ways.

For us, colonial, Western, white contact is just such a small blip in time for how long our people have been here and how long we’ve maintained our ways and law and custom and culture. We have to collectively acknowledge that we have a duty of care and responsibility to maintain the way of our people. I’m really proud of being able to inherit that and also having a responsibility to protect and maintain it.

Q. Can you tell me about your perspective on climate change? 

A. It’s always called human-induced climate change, but I think that that term doesn’t allow for colonial powers to be held accountable, or big polluters. I think it’s actually more accurate to say that it’s colonial-induced climate change, because it’s actually the process of colonization violently extracting and exploiting the resources of Indigenous nations, peoples’ land, especially in the Global South, that’s resulted in the crisis of climate change that we face today.

I see climate change not just as a crisis, but also an opportunity. In one sense, if what remains of our cultural knowledge is so intimately dependent on our land, and having access to our lands and waters, then climate change is a huge threat. For example, in the Torres Strait and throughout the Pacific, what do you actually do when your country, your homelands, your territory disappears because of the impacts of climate change? What does that mean for our identity that actually derives from being the people of that unique country and that unique place? Climate change could really signal finality of our diverse and distinct and unique cultural identities as Indigenous and First Nations people in the sense that land may become so changed or so disappeared that our people are no longer able to resonate or recognize or identify with it anymore or learn from it anymore. So that’s really scary.

But I think the other side is an opportunity because climate change creates a sense of urgency. It’s that sense of urgency that is going to be pushing our peoples to work collectively as Indigenous and First Nations people around the world, to highlight the importance of the shift required to address climate change, but also to recenter our traditional systems of caring for country and sustainability and living in harmony with the land as a solution to climate change — really combat this normalization of colonial history and the global system and power systems as unquestionable.

Q. That reminds me of how, on the video announcing your Goldman Prize, you mentioned that “there’s a lot to be learned from our ways of being.” Can you expand on that idea? 

A. We’re at this moment where we can really take the best of our traditional ways of being and really use that to influence the decisions that we make about our future. What real climate justice is, to me, is really drawing on the greatest strengths that we have in terms of our traditional law and custom, using that as a guidance system in terms of the decisions we make about what the future looks like.

If you’re going to shift the entire global economy and global structure of how business is done, then you want to be talking to the experts. So you want to be talking to First Nations people and knowledge holders. I think climate change will ultimately lead those who are committed to the current system to be forced to be exposed to the reality that a lot of First Nations people have been living with for a long time: that this current global system doesn’t work for us. In the context of capitalism, it’s designed to work against us and facilitate outcomes for very few.

Climate change is here because of the current global systems, and that means that, eventually, the system will become obsolete. It already is when it comes to the survival of humanity. I think that ultimately people will come to see that the system doesn’t work for them. It’s never been designed to work for the masses.

So, I really see a huge shift toward leadership from First Nations people. Indigenous or non-Indigenous, people — this is my hope here in Australia — start to act in accordance with traditional principles of caring for country law and custom and really reestablishing old ways, governing ways, of these lands. I think that’s the only way to really address climate change. And maybe I’ve got a huge imagination, but I see it as part of my responsibility to work as hard as I can toward that goal of creating that reality, one in which a modern society essentially adheres to First Nations law and custom in a modern context.

Q. You’ve talked a lot about the importance of drawing from traditional knowledge. When I think about what it means to be Indigenous, I think about both the knowledge we have and also the challenge in bringing that forward because of how colonialism has eroded our ties to both culture and land. What would you say to Indigenous people who care about land and culture, but are feeling disconnected from both? How do they find their way back? 

A. This is one that I actually really struggle with sometimes because in the Australian context here, we had the Stolen Generation, when Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents and indoctrinated. So you have whole generations that have been dispossessed of their cultural inheritance, of their families, and also their peoples have been dispossessed of future generations as well. The colonial process was a finely tuned machine by the time it came through the South Pacific and Australia. In one sense, we’re fortunate that it was only just over 230 years ago first contact happened, but at the same time, this colonial apparatus was so finely tuned that they didn’t need as long to do as much damage as they’ve been able to do.

Being in a settler colony, we’re dealing with mass incarceration, mass suicide rates, and the disappearing of our people. It feels like it’s hard to catch up. We can’t take a break or catch our breath because we’re dealing with the very real, frontier issues of losing our people. But at the same time, what’s required for healing and to actually rebuild our cultural strength is time. And actually being able to take the time to be on country, to sit with country, to learn, and to reconnect.

It’s this really delicate tug of war that all First Peoples who have been subject to colonialism have to face, and we have to sort of grapple with on a daily basis, what do we put our energy into? Am I fighting forced child removals and assimilation on the daily? Am I fighting the education system? Am I doing land and country work and going through the legal system? Or am I just sort of operating as an individual, sovereign person, under our own law and custom and that’s how I resist and maintain my strength? It’s so vast in terms of how we have to split ourselves up in a way to deal with the issues at hand, which essentially is the disappearance of our people, but also our way of life and custom.

At the end of the day, for me, I just have to take heed from my ancestors and my own people that we’ve seen the end of the world before. My great grandparents and their generation saw the end of their world already, and they’ve been fighting. They were in the physical frontier on the front line, and survived that, and saw everything that they knew to be ripped away from them. So I have to just acknowledge that I’m very lucky to be born in the generation I’m born in, with so much more opportunity. But at the same time, there is that huge gap in familiarity with culture and our ways.

Q. Before your successful litigation against the Warratah mine, you fought against the Carmichael mine, filing lawsuit after lawsuit. But the mine still opened in 2021 and is now in operation. How do you handle such setbacks, and the grief of climate trauma and colonialism? What would you say to other Indigenous activists who are dealing with similar challenges? 

A. Being a young person, going through that, it’s really hard. You’re up against the actual powers that be of the colonial apparatus: the state government, the federal government, the mining lobby itself, and this idea that our traditional lands should be destroyed for extraction and exploitation for the benefit of everybody else. For the benefit of the state in terms of royalties, and for the benefit of the rest of settler Australia, where we, the people and our lands, are the collateral damage. And so for a long time I was very heartbroken, very depressed. For a long time I didn’t know what my next steps were.

But the reality is that I feel very much so guarded by my ancestors and all our people. I had time to mourn and get back on my feet before the opportunity to join the Youth Verdict case against the Waratah coal mine came along.

All I can say is we kept going. We’re fighting for our people, every single day. And something that I was always reminded of along the way was that even though it might not be the silver bullet that makes significant change, it’s still important that we create our own legacy of resistance and that we do our best every day to maintain what we hold dear.

We’ve got to do the work because we’ve got to do the work. It stands on its own and it’s our obligation as traditional custodians every day to do the work of maintaining and protecting country. We put on the record that we don’t consent, this isn’t free, prior, and informed consent as we are entitled under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And every step of the way, just maintaining that resistance, even if it’s just telling our story and challenging the prevailing, dominant, colonial narrative, I think is important to do every single day.

So in terms of advice, I think it’s to keep going. Take a break when you need to. And have a cry, because I cried for like eight years straight, but I think just knowing what some of my own people have been through and the horrors that they had to deal with, it’s the responsibility that we inherit to maintain the fight and continue on as best we can.

We might not be able to solve everything in one or two generations. But again, we’re the oldest living culture on the face of the earth. So, in that respect, we’ve been here the longest and, as long as my generation and our future generations maintain our own identities, cultural identities, and resistance as best as we can, we’ll be here long into the future as well.

Photo by René Riegal on Unsplash

‘Right to Roam’ Movement Fights to Give Back the Commons

‘Right to Roam’ Movement Fights to Give Back the Commons

by , on Mongabay 21 May 2024

  • The “right to roam” movement in England seeks to reclaim common rights to access, use and enjoy both private and public land, since citizens only have access to 8% of their nation’s land currently.
  • Campaigner and activist Jon Moses joins the Mongabay podcast to discuss the history of land ownership change in England with co-host Rachel Donald, and why reestablishing a common “freedom to roam” — a right observed in places like the Czech Republic and Norway — is necessary to reestablishing human connection with nature and repairing damaged landscapes.
  • At least 2,500 landscapes are cut off from public access in England, requiring one to trespass to reach them.
  • “There needs to be a kind of rethinking really of [what] people’s place is in the landscape and how that intersects with a kind of [new] relationship between people and nature as well,” Moses says on this episode.

Like most nations, England doesn’t have legally recognized rights for citizens to cross non-public lands. This means that the nearly 56 million people who live there are only legally allowed to access 8% of the country. One particularly picturesque example of this problem was recently noted by the BBC, which discussed a large piece of public land that’s actually inaccessible due to being surrounded by private land, forcing people to trespass in order to reach it.

Right to Roam campaigner Jon Moses speaks with Rachel Donald on the latest Mongabay Newscast about a growing movement in England that stages creative events like group walks on private land to point out the benefits of public access for repairing degraded landscapes and improving the lives of everyday citizens, which are outlined in a new book, Wild Service: Why Nature Needs You, that he’s co-edited with Nick Hayes.

Listen here:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/mongabay-newscast/id1155856616?i=1000656323652

 

Freedom-to-roam laws aren’t widely recognized outside of Scandinavia and Europe, but Moses says these rights are fundamental to repairing the damage caused by centuries of private land ownership.

“I think that there needs to be a kind of rethinking really of [what] people’s place is in the landscape and how that intersects with a kind of new … vision of farming and a new relationship between people and nature as well.”

Among the reasons Moses says is given for the increase in private land ownership over the past few centuries is industrial agriculture, which he says isn’t benefiting the farmers all that much either. Moses says the reasons for decreases in the rights of “commoners,” as they’re referred to, to access and use common land in England were in part to suppress wage growth and quash locals’ autonomy.

“They’re really kind of explicit about this in the documentation, that we need to break common rights in order to create a kind of more dependent class of agricultural laborers that are reliant on a wage,” Moses says.

Subscribe to or follow the Mongabay Newscast wherever you listen to podcasts, from Apple to Spotify, and you can also listen to all episodes here on the Mongabay website, or download our free app for Apple and Android devices to gain instant access to our latest episodes and all of our previous ones.

 

Rachel Donald is a climate corruption reporter and the creator of Planet: Critical, the podcast and newsletter for a world in crisis. Her latest thoughts can be found at 𝕏 via @CrisisReports and at Bluesky via @racheldonald.bsky.social.

Mike DiGirolamo is a host & associate producer for Mongabay based in Sydney. He co-hosts and edits the Mongabay Newscast. Find him on LinkedInBluesky and Instagram.

Photo by Richard Loader on Unsplash

Philippine Village Rejects Gold Mine, Cites Flawed Consultation

Philippine Village Rejects Gold Mine, Cites Flawed Consultation

by / Mongabay

SITIO DALICNO, Philippines — Domeng Laita, 64, stands on a mountain ledge outside his home, looking down with worry on his face. Below him stands the embankment of the San Roque dam, stretching more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) along the Agno River. In 2012, a spill from a gold mine upstream sent millions of tons of waste into the river system. With a looming increase in mining activity, Laita says he dreads a repeat of the incident.

Laita looks back at his home, casting another shrug then grinding his teeth. More mining means the old tunnels under his house will likely deepen. He tries not to think about the ground swallowing up his entire family.

“There will be digging underneath. My house could fall into the softened ground. When the mining starts again, there’s no telling how bad it will hurt the land,” he says, walking along the mountain ridge.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a mining disaster hit the town. Laita lives in Sitio Dalicno, part of Ampucao village inside the municipality of Itogon in Benguet province, in the northern Philippines. Dubbed a “gold haven” for its massive deposits of the precious metal, the region has drawn miners to the mountains for centuries.

The town is part of the northern Cordillera range in the Philippines, known for its resource-rich mountains and the Igorot, the region’s majority Indigenous population.

The municipality of Itogon in Benguet province, in the northern Philippines has been dubbed a “gold haven” for its massive deposits of the precious metal. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Laita, like most Dalicno residents, has been a small-scale miner all his life, using hand tools to dig small tunnels along the slopes of the mountain and extract ore. These methods have supported his family’s modest life along the village slopes. And like many of his neighbors, Laita says he feels powerless to stop the government from brokering new industrial mining permits on Indigenous soil.

In 2023, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) concluded talks with Itogon locals to obtain their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), a requirement for state agencies to allow mining operations on ancestral lands.

These talks first began in 2012 when Itogon-Suyoc Resources Inc. (ISRI), one of the Philippines’ oldest mining firms, initiated its application for production sharing agreement, or APSA 103, to mine 581 hectares (1,426 acres) of Itogon land covering nearly the whole of Dalicno.

If finalized, the agreement would allow ISRI access to 22 million tons of gold-bearing ore for the next 25 years.

Talks proceeded haltingly, gaining momentum in 2018 with a series of community consultations.

Itogon communities initially rejected APSA 103 in 2022. ISRI responded with a motion for reconsideration early in 2023, entailing another round of consultations.

In September 2023, the company finalized an agreement with Indigenous representatives and the NCIP. However, many in Dalicno, where most of ISRI’s operations will take place, question the FPIC process, alleging it was railroaded in ISRI’s favor — a claim both ISRI and the local NCIP branch reject.

To approve APSA 103, the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources requires a final signoff from the NCIP called a certification precondition. While this is pending, Dalicno residents are pressing the government to scrap the project altogether.

On the doors of many of Dalicno’s cliffside homes hang signs saying “No to APSA! Save our water sources, built-up areas, people, future!” On the highway to Dalicno hang hand-painted banners that read “Save Dalicno! No to APSA!”

Signs opposing ISRI’s mining plans, such as this one outside a small-scale mining facility, dot the town of Dalicno in the northern Philippines. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

“Itogon has seen so many lapses with mining, we don’t trust the companies,” says Allan Sabaiano, head of the Dalicno Indigenous Peoples Organization (DIPO), formed in January this year with the goal of overturning the initial agreement. ”They’ve compromised our water sources, and ISRI is coming back to take the rest. They did it by ignoring the voice of Dalicno’s people.”

Fearing the loss of drinkable water from a nearby spring, restricted access to the designated mining areas, and the continued plunder of their ancestral resources, DIPO has been lobbying to cancel APSA 103.

“So many ‘good-intentioned’ companies have mined here,” Dalicno elder Cristeta Caytap tells Mongabay. “But where are the schools and the hospitals? Yes they’ve given some financial assistance on occasion, but we remain underdeveloped while they line their pockets with gold. And now here they come again.”

Eric Andal, ISRI’s resident manager, says the no-mining zones, including residential areas, will be off-limits to the company’s operations. While conceding that large-scale mining has caused some environmental damage, Andal tells Mongabay that “we mitigate our impacts.”

If anything, he adds, it’s the community-driven “small-scale mining which has more of a degrading impact, because it is unregulated with so many working that way,” He says, “They themselves mine underneath their houses. If something collapses, it’s their doing.”

‘Nobody informed me about it’

In September 2023, weeks after the agreement was signed, DIPO filed a petition at the NCIP’s regional office to nullify it, citing irregularities in the consultation process.

According to DIPO, most residents were kept in the dark about the motion. Elder Juanito Erciba, who represented Dalicno at most FPIC talks up until 2022, says he was one of them. “When we said ‘No to APSA’ in 2022, I thought that was the end of it. I never knew about any motion for reconsideration. I just found out there was a signed agreement that nobody informed me about,” Erciba says.

He adds that Jimmy Lumbag, the man who suddenly replaced him, was never affirmed through a community decision, thereby making his participation in the FPIC illegitimate.

“It hurts, upsets my stomach. Is it because I’m just a poor man that I was overlooked? But the community appointed me,” Erciba says.

Small scale mines like this one support the modest lives of many villagers in Itogon. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

In January 2024, the NCIP dismissed the DIPO petition, deeming it without merit.

According to NCIP community development officer Abeline Cirilo, consensus was achieved with the cooperation of the municipal Indigenous group Itogon Indigenous People’s Organization (IIPO).  IIPO, which unlike DIPO is recognized by the NCIP, represented the entire municipality when it came to allowing ISRI entry. The matter was then put to a vote by secret ballot, Cirilo says.

“The outcome registered a yes to the operations while declaring the Dalicno homes and water source a ‘no-mining zone,’” he says.

Rosita Bargaso, the IIPO chair, hails from Itogon’s Gumatdang village, not among the localities that would be directly affected by APSA 103. She refutes DIPO’s claims, telling Mongabay that Dalicno elders were informed but uninterested in the latter part of the consensus building. She adds that they suddenly protested after the agreement was already signed.

Bargaso says Dalicno elders like Erciba oppose APSA 103 because of their “self-interest.” She says the proposed operations would help all of Itogon: “ISRI will permit them to gold mine on its site, [and offer] a chance to work for the company and access to company-owned water sources. The problem is they want all of it for themselves.”

In September 2023, IIPO released a resolution to support APSA 103 and “deny the allegations of alleged irregularities in the conduct of the FPIC.”

Andal seconds this assertion, dismissing DIPO as a “small group making a lot of noise to appear like there are many.” He adds that the support it has generated is because it has reached out to “leftist groups.”

“It was a desperate move on their part,” Andal says. “They can’t convince others anymore so they called on outsiders to help.”

Dalicno elder Cristeta Caytap says she fears industrial-scale mining will contaminate the local water supply. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Cirilo also says community voices weren’t ignored. When asked about DIPO’s allegations, including the unceremonious replacement of Erciba, he says that “if that did happen, hopefully it won’t affect the consent given through the voting. We can correct the names on the [agreement], but it cannot undo the outcome.”

DIPO head Sabaiano and many other residents say Dalicno was left out of the vote, rejecting the idea that the outcome represented a “consensus.” He also says IIPO failed Dalicno by “bypassing and excluding its people.”

“Neither the document nor the company has told us what kind of method ISRI will use. They could be ready to crack open the mountain,” he says.

Caytap also voiced her distrust over the “no-mining zone” disclaimer, saying underground digging is usually goes unchecked, causing irreparable and untold damage despite the surface looking untouched. “Mining affects everything,” she says, adding she expecting the tailings to eventually contaminate their spring water.

DIPO has since appealed to the NCIP’s central office, which is currently reviewing the matter.

Meanwhile, the regional office of the environment department’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau confirmed to Mongabay that approval for APSA 103 is on hold pending issuance of a certification precondition from the NCIP. The document is issued when a review by the central office has judged the process of acquiring community consent has complied with the proper guidelines.

So far, the NCIP’s central office has rejected the report its local branch submitted on the FPIC process for the mine because it lacks photographs, minutes, or attendance sheets proving that community assemblies, a key component of FPIC consultations, actually took place.

“We lacked the necessary documentation,” Cirilo says. “We did conduct two assemblies, but there were no pictures, an incomplete report, and we have yet to submit it.”

If that means a delay to issuing the certification precondition, Cirilo says the environment department could grant a one-year special gold mining permit, which only needs approval from municipal officials, forgoing Indigenous consent.

Allan Sabaiano, head of the Dalicno Indigenous Peoples Organization (DIPO), in striped shirt, with a map of mining in Itogon municipality. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

After the old gold rush

Large-scale mining here began during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, with the first colonial mine opening in 1903. Since then, firms like ISRI have followed, amassing free patents and leases that continue today.

Lulu Gimenez, a seasoned Itogon community organizer and historian, has worked with groups like the Mining Communities Development Center and the Cordillera People’s Alliance. She says complaints against mines have piled up over the past century. “Communities complained of erosion, ground subsidence, and worsening conditions of water supply, but mining companies appeased them with monetary compensation for poisoned cattle.”

In the 1990s, the tensions erupted, with Itogon locals mounting barricades against the intrusion of heavy mining machinery.

Activists scored a big win against Australian mining firm Anvil in 2007. Anvil had struck a $2.12 million deal with ISRI for its mining rights, and planned to bore 20 holes, each 100 meters (330 feet) deep, for extraction. Locals protested, arguing that Anvil would puncture and drain a water table beneath a vein of ore, and successfully stopped the project.

Itogon residents cite the same fears about ISRI’s latest prospects.

More recent disasters attributed by Itogon locals to mining-related activity have also refreshed long-standing concerns about mining safety. In 2015, a sinkhole swallowed up seven houses in the Itogon village of Virac, forcing the evacuation of 170 families. Then, in 2018, a landslide in Ucab village claimed the lives of 82 miners living in bunkhouses on land controlled by mining firms.

In 2015, APEX Mining Company, owned by the Philippines’ second-richest individual, Enrique Razon, acquired ISRI. In February this year, a landslide in an APEX mining concession the southern province of Davao de Oro province killed nearly 100 people and displaced thousands.

Corporations have extracted too many minerals and profit from Itogon,” Gimenez says. “The destruction has been going on for over a century. It’s time they leave Itogon alone, let the land heal and let the people redevelop the resources.”

According to data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, Benguet province, where Itogon is located, is one of the most intensively mined areas in the Cordillera region. Fourteen of 30 APSAs in the region are in Benguet, as are seven out of the 11 approved mineral-sharing agreements.

Inside one of the many small-scale mining facilities that pepper the hills of Itogon province. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Unwanted offer

As far as the mining bureau is concerned, ISRI has an impeccable record. In its 2022 Compliance Scorecard, used to measure how companies abide by safety, health, environmental and social development guidelines, ISRI notched a 94.35% rating.

“We see no problem, insofar as their compliance as a company,” says Alfredo Genetiano, chief engineer at the bureau. “The company conforms to our standards and hence we’ve given them a passing rate.”

The bureau lauded ISRI for its faithfulness to the Big Brother-Small Brother (BBSB) government initiative, where mining companies are obligated to allocate 1.5% of their expenses to community development and employ locals as contract miners. APEX told Mongabay that its BBSB commitment is aimed at reducing illegal, unsafe and unregulated small-scale mining.

ISRI also gave an additional 10 million pesos ($173,000) in goodwill funds to the communities upon the signing of the FPIC agreement last September.

However, Caytap remains skeptical, saying the cons severely outweigh the pros. “It limits the number of people who can mine,” she says. “Here, we go by traditional rules. Young ones, the elderly, anyone can work. And anyone with a bit more is obliged to share what they collect with the others, especially when times are tough. That’s how we’ve survived.”

Under the BBSB system, contract miners are hired in groups for short periods of time, and paid according to how much ore they extract, meaning earnings are highly variable.

ISRI’s Andal, who is also vice president for geology and exploration at APEX Mining, says their BBSB employment arrangements worked well for them in Davao, in the southern Philippines, and they’ve already replicated it with some 400 Itogon contract miners. Should APSA 103 be approved, he says, they could take on around 400 more locals.

While private operators shoulder all of their own costs, under BBSB, Andal says, contract miners only need to pay for their own food. “We provide the tools and buy the ore they extract,” he says.

While Dalicno elders describe small-scale mining as a community act, ISRI’s manager points to unregulated small-scale mining as a significant source of environmental degradation. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Working eight-hour shifts, a group of around 20 contract gold miners can make up to 600,000 pesos ($10,400) a month if they’re productive, Andal says. Split evenly, that works out to 1,363 pesos ($23.60) per person per day. Andal says even less productive miners could make about 454 pesos ($7.90) a day, or slightly more than the daily minimum wage for the Cordillera region, which is 430 pesos ($7.45).

Local observers, however, question the touted benefits of BBSB and put the numbers much lower.

Jestone Dela Cruz has worked as a security guard at the Benguet Corporation, the oldest mining company in the Philippines, for nearly a decade, where he says he sees miners come and go, remaining poor. “A group of eight will probably get paid around 20,000 pesos [$347], that’s less than 3,000 pesos [$52] a month,” Dela Cruz says.

Sabaiano, who’s worked on ISRI sites in the past, also says the BBSB offer affords a typically low rate, with some gold miners taking home 7,000 pesos ($121) for two months’ worth of ore.
“How’s one supposed to survive like that? Plus other expenses like food and transportation are shouldered by the workers,” he says.

He also questions if the employment opportunities are even a good thing to begin with. ISRI will gain control over hundreds of hectares of mining land while employing fewer than 1,000 Itogon locals. Dalicno alone has a voting population of more than 2,000.

Caytap says she blames the mining firms for holding back the region’s economic development. “Our land is literally filled with gold. The country has first-class municipalities, we might have exceeded that without the mining firms. But somehow, we are left collecting money to fix our roads,” she says.

Community activists in Dalicno hold a banner protesting ISRI’s mining expansion plans. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

She adds, however, that she takes heart in the traditions and community spirit that sustain Dalicno and keep the memory of its history and struggle alive.

Local customs foster the collective. Everyday mining is a community act for young and old. During weddings or funerals, extraction is strictly prohibited out of respect for the family. When times are tough, each makes an offering to the deities and fairies to appease them.

For the first time in a long time, APSA 103 threatens to divide the commonly united Dalicno. But Caytap says she hasn’t lost faith, that in times of loss, their traditions beckon stronger. “We band together,” she says.

Photo by Hitoshi Namura on Unsplash

Dispatch From the Lithium Mining War on the West

Dispatch From the Lithium Mining War on the West

A recent financial Webinar features Jindalee mining company executive Lindsay Dudfield selling the company’s plan for an immense lithium mining project that would tear apart the heart of irreplaceable Sage-grouse habitat at McDermitt Creek in southeast Oregon. Australian miner Jindalee has spun itself off as a US company, just as Lithium Americas did when it formed Lithium Nevada Corporation (LNC) to mine Thacker Pass further south in the McDermitt caldera. This positions the miners for federal loan largesse as they pursue mining destruction of the sagebrush sea. I wrote about the extraordinary McDermitt Creek values at stake, and the damage and habitat fragmentation already inflicted by 70 or so previous Jindalee exploration drilling sites here.

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Distant view of scar from a new road and just one of Jindalee’s past McDermitt drill sites. Look at how wide open and unencumbered by hills this country is – maximizing the distance any mining disturbance sights and sounds will travel.

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Jindalee drill hole sump. Drilling waste water left to seep into the ground, Wildlife “exclusion” fence fallen down.

lithium mining This is a map of the ghastly 2023 Jindalee exploration plan to punch in 267 new drill hole and sump sites and construct 30 miles of new roads. It would fragment an area with a very high density of nesting sagebrush songbirds of all kinds. Birds like Sagebrush Sparrow require continuous blocks of dense mature or old growth big sagebrush. Jindalee boasts its consultant environmental and cultural studies have found “no show-stoppers” and “no red flags”. Industry gets the results it wants when it pays for mine consultant work. Federal and state agencies, after a bit of pro forma sniping, acquiesce to what the mine comes up with.

No red flags? Does the company really expect us to believe they or their consultants aren’t aware of the plight of Sage-grouse, and the importance of the stronghold habitat they would wipe out? The 2015 BLM Sage-grouse plan found the entire McDermitt Creek area and nearly all caldera lands were essential for the bird’s survival. BLM determined that a federal mineral withdrawal was necessary to protect this Focal habitat and to ensure Sage-grouse species survival. The withdrawal never happened, stopped first by mining and cattle industry litigation. BLM then began a stand-alone NEPA analysis for the withdrawal. Trump terminated that withdrawal analysis process. Then after a court ruled his action unlawful, BLM foot-dragging has stalled the most recent withdrawal process at the NEPA scoping stage and it appears merged with a cumbersome major plan revision.

Jindalee’s new exploration proposal – a prelude to a mine – would tragically rip apart the Basin heart. A full blown mine here would obliterate it. Mining noise and visual disturbance emanating outward would make the remaining sage ringing the mine site uninhabitable. The site is surrounded by dozens of leks.

The impossibility of mitigating a mega-mine at McDermitt Creek just blasted further into the stratosphere. Mounting scientific evidence shows how seriously the sight and sound disturbance footprint of industrial projects harms the birds. New research examined geothermal energy development impacts from Ormat plants at Tuscarora Nevada and McGinness Hills/Grass Valley near Austin. (I remember the Battle Mountain BLM manager extolling Ormat’s virtues when the McGinness project was pushed through and then later expanded to take a bigger bite out of sage habitat). New research found:

“… sage-grouse population numbers declined substantially in years following the development of a geothermal energy plant … sage-grouse abundance at leks [breeding sites] decreased within five kilometers of the infrastructure and leks were completely abandoned at significantly higher rates within about two kilometers. So, we looked at the mechanisms responsible for declines in numbers and lek abandonment, and we found adverse impacts to survival of female sage-grouse and their nests”.

This reinforces common sense: “Nests located farther from the plant tended to experience higher rates of survival. Interestingly, where hills were located between sage-grouse nests and infrastructure [high topographic impedance], we found the distance effect to be less important. Under those circumstances topography was compensating for the lack of distance and likely serving to reduce effects of light and sound”.

The physical footprint of geothermal energy infrastructure is small relative to other renewable energy … but noise and light pollution emanating from these power plants likely cause larger adverse direct impacts to wildlife populations than infrastructure alone”.

There aren’t big hills to block a lithium mine’s 24 hour a day sight and sound impacts in the McDermitt bowl. The mined area would suffer outright sage obliteration. Surrounding sagebrush would be exposed to unimpeded straight line 24 hour a day mine operation visual impacts and noise of all kinds.

Jindalee must know of the indigenous opposition and resistance to the Thacker Pass lithium mine in the southern caldera, located in similarly unceded Paiute-Shoshone ancestral lands. Controversy and lawsuits over Thacker Pass have been in the headlines for years. It’s a pre-eminent example of an unjust transition to alternative energy and the green-washing of air and water polluting habitat wrecking dirty hard rock mining. Unfortunately, a District Court Judge’s ruling did not halt the Thacker Pass mine construction. However, the lawsuits by environmental groups, Tribes and a local rancher opposing the mine continue. The District Court decision was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where a hearing is scheduled for June 26.

Thacker Pass mine development would destroy a Traditional Cultural Property, where Paiute-Shoshone ancestors were massacred. This spring, it’s been the site of the indigenous Ox Sam Women’s Camp, Newe Momokonee Nokotun, set up in protest. Descendants of Ox Sam, a survivor of a US cavalry massacre at Thacker Pass, helped establish it.

Jindalee Webinar statements also hint at efforts afoot to alter Oregon state mining processes. After lamenting the project wasn’t in Nevada, Jindalee said it was talking to politicians and the head of the state mining Department (DOGAMI).

The company’s braggadocio made me blow off deadlines and go once again to McDermitt Creek to document its great biodiversity values. I then went from the beauty of singing sagebrush songbirds, newly hatched Sage-grouse chicks and peaking rare plant blooms at McDermitt Creek (photos below) and down into the Montana Mountains by Thacker Pass.

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Sagebrush Sparrows abound at McDermitt Creek. They’re great little birds and often sing throughout the day. And they’re vanishing from many places. A biologist just told me he thinks they may be extirpated in Morrow County Oregon where he’s long inventoried bird. No larger continuous blocks of lower elevation sage = no Sagebrush Sparrows.

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Hymenoxys, an Oregon sensitive plant growing on clay soils.

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Humboldt Mountains Milkweed, a medicinal plant, on clay soils.

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Mountain Bluebird.

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Sky drama all spring long.

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Short-horned Lizard – a master of invisibility.

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Gray Flycatcher. They nest in head high Basin big sagebrush, which is becoming as scarce as hen’s teeth.

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Lark Sparrow. They’re exuberant singers and are dining on Mormon crickets at McDermitt Creek.

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An indescribable Indian paintbrush hue.

We’re supposed to sit back and let all this beauty and biodiversity be destroyed for a lithium mine? No way.

Thacker Pass – Turmoil, Land Mutilation, Montana Mountains

I drove south to Orovada and headed west to the turn-off from the state highway into Pole Creek road, the main access to the Montana Mountains. Thacker Pass lies at the southern base of these mountains. A maroon Allied Security company truck squarely blocked the road. Chain link fencing with No Trespassing and No Drone Zone signs was placed off to both sides.

lithium mining I stopped, got out and approached a security guard who appeared at the truck. He refused to let me pass. After several minutes of my insistent repetition that this was a public road, the BLM mine EIS said this road would always be open, and that blocking use of this road indicated the EIS, the BLM and Lithium Americas had lied, the security guard relented and said he would call the head of security.

lithium mining  The boss pulled up in a white truck as a sudden rain whirlwind bore down. His face was obscured, and identity concealed by a tan balaclava-like hood and dark sunglasses. When he first arrived, he got out of his truck and pointed a camera device at me. I thought WTF is this – a security firm mercenary decked out for Operation Iraqi Freedom? Abu Ghraib in Orovada? I again repeated repeatedly that this was a public access road, and I was going up into the Montana Mountains to camp. He retreated to his pickup, likely to run me and my license plates through some creepy database. Finally, I was allowed to pass through.

Just up the road was the Ox Sam Protest Camp site, located on a huge mine water pipeline gash that the lithium company had gouged into the earth. The pipeline gash runs right by the sacred Sentinel (or Nipple) Rock. The tents appeared lifeless, flaps blowing open in the rain squall as I drove by. With better cell phone service up in the mountains, I called Winnemucca BLM, asked to talk to a Manager, Assistant Manager, somebody, and told the receptionist that the mine was trying to block the public access road. She said there was no one to talk with. I asked for a Manager’s e-mall address. She refused to give me an address and shunted me to the general BLM mailbox where public comments go to be ignored. Winnemucca is the BLM outpost in charge of enforcing LNC’s compliance with EIS requirements. They’ll be sure to jump on enforcement actions when the public brings potential mining violations to their attention over the next 45-years.

Later I saw a Google alert for “Thacker Pass”, and read that the camp had been raided after an incident. Underscore News/Report for America writes: “On Wednesday, police from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and private security for Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Lithium Americas, cleared the camp and arrested one protester.

When I left the next day, the chain link fence with No Trespassing signs was still up by the sides of the access route. The security truck was gone, and I drove on through. A local resident pulled up. We chatted, gazing up at the mountains that were witnessing the lithium mine destruction unfold. He knows the country like the back of his hand. He said you could see over 20 mountain ranges from the Montanas. Our presence generated the interest of security guards who came by to check us out as we stood by the state road right of way. A project worker came and moved the chain link fence with its No Trespassing signs away – at least for now.

Allied Security’s aggressive approach to security has gained notoriety. The Denver city council canceled their contract after two Allied guards beat a black man so hard they caused him permanent brain damage. In May, Time magazine profiled a long troubling history of Allied incidents.

How fitting. Lithium Americas came in claiming Thacker Pass was some kind of great “green” mine, as cover for plain old dirty open pit mining and a noxious lithium processing plant. Now they’ve hired a security firm prone to violence. I don’t know what went down with the Ox Sam camp. But I do know that having the security boss decked out in black ops head gear is an effort to intimidate, and an indication the security firm may have things to hide. Security personnel concealing their identity or playing gatekeeper on a public lands access road in this way have no place at a project on public lands. Months before the Ox Sam camp was set up, LNC had established a manned compound with a building and fencing and what looked like cameras right by the Pole Creek access road. Driving up into the mountains in April to trek across the snow to the Montana-10 lek had already felt like running a gauntlet. I wager that anyone going in or out that public road gets recorded.

LNC has many mining claims staked up in the mountains in Sage-grouse stronghold habitat including at the Montana 10 lek. This makes efforts to limit access or intimidate people so they don’t go up there more concerning. Back home, I consulted the Thacker Final EIS:

SR 293, Pole Creek Road, Crowley Creek Road and Rock Creek Road are the main transportation routes in the Project area. Under Alternative A, LNC would not close, block, or limit in any manner access along these routes”. FEIS at 494-495. The EIS also constrained use of these access roads for certain types of mine activities.

Photos below from up in the Montana Mountains looking down on spring 2023 LNC scars from drilling and bulldozing in migratory bird nesting season. The drilling is creeping upslope. It’s hard to tell if some may be outside the project boundary. Nevada BLM uses in-front-of-the-bulldozer bird survey protocols that are deeply flawed with transects spaced 100 ft. apart – a distance far too wide to detect cryptic sagebrush birds that are experts at concealment. You practically have to step on or by a nest to detect it. The only way to avoid migratory bird “take” is for the mine to not destroy the bird habitat in spring.

A picture containing outdoor, grass, landscape, mountain Description automatically generatedA picture containing outdoor, ground, mountain, soil Description automatically generatedA picture containing cloud, mountain, outdoor, sky Description automatically generatedLNC’s drill scarring is a mere prelude to the destruction that’s planned – 5,694 acres of outright destruction in a 17,933 acre project zone. The enormity and scale of the planned mine is mind boggling – a deep open pit, a waste rock pile, all types of infrastructure, a lithium smelter/sulfuric acid plant on-site using huge volumes of waste sulfur shipped into a new railroad off-loading site by the Winnemucca airport. The latter was just announced a few months ago, to the dismay of nearby residents who find themselves facing living by a hazardous materials zone. Hundreds of tons of off-loaded material will be trucked to Thacker Pass and burned every day in a plant whose air scrubber design wasn’t even finalized before the Thacker decision was signed by BLM. What stink and toxic pollution will this lithium processing generate? McDermitt caldera soils contain uranium and mercury. Mine water use is estimated to be 1.7 billion gallons annually. Enormous volumes of diesel fuel will be used throughout the mine’s operation. What’s green about all this?

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Think of the volume of water that will be sucked through these pipes.

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Beautiful dense big sagebrush full of Sage Thrashers, Brewer’s Sparrows, and Sage-grouse sign, up in the mountains where LNC has claims galore.

A picture containing outdoor, flower, sky, plant Description automatically generatedClose up of purple flowers Description automatically generated with low confidenceSacrificing the Interior West for Corporate Energy Dominance While Energy Conservation Lags or Is Forgotten Altogether

Big Green environmental groups and outdoor interests who’ve been silent on the unfolding lithium mine destruction at Thacker Pass, or the tragic destruction of Mojave Desert Tortoise habitat for Big Solar and many other brewing “green” energy controversies better wake up. The lithium boom plague that’s descended on the West is hard rock mining at its worst. Thousands of acres at each mine site become essentially privatized (with security guards) for 40 or 50 years. Much of the land is reduced to waste rock rubble piles, gaping pits, infrastructure all over the place. Local water is used up for processing and for suppressing clouds of dust, and mine pollutants contaminate the air and ground water.

US taxpayers are helping finance these colonialist lithium mines. LNC received commitments for a $600 million dollar loan investment of US tax dollars. General Motors, while continuing to pump out gargantuan trucks and EV Hummers priced at $110,000, provided LNC with a $600 million dollar injection. In the Jindalee Webinar, executive Dudfield assured a questioner that their company will also be “in queue” for similar handouts. The miners are gobbling up funds for a battery technology that may soon be outdated. China is zooming past the US with its development of sodium batteries and is introducing them in low-end vehicles, a sane path forward. Why aren’t these funds going to research alternatives to lithium and safer less earth-wrecking technologies? Why isn’t Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto directing her attention to spurring new technologies and sustainability? Instead she’s using “critical minerals” mantra to justify introducing a bill to make the 1872 Mining Law even worse, and a wholesale giveaway to mining companies.

Jindalee’s Webinar talk said the company embraced “social license and responsibility”, then later emphasized that McDermitt Creek was “a long, long way” from Oregon population centers like Salem and Portland. This highlights how lithium mine pollution, cultural site desecration, community de-stabilization and ecological damage will be out of sight and out of mind of urban elites.

US government policy is now based on greatly accelerating energy colonialism of all types within our own borders, and especially on willy-nilly sacrifice of the public lands of the Interior West. This allows massively subsidized corporations (often tied to a foreign mothership) and billionaires to retain a chokehold on energy. Conservation is paid lip service. BLM’s Tracy Stone-Manning just announced a new proposed rule making it easier for BLM to hand over public lands to wind and solar developers, furthering de facto public lands privatization for half a human lifespan.

But people are catching on. A surprising thing recently happened in Idaho. The entire Idaho legislature (all the Republicans and the hand full of Democrats alike) voted in favor of a Resolution opposing the BLM Lava Ridge Wind Farm, with its 400 turbines standing 800 feet tall sprawling across 3 counties. Lava Ridge’s plan managed to offend or disgust everybody – from agricultural operations and home site impacts, to Golden Eagle and rare bat killing, to destroying the stark setting of the Minidoka Japanese Internment Camp Monument and marring the Dark Skies and wildness of Craters of the Moon.

The same Legislators, who in a normal year would be inviting Land Grab proponents from Utah to speak in the session, were pushing protection of public lands from this behemoth of LS Power’s subsidiary Magic Valley Energy. It’s facilitated by the planned new LS Power SWIP North renewables-focused transmission line. Idaho Power and PacifiCorp’s Gateway “green” transmission line has also resulted in a stampede for more wind and solar
leases in south-central Idaho.

If you live in the West and love the outdoors, be very afraid of what the Biden administration’s breakneck push for many more of these “green” lines will do to public lands, and your access to areas beyond – once projects feeding energy into the line are built and the fencing goes up. It’s the sagebrush sea equivalent of building a road through the Amazon.

While there are no huge wind farms yet on public lands in Idaho, there are many smaller scale turbine arrays on private lands across the Snake River Plain. It’s become quite apparent that industrial wind is not benign. Above all else, folks realized how badly Idaho was getting screwed by the Lava Ridge project and its export of energy to benefit coastal populations. The Legislature said No to Lava Ridge exploitation of Idaho as an energy colony. Counties in the Mojave Desert are now starting to resist some industrial solar developments overrunning public lands. Remotely sited “renewable” energy or “critical minerals” projects amount to public land privatization. They cause profound losses of many kinds – scarring the land, sucking it dry, extinguishing the wildlife that’s managed to persist in the face of merciless domination since White settlement, trenching a massacre site.

lithium mining I’m outraged at the ecocidal stupidity with which this “energy transition” is being carried out. Will we soon see Jindalee get US tax dollars to wipe out the McDermitt Creek Sage-grouse stronghold? How ironic that would be. Interior just announced funding for major sagebrush habitat restoration using Infrastructure Bill funds in High Priority sagebrush areas. It turns out one of the sites chosen is the Montana Mountains area. Mapping shows it includes the Thacker Pass mine area too, where nearly all the sage is on the verge of being destroyed by LNC. Close review of maps for Interior’s Montana “restoration” project shows it encompasses the McDermitt Creek watershed, hence the entire area coveted by Jindalee for massive new drilling followed by open pit mining. It would be absurd to greenlight Jindalee’s ghastly exploration plan in primo habitat, when the Interior Department has identified this very same landscapeto be among the highest priority for restoration – because so much sage has already been lost already. The caldera is also key for connectivity between Sheldon and Owyhee Sage-grouse populations and for biodiversity preservation.

How long before rejection of lithium and other “critical mineral” mines grips communities, especially as promised jobs evaporate with increased mine automation and robot technology, and as the environment goes to hell? But hey, as LNC is showing us, there’s always a bright future as a security guard– at least until the lithium company gets itself a pack of Robodogs.

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Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

How To Stop Mining Before It Starts: Carlos Zorrilla

How To Stop Mining Before It Starts: Carlos Zorrilla

Editor’s Note: Brave activist throughout the world risk their lives to protect the environment. We honor and respect their courage and realize that they are truly heroes. May they remain safe and in our thoughts to give them strength to carry on. Are you working with an organization that protects the environment?


by Liz Kimbrough on 4 April 2024 / Mongabay

Over nearly 30 years, Carlos Zorrilla and the organizations he co-founded helped stop six companies from developing open-pit copper mining operations in the Intag Valley in Ecuador. As a leader and public figure, Zorrilla is often for advice from communities facing similar struggles, so in 2009 he published a guide on how to protect one’s community from mining and other extractive operations. The 60-page guide shares wisdom and resources, including mines’ environmental and health risks, key early warning signs a company is moving in, and advice on mitigating damage if a mine does go ahead. The most important point, Zorrilla says in an interview with Mongabay, is to stop mining before it starts. Carlos Zorrilla is a leader in what locals say is the longest continuous resistance movement against mining in Latin America.

Zorrilla’s family fled from Cuba to the U.S. in 1962 when he was 11 years old. He moved to the Intag Valley in Ecuador in the 1970s, citing his love for the cloud forest ecosystem there. Soon after he arrived, so did the first of the mining companies.

Over the following decades, Zorrilla and the organizations he co-founded, including DECOIN (Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag), helped block five transnational mining companies and a national company from developing operations in one of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems.

In the process, Zorrilla and community members say they faced personal threats, smear campaigns, arrests and violence. But the movement also notched historic wins, including a constitutional case upholding the rights of nature against Chilean state-owned miner Codelco and the Ecuadorian national mining company in 2023.

Community members holding a sign that says, “let’s save Intag.” Communities in Intag Valley have been resisting mining for nearly 30 years. Photo by Carlos Zorrilla.

As a leader and public figure, Zorrilla is often sought out for advice by people facing similar threats. In response, he and two co-authors published Protecting Your Community From Mining and Other Extractive Operations: A Guide for Resistance in 2009 and an updated version in 2016. (The guide is also available in Spanish, French and Bahasa Indonesian).

“After getting rid of two mining companies, I was constantly being asked how the hell we did it,” Zorrilla tells Mongabay. “Rather than keep answering individuals, I wrote the manual. It’s much easier to just say, ‘Read the manual!’”

The 60-page guide shares experiences and resources, including the environmental and health risks of mines, strategies to prevent mining before it starts, key early warning signs a company is moving in, and advice on mitigating damage if a mine goes ahead.

Zorrilla says the most important point is to stop mining before it starts. To emphasize this point, he also published Elements for Protecting Your Community from Mining and Other Extractive Industries, which focuses on preventing mining from gaining a foothold.

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“Stop the companies before they corrupt your communities and before they discover economically viable mineral deposits,” he says. “Once they start investing in exploratory activities it becomes progressively harder to get rid of them.”

Mining is a divisive issue within Indigenous and local communities. Some see economic benefits to address poverty, own their own mining projects, and highlight the need to negotiate better benefit-sharing agreements or collaborations with mining projects as a form of self-determination.

“But these memorandums only work with ethical mining companies and they are as rare as chicken teeth,” Zorrilla says.

Zorrilla’s opinions on mining are contentious. After the publication of the resistance guide, Ecuador’s president at the time, Rafael Correa, denounced it on public television as “destabilizing” and a foreign-led interference, in a move that Zorrilla says was “great publicity for the manual.”

Former Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, holds up Zorrilla’s resistance guide on public television in 2009, denouncing it as “destabilizing”.

As the world transitions away from fossil fuels, the demand for critical minerals to feed “clean” energy technologies such as electric cars is rising. Thus, mining is also increasing.

However, many experts say mining in Ecuador, especially in the Intag Valley, is just a bad idea. Aside from the earthquakes, rainfall, steep slopes and lack of infrastructure, it’s a country with a wealth of other options for development, such as ecotourism potential or sustainable agriculture.

“It’s really a poor choice to develop large-scale mining in such a rich country,” says William Sacher, professor and researcher at Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito, who studies large-scale mining and its impacts. “If you actually do the math just in terms of cost and benefit, if you take into account the costs of large-scale mining, they outweigh the benefits.”

Zorrilla’s work with DECOIN resisting mining as well as restoring forests and watersheds has been internationally recognized with awards, including the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize in 2017. This year, Zorrilla won the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature’s award for defending nature’s rights.

It’s his connection to nature, he says, that keeps him motivated. “It is hard to put into words the connection I feel with the land and people, with the biological community I am part of,” he says. “What else could someone do that feels to be an integral part of a community? How could one not defend it against forces that would destroy it?”

In an interview with Mongabay’s Liz Kimbrough, Zorrilla discusses the guide and his experiences.

DRC copper Mine April 2017https://www.flickr.com/photos/fairphone/35456682034/in/photostream/

An open pit copper mine in DRC. Image by Fairphone (CC BY S.A. 2.0)

Mongabay: What inspired you to write this guide?

Carlos Zorrilla: I think two main reasons motivated me to write the guide. The first and most important was that we had gone through a lot in confronting a Japanese and a Canadian mining company in the 1990s and the early 2000s and had to do so without any idea of how to go about it. I kept wishing there was some concrete information on the best ways for communities to confront the presence of these companies. Much as I looked around, I was unable to find anything.

I thought other communities could benefit from our experience in successfully standing up to two transnational mining corporations and blocking mining development in our area (as of early 2024, civil society in Intag has been able to block five transnational mining companies and a national one from opening a mine).

The second reason is much more practical. After getting rid of two mining companies, I was constantly being asked how the hell we did it. Rather than keep answering individuals, I wrote the manual. It’s much easier to just say, “Read the manual!”

Mongabay: You mention that preventing a project in the exploration phase is much easier than stopping it once mining has started. What are some early warning signs that communities should look out for?

Carlos Zorrilla: First, it helps to clarify why it’s so much more difficult to stop a mine once it has opened. A large mining company can incur hundreds of millions of dollars in exploration costs — costs that, in most cases, the country issuing the licenses could be held liable for if the mining company is unable to develop the mining site. This is a result of a country signing bilateral investment treaties with other countries to protect the investments of private companies.

So, in essence, the more a company invests in a project, the more expensive it is for a signatory country to pay off the mining company to go home.

The other reason is that the longer a mining company is a territory, the more likely they are to learn how to co-opt people and institutions, and they waste no time doing so. It’s similar to contracting cancer or other similar diseases: you’ve got to treat its soon as possible, otherwise it becomes deadly or ravages your body so badly that it becomes unable to defend itself.

Another reason it is imperative to stop a company in its initial stage or before is that the longer a mining company explores, the greater the possibility of finding an economically viable ore deposit. If they are successful, companies are much more likely to convince governments to allow all permits and look the other way in cases of illegal activities. It is also much easier for the company to find investors if they can show they have a viable mine to develop.

Mongabay: What are the first signs a company is interested in exploring territory?

Carlos Zorrilla: You may find strange people wandering around the community asking questions. Another is if you suddenly find that private individuals start to buy large tracts of land. Your community could be subjected to social and economic surveys carried out by a government agency under the guise of social or economic development or identifying health needs.

Keep in mind that it’s essential for the companies to find out as much as they can about the communities and the inhabitants they will be dealing with. This also goes for local government needs. For example, they may identify basic needs, such as the lack of basic health services, road and school infrastructure that needs repairing, lack of safe drinking water, etc. Once these needs are mapped out, they will offer the community and/or subnational governments financial help to address them. They often even offer to create so-called development groups or organizations, such as farming co-ops or women’s groups, and provide initial funding to address some of the needs. Companies may sign financial agreements with local or state governments to help cover the costs of supplying communities with basic necessities.

Needless to say, the funding always has strings attached to it, the least of which is that the subnational governments and community groups support the mining company’s presence and, later, the development of the mine.

The most important thing to remember is that the main objective of the companies is to create complete dependency on what they provide, whether it is jobs, road maintenance, drinking water, or basic health services. The inhabitants become so accustomed to having the services provided by the companies that they forget that they have lived without these things all their lives or that it is the state or national government’s responsibility to provide them. The dependency can become so instituted that the locals stop petitioning the local or national governments to provide the services and rely solely on the companies. This can also apply to subnational governments, especially when the national governments purposely reduce their funding as a strategy for the mining projects to gain support from the local populace.

At the same time, the companies are gathering basic information about the community, they are also identifying key players within the community. These are persons who have influence or could be groomed to hold a position of authority. They are the first ones co-opted. It could be someone successful in business or a well-respected community leader. They, in turn, will do a lot of the work for the company, such as convincing their neighbors that mining is the best way for the community and families to get out of poverty. Or it’s really silly not to accept the company’s support to build that road everyone always wanted. That propaganda is infinitely more effective when espoused by individuals you know and respect.

Community members in Intag protest mining in the forest. Image courtesy of Carlos Zorrilla.

Mongabay: What do you believe are some of the best ways to stop a mine before it starts?

Carlos Zorrilla: The best way to know what you’re up against is to find out all that you can about the company: things like who the owners are, the company’s history, main sources of funding, and where the company’s stocks are traded (if it is a publicly traded company).

Once you know all that you can about the company, your main objective is to stop it before it starts gathering information, hiring community members, or buying land — certainly before it holds meetings in your community.

As soon as you suspect a company is interested in your territory, hold public meetings or assemblies where, hopefully, most of the community’s adult population can participate in deciding whether to meet with the company. It can help to invite knowledgeable people to discuss some of the problems the community will have to face if they open the door to mining.

It is absolutely essential that no one accepts meetings with company officials or government employees promoting mining development unless it’s in a public setting with everyone from the community invited.

It is strongly recommended that the bylaws of the community include provisions for any approval of activities affecting the natural environment or social peace of the community be approved by two-thirds majority of the community members. It is dangerous to let the board members of the community (president, vice president, secretary, etc.) represent the community when it comes to allowing activities that could have such terrible and long-lasting social and environmental impacts.

Mongabay: The guide says mining companies use many tactics to divide communities and quell opposition. What’s the most difficult company tactic to counter that you’ve encountered? What should communities be aware of?

Carlos Zorrilla: The companies can use multiple tactics to neutralize the opposition. We’ve experienced just about all. Anywhere from making up criminal lawsuits to try to imprison effective opposition leaders and hiring paramilitaries to violently access the mining site, to death threats, outright buying community leaders, to terrible smear campaigns aimed at discrediting resistance leaders and/or the organizations that support the communities.

Then there are soft tactics. One of the hardest to counter is the easy money that the companies offer to the leaders and, eventually, community members when they start working for the company. This is especially effective in areas where making a living off the land is difficult.

Needless to say, this will lure people away from the fields and the normally hard work that is agriculture. Remember, the company offers steady paychecks, often accompanied by social security and health coverage. One of the things we must do is point out that these jobs will not last more than a few years or until the mine opens. Only qualified personnel are required once a mine opens, with few exceptions. But the company will never admit to it.

Communities have to know what the sacrifices are of accepting the jobs the companies offer. These include very often permanent, ongoing social conflicts; it could also lead to the relocation of whole communities to make room for the mine and its infrastructure, possibly contamination of water sources, desecrating sacred lands, and direct impacts on sustainable activities like ecotourism or agroecological farming.

It’s also been documented that there is more delinquency and violence surrounding mining projects, among many other negative impacts. The impacts are especially hard on women. Most mining jobs go to men, worsening economic inequality within households. Women often have to replace men’s work in the fields, adding even more stress to their daily lives. There also tends to be more health problems from STDs, plus more interfamily violence in mining sites.

So, when mining companies come offering jobs, communities have to consider all the impacts, not just look at the positive aspects.

That is why it is so important not to let the company get this far. Communities have to know that mining companies and government officials lie when it comes to convincing communities about mining. That is one of the most important messages. They have to lie because if they were to tell the truth about the social and environmental impacts of mining, not a single person in the community would support them.

In this light, it’s important to invite knowledgeable persons and community members from other communities that have suffered at the hands of mining companies to share with the communities what really goes on when mining companies roll into your community.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees. View more of her reporting here.

Photo by Diego Guzmán on Unsplash

 

Building Social-ecology Under Attacks in Rojava

Building Social-ecology Under Attacks in Rojava

Editor’s Note: The Kurdish people of Rojava have been building a grassroots democracy based around self-organizing communes, valuing relationships with nature and women’s liberation. To a large extent, these communes aim for what we believe the world should be: localized food systems, ecological living, and non-hierarchical societal structures. However, they face many challenges from neighboring states. We have covered this previously in many of our posts and podcasts. The following is a part of the report by Make Rojava Green Again. You can find the full report here.

For more on the communes of Rojava, please watch this video:


“We Will Defend This Life, We Will Resist on This Land”: Building Social-Ecology under Attacks in Rojava

By Make Rojava Green Again

The revolutionary process in Rojava, based on the pillars of grassroots democracy, women’s liberation and social-ecology, is progressing while at the same time is threaten by the continuous war carried on by the Turkish state. The Turkish army is not responsible only for killing civilians and political representatives but for a planned ecocide and attacks on basic civil infrastructure.

Rojava is one of the four parts in which Kurdistan has been divided with the creation of nation states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Rojava is the Syrian part.

The history of the Kurdistan, the ecological way of life of the people, the effects of the attacks, and the methods of resistance, are intrinsically related. In order to make them more understandable, we focused on the area of Koçerata. This region, its people and civil infrastructures in particular, were heavily targeted by Turkish airstrikes in winter 2023-2024.

Ecocide is a warfare of the Turkish fascism against the people. Long-term effects continue to harden the life of the people and will do so for the time to come. Still the people as well as the autonomous administration are focusing on finding creative and collective methods.

The creation of a new life on the basis of old heritages

Koçerata, the “Land of the Nomads”, is a plain land with some hills and, due to the Tigris’ river, very fertile. For hundreds of years Kurdish nomads have moved in the region, until the construction of nation states borders. Not being willing to give up on their ancestors’ way of life too fast, a lot of the people continued to move in the plain until around 1945, when Syrian state was built up. Syria wanted to create an urbanized, industrialized society. In this framework intensive monoculture practices were imposed. Koçerata in particular became of high interest because of the rich oil deposits, and until now represent one of the main pillars of energy suppliance for the region. One of the biggest power plants of North-East-Syria is also based here, in Siwedî. It was built in 1983 by a French company, and was the main gas and power station of whole North-East-Syria, serving between 4 and 5 million people, until the winter attacks.

Rûken Şêxo, spokesperson of the peoples council in the village Girê Sor describes the life of the people and the creation of social-ecology in the region: “The life of the Koçer [kurd. Half-nomads] is very simple and beautiful. We don’t need a lot from the outside. In every house you will find a small garden, where the families are growing vegetables, herbs and plants, for example tomatoes, onion, salad. Some will also raise cows, chicken and turkeys”. “We make things ourselves, especially yogurt, cheese and milk. From our childhood onward we learned to create everything by ourselves, from the things we have. This is also what we are going to teach to our children.”

Today the people of Koçerata are living mostly in villages, organizing their life as a part of the self-administration of North-East Syria. Still carrying on cultural heritage, the life is rather humble and self-contained. A life close to nature and communality has passed on through generations. People of Koçerata mostly rely on agriculture and also shepherding still plays a role.

While the communes are the foundation of the organizing of the everyday life on the village level, the peoples council are solving regional problems. The communes are the cells of the society and the councils are its body. Both of them elect two co-chairs, a woman and a man to apply decisions. At the same time, the Municipalities, which are responsible to organize infrastructural needs in the region, such as water and electricity supplies are under the control of the Peoples Council. The level of organization in the region is very strong, based on the long-time ties between the people and the freedom movement, as well as the lively communal culture. Connecting heritage and local culture with grassroots democracy and popular self-defense, the people of the region of Koçerata have set strong foundations for developing social-ecology.

Turkey’s war against Rojava: An attack on the development of social-ecology

Even though, in November 2022, heavy attacks were executed, targeting in particular the infrastructure for basic life needs (water and electricity), the most recent bombardments, from October 6th 2023 to January 18th 2024, mark the worst escalation since 2019. In this period the Turkish army carried on more than 650 strikes (with drones and fighting jet), hitting more than 250 places, many of them being hit several times. In this huge operation, 56 people have been killed (among which two children, 10-11 years old), while at least 75 people have been injured. Among them, workers at their work site or collecting cotton in fields. The airstrikes have mainly targeted essential infrastructure, 18 water stations, 17 electricity plant, sites for cooking gas, and oil, but also schools, hospitals, factories, industrial sites, agricultural and food production facilities, storage centers for oil, grain and construction materials and medical facilities, villages.

The purpose of destroying the basis of people’s life became even more explicit and clear. Beside the physical destruction, these attacks aim to harm society’s psychological status and destabilize the region, in order to stop the democratic process that is going on within the Autonomous Administration.

One of the most critical infrastructural targets have been the electricity plant of Siwedî. “Being the main gas and power station of whole North-East Syria, when there is problems within the plant it effects the whole region” told us Rûken Şexo, spokesperson of Girê Sor village. “After that shelling almost 4 to 5 million people have been affected”, and, in Cizîrê region, where 50% of the regular electricity comes from this plant, two million residents have been left without municipal services, electricity, power, and water.

Due to the cut of water from Turkey, the water situation was already very heavy. The rivers flow that was allowed to cross into Rojava decreased severely obviously affecting all aspects of life, drinking, hygiene and health, agriculture and food production, animal’s life, economy, education and gender dynamics. In addition, the Turkish state has also altered the water quality, releasing contaminant sewage residues in the few water still flowing into North-East Syria.

“The shellings are hurting the people of Koçerata, in all aspects of life” told us Xoşnav Hesen from the village of Girê Kendal. “These are from the attacks” he said, while showing us the deep cracks on the walls of his house. Without electricity the water pumps that secure the water supplying from the ground can’t work, the water can’t be extracted from the wells and distribute to the villages. While this is in general a fundamental problem for human’s life, in the region it is even more crucial due to the agriculture-based life of the people.

“Most of the people live from the products of the earth and the animals that they raise themselves.” told us Rûken Şexo, spokesperson of Girê Sor village. “Without water, the plants are dying and the animals can not drink. The cultures are affected, the animal’s life is affected. The base of people’s economy, of families’ economy in the region is based on this. Now the families are having economic problems, because they used a lot of money to plant and now everything is gone, the animals are dying because of lack of water”. These military operations aim to create fear and frustration. “Creating, building up, is not a problem, the problem is war. You work so much, create so much, invest so many resources, and then, in one second it gets destroyed” said Delal Şêxo from the village of Hamza Beg.

“We don’t leave our land, we organize ourselves” – Resistance of the people on their land

The current attacks led by the Turkish State must be understood in the broader context of war and ecology. The Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria encourages the establishment of cooperatives, agro-ecology, like the production of organic fertilizers, and eco-industries based on the cooperative system and on a circular approach to production and consumption. Plans regarding the use of different source of energy (solar, biogas from animal manure and organic wastes or wind energy), recovery of soil and groundwater characteristics, are made. However, these could not develop on a large scale due to the systematic destruction of basic infrastructure. This attacks forced the administration and the whole economy of North-East Syria to devote themselves toward continuous works of reparation and rebuilding, in order to reply to emergency and immediate consequences of war. The embargo also represents another significant obstacle to the development of ecological projects.

In spite of all these hardships attempts are made to foster the ability of people to organize their own forces. Despite external factors such as embargo and war creating obstacles for the progress of social-ecology, the strength of the social network resists the enemy’s attempts at displacement and psychological warfare.

People are showing a strong solidarity, the determination to stay on the lands and the population has develop its ways to withstand collectively the hardships. The municipality visits the different Communes to inform them, share evaluations about the situation, listen to their needs, try to find solution together, and to organize collectively the whole society, make every one taking responsibility for it. The people of Koçerata pull their resources in times of difficulty. Neighbors share generators and water pumps during electricity shortages, or collect funds for the installation of local generators. Some villages deliberately limit their electricity for hours to support others. Certain families combine financial resources to afford a communal water pump system independent from electricity. During the airstrikes in late December, the Koçerata community mobilized to create human shield to protect the Siwedî power plant. While the priority is to set up an emergency plan, for their long-term strategy towards social-ecology the force of solution is already here: initiative from the base, self-organization, and decentralization.

The ecological crisis and the increase of global conflicts, often for the sake of natural resources and their exploitations, are showing every day more how solutions cannot be found neither in State politics or in technology alone. Especially in times and areas of conflict, the social-ecological problems tend to be seen as second rank of importance. Opposite to this approach, the attempts made by the autonomous administration emphasize how, even in times of attacks, social-ecology can represent an answer for both the problems. As we witness, against wars and environmental destruction, social-ecological models, self-sustainability and decentralization can really constitute a solution for a lasting peace in the region. In this framework, the reality of Koçerata must be known as a meaningful and inspiring example of resistance. This is not just an example of theory but it is, in first place, an example of practice of resistance and self-organization. Against the current centralized, urbanized and mono-culture global system, based on exploiting human-land relationships, Koçerata can suggest sustainable ways of living, working and producing. This region is at the same time unique, for its history and specificity, but not alone. Every place, every community can recover its democratic heritage, and, on this basis, build strong communities and a life in harmony with nature. Values of resistance, connection with the land, communality and freedom are not limited to one geography but parts of our life, of our being part of humanity, being part of Nature. Telling about Koçerata also creates connection with many other struggles, carried on by people around the world to defend the land and build a democratic life. Understanding that the resistance in one place, however important, cannot be really successful alone. Local solutions and global changes, toward a social-ecological model, are both needed. The example of Koçerata wants to be a source of strength, hope and inspiration to think also about how we can resist and defend our territories, how we can build alliances with struggles in other geographies, communities and free life.