Reporters Notebook: MAG Silver in Benito Juárez, Chihuahua

Apr 23, 2013

Reporters Notebook: MAG Silver in Benito Juárez, Chihuahua

I was recently in Chihuahua and had the chance to visit Benito Juárez, an ejido/town between Chihuahua City and Juárez. The feature story I wrote about what I saw there is in this issue of The Dominion. Click here to read the story.

There were a couple tidbits, particularly around the permitting issues at MAG Silver's "Cinco de Mayo" that illustrate how the company did business with the ejido (communal landholders group). Just like in the case of Fortuna Silver in Oaxaca, the way the company went about securing "agreement" from the ejido whose lands they wanted to work on might have been a shortcut that worked initially, but in the long run has probably contributed to intense social conflicts and may even (in the case of MAG Silver) cost the company their ability to work in the area.

I think going through the actas de asamblea (assembly records) of the Ejido Benito Juárez will be the most straightforward way to proceed. 

February 1, 2009. An assembly is convened, on paper at least, for February 10, 2009. The document specifies that at least half of the members of the ejido must be present in order for decisions to be binding. Convocatoria de Asamblea, 1 de febrero 2009.

February 10, 2009. An assembly is held, but only four people out of 397 are present, two of them being the president and treasurer. They are way under quorum, and decide to convene another assembly for February 20th. Acta de Asamblea, 10 de febrero 2009.

February 10, 2009. An assembly is convened for February 20, 2009. The document specifies that since this is the second call to assembly, any decisions taken at the February 20th meeting will be binding, no matter if quorum is reached or not. Convocatoria de Asamblea, 10 de febrero 2009.

February 20, 2009. An assembly is held. There are 24 people in attendance (out of 397). A decision is made to accept eight people as "neighbours" of the ejido, which is the first step towards becoming a member of the ejido. Among the eight is Porfirio Cesar Augusto Padilla Lara, the legal representative of Minera Cascabel, MAG Silver's Mexican subsidiary, and Maria Guadalupe Yeomans Otero, legal representative of Mineral los Lagartos, which has an option agreement with Cascabel and therefore MAG Silver. Padilla and Yeomans both live in Hermosillo, Sonora. Through this process, the company got their people inside the ejido, allowing them to begin (in an irregular fashion, according to my sources) permitting explorations in communal lands. Acta de Asamblea, 20 de febrero 2009.

June/July, 2012. An assembly is convened, 9 show up, a second is convened (same thing about the second time around being binding, no matter how many shows up). A second assembly is held on July 14th, with 64 members present (out of 397). New members are accepted and other business is conducted. Then there is a discussion about the mining company, here referred to as "Pozo Seco" -- which is actually one property in the Cinco de Mayo project. So, the president of the ejido starts off by saying there is no agreement between the company and the ejido, and that the company has been working for seven years and ejido members don't really understand what the results of the exploration have been. A rep from the mining company says SEMARNAT (misspelled in the acta as SEMARNAP, this is the Secretariat of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries) has changed their requirement and asks that the ejido grant the permission to continue exploration, basically requesting to regularize the presence of the company. The  February 2009 meeting is brought up, one man claims it was never actually held, it is pointed out that through becoming "avecendados" those present indicate people from the company obtained contracts and certificates pertaining to common lands. There is a motion to nullify the mining company's contracts, seven vote in favour of continued exploration and 59 against, those votes also ask for a clarification of what took place at the assembly on February 20, 2009. It also looks like they propose to have Greenpeace come present about mining (I'm thinking Greenpeace is spelled Green Phis). Convocatorias y Actas, junio-julio 2012.

July/August, 2012. Same drill as above, with 170 members showing up for the second (binding regardless of quorum) assembly on August 18, 2012. The discussion recorded shows that there are a variety of opinions on the presence of the company in ejido lands.  A commission of 20 members is formed, 10 of whom are opposed to the the mine and the other 10 in favour. Each group is directed to investigate and bring back more information about the economic, environmental and social impacts of the project within 90 days, so that the assembly can re-assess. Meanwhile, no mining exploration is permitted. Convocatorias y Actas, julio-augusto 2012.

The commission never reported back, because Ismael and Manuela were murdered before the 90 days period was up. 

November 17, 2012. Another assembly is held, which was called eight days prior. There were 240 people in attendance. Those present voted to forbid MAG Silver or any mining company from operating in their territory for 100 years. Acta de Asamblea, 17 de noviembre 2012.

Notice that MAG silver never issued a press release about the permitting changes requested by SEMARNAT or the ejido's decision requiring the company to stop work in July 2012. On November 19 the company issued a release claiming the November 17 meeting "was called and conducted illegally as a result of the efforts of a concentrated group of radical activists opposed to mining in the region. " 

The next day the company released another statement, of which I'll include a portion  below:

MAG reiterates its strong view that the November 17 assembly meeting was illegally called and orchestrated by a small group of radical agrarian activists, known as El Barzón, who are opposed to mining and industrial agricultural development in the region. MAG has been advised by several local sources that key signatures required to properly call the meeting were fraudulent. Significant concerns have also been expressed by local community members that the vote taken at the meeting was fraught with irregularities, including a significant number of votes being cast by unverified proxies and the exclusion from the meeting of voting members of the Ejido who are supportive of MAG's activities due to the economic benefit they bring to the region.

MAG also notes that the Ejido assembly has no ability at law to impose a ban on mining as mining is an activity that falls under Federal jurisdiction. While permission of the Ejido assembly is required to obtain surface access, MAG believes that the El Barzón group and its supporters do not represent the will of the majority of the 421 voting members of the Ejido or the 12,000 other citizens in the project area. In fact, over the past two months, MAG has been working to have a properly constituted assembly of the Ejido called to vote on surface access permissions required for ongoing exploration at Cinco de Mayo. The illegal meeting of November 17 appears to be an attempt by a small group of radicals to thwart a free and open vote in a properly sanctioned assembly.

Well, for those of you who have read this far, there's a pretty clear contradiction here. The November 17 assembly gathered 240 people after the first call to convene, and there was a majority vote in favour of suspending all mining activity on the territory. Compare this to the February 2009 meeting, where four and then 24 people voted in what ejido members later (June-July-August 2012) claimed was an irregular meeting.

After reading through all these documents (in addition to the reporting I did in the community in early March) I don't think it is a stretch to say the company represents the fringe element here, and the community (of ejido members) is fully capable or representing itself.

-Dawn Paley, April 2013