Sacred Indigenous Site in Mexico Threatened by Canadian Mining Company

Wirikuta Desert

Every year, the Wixarika (Huichol) indigenous people of central west México walk 500 km to the sacred land of Wirikuta, where according to legend, the sun was born. This sacred land is currently under siege by a Vancouver-based mining company.

Every year, the Wixarika (Huichol) indigenous people of central west México walk 500 km to the sacred land of Wirikuta, where according to legend, the sun was born. Here, they collect jíkuri (peyote), carry out rituals of purification and come into communion with their gods, who give them blessings and guidance. In this way, they conserve their culture, maintain harmony with nature, and uphold a thousand-year-old tradition. 

Located in the state of San Luis Potosi, Wirikuta is one of the most biologically rich and diverse deserts in the world. In 1994 it was decreed “a Site of Cultural and Historic Heritage and an Area under Ecological Conservation”; in the year 2000 the protected area was expanded to 140 thousand hectares; and in 2001 it was declared a Sacred Natural Site by UNESCO. There is also a bird sanctuary in Wirikuta. In spite of this, it is currently under siege by First Majestic Silver, a Vancouver-based mining company that paid 3 million dollars to obtain 22 mining concessions in the area.

To be sure, First Majestic Silver is not the first mining company to covet the mineral resources in the region. In fact, local mining activities were initiated by the Spanish in the 1770s. The town of Real de Catorce was founded then, but it did not reach the height of its splendor until the end of the 19th century, during the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. Decadence followed as mining activities became more sporadic. The last mining activities in Real de Catorce took place about 20 years ago, leaving behind a ghost town, hills pockmarked with mining shafts, contaminated water and soil, unemployment and poverty. The aesthetic beauty of the landscape, however, remains intact and Real de Catorce has since become an off-the-beaten-track tourist attraction. It has also served as a filming site for two Hollywood movies: The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julie Roberts, and Bandidas, featuring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.

This same stage is now the backdrop for a social environmental conflict that is unfolding around First Majestic Silver’s intentions to reinitiate mining activities in the area. Where the Wixarika people see sacred beauty and the fountain of life, Keith Neumeyer – president and CEO of First Majestic Silver – sees an opportunity to further enrich himself and his company’s shareholders. With state-of-the-art technologies, he hopes to reopen old mines, exploit previously undetected veins of minerals, and squeeze out the last remaining traces of silver from tailings left behind by others. There are promises of job creation and social corporate responsibility, but the jobs are both dangerous and ephemeral. Moreover, it is not entirely clear how cyanide and other noxious substances could possibly be contained. In Real de Catorce, past experience has shown that mining companies do not stay for long and when they go, they leave behind diverse forms of environmental degradation. Along these lines, in 2010 a team of researchers from the University of Guadalajara detected lead and arsenic in plant and animal samples collected in the Wirikuta desert.

According to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, indigenous and native peoples must be consulted about any project that affects their territories. No such consultations have taken place and very little information is being provided. What is more, in 2008 president Felipe Calderon signed the Hauxa Manaka Accord, designed to respect and protect the sacred sites of the Huichol people. The 22 mining concessions granted to First Majestic Silver by the Ministry of Economy blatantly violate these accords. These concessions cover an area of 6,326 hectares, 70 percent of which is in the Natural Protected Area of Wirikuta, whose management plan explicitly prohibits any kind of mining activities.

There is nothing extraordinary about this. In Mexico, protected areas and environmental laws are often sidestepped in order to facilitate the activities of national and transnational corporations. The problem, though, is not just one of weak environmental legislation and corruption in Mexico; the Canadian government is also responsible, refusing to regulate resource-extraction companies operating outside of the country. This negligence was perpetuated by the narrow defeat of Bill C-300 in the House of Commons, in October of 2010. Designed to create a complaint and investigative mechanism for communities adversely affected by Canadian mining companies, the bill was rejected by Stephen Harper and all but two of his Conservative MPs, while 20 members of the Liberal and NDP caucuses, including Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, absented themselves from the vote.

Most Canadians would probably be surprised to hear that, in academic and civil society circles, Canadian mining has come to epitomize rapacious capitalism and imperialism. Canadian companies dominate the mining sector in Latin America, with interests in over 12,000 properties. In 2010 alone, at least five social activists were murdered for protesting against Canadian mining activities, including Abarca Roblero, who opposed Blackfire’s operations in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

First Majestic Silver is contributing to this notorious reputation.  It is currently seeking local support and ways to convince government officials to grant permission for mineral extraction in Wirikuta. As part of this effort, company representatives have opened a museum in Real de Catorce and they have hired 15 locals to clean up the entrance to the old Santa Ana mine. Pay is between 70 and 240 dollars a week, a pittance compared to what the company is worth (1.58 billion dollars), but hard to refuse for people living in poverty. This strategy is not new: by offering jobs to some, mining companies can divide the local population and conquer. Another common strategy is to invent subsidiaries with Spanish names – in the case, Minera Real de Bonanza – in an effort to promote a Mexican public image.

On September 23rd, 2010, traditional leaders from the agrarian communities that make up the Wixarika nation signed an official statement to manifest their “profound rejection of First Majestic Silver’s mining project in the Real de Catorce desert”. They demanded “the immediate cancelation of all mining concessions” in their sacred lands and they made it clear that they, “will do everything within [their] means to stop this devastating mining project”. A number of civil society organizations have come together to support this resistance. Together, with representatives from the Wixarika nation, they have formed the Tamatzima Huaha Front.  As one Wixarika representative of this Front put it: “These sites are alive, they have a heart, and we are worried that their veins will be destroyed.” In accordance with this vision, indigenous protestors have recently set up a camp in the outskirts of the municipality of Real de Catorce, where they have been fasting and chanting prayers.

Darcy Victor Tetreault is a Professor researcher at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, Academic Unit for Development Studies. Email:

Photo from Flickr by benguez