Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mining Booms and Busts Along Border: Sonora and Chihuahua

Tom Barry

Statue in Cananea, Sonora, 30 kilometers from Arizona border/ Tom Barry

Mining is booming in Mexico, especially in the northern states and border regions. Sonora and Chihuahua lead the nation in the number of new mining permits.

Only when there is an environmental disaster or when dozens of workers lose their lives because of unsafe conditions is there much public attention to the adverse consequences to the mining boom that has been spreading across Mexico since the mid-1990s. The virtually unregulated use of river and groundwater by the mining corporations is depleting transboundary river basins, while governments on both sides of the border bow to the power of the mining industry.

Area formerly farmed on edge of Laguna de Guzmán south of Palomas. / Tom Barry

Bismark Mine to South of NM Border

Over the past ten years, the water extraction operations of the giant subterranean zinc mine Bismark – which lies south of the Columbus, NM/ Palomas, Chihuahua border towns and not far from the inside corner of New Mexico’s boot heel – has dramatically lowered the water table. 

The National Water Commission (Conagua) hasn’t released information about the quantity of water used by Bismark, which is owned by Industrías Peñoles (one of Mexico’s three largest mining corporations). It may be that Conagua doesn’t even know how much water the company uses given its lax control over mining companies.

Ten years after Bismark started operations on the eastern side of the border municipio of Ascensión, area farmers mounted a series of sit-ins and protests against Bismark and Conagua in 2004. According to Armando Villareal Martha, one of the leading voices of small farmers and ranchers in Chihuahua, the water level of least 400 of the 600 wells in the region around the mine dropped 15-20 meters since Bismark began operations. Dozens of these wells had been abandoned.[i]

One doesn’t need to visit the wells of area ranchers and farmers to see the impact of the mine’s water pumping.  A 3-ft. pipe runs out of the mine gushing water day and night seven days a week. At the time of the protests, Villareal Martha asserted that the mine discharged 2,500 to 3,000 liters of water every second – a figure that neither the mine nor Conagua has disputed. (In 2008 the Villareal Martha was assassinated, and his supporters accused the government of Chihuahua.[ii])

Before the Bismark mine began operations, the Laguna de Guzmán was a recreational site but the lake has completely dried up – no longer benefiting from the artesian springs and the Casas Grandes River no longer reaches the laguna.

Industrías Peñoles also operates a copper mine in the Cananea area of Sonora, which stands on the western side of the Sierra Madre Occidental from its huge mine in Ascensión, Chihuahua.

Entrance to Bismark zinc mine, which is depleting border aquifers. / Tom Barry

Copper Mine Disaster to South of Arizona Border

When the Sonora River disaster struck this summer, there was little public information about social and environmental impacts of the Cananea and other mining operations. The flood of toxics washing down the Sonora River also led to questions by the media, the pubic, and the anti-Independencia aqueduct forces about how much water Grupo México’s Buenavista copper mine and other mining operations consumed.

About 30 miles south of the Arizona-Sonora border, an earthen dam holding back an immense tailings pond burst open. More than 40,000 cubic meters of toxic copper sulfate acid came rushing down the Sonora River valley. This flood of toxics from Grupo México’s huge copper mine in Cananea washed down one of the most beautiful river valleys in Mexico. Mexico’s environmental secretary called it the “worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico.”[iii]

Grupo México train car carrying sulfuric acid. / Tom Barry

The wave of toxics – including copper, arsenic, aluminum, cadmium, chromium, manganese and lead -- poisoned more than three-hundred water wells throughout the river valley, leaving more than a dozen of small riverside towns without any water – no water to drink, to bathe with, to irrigate crops, or to give their cattle.

Other spills of highly toxic chemicals by Grupo México in the couple of weeks that followed the August 6 catastrophe set off alarms on both sides of the border about the possible contamination of the Santa Cruz and San Pedro Rivers – both of which north into the U.S. borderlands.

[i] “Protestan campesinos por sobrexplotación de agua,” El Universal, July13, 2004, at:
[ii] “El gobierno ordernó matar el lidér agraio, aseguran en Chihuaha,” La Jornada, March 17, 2008, at
[iii] “Cananea in Sonora: one of the largest open-pit mines in the world,” Geo-Mexico, Oct.2, 2014, at:

Mining Boosterism in Sonora

Sonora Chronicles

Mining Boosterism in Sonora

When the Sonora River disaster struck, there was little public information about social and environmental impacts of the Cananea and other mining operations. The flood of toxics washing down the Sonora River also led to questions by the media, the pubic, and the anti-Independencia aqueduct forces about how much water the Buenavista copper mine and other mining operations consumed.

The state government’s role as a booster for the mining sector rather than a regulator helps explain the almost total lack of information about the impact of mining on Sonora’s environment and on its water resources. The one state government agency that has most information about the state’s mining industry is the Secretaría de Economía.

The Secretary of Economy has four separate programs that work closely with Mexican and foreign mining firms: 1) foment growth of mining industry; 2) training courses (in association with Secretaría d Trabajo and education institutions) for mine staff and workers, 3) technical assistance and consultations, and 4) helping mining businesses grow with state assistance.[i]

Over the past decade, the state government has dramatically stepped up its programs to boost the mining industry, creating a series of quasi-governmental entities and public trusts (fideicomisos) to aid and abet mining operations.[ii]

Governor Guillermo Padrés

The Dirección General de Minería, which is the office of the Secretaría de Economía in Hermosillo that interacts with mining companies, doesn’t concern itself with the adverse impacts of mining.

The decree establishing the office makes no mention of water use, water contamination, land restoration, or occupational safety and health. Instead, the decree authorizes the state government’s mining office to work closely with the mining industry. Its mission is not to monitor or to regulate but rather of series but rather: “fomenter,” proponer,” “apoyar,” “impulsar,” “coadyuvar,” “proporcionar,” “brindar,” “promover,” “publicar,” “difundir,” and “desarrollar.”

The Secretaría de Economía hosts fairs and forums to promote mining in Sonora and serves as a public relations agency for the state’s mining industry. More than a cheerleader for the advance of mining operations in Sonora, the state government works to boost the industry by providing direct and indirect assistance.

The Direccíon General de Minería does this by providing technical assistance, undertaking exploration studies, training technical workers, and generating sources of credit and financing. And when the industry’s aggressive development of new mines encounters obstacles, the state’s mining office works to remove these obstacles by working with public and private entities to “prevent and resolve mining problems.”[iii]

Over the past decade the state government of Sonora has created a series of fideicomisos (decentralized semi-autonomous public trusts that answer to the governor’s office). These mining fideicomisos function as governmental partners of the private mining companies, clearing the path for mining operations and assisting the firms with services that involve the expenditure of state revenues.

In November 2007 the state legislature passed the “Ley de Promoción y Fomento Minero para el Estado de Sonora.” The main thrust of this mining law was to establish a process to provide financing, financial and logistical support, technical studies, and fiscal incentives for the mining industry. To provide this assistance, the law authorized the creation of the State Fund to Promote and Incentivize Mining. 

Fiscal and non-fiscal incentives provided to mining companies – large or small, foreign or national – include: tax and fee exemptions and reduction; financing for modernization; training; technical assistance; business expansion; acquisition of goods and services; investment and feasibility studies; infrastructure; development aid; and mining and metallurgical studies. Neither the state nor federal government provide any accounting of the incentives and support for the mining industry.

In June 2011, Governor Padrés issued a decree to create a new decentralized state organization called the Regional Mining Development Promoter (PRODEREM) whose mission is to “strengthen the industry.”[iv] This strengthening extends to all phases of mining operations – ranging from mining extraction and processing (smelting, refining, etc.) operations to transportation and even sales.

Government subsidies, infrastructure construction, and tax incentives are nothing new in Sonora. Since the 1880s the government of Sonora as facilitated the extraction of copper, gold, and silver by mining companies.  In the early 1880s, Sonora exempted mining firms from taxes for twenty years. More than anything else, however, mine investors have demanded that the Sonoran government guarantee that they could extract their minerals in peace.

Referring to this need to establish a stable climate for mining and economic modernization, Sonora’s governor in 1882 lamented the uprisings of “bábaros” and  “the abnormal situation presented by the Yaqui and Mayo tribes who are holding fast to the river banks.”[v]

Servicio Geológico Mexicano

[i] Secretaría de Economía, “Minería Programas,” at:
[ii] There are private and public fideicomisos in Mexico. Both state and federal governments can create fideicomisos for a variety of social and development objectives that involve spending government revenues. In practice, the proliferation of fideicomisos, particularly on the state government level, further shields the government from transparency and accountability. For a definition of a fideicomiso público see:
[iii] Secretaría de Economía, Artículo 15, Atribuciones y indicadores de gestión de la Dirección General de Minería,” at
[iv] PRODERM succeeds another fideicomiso of Sonora’s executive branch called the Fideicomiso de Apoyo al Programa de Exploración Minera en el Estado de Sonora (FAPEMIN).
[v] Juan Manuel Romero Gil, La minería en el noroeste de México: Utopía y realidad, 1850-1910 (Plaza y Valdes, 2001), p. 129.

Mining in the Sierra Madre Comes Back with a Vengeance

Sonora Chronicles

Mining in the Sierra Madre Comes Back with a Vengeance 

The mining boom is also rumbling through other northern states whose most dominant geographic feature are the two Sierra Madre mountain ranges –Occidental in the west and Oriental in the east - that run north-south through north-central Mexico. These include the border state of Coahuila and the northern arid states of Durango and Zacatecas, among others.

Sonora leads Mexico in the number of mining permits and production. Reflecting the national trend, Canadian firms dominate the foreign mining sector, while the Mexico-based Grupo México is by the largest producer – mainly because of its copper and molybdenum mines and processing plants in the northern municipios of Cananea and Nacozari.[1]

   Aerial view of Buenavista Copper Mine in Cananea /Servicio Geológico Mexicano

From the beginning of post-Colombian history, mining has vied with agriculture has Sonora’s top wealth-producing industry. The political and economic elite of Sonora made their homes in the southeastern town of Álamos, the northernmost of the Spanish empire’s silver towns in Latin America.

The ostentatious wealth and political power of Álamos would, however, not been possible without the bounty of the indigenous agricultural communities of the Sonora, Mayo, and Yaqui River basins that hugged the Sierra Madre Occidental to the north and those of the Yaqui and Mayo deltas to the northwest and west.

Unlike the Spanish conquistadores, colonizers, and mining ventures, the Jesuit missionaries sought out the indigenous communities of Sonora because of their farming traditions and their belief that the Jesuits could improve their living conditions through improved farming techniques. The mining centers of Nueva Vizcaya (northern territory that encompassed Sonora) and the Jesuit missions (and the associated indigenous communities) experienced a complementary yet conflictive relationship.

 Ruins of Jesuit mission in Cucurpe to the east of Magdalena / Photo by Tom Barry

Complementary because the silver and gold mines depended on forced indigenous labor and on the food produced by the native communities. Conflictive because of Jesuit and indigenous resistance to the demands, taxes, and repression of the mining-based power centered in Álamos. As the political and economic power of the Jesuit missions grew – based largely on the agricultural wealth of their missions among indigenous communities – tensions mounted, leading to expulsion of the order in 1767 and the takeover by the more politically and economically compliant Franciscans of the Jesuit missions.

In 1993, before the current mining boom took hold of Sonora, historian and geographer Robert C. West observed: “In eastern Sonora the ephemerality of the colonial mining centers in the mountains contrasts strongly with the permanence of the mission villages in the adjacent river valleys.[2]

Over the past two decades, however, the new mining industry’s monstrous excavations and mountains of tailings, along with the associated environmental contamination and water consumption, have become the eastern Sonora’s most striking and alarming features of the landscape of this region known as La Serrana – the highlands in marked contrast to the Sonoran Desert and coastal plains.

[1] Servicio Geologico Mexicano, Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana; Servicio Geológico Mexicano, Panorama Minero del Estado de Sonora, 2013.
[2] Robert C. West, Sonora: Its Geographical Personality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), pp. 53-55.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

SONORA SI Solves Water Crisis with ABCs

 Sonoran Water Wars

Solving Sonora's Water Crisis is as Easy 
as A, B, C, and D

Tom Barry

Hydraulic megaprojects will keep Sonora “competitive and sustainable” and create a “Nuevo Sonora,” according to Governor Padrés. To advance this vision of a new era of water-based growth and development, Padrés established Sonora SI (Sistema Integral) as a new semi-autonomous entity that would supervise some two-dozen water projects – with the clear priority being several dams, aqueducts, and irrigation projects.

Creating a new hydraulic society will be as easy as A, B, C, and D, according to Sonora SI. That’s Agua, Bienestar, Crecimiento, and Desarrollo

In this rosy scenario, new hydraulic infrastructure will ensure the delivery of water supplies (Agua), thus producing widespread well being (Bienestar), economic growth (Crecimiento), and development (Desarrollo).[i]

Elsewhere, a rising number of local and national governments, together with international institutions, are turning their focus away from megaprojects like dams. Instead they are turning their attention to resource-conservation and climate-adaptation strategies. There is also a new understanding of the integral connections between healthy ecologies and healthy societies and cultures.

But with its “integral systems” of infrastructure projects Sonora seems stuck in the old modernization paradigm. The narrow development and resource-use strategies of the past are not being reevaluated. In the New Sonora, social well being, for example, is still closely linked to growth and resource extraction.

Elsewhere, especially in arid zones, citizens and governments are reevaluating the costs and benefits of hydraulic megaprojects.  Evaporation rates and the destruction of river-based ecologies and cultures are being considered as part of cost-benefits assessments of water megaprojects.
The Sonora state government, however, hasn’t lost faith in hydraulic infrastructure solutions.

Sonora SI boasts that the state government is “reviving the hydraulic tradition of Mexico and the history of large waterworks projects in Sonora.” This “important hydraulic infrastructure sustains the life of the state and the development of its social, economic, and productive activities,” according to Sonora SI.

The working premise of Sonora SI for creating the state’s new hydraulic society is as simple as it is disconcerting: “Water will not be a limiting factor” not for “this generation or the coming ones.” Although acknowledging the onset of climate change and the multitude of water crises facing the state, Sonora SI has concluded that a recommitment to water megaprojects is the state’s only viable option.[ii]

Sonora SI describes itself / Sonora Si website.

Referring to its hydraulic projects, Sonora SI proclaims:

“In this way, water in Sonora will become the motor of our development. Water will make us much more competitive. Water will also ignite new industrial and commercial operations that will generate employment and opportunities.”

Whether this type of positive thinking about the future of water in the transborder region is visionary, as the Sonoran government claims, or fantastical is not a question that getting much consideration in Sonora – aside from small circles of academics and environmentalists. For the most part, Sonorenses are hoping that the government’s hydraulic interventions save them from a future of grim scenarios where desert cities and economies wither for lack of water.

The term sustainability does appear in the discourses of Sonora SI and Governor Padrés. But the term is never defined, and it is invariably connected to concepts such as competitiveness and growth. Whatever the rhetoric of Governor Padrés and Sonora SI, the reality is that over the past several years Sonora SI -- in close collaboration with Conagua and with federal funding -- initiated large water projects without first consulting affected communities or serious evaluating likely impacts on ecological systems.

What is more, neither the federal nor state government considered the possible adverse impacts on the indigenous communities -- Yaquis, Mayos, and Guajiríos – of Sonora SI’s dams and aqueducts. There was no prior consultation, as mandated by national and international laws and conventions, with the indigenous communities whose land and water will be affected by these megaprojects. The three water megaprojects prioritized by Governor Padrés -- Independencia aqueduct, Revolución aqueduct, and Pilares dam – all deeply impact the ancestral and legally established rights of these indigenous peoples who have long depended on the flows of the Yaqui and Mayo Rivers.

The modernization paradigm embodied in the water megaprojects of Sonora SI has also excluded any broader pre-project discussion of how the bienestar of healthy communities is closely related to the health of the environment.
Scholars and environmentalists variously describe this connection between societies and the environment as biocultural diversity, biocultural evolution, cultures of habitat, or cultural sustainability.[iii]

Water planners in Sonora and elsewhere in the transborder West would do well to consider the links between healthy societies, cultures, and environments. By doing so, governments would likely avoid igniting water wars.  They might also help prevent more of type of socio-environmental disasters – often related to water use patterns and water shortages -- that are occurring throughout Sonora– from the river valleys to the coastal plains, from the cities to endangered rural communities. 

Scholars at the Colegio de Sonora examined the issue of water for indigenous communities in Sonora. Their report observed: “One can observe the pattern of dislocation of indigenous people from their traditional homeland and from their natural resources, and that conflicts over water for subsistence are becoming increasingly severe – all of which exacerbates the vulnerability of these communities and the disintegration of their traditional biocultural frameworks.”[iv]

"Orgullo de Sonora," Gobierno de Sonora's 
map of Native Indigenous Territories

Dimensions of Sonora’s New Hydraulic Society

There are four major thrusts of the water megaprojects of Sonora SI: Dams, aqueducts, water-treatment plants, improving potable water systems, and increasing reach of irrigation networks.[v]


* Providing new sources of water to urban centers in desert and in water-depleted deltas, including Hermosillo, Alamos, Huatabampo, Etchojoa, Navajoa, and Nacozari de García.

* Sonora SI is also overhauling the Río Yaqui-Guaymas aqueduct and battery of pumps that supply it even as agrochemical contamination and salinization of the soil worsen.

* Aqueducts will be built to conduct water from existing dams, notably from El Novillo on the Yaqui River and from Mocúzari on the Mayo River, the Independencia and Revolución aqueducts, respectively. According to Sonora SI’s vision, “Aqueducts are indispensable to distribute water equitably and responsibly among all Sonorans.”


* In some cases, new dams will be constructed, including the Bicentenario (Pilares) dam on the Mayo River and a few much-smaller dams and embalses including the Centenario dam near Narcozari de García and in the remote Las Trincheras area near Altar in the state’s northwestern territory (where there are new gold mining operations).

Water-Treatment of Waste and Residual Water

* Provide new sources of water or better quality water to Hermosillo, Guaymas, Nogales, Puerto Peñasco, and Navajoa by constructing water-treatment plants.

Drinking Water Infrastructure Projects

* Building a desalinization plant in the tourist town of San Carlos.

* Overhauling water-delivery systems in Cananea and Puerto Peñasco.

Expanding and Improving Drylands Agriculture

* Assist the agricultural sector throughout western Sonora by improving irrigation canals (including in Yaqui and Mayo deltas, and outside Guaymas), by new dams that stop flooding in the monsoon season, and by expanding the “agricultural frontier” in Sonora.

* Providing water to all Sonorans in an “equitable and responsible” way will not involve any reduction of water to the agricultural sector – which consumes 92.3% of Sonora’s water. There will be no reduction in agricultural production in the state, states Sonora SI. 

Moreover, the hydraulic projects will “open new frontiers” to cultivation. In particular, the waterworks program will expand the irrigation districts that that currently draw on the Mayo and Fuerte Rivers in the southern corner of the state – bringing as much as 73,000 hectares into cultivation.

No doubt that Sonora SI and Governor Padrés are right to identify water as the state’s main challenge. Yet the picture that Sonora SI paints of a state that is moving forward to improve the lots of its residents and to overcome the water crises that besiege the state seems far removed from the reality of many Sonorenses – particularly the poor and indigenous.

Yaqui men gather for tribal meeting at Vícam Estación, 
site of Yaqui blockade of Highway #15 / Photo by Tom Barry

[i] Sonora SI, “Acueducto Independencia,” Fondo de Operación de Obras, August 2012, at:
[ii] Sonora SI, “Acueducto Independencia,” Fondo de Operación de Obras, August 2012, at:
[iii]  Luque, Diana et al, “Pueblos indígenas de Sonora: el agua, ¿es de todos?” Región y Sociedad, No.3, 2012. For an excellent treatment of this biocultural framework for sustainability (with field studies of Seris and Tohono O’, see: Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story (Counterpoint, 1997). For a broader treatments, see, among others: E. Boege, El patrimonio biocultural de lost pueblos indígenas, Mexico, INAH, 2008; Luisa Maffi, On Biocultural Biodiversity: Linking Language, Knowledge and the Environment, Smithsonian Institute Press, 2001.
[iv] Luque, Diana et al, “Pueblos indígenas de Sonora: el agua, ¿es de todos?” Región y Sociedad, No.3, 2012.
[v] Sonora SI, “Folleto Sonora SI,” at: