Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mining Boom and Bust in the Sierra Madres: Part Two: Sonora's Mining Boom

Sonora’s Mining Boom

(See first in the Mining Boom and Bust in the Sierra Madres at: 

Tom Barry

Nowhere has Mexico’s mining boom been so deeply felt as in northern Mexico, particularly in the border states of Sonora and Chihuahua – states divided from on another by the mighty Sierra Madre Occidental.

The mining boom is also rumbling through other northern states whose most dominant geographic feature are the two Sierra Madres –Occidental in the west and Oriental in the east - that range north-south through north-central Mexico. These include the border state of Coahuila and the north-central arid states of Zacatecas, Durango, and San Luis Potosí.

Mining production in Mexico has increased eight times since 2001. By the last official count (2012), 50.2% of this mining occurs in the states along the U.S.-Mexico border.[i]

Sonora leads Mexico in the number of mining permits and production. With respect to the value of production in the mining sector (including metallurgical processing), Sonora accounted for 29.2% of the national total, followed closely by Zacatecas, and then Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, and San Luis Potosí – states cut through by the Sierra Madres.[ii]

Reflecting the national trend, Canadian firms dominate the foreign mining sector in Sonora, while the Mexico-based transnational Grupo México dominates mining and metallurgical operations in the state – mainly because of its copper and molybdenum mines and processing plants in the northern municipios of Cananea and Nacozari.[iii]

From the beginning of post-Columbian 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.

Complementary because silver and gold mining 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. On both sides of the Sierra Madre Occidental, indigenous communities rose up in rebellion as the Spanish and then Mexican miners expropriated indigenous land for their mining operations and conscripted native labor.

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. With the Jesuits gone, the more politically and economically compliant Franciscans assumed control of the indigenous missions. The mining boom of the 1600s and 1700s came to a halt as Apaches stepped up their raids on new settlements and mining enterprises throughout the region.

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.”[iv]

Over the past two decades, however, the mining industry has again become the dominant force in the mountains, canyons, and valleys of eastern Sonora. The mining boom is largely out of sight in western Sonora. In contrast, the industry’s massive opencast mines, mountains of tailings, water consumption and contamination, and guarded enclaves have become the most striking and alarming feature in the landscape of Old Sonora – the mountainous region to the east of the Sonoran Desert and the source of virtually all of Sonora’s surface water.

According the state’s Dirección General de Minas, the number of mining concessions in Sonora nearly doubled in the 2007-2012 period. In 2007 there wee 3,844 mining concessions in Sonora, covering 16% of Sonora’s land. By early 2013, there were 5, 390 mining concessions that covered 30.2% of Sonora.[v]
Foreign mining companies – more than 90% of which are Canadian – have led the surge in mining exploration in Mexico. In Sonora, too, Canadian firms dominate mining exploration in the state. Throughout Sonora and Chihuahua, there is rising indignation over the aggressiveness of the Canadian mining firms. But the major mines in Sonora are Mexico-based, Mexican-owned transnational corporations. 

Grupo México carries sulfuric acid and other toxic chemicals on Ferromex, the railway monopoly the company owns  /Photo by Tom Barry

Mining Boom in Sonora

·      Sonora leads the nation in the number of active mining firms (129), followed by Chihuahua (73), Durango (87), Coahuila (49), and Zacatecas (47).
·      There are more permits for mining operations in Sonora – 4,213 – than for any other state.
·      Production in Sonora predominates national production in these minerals: Copper (66%), Gold (29%), Molybdenum (100%), Wollastonite (100%), Grafite (100%), Selenium (100%) Anthracite carbon (100%).
·      Area of state covered by mining concessions doubled from 2007 to 2012, rising from 2.8 million hectares to 5.7 million hectares – representing an increase from 16.0% of the state’s land area to 30.2%.
·      Mining concession rose in 2007-2012 from 3,844 to 5,390.
·      Value of mineral production in Sonora increased from 30 billion pesos to 72.4 billion in 2012 (current values).
·      Copper mining occurs primarily near the U.S.-Mexico border in the municipios of Nacozari de García, Santa Cruz, and Cananea – presenting issues of transboundary contamination of the Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers and of transboundary aquifers.
·      100% of the state’s production of gypsum comes from the municipio of Álamos, which will be a prime beneficiary of the Pilares dam on the Mayo River.

Sources: Secretaría de Economía, “Principales Minas”; Secretaría de Economía, “Relevancia del sector minero,”;  Servicio Geologico Mexicano, Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana; Servicio Geológico Mexicano, Panorama Minero del Estado de Sonora, 2013.


[i] Acuerdo por el que se aprueba el Programa de Desarrollo Minero 2013-2018,” Diario Oficial, May 9, 2014.
[ii] Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana, Edición 2013, Coordinación General de Minería, Secretaria de Economía, p. 14, at:
[iii] Servicio Geologico Mexicano, Anuario Estadístico de la Minería Mexicana; Servicio Geológico Mexicano, Panorama Minero del Estado de Sonora, 2013.
[iv] Robert C. West, Sonora: Its Geographical Personality (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), pp. 53-55.
[v] Servicio Geológico Mexicano, Panorama Minero del Estado de Sonora, 2013.

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