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How an indigenous community halted mining

The people of Capulálpam de Méndez, Oaxaca, Mexico, forced Canadian company Continuum Resources to withdraw



  • Conversing with Goliath is a research project carried out by FLACSO-Mexico and De Montfort University, Leicester, UK, sponsored by the British Academy (2017-2020). The project aims to understand why violence in Mexico persists in the design and implementation of projects in the extractive industry when a wide range of participatory institutions exist in law and policy programmes which, in principle, promote citizen participation (information, consultation and deliberation).
  • In the first of three articles based on the research, FLACSO Professor Marcela Torres-Wong examines the different legal frameworks that impact the local governance of local municipalities in Oaxaca. and shows how one indigenous community was able to take advantage of plural and contradictory state legalities.

In 2005 a conflict with the Canadian mining company Continuum Resources broke out at Capulálpam de Méndez, in the Sierra de Juárez, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. The local population were unhappy with mining activity so close to their territory. They filed a complaint against the government for granting a permit to explore for minerals in indigenous territories. The Community Assembly denounced unauthorized mining operations and damage to water sources caused by the mine. (More details of the dispute can be found in this article from 2008, on Canadian website The Dominion).

The president of the Comisariado de Bienes Comunales (Commissariat of Community Assets), in charge of carrying out the Community Assembly´s decisions in regard to natural resources, recalls how the general manager of Continuum Resources visited Capulálpam several times to try convince their leaders to accept the project: ‘Some Greg guy … – he was Canadian he did not speak a word of Spanish, he had two or three interpreters … – said that with open-cast mining, the company would create jobs for the population (…)’.

Capulálpam de Méndez is a municipality legally recognized in Mexican law as an Indigenous Community with collective property rights over their land and resources. The population totals 4,000 and belongs to the Zapoteca ethnic group. Compared with adjacent indigenous municipalities, Capulálpam de Méndez has quite a developed economy.

Most of the population have their basic needs met, and have access to functioning education and healthcare systems.  Most residents do not depend on subsistence activities and do not have to emigrate to other cities in search employment. Most of the prosperity that indigenous residents in Capulálpam enjoy derives from the collective management of natural resources. Currently, the two main activities are sustainable use of forest resources and eco-tourism.

Community values

The people of Capulálpam and other communities from the Sierra de Juárez are famous for preserving community-centered values that translate into collective resource management and local resolution of conflicts through customary norms. Several times they have mobilized to defend their natural resources against the state. They retain collective tenure of land and forests, and elect their authorities following traditional procedures. All this has served to consolidate territorial control and local forms of political organization.

In this community private property does not exist. The sale of communal land is prohibited. Commissariat of Community Assets, Capulálpam de Méndez, Oaxaca. Photo: ‘Shroomery’

In 2006 using the legal powers conferred on indigenous communities by the Agrarian Law, the Community Assembly decided to prohibit mining for good. The Mexican Constitution states that the administration of mineral resources is the province of Federal Government. Yet, the people of Capulálpam claimed that as indigenous people they were entitled to rule over their territories and were not willing to accept impositions either by the government or by any private actor.

Protests against the mine followed, including seizing mining company offices, cutting off access to the mine for employees and state officials, and blockading the highway connecting Capulálpam de Méndez with Oaxaca City. The mining company Continuum Resources finally cancelled the project and abandoned the site.

Since then the experience of Capulálpam de Méndez resonates among national and international environmental organizations who cite it as a successful example of an indigenous ecological battle against destructive mining projects.

Encountering Goliath

Over the last two decades, indigenous struggles against the encroachment of contaminating industries onto their land have attracted considerable attention internationally. Using ILO Convention 169, indigenous movements have campaigned against the way governments have implemented policies affecting their territories. As legitimate inhabitants of their lands, indigenous movements claimed that they have the right to be consulted prior to any state decision.

Due to increasing social conflict and international pressure to implement indigenous rights, a number of Latin American governments have begun to implement some form of pro-indigenous rights legislation including prior consultation procedures. However, the limited opportunity that these consultations offer for meaningful participation, along with the political disempowerment and socio economic vulnerability that define indigenous territories, have meant that opposition to extractive industries remains relatively ineffectual at the national level. The prevailing power inequalities often constrain indigenous communities to accept undesired projects in mining and other extractive sectors.

Yet, in spite of the failure of most consultations and environmental laws to protect indigenous communities from the negative impacts of mining, there are groups that are able to challenge the influence of extractive interests. The IndigenousMunicipality of Capulalpam de Méndez in Mexico demonstrates how some indigenous leaders take advantage of plural and contradictory state legalities to keep their land free of undesired activities.

Residents of Capulálpam de Méndez based their decision on the defense of water sources and the protection of their ecologically harmonious indigenous pattern of living. Through innovative use of different legal frameworks related to the co-governance and self-governance mechanisms of natural resources administration, the political leadership of this town succeeded in developing an ecologically sustainable economy and preventing the intrusion of a Canadian mining company into their territory.

Capulálpam is a striking example, because in the past it was a substantial mining centre. Underground mineral extraction had existed there at least since 1775 and was the main source of employment for centuries. It is generally believed locally that it was because of the work in mining, that indigenous workers were able to send their children to university to pursue a better future.

However, extractive activities came to a halt in the 1990s, and many of the sons and daughters of former mining workers felt that mining companies had exploited indigenous labor. As one community member relates, During the time of the mine, people did not live longer than 45 or 50 years, they died very young. It is also widely believed that the drying up of former water sources was caused by mining operations.

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Indigenous miner of Capulálpam de Méndez. Photo: Marcela Torres-Wong

With the progressive withdrawal of the mining companies, the authorities in Capulálpam looked for new sources of income. As part of an initiative of the Government of the State of Oaxaca to boost tourism in the region, Capulálpam de Méndez was identified as an ideal place to implement ecotourism projects. According to an employee of the Secretariat of Tourism in Oaxaca: ‘Capulálpam was selected because, although it is one of the towns in the Sierra that remains more traditional (…) people there are qualified, they are professionals, there are engineers, architects, teachers(…) plus they exhibit great levels of cohesion and organization’.

Given the potential of the municipality, government employees engaged in negotiations with local leaders to seek an agreement. In the Community Assembly, the population accepted the proposals and engaged in collaborations with state agencies to develop the industry.  With the resources and advisory programs provided by the government through the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) and the Secretariat of Tourism, Capulálpam built its first eco-tourism centre. Later, municipal authorities decided to create new businesses to accommodate foreign tourists.

Keeping it in the community

The people of Capulálpam decided to translate their communally centered values to the new businesses, and agreed that these would remain under the control of the Community Assembly. In 2007, with the aid of the Secretariat of Tourism of the state, the authorities of Capulálpam decided to compete for the ‘Magic Town’ federal program which offers resources to municipalities considered to have tourism potential. The community was selected as a Magic Town in this competition and now receives state resources from the federal government which allow them to continue developing tourism.

Official tourist video of the ‘Magic Town’ of Capulálpam de Médez. Video: Magic Films

One of the main goals of the political leaders is to create life opportunities for new generations. Profits are used to provide social services for all the population and to pay employees, most of whom are young men and women from the community.  In the words of two young professional women living in Capulálpam: ‘ We grew up in Oaxaca and went to school in Puebla, we have travelled a lot, and still we would not exchange our life here for anything else, we want our children to live here too‘.

The mountains surrounding Capulálpam. Photo: Marcela Torres-Wong

Communitarian ecological tourism and environmentally conscious attitudes among community members have come to define the identity of Capulálpam de Méndez. Likewise, municipal authorities continue to encourage the preservation of customary values, although they welcome tourists from all parts of the world.

Road to Capulálpam de Méndez. Photo: Wikimedia

The case of Capulálpam de Méndez shows how indigenous actors are able to take advantage of contradictory state policies towards indigenous territories. On the one hand, the government of the state of Oaxaca, the CDI and the Secretariat of Tourism developed economic projects in partnership with indigenous peoples; on the other hand, the Secretariat of Economy promotes mining projects in indigenous territories generally led by foreign companies. With contradictory legal frameworks governing indigenous territories, indigenous actors strategically combine the use of state technical and economic resources available by the co-governance model of eco-tourism, with autonomy elements of self-governance recognized in Mexico´s Agrarian Law and international ILO Convention 169.

The lesson learnt is that selective use of different legal frameworks, in conjunction with strong community cohesion and environmental economic alternatives, enabled local leaders to promote economic wellbeing for their people. This cohesion served to oust the mining company Continuum Resources because it threatened the environment.

A museum was built in the center of Capulálpam to honor the political leaders who successfully fought the government and the mining company. In the end, this case tells the story of how David defeated Goliath in a small indigenous town in Mexico. At least for now the beautiful mountains of this Magic Town remain free of open-cast gold mining.

Meanwhile, in Natividad, a neighbouring community, mining continues. Read about the different circumstances there in our next article, by Adrian Jiménez, which will be published in a few weeks and which examines the differences between the two communities and their capacity to resist.

Marcela Torres-Wong is a Peruvian Lawyer and Anthropologist and holds a PhD in Political Science from the American University (Washington DC). She serves as full time professor at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Mexico City. Her research includes indigenous movements, resource-based conflicts and participatory institutions in Latin America. Her latest book Natural Resources, Extraction and Indigenous Rights in Latin America: Exploring the Boundaries of Environmental and State-Corporate Crime in Bolivia, Peru and México. United Kingdom: Routledge, examines the implementation of the right to prior consultation in these three countries and the impacts of this institution on the protection of indigenous territories.

This research was funded by the British Academy (AF160219) as part of the project Conversing with Goliath? Participation, mobilization and repression around neo-extractivist and environmental conflicts in Mexico