Mexico approves mining reforms to protect environment, Indigenous people
- Reforms to Mexico’s mining law limit harmful practices by extractive industries and improve protections for the environment and Indigenous peoples. But they’re also a far cry from the change activists had been hoping for.
- Under the new reform, Indigenous communities will receive 5% of a mining operation’s profits. The maximum lifespan of mining concessions is also reduced from 100 years to 80.
- Concessions will no longer be granted in areas with water shortages or in protected areas. Currently, there are 1,671 mining concessions in 70 protected areas in Mexico, spreading across 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of preserved land.
MEXICO CITY — A major reform approved by congress last week is supposed to limit harmful practices by the mining industry and improve protections for the environment and Indigenous peoples. But some parts of the reform faced strong resistance from pro-business interests, resulting in a watered-down version that some environmentalists said doesn’t go far enough.
The reform, originally introduced by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the end of March, was designed to make it harder for private companies to obtain mining concessions without accounting for impacts on surrounding ecosystems and local communities.
It establishes free and prior consent as a requirement for mining concessions, meaning that companies must meet with residents to discuss the impacts of their projects before receiving permits. It also requires companies to restore the land once a mine closes.
But some of the most impactful components of the proposal were negotiated down. Payment to Indigenous communities living near mining operations was originally supposed to be 10% of mining profits but lawmakers reduced it to 5%.
There was also debate about the length of mining concessions, which the previous version of the law set at up to 100 years. Although the original reform proposal wanted to limit it to just 30 years, effectively preventing the companies from shaping entire regions for the long term, lawmakers ultimately settled on 80 years.
“These topics were suppressed or modified without justification and under pressure from the business interests that are responsible for social and environmental devastation,” Colectiva Cambiémosla Ya and Alliance for Free Determination and Autonomy, two mining activist groups, said in a statement ahead of the senate vote.
Deputy Ignacio Mier Velazco, from the state of Puebla — who explained that the reforms were changed to avoid risking investment and economic development — said he was confident the version that was passed would still improve oversight of the industry. Many activists in the region agreed, telling Mongabay the reforms were a victory that allowed for some positive change and a way forward for the continued fight against mining.
Mexico’s mining industry has experienced rapid growth since 1992, when the original mining law was passed. The country has become a top exporter of silver, zinc and other important minerals. In the 1980s, less than 1% of Mexican territory was under a mining concession. Now, it’s a little more than 8%, according to the president’s reform proposal.
The private sector made a push to stall the vote when the initiative was introduced last month, accusing the president’s party, Morena, of fast-tracking the process before the end of legislative sessions in April. The Confederation of Industrial Chambers of Mexico (Concamin) and Association of Mining Engineers, Metallurgists and Geologists of Mexico (AIMMGM) called for additional dialogue with lawmakers.
Credit rating agency Moody’s argued that limitations on the length of concessions could hinder growth in the sector. Officials in Canada expressed concern about whether the reforms would impact investments and Mexico’s commitment to international trade agreements.
A senate commission that needed to approve the proposal even declared a recess in order to delay voting just days before the end of the legislative session. But the proposal was eventually approved on the final day with a vote of 66 in favor and zero against because the opposition wasn’t present to vote.
Other major changes
Under the original mining law, companies could easily buy up land because extractives activities were listed as having a higher economic benefit than sectors like agriculture and tourism. Now, mining companies no longer have preferential treatment and will have to compete with those industries through a public bidding process.
Companies are also held more accountable for pollution and land use changes. They will receive warnings and suspensions for environmental damage, during which time they’ll be required to correct the issue or else risk having their concessions cancelled altogether. This includes ensuring the safety of workers on-site.
“Communities continue to live in poverty despite being in areas that are very rich in gold, silver and other precious minerals,” said Beatriz Olivera, the general director of Engenera, an environmental and social advocacy NGO. “What we are going to see now is that companies can’t continue operating so irresponsibly on the part of employees.”
The reform bans exploration and extraction in areas with proven water shortages, underwater and in protected areas.
Currently, there are 1,671 mining concessions in 70 protected areas in Mexico, with an overlapping area of around 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres), according to the Ministry of Economy. Fourteen of those mining concessions overlap with protected area core zones.
Eleven mine sites labeled as “highly contaminated” by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources were located within protected areas in 2019, the most recent year that the data is available.
Over half of the core zone in the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve, or around 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres), overlaps with five mining concessions. The Zicuirán Infiernillo Biosphere Reserve has 12 mining concessions covering over 12,000 hectares (29,600 acres) of its core zone.
“It’s a big, big advance,” said Manuel Llano, Director of Carto Crítica, an NGO for environmental and social rights. “The prohibition of mining in protected areas will change what has been happening up until now, which was that land and water were being concessioned and operated on without concern.”
Banner image: Mining trucks in Buenavista del Cobre, Cananea, Sonora, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Grupo Mexico.
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