Occupy the Ranch ... no ala mina

Collection of images from communities situated at the foot of the Sierra de Laguna watershed -  Baja California Sur, Mexico.

First image shows the Pueblito of Elias Calles during a Spring storm.

a cautionary tale ...

April 2015 word spread throughout Baja California Sur (Mexico) that a northern access route to the Biosphere Reserve Sierra de Laguna had been blocked by the Los Cardones mining company in preparation for open-pit gold mining.

The project has been controversial from inception due to its potential impact on the region's watershed, desert environment and people. After extensive public outcry the company declared the project had been "suspended." However today the presence of workers and equipment would indicate otherwise.

For generations the Cordero family of San Simon has ranched the foothills of the biosphere.  The family has denied permission for the Los Cardones mining company to construct a road across their property into the Reserve. The last ranch at the end of a long dirt road and the last obstacle standing between the biosphere and development.

Local reaction to the mine is mixed, there are rancho families who support mining and welcome the economic relief it will bring.

During times of economic stress rancheros will leave their homesteads to work in the nearby city of La Paz.  When this happens a caretaker minds the ranch for the Corderos. During one of these absences the family returned to the ranch to find their home had simply disappeared.

The Cordero family could have folded when their caretaker fled the property saying he had been beaten and forced to sign some papers by mining employees (although the family thinks it equally plausible he was paid off);  or given up when the authorities said "How do we know you had a house on this land? What proof do you have?" 

But they didn't.

When Los Cardones failed to persuade the family, the mining company adopted a  "legal and dime" strategy to contest the family's ownership of the property. This action compels the family to maintain a constant physical presence on the land. The men continue to work in La Paz and the women occupy the ranch.  Los Cardones has placed company men within eye-sight of the home camp - which is extremely unsettling to the women. The family's response has been to reach out to the local communities of Todos Santos, El Triunfo, and La Paz to visit frequently and bring "eyes and supplies" in a demonstration of support.

The following update was issued after the initial caravan:

..."On Thursday a few more than 80 people from Todos Santos, La Paz and I believe El Triunfo caravanned up to the rancho, with police escort, to tear down a gate that was illegally blocking entry to the Biosphere. For those of you unfamiliar with the beautiful area up there, it is internationally recognized as a unique and delicate area that should be protected. This symbolic gesture has made the miners even more determined in their intimidation of the family.

Footage from the first support caravan to the Cordero family and a northern access point to the Biosphere Reserve Sierra de Laguna.

This morning the family asked for help. They need food and water (their water has been poisoned). At 4:00 today there will be another caravan from Los Pinos Park (the park at the one stop light in Todos Santos) with the sole purpose of taking food and water and some comfort to the family. Next week there will be a meeting to determine how best to proceed without endangering the family more. There is discussion of collecting money to hire private security for the family. As it is right now the women cannot go to the bathroom or bathe in the arroyo without feeling threatened. An elder gentleman with bone cancer was beaten and is in the hospital in La Paz. The husband needs to work in La Paz and so the women are there alone during the day. "

Unable to join the first caravan I decided to  join the next relief effort. A week later seven of us traveling in two vehicles carried supplies to the ranch. There was no police escort this time and although nobody said anything I know I at least had concerns about safety given the reports of escalating threats and intimidation. I suspect the man stationed in a vehicle on the main highway entrance to the dirt road leading east to the Sierras was a mining company sentry.

But as it turned out a small group presented less of a threat and there were no confrontations. Two company employees were stationed within view during our time with the family and as we exited the property one employee was openly carrying a side-arm and another the weirdest  white camera I have ever seen (EOS Kiss or Rebel?). The car license plate and passengers were documented but apart from the displeased expressions on the faces of the eight or so company employees at the biosphere entrance there were no hostile exchanges. 

Visiting the ranch provided a quiet opportunity to ask questions and hear what the family had to say via an interpreter and not the rumor mill. What unfolded was a lesson in exercising caution with the recounting of a story.

The gate had not been illegally erected as a blockade by the mining company. The gate torn down by outraged citizens the previous visit was in fact the rancher's gate (who was not upset and appreciated the symbolic gesture).

The Grandfather was not tied to a chair and beaten, a story which became melded with the fleeing caretaker's story.  When the grandfather realized his land was threatened he confronted mining employees, shoving ensued, he fell, was injured and taken to hospital and is now being cared for at home. I do not know the extent of his injuries. I do not know if he has cancer but he has courage.

The water had not been recently poisoned. The suspicion of water contamination is a long-standing concern, the legacy of degrading chemicals abandoned by previous mining concessions. No one seemed to know if any formal water testing had (ever) been performed. I live in a heavily mineralized area in Alaska which has known mining activity for over 100 years and where the water table is "naturally" contaminated with high levels of arsenic. People buy drinking water and/or have their wells tested regularly. Mines also contribute to toxic contamination - by disturbing mineral deposits such as arsenic and by releasing mercury, cyanide and other processing bi-products into the environment.

Worldwide the mining industry has a terrible track record regarding human and environmental health and safety. We all enjoy the benefits of gold. We need gold and we need ethical resource harvesters. 

One of the concerns I have with how this story has played out so far is that the information in the narrative which fueled the initial caravan action was inaccurate. Irregardless of the overarching concerns associated with resource development and even under the banner of best intentions if the wrong gate is torn down the journey begins on the wrong foot.