Outside groups help revitalize a six-year workers’ strike against copper giant Grupo México
CANANEA, Mexico — The pipes have gone silent. Gone is the hum of water flowing through them to the world’s second-largest copper mine, just south of the U.S. border. Instead, in the normally empty desert here, tents and buses line the highway. Dust and smoke from cooking fires fill the air while hundreds of people listen to speeches and discuss the day’s events.
This plantón, or occupation, which began on March 18, has shut down most operations at the Cananea mine, which consumes huge quantities of water pumped from 49 wells across the desert in order to extract copper concentrate from crushed ore.
Many of the people involved in the plantón are miners who have been on strike since 2008, when they walked out because of dangerous working conditions. Two years later, the government brought in 3,000 federal police, drove miners from the gates and occupied the town. Since then Cananea has been operated by contracted laborers recruited from distant parts of the country. But the strike has continued, as miners struggle to survive in this small mountain town where the mine is virtually the only source of work.
Now, for the first time in five years, the mine is again paralyzed. This time, strikers didn’t stop its operation by themselves. Half the people with them are farmers — residents of the Rio Sonora Valley, angry over a toxic spill that upended their lives last August, causing health problems and economic devastation.
People in the towns along the river used to have little involvement with the miners, but the spill gave them common ground. This alliance between miners and angry farmers also includes a U.S. union, the United Steel Workers. Together they are challenging the Mexican government’s fundamental rule for economic growth — that workers’ rights and environmental protections must be subordinate to the needs of corporate investors.
Sergio Tolano, general secretary of Cananea’s Local 65 of the miners’ union, says, “In Mexico you’re supposed to respect the law. But what’s the truth? There’s no protection for the lives of the workers or of the communities affected by pollution.”
Beginning on Aug. 6 of last year, 10.5 million gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid and heavy metals escaped from a holding pond at the mine. The toxic mix flowed into the headwaters of the Sonora River, affecting 24,000 people who live in 45 towns along its banks.
Arturo Rodriguez, of the office of the Mexican attorney general for environmental protection, told The Associated Press that the cause was lax supervision at Cananea, compounded by rain and defective construction.
Grupo México, the company that owns the mine, didn’t respond to requests for comment, but according to Yahoo News, Juan Rebolledo, vice president for international relations, said that the acid wasn’t toxic and “there’s no problem, nor any serious consequence for the population, as long as we take adequate precautions.” Grupo México’s solution was to pour calcium into the river to neutralize the acid.
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