John Cutfeet travelled more than 4,000 kilometres — from one end of North America to the other — to attend the “Yes to life, no to mining!” event in the southern Mexican mountains from January 17 to 20, 2013.
John is a spokesperson for the Kitchenuhmaykoosib _Inninuwug (or simply “KI”) First Nation in Northern Ontario, and an active participant in the Idle No More movement. He travelled to the mountain town of Capulálpam de Méndez, Oaxaca, to share stories of his community’s successes in keeping unwanted extractive companies from setting up shop on their traditional lands.
The event was a gathering of activists from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Argentina and beyond, coming together to share experiences of the true costs of mining on their communities, and to devise better-connected strategies for resisting extractive companies on their lands.
While geographically distant, John’s story resonated with participants, offering hope from a community living in Canada, the corporate home of the global mining industry and of so many of the companies affecting the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Given that, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) stats, 75 percent of the world’s mining companies are registered in Canada, stories of resistance to mining within that country were welcomed with a special significance by delegates.
“We face similar experiences and similar tactics,” John argues, “by companies and governments in order to try and access lands and rob of us our birth rights to those lands….the way that the government tries to manipulate legislation, manipulate policies in order to try to discount the rights of the people.”
The importance of a range of tactics
The KI First Nation is home to approximately 1,300 people and is located 580 km north of Thunder Bay. Like other indigenous communities in Canada, the KI signed pre-Confederation treaties with the British Crown that promised to respect their sovereignty, as John said, “as long as the sun shines, the river flows and the grass grows.”
Yet, in 2006, the gold mining company Platinex began exploration in KI territory without the consent of the community, having been granted permission by the Government of Ontario.
“Since the drilling company was given authorization to come into our territory without our knowledge or consent,” John Cutfeet explained to conference participants in Oaxaca, “we told them that they had to leave. That they were trespassing and they had to leave immediately…. Finally, after ten days protesting at the drill site, the drilling team left.”
This was the start of a protracted struggle by the KI community against impositions on their lands by the extractive industry.
Platinex sued the community for $10 billion. When a court once again granted Platinex access, despite KI’s legal claim that the lawsuit had been unconstitutional, the KI people “met them at the airport and told them there was no access to the land. We told them that if they stepped on the land they would be charged with trespassing.”
This led to the arrest of six members of the KI community, charged for being in contempt of court for denying the company access to the land. John was the seventh community member charged, but fought to have his charges overruled and won, making the Canadian government pay over $20,000 to cover his legal expenses.
When it came to facing their full constitutional challenge, the government gave up their case, choosing to pay Platinex $5 million rather than defend the constitutionality of their land concessions. After 60 days, John’s six co-defendants were released from prison, with the Court of Appeal ruling that the government had “a duty to reconcile [KI] interests with competing interests like mining and development.”
In response, the Government of Ontario announced two new pieces of legislation, designed to better protect Indigenous rights. These changes were welcomed, but many involved in the land struggles felt the legislation didn’t go far enough.
While the legal challenges were a significant part of the campaign, John has been clear that they would not have been effective on their own, and required peaceful direct action to keep the pressure up.
“We tried everything to use the laws that were available through the land claims process, and developed a consultation protocol which the government disregarded. Because they disregarded their own laws that protected our people, we had to invoke our own law.”
The KI law provides the community with something that both Canadian and Ontarian law fails to offer: the right to say “no” to exploitation by extractive companies trying to access their lands.
Remarkably, even after all this, in 2011 the Ontario government granted permission to another mining firm, God’s Lake Resources, to carry out exploration on KI land without KI approval.
Through a process similar to the first struggle, but including a KI elder symbolically walking an epic 2,100 km from his KI home to the Ontario legislature in Toronto, this company, too, was evicted. As a result, the Government of Ontario was forced to pay out another $3.5 million to settle the firm’s claim to the land.
Soon after, the Government of Ontario decided KI land would no longer be available to extractive companies, despite the region’s mineral wealth.
While the legal processes were a significant part of the KI’s successes, the community kept the broader values they were defending at the heart of their struggle. While too often different beliefs around tactics can divide a community, the KI accepted the need for diversity as a precondition of success, embracing peaceful direct action, media campaigning, public events and court cases as equally important ingredients of their campaign. “As is our people’s position,” John said unequivocally, “when injustice becomes a law, resistance becomes a duty,” demonstrating a steadfast belief that the community’s ability to survive and thrive would always supersede any legal structures that undermined it.
John remains firm that “people do have a right to say ‘no’ if they want. We fought for that right. Even though there is no veto on resource development [in Canadian law], we continue to say that we have a right to say no, if it’s going to have a negative impact on our lives.”
Unity in the community
Meanwhile, the town which John had come so far to visit had a story of its own to tell.
Capulálpam de Méndez is one of the few places in the region that has been able to do what John’s KI First Nation had done in northern Ontario. As it happened, the company that the people of Capulálpam were facing off against was Canadian-based Continuum Resources. The community took a clear, united stand against mining in their territory and had activities at the nearby Natividad silver and gold mine suspended until further notice in 2007, due to its contamination of local water supplies. The current municipal president Juan Pérez Santiago says that the key to their success has been the way that the community has been able to come together to oppose the mine. He went on to explain, “Here there are no leaders … the decisions that are taken in this fight always arise from a general assembly, so we are representatives from the community.” This meant that when the company first arrived in town looking to buy mining concessions, the system of local governance ensured that a single person could not be bought off or make decisions without first consulting the wider community. As Neftalí Reyes Méndez, an activist from the Oaxacan Collective in Defence of Territories, explains the situation, the townspeople of Capulálpam are indigenous Zapotecs with a long tradition of general assemblies and communal organising. While the issue of transnational corporations being involved in the extractive industry in Oaxaca is relatively new, residents of Capulálpam already had the necessary framework to work together to evict the mining company that was polluting their land. The municipal police and local authorities support local anti-mining resistance, which stands in stark contrast with many other communities that have struggled in their opposition to mining interests. As veteran Oaxacan activist Carmelina Santiago said at the event in Capulálpam, “In other places, the police are beating us; here, they’re serving us coffee.” The issue is still a live one and the residents of Capulálpam continue the fight to keep the mine from reopening. Another mining company has started exploration work northwest of the town, but as Juan Pérez Santiago said, “they can insist as much as they want, we will never say yes. Now the main point is to teach our generations how to work together and to fight for our resources.”
While geographically distant, these two communities have come through their respective struggles having learned some similar lessons about the mining industry, the governments that support it, and the steps that can be taken to reclaim power and defend their homes.
The high price of resistance
While the feats of the KI in Ontario are remarkable enough, by Cutfeet’s own admission, “There are more … aggressive companies” in Latin America than in Canada, and “there is a greater loss of life” associated with mining companies in that region.
A tragic example can be seen in the struggles of San José del Progreso, a small town roughly 130 km south of Capulálpam de Méndez in the Central Valleys region of Oaxaca. The town has experienced ongoing violence related to the local mine, owned by a subsidiary of Canada-based Fortuna Silver Mines. Mixed opinions about the mine have resulted in a deadly rift that has divided the community in half.
Last year was characterised by escalating violence in San José, as two anti-mining activists were fatally shot and several others wounded within the space of a few months. Rosalinda Dionicio, a coordinator for the Coalition of the United Peoples of the Ocotlán Valley (COPUVO), still walks with a cane as a result of having been shot in March 2012, allegedly by men with close connections to the mine and the local authorities. During the same attack her cousin Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez, also a vocal opponent of the mine, was killed, having previously received threats against his life.
Rosalinda spoke of the great division that exists in San José and of the need to build a united front against invasive corporations: “Right now we would welcome the departure of the mining company, but the idea is to join the people together to defend the rest of our resources, because we have rivers, we have forests, we also have our customs to protect, which could be something that they try to take away from us.”
In contrast to Capulálpam, the town of San José del Progreso is non-indigenous and so, in the view of Neftalí Reyes Méndez, they do not have the same “social memory” of organising communally. Neftalí asserts that when the mining company first came to San José they paid local authorities to receive the permissions they needed, bypassing the communal decision-making processes that were supposedly in place. As much of the land in San José is communally owned, the company also enlisted the help of a person within the community with land-owning rights, to start buying up land that would later form part of the mining site.
The authorities in San José have increasingly criminalised the anti-mining movement, claiming that peaceful activists are trying to destabilise the town and sabotage development efforts. They have also tried to co-opt their opposition, denying areas that have actively opposed the mine their fair share of its financial benefits, such as funding for health-related programs.
The mining company itself has been accused of exerting undue influence on local elections, ensuring that the municipal council continues to support its business interests.
The rise of Idle No More
“Indigenous peoples right around the world are facing the same struggles, with people coming … onto their territories and creating divisions within the community,” John Cutfeet said. Thus, the mining struggles of the indigenous communities of Latin America are part of the same interconnected set of issues which gave birth to the Idle No More movement in Canada.
This same connection was recognized by participants at “Yes to Life! No to mining!” in Oaxaca, several of whom were involved in the unveiling of a mural in Oaxaca City as part of the January 28 Idle No More global day of action. The mural is dedicated to “the people who organise to defend the common good” and it highlights the connection between the indigenous struggles at both ends of North America. The mural, by artist Sánez, depicts the elements of community life under threat in many indigenous communities: water, animals, crops and the communities themselves.
The new unity that is being forged between indigenous communities fighting to defend their lands from foreign corporations has found a home under the broad banner of Idle No More. The communities have much to gain sharing their strategies for success, turning fragmented pockets of resistance into a united front for more widely spread social change. John hopes that Idle No More will “circle the globe.” As a movement, it may have been sparked in Canada, but like resistance to an unscrupulous extractive industry, it has clearly resonated more widely. As lessons like those from the KI First Nation and Capulálpam de Méndez begin to circulate amongst more of the many communities worldwide struggling against the human and environmental costs of mining, the potential for indigenous communities to reclaim their cultural autonomy from invasive corporations and governments will grow too.
“If we can do it on a global scale,” John imagined of Idle No More and the many more local movements that have come under its wing, “who knows what we can accomplish?”
This article appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Battle for Canada’s North).