Toxic Mining in the Baja

Proposed toxic gold mining in Baja California Sur threatens massive water shortage in an already dry climate.

by Dawn Paley

Canadians on vacation are generally welcomed in Baja, but another set of Canadians are distinctly unwelcome: those who come in search of gold and who want to use the water to get it…

Every October, an estimated 20,000 grey whales begin their long migration from the waters off Alaska’s shores down the west coast to sub-tropical lagoons off the Coast of Baja California, Mexico.This migration, one of the longest migration routes of any mammal, links coastal regions that range from a continental expanse of icy tundra to parched desert peninsula off the coast of Mexico.

Baja California Sur is a strip of semi-arid desert between the wavy, turbulent seas of the Pacific and the warm, turquoise waters of the Gulf of California. In the summer months, temperatures hold steady at above 40 degrees Celcius, and even in October the sidewalk feels hot enough to fry an egg.

In the early 1950s, tourists from California began to make winter visits down to Baja California Sur, the southern part of the peninsula where the whales come to calve. The first waves of tourists were wealthy sport fishers, who visited Loreto through the winter months on charter flights from San Diego. Over the last few decades, this unique region has become a hub for Canadian and American tourists following the route of the world’s largest mammals towards warmer climes in the winter months.

“In Los Cabos, we live from tourism” said Ramón Joel Abaroa Delgado, the tourism director for the coastal town of San José del Cabo. “We’re not ranchers here, or farmers, or miners, we are 100 per cent tourism.”
Many of the tourists that visit the region are Canadian, says Abaroa, and their numbers grow every year.

In some ways, Baja California feels like an island, removed from the mainland, with a distinct culture and vibe. Ferries connect the lower peninsula with the mainland state of Sinaloa, which has been hard hit by increasing violence linked to the drug war. “Los Cabos is in this moment the most secure tourism location in the country,” said Abaroa. “Here, thank god, we’re still well, it’s very calm, and secure,” he said.

Over a dozen ridiculously green golf courses grace Los Cabos, a name which refers to the two cities, San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, which dot the southern tip of the peninsula. The Los Cabos region plays host to cruise ships, all inclusive resorts, and a gamut of unsustainable luxury tourism. There’s no shortage of bars catering to foreign tourists, advertising tequila shots for US dollars, and promising debauchery and decadence. “People often think that Los Cabos is nothing more than a place to go for sun and beaches, and that it has an archway and lots of bars,” said Abaroa.

Though much of the oceanfront along the long, white sand beaches in the Cape region (Cabo means Cape in Spanish) is unfit for swimming because of strong ocean currents, the nearby area offers up surf spots, snorkeling and other low-impact activities for adventurous visitors. The Eastern Cape, accessible only by rugged, dusty roadways and populated by a strange mix of rural villages and vacation villas of the rich includes an area known as Cabo Pulmo, home to the only living coral reef system in North America.

According to official figures, in 2009 tourism made up almost nine per cent of Mexico’s Gross Domestic Product, a tally that is even higher in Baja California Sur. A growing proportion of those tourists are Canadians, says Abaroa, thanks in part to direct flights from Vancouver, Abbotsford, and Kamloops to Los Cabos.

There’s odd little reminders of the presence of Canadians spread around the Los Cabos area, from a hockey- themed sports bar in downtown San José del Cabo to the fact that the Hotel California, made famous by the Eagles, is owned and run by a Canadian. Folks taking vacations or retiring on the edge of the sea are generally welcomed by residents, whose jobs often depend on their arrival. But there is another set of Canadians who are distinctly unwelcome: those who come in search of gold.

The specter of what locals call “toxic mining” – a reference to the use of cyanide for mineral extraction – has cast a shadow over Baja California Sur that has grown rapidly over the past two years. A well-organized and well-funded opposition to mining projects pushed by Canadian junior exploration companies like Argonaut Gold and Vista Gold emerged in 2010, uniting ranchers, hotel owners, and local residents against modern mining.

The primary issue for locals is the already-scarce water supply, which they say would be put at unnecessary risk by mining. “Well, we’re sure that there’s been 90,000 hectares of land concessioned in Baja Sur, we don’t know how many projects there are already,” said Juan Angel Transviño, a geologist born and raised in Baja California Sur. “There’s two strips with a high concentration of gold and silver that are each about 30 km long, a lot of projects could fit in there.”

The two modern mining projects that have attracted the most attention to date in Baja California Sur are both Canadian companies, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Nevada-based Argonaut Gold holds concessions for over 46,000 hectares, and has already entered into agreements to buy 888 hectares of land and to access water in the mountainous area between La Paz and Los Cabos. The deposits that Argonaut proposes to mine contain, at most, 1.12 grams of gold per tonne, which the company proposes to extract using a cyanide heap leaching technique. The open pit mining project, which has yet to receive its environmental permits, is located in an aquifer that has been classed as “over-exploited” since 1954.

The other project is owned by Vista Gold, which holds a much smaller concession for 3,710 hectares just south of Argonaut’s, at the southern tip of a mountain range known as Sierra La Laguna. The project sits on top of a mountain watershed known as Sierra de la Laguna that provides drinking water for the entire Cabos area.

As a solution, the company proposes to construct a desalinization plant and pump water 45 km from the ocean to the mine site. The proposed gold mine has changed hands at least five times over the past forty years, and contains gold resources of at least 332,000 ounces – and like Argonaut’s project, extraction is only feasible with cyanide, as the concentration of gold per tonne doesn’t exceed 1.1 grams. This kind of mining only works when gold prices are high – the cost per ounce at Vista’s Paradones Amarillos project is almost $400.

But the proposals from Argonaut and Pediment to transform Baja California Sur into a mining region are far from popular. At the very core of the movements that have thus far prevented these two mines from advancing is a single issue: water.

“We are in a desert location, and we have a horrible water shortage: in the south of the state, we only have one aquifer, one source of water, which is the Sierra de la Laguna, which provides 80 per cent of the water to the municipalities of Los Cabos and La Paz,” said Susana Aguilar Romero, who is project coordinator with the La Paz-based Social Action Fund (FASOL). “The principal worry of the general citizenry is water,” she said.

Concern for the scarce fresh water resources in the region is a clarion call for social organization. “Water unites us, water is universal,” said David Sosa, a young journalist based in Cabo San Lucas who is also involved with anti-mining activities. Sosa was among those who helped organize a massive action in early 2011 that saw 9,000 people file onto a beach to create a huge human SOS, a show of strength in a region with a population of under 250,000.

“Here, our success has come from unity,” said Sosa. “Everyone here is against [Vista Gold]: it is the only time I’ve ever seen all of the political parties speaking out against a project. That never, ever happens in Mexico,” he said. Just a couple of weeks after speaking with Watershed Sentinel, Sosa was reported disappeared, last seen on the beach in Cabo San Lucas. The circumstances of his disappearance remain unknown.

People, from the governor to school groups, from the chamber of commerce to small farmers, from surfers to hotel owners, have made their rejection of open pit mining clear. Bumper stickers against open pit mining decorate SUVs and Volkswagen Beetles alike, and organizers have created a campaign called “Everyone against toxic mining.”

“We know that mining is necessary, but not gold mining,” said Trasviña. “Iron, aluminum, we need those things, but we don’t need gold. If we recycle the gold in the world today we’d be in a closed circuit … It’s not justified to mine for gold, to impact the environment and damage the health of future generations,” he said.

The vestiges of historic mining activities in Baja California remain today, and there are still artisanal miners working abandoned mining operations in the same places that Canadian corporations are proposing the new projects today. But many of those memories are bittersweet, according to Trasviña, who says historic mining operations resulted in ghost towns, extreme poverty, and arsenic contamination.
As gold mining declined in Baja California in the mid-20th century, tourism began to surge. The first tourists to fly in to Baja Sur from the U.S. began arriving in the 1950s on sport fishing vacations, staying in a small hotel known as the “Flying Sportsman Club” in the town of Loreto.

“The high season for tourism used to be October to April or May, during the summer the hotels were closed,” said Quíntin Muñoz Garayizer, an educator who works at the state history museum in La Paz. Later, the tourist season shifted, and now people visit Baja California Sur year round. “Tourism has been really low, because of the crisis in the United States,” said Muñoz.
Though tourism has suffered because of the economic crisis, and does have social and environmental impacts, for many it remains preferable to mining.
As I sat in front of a café with David Sosa, a friend of his approached, and he introduced me as a Canadian journalist. “We want Canadians to come, but not mining companies,” she said, as naturally as one would say hello.

For Debbie Stewart, who moved to Baja California Sur from Galiano Island 13 years ago, the matter is a no-brainer. Though she hasn’t been active against mining, she says she’ll sign their petitions and support the cause. Stewart is part owner of the famous Hotel California in the little town of Todos Santos, a short drive from Cabo San Lucas. The Hotel California offers 11 rooms, and attracts many visitors because of the legendary Eagles song by the same name.

“We’re in the desert here for God’s sake,” she said, when I asked her about Vista Gold’s proposal to mine near Todos Santos. “Here in the desert, to use water for growing vegetables for the local economy is a good thing, but to use it for mining, that’s a waste!”

The idea that a group of Canadians can come to a place, lie on the beach and drink martinis may be offensive to some, but those who come in suits with plans to dig up the mountains and leave with gold are much more problematic. Residents know that without water, their lives and the regional economy are in trouble – and they’ve made it clear they will organize mass movements to fight toxic mining, and win.

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For More Information
Sociedad Organizada Sudcalifornia: http://www.soscabo.org/
MiningWatch Canada: http://miningwatch.ca

Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op.

[From WS January/February 2012]

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