The human rights organization Cultural Survival is campaigning to prevent a massive silver mining project from desecrating the Wirikuta Cultural and Ecological Reserve near the historic mountain town of Real de Catorce, Mexico. The mining project, planned by First Majestic Silver Corporation of Vancouver, would redevelop an abandoned, centuries-old silver mine in an area that is held sacred by the Huichol Indigenous people.
Despite Wirikuta’s protected status and its designation as a UNESCO Historic and Cultural Heritage Site, the Mexican government granted 22 mining concessions covering 15,631 acres to the Canadian mining company. Seventy percent of these concessions lie within the Wirikuta protected area.
For more than a thousand years, Mexico’s Huichol people (or the Wixárika in their own language) have made an annual 300-mile pilgrimage from their ceremonial centers in the Sierra Madre Mountains across the central highlands of Mexico to Wirikuta. Following the path of their ancestors, they conduct religious ceremonies at a series of sacred sites until they reach their destination, the sacred mountain Leunar, which is at the geographical center of First Majestic’s mining concessions.
“If this mine comes,” says Alejandro López de la Torre, a Wixárika traditional authority, “what will happen to all of us? They will privatize the land and put up fences to keep us out.”
The massive mining project would not only jeopardize the integrity of the Wirikuta Reserve but also threaten the economy of the town of Real de Catorce, whose colonial-style architecture, clean air, and 9,000-foot elevation have allowed it to become a popular tourist destination. Hollywood movies have been shot here, including 2001’s The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and 2006’s Las Bandidas, starring Penelope Cruz.
Also at risk if the mining project is allowed to move forward is a unique semidesert ecosystem that supports 16 threatened and endangered bird species and the highest diversity of cactus in the world.
“So much is at stake in Wirikuta: the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the survival of an ancient culture, the preservation of a fragile ecosystem, and the opportunity to develop a sustainable economy,” says Paula Palmer, campaign director for Cultural Survival.
First Majestic has yet to divulge its plan for exploiting the 12 miles of silver veins that underlie the Wirikuta Reserve. Whether they dig the ore out of tunnels or excavate open pits, the mine will produce enormous quantities of tailings that could leach acid into the environment for centuries. Cyanide, which will be used to leach silver from the ore, and other heavy metals frequently seep or spill into the environment from silver and gold mines, contaminating the watershed and killing fish for many miles downstream. Cyanide heap leach mining can use as much water in a day as a peasant family would use in 25 years, and water is already scarce in the semidesert of Real de Catorce.
In collaboration with the Wixárika traditional authorities, Cultural Survival is asking citizens of the world to write letters to Mexican government officials, urging them to cancel First Majestic’s Real de Catorce concessions and asking them to permanently protect the sacred and natural values of the Wirikuta Cultural and Ecological Reserve.
In a detailed proclamation, the Wixárika people wrote: “We demand that the Mexican state immediately implements effective strategies that lead to the improved conditions of the inhabitants of Wirikuta, and that these be proposals in harmony with the environment and not destructive proposals such as the mine, whereby humble farmers are placed between a rock and a hard place, being offered work in exchange for the destruction of their patrimony.”
The president of the Tuarpurie Ceremonial Center in the Huichol community of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, Tutopica Robles Tela, said, “We want to defend our culture for our children, to leave the sacred place for them. When the sun, the earth, and everything were formed, our ancestors left us a good heart right here in this spot.”
Should the Mexican authorities allow the Real de Catorce mining project to go ahead, the Wixárika people’s sacred heart and more than a thousand years of religious tradition will be destroyed.
For more information:
About the Wixárika (Huichol) people: www.wixarika.org
In Spanish: www.salvemoswirikuta.org
About Cultural Survival, www.cs.org
For 40 years Cultural Survival has worked to help the world’s Indigenous Peoples defend their threatened lands, languages, cultures, and environments. The organization conducts advocacy campaigns around the world and operates long-term programs in Central America and North America. It also publishes the premier magazine on Indigenous issues, Cultural Survival Quarterly, and its website, www.cs.org, contains one of the most comprehensive archives of information on Indigenous Peoples.