Five years ago, Mexico’s largest mining company spilled nearly 11 million gallons of toxic waste into Sonoran rivers affecting thousands of people living downstream from the mine in the Sonoran River Valley. Mexican authorities recently met with one of the affected communities as part of promised efforts to give local residents a voice in mining issues.
Last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of residents of Bacanuchi, a town affected by the Aug. 6, 2014 mining spill at Grupo México’s Buenavista Copper Mine, saying they have the right to weigh in on environmental decisions related to the mine, including a huge, new tailings pond.
In response, Mexican authorities met with community members last Friday.
"Legally speaking, what brought the authorities to the community is the new tailings dam. But of course, during the course of the [meetings] all the other issues related to the quality of the water, the health situation, the situation of the livelihoods that were very affected in these communities were also on the table and part of the conversation and the future commitments by the authorities," said Fernanda Hopenhaym, the co-director of the nonprofit Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research (PODER), which provides legal representation for residents of the Sonora River Valley affected by the mining spill.
During the meeting, environmental authorities provided information about water quality tests and created a committee of local residents to participate in continue water quality monitoring.
Hopenhaym called it a "good first step."
"I mean, I think it’s a good sign that authorities are present in the communities, probably for the first time after the spill happened. This is, I would say, an unprecedented dialogue between the environmental authorities and the communities affected by the spill," she said. "It’s yet to be seen if they are going to actually take strong measures to prevent future damage and to repair what was damaged."
She said authorities promised to continue community meetings not only in Bacanuchi, but in all of the towns affected by the spill. But added that it will take more than meetings to rebuild trust after years of inaction and broken promises.
“All of this is a result of the persistent pressure that the communities are putting on the authorities. They are organizing themselves, they have been organizing themselves for five years," she said.
Many people in the Sonoran River Valley say they are still dealing not only with environmental damage, but also with health issues, economic struggles and the emotional toll of the Buenavista disaster. Hopenhaym says they want to see the government hold Grupo México accountable to fix the damage caused by the spill and prevent future disasters.