Colectivo Oaxaqueño brings together grassroots activists to defend land and water rights for Mexico’s indigenous people.

Life in San Jose del Progreso in Oaxaca, Mexico, has been marked by widespread violence and human rights violations since 2006. The conflicts began when Fortuna Silver, a Canadian company, began mining for silver and gold there through chemical leaching processes. Half of the community is strongly opposed to the mine, which is polluting the air and rapidly depleting and contaminating the water supply for the town and nearby villages. To hold Fortuna Silver accountable, AJWS grantee Colectivo Oaxaqueño worked with grassroots organizations in the area to inform international human rights organizations and generate widespread news coverage of the situation. Photo by Evan Abramson

Bernardo Vasquez Sanchez was worried about his community. He’d grown up among the Zapotec, an indigenous group that has lived in the mountainous Oaxaca region of Mexico for thousands of years. When a Canadian silver mining company rapidly expanded operations near Bernardo’s home in San Jose del Progreso, he started asking questions—and the answers were alarming. The company was diverting the community’s scarce water to the mine and polluting local farm land. So Bernardo took action, going door to door across the valley to rally other farmers and organize protests.

Residents believe cyanide and mercury from this open pit mine are contaminating the air and water here and in other nearby towns. Photo by Evan Abramson

In 2012, Bernardo was shot and killed. Locals allege that he was assassinated by supporters of the mining project in an attempt to silence the opposition. While his murderers remain at large, the people he left behind have refused to give in to fear and intimidation. With support from Colectivo Oaxaqueño and other AJWS grantees, the Zapotec have joined together to continue Bernardo’s work. Their rallying cry is painted on the side of his mother’s home: “Si amas la vida, lucha contra la mina.” If you love life, fight the mine.

Ester Porres with her baby son Esteban and daughters Hadassa and Rebeca Stefania (left to right) in Maguey Largo, a small village near San Jose del Progreso, where the air and water have been contaminated by dust from the Fortuna Silver mine. In the last two years, more than 8 percent of women in Maguey Largo have experienced late-term miscarriages. The community believes pollution from the mine is to blame. Photo by Evan Abramson

The areas surrounding the mine now have alarming levels of pollution in the air, soil and water supply. Residents report that farming—the sole source of income for many Zapotec families—is no longer safe. They believe the pollution has caused a sharp rise in illness and miscarriages.

AJWS grantees Colectivo Oaxaqueño, UNOSJO, Ser Mixe and Flor y Canto lead a civilian observation mission to survey and document the effects of unbridled mining on the community in San Jose del Progreso. Photo by Evan Abramson

Before he died, Bernardo explained the situation to Canadian reporter Dawn Paley. He reflected on why mining contracts often get government approval in Oaxaca: Officials assume that the benefit for some—jobs created by mining—will outweigh the widespread damage to the land and community.

Armando de la Cruz (left), a lawyer working with Colectivo Oaxaqueño, speaks with Primo Feliciano Porras Ortiz, a villager from Maguey Largo, about the events that led to the death of Bernardo Vasquez Sanchez. Photo by Evan Abramson

“For us, the idea of development is a battle of concepts. The government has one idea of development, and the people have another,” Bernado said. “And the people say, ‘We don’t want luxurious houses or luxurious cars. We need water for our crops, we need food. That’s all we want.’”

Rufina Sanchez, the mother of murdered anti-mine activist Bernardo Vasquez Sanchez, stands in front of a mural outside her home. The mural reads: "If you love life, fight the mine." Photo by Evan Abramson

Colectivo Oaxaqueño organizes local activist groups to defend their land and water rights, challenging the powerful mining companies and lobbying the Mexican government to end the mining contracts. Just months after Bernardo’s death, Colectivo Oaxaqueño and its founding members—AJWS grantees UNOSJO, Ser Mixe and Flor y Canto—brought a delegation of lawmakers, journalists and activists to Oaxaca. Together, they explored how mining corporations have hurt indigenous communities, damaging their health, ruining their land for farming and creating conflicts over who can access the region’s dwindling sources of clean water.

Grisela Mendez Gonzalez attests that her father, Bernardo Mendez, was murdered by supporters of the mine in January 2012, while protesting the construction of a water pipe that townspeople believed was diverting the town’s water supply to the mine. (Bernardo Vasquez Sanchez was killed just a few months later.) Bernardo Mendez’s widow, Dolores Apolinia Gonzalez Ramirez, stands next to her daughter. "We don't want violence. All we want is for the mine to go," she said. Photo by Evan Abramson

Colectivo Oaxaqueño’s advocacy has brought national and international attention to the plight of the Zapotec and pressured the Mexican government to respect their rights to make decisions about their communal land.

Dolores Apolinia Gonzalez Ramirez points to the bullet-pocked wall near where her husband was shot over a dozen times and killed in January 2012. More than 70 bullet shells were found nearby after he died. Photo by Evan Abramson

While there’s still much progress to be made, towns throughout Oaxaca have started banning mining activities and contracts in recent years. Two towns have achieved an official mining ban since 2012—and with help from Colectivo Oaxaqueño, residents of San Jose del Progreso continue working to add their town to the list.

AJWS grantees Colectivo Oaxaqueno, UNOSJO and Flor y Canto, along with members of various international human rights organizations, meet with members of the Oaxacan government to present the findings of their investigation into the mining abuses. They continue to call for justice and an end to both the mining and the violence it has brought into these communities. Photo by Evan Abramson