Andrea Harden-Donahue and Brent Patterson: On the caravan to Cancun for climate justice

By Andrea Harden-Donahue and Brent Patterson

As we made our way up a dusty road in Cerro San Pedro, Mexico, we passed a Canadian flag, with a skull and crossbones added to the maple leaf. Witnessing a dry river, missing mountain, and testimonies of people getting sick, we quickly understood why our flag would be displayed in this small town described as the cradle for the infamous mining wealth of nearby San Luis Potosi.

We arrived in Cerro San Pedro to meet with local populations who have been deeply affected by a gold and silver mine, a subsidiary of New Gold, as part of a caravan for climate justice organized by international and Mexican activists.

This is one of five international caravans that will be transporting over 1,000 Mexican and international participants to Cancun from various locations in Mexico and arriving en masse in Cancun on December 3.

The caravans are designed to bring local struggles against social and environmental injustices to greater attention as the global community convenes for the United Nations climate negotiations in Cancun.

We are joined by eight other Canadian delegates on our caravan as well as people from the U.S., Europe, Mexico, and South America.

Cerro San Pedro was chosen to start the caravan because it is emblematic of the struggle against the disregard for people and the planet and the drive for profit that is at the heart of the environmental, climate, and social crises we face.

The town is symbolic of the struggle for life and the need for a paradigm shift to live in harmony with the environment, for the rights of nature and people.

We were welcomed in the town square—with music and kind words—by members of the community. They told us about how New Gold removed the top of their mountain to get at the gold and silver—a mountain which is tied intimately to their history and cultural identity.

In the extraction process, New Gold uses cyanide to separate the minerals from the rock. We are told that this has polluted local water sources, which explains the chant of community members as we walked the kilometre in town: “Water yes, cyanide no.”

We further learned that the rock that had been blasted by New Gold for this mountain-top open-pit mine was then dumped on top of the river that flowed through this town. When we later walked over a bridge we witnessed the parched bed of the now dry river.

The community has been challenging this mine for 14 years, including in the Mexican federal court where, as a result of the impacts it is having, it was found to be illegal. But the Mexican government allows the mine to continue, and so does the Canadian government.

Bill C-300, the Corporate Accountability of Mining, Oil and Gas in Developing Countries Act, was legislation to hold mining corporations operating internationally accountable for their actions.

Shamefully, it was defeated in the House of Commons by just six votes earlier in November.

Recognizing this missed opportunity to assist this community in their struggle, the Canadians on our caravan gathered and expressed our solidarity and determination to stop this destruction of their land and water, and the resulting impact on their health.

We presented an open letter signed by 36 Canadian organizations to a community leader noting our regret that Bill C-300 was defeated, and stating our commitment to “redoubling our efforts to mobilize Canadian public opinion in order to rein in the abuses by Canada’s extractive industries whether operating at home or abroad”.

As we left Cerro San Pedro, we were already discussing how we can bring this struggle to the headquarters of New Gold in Vancouver. We will also bring this struggle to Cancun by recognizing the contribution of the mining industry to the climate crisis and the impact of bad corporate practices on people and the planet.

While the story of San Pedro is critical to share, it was the first of a number of stops exposing examples of how petrochemical companies, export-oriented agribusiness, massive garbage dumps (and more) are polluting air, land, and water and harming health. While it is certainly tempting to feel overwhelmed by the struggles in these communities and our related collective struggle for water, climate, and trade justice, we are also witnessing people coming together in communities not only to challenge this, but also collectively working for real solutions to the climate crisis that advance environmental and social justice.

Organic agriculture, rain water collection, reforestation projects, local markets, fair trade programs, community-owned renewable energy—are all examples of projects we heard about on the caravan route.

These solutions brought to mind how off-track the Harper government is on the environment. With their defeat of the even modest emission reductions targets in C-311 in the Senate, their lobbying to stop the U.S. government from purchasing lower carbon-footprint fuel for government departments and agencies, and its statement that we won’t match the small industrial emission targets the U.S. is pursuing, our government has clearly stated it does not care about climate change.

While more delays are expected on the part of many governments at the Cancun talks, there are lessons to be learned in local struggles. Our challenge in the coming days is to ensure world leaders hear them.

Andrea Harden-Donahue is energy and climate justice campaigner, and Brent Patterson is director of campaigns and communications with the Council of Canadians.