DGH Live Blog: "Land Use and Indigenous Rights"

21st Annual DGH General Assembly- Sunday July 17th


Panel discussion:  “Land Use and Indigenous Rights”

Speakers: Dr. Irma Cruz Nava and Gerardo Pacheco Rodriguez, Comunidades Campesinas en Camino, Oaxaca Mexico; Olivia Caceres, COPINH, Honduras; Paula Maccabee, WaterLegacy, Minnesota


Paula Maccabee represents a local grassroots environmental group- WaterLegacy.  They oppose sulfide mining in Northern Minnesota, and work as consultants with tribal groups.


Sulfide mining for minerals is a threat to indigenous people locally in Minnesota.

When copper and nickel are mined, sulfuric acid is formed, which is toxic to wild rice and fish.  Also releases heavy metals, poisoning the water.  Historically there has been 100% history of failure to protect the environment w sulfide mining. 


All of these proposed mining sites she discussed today are on tribal ceded territories (areas where the rights to fish, gather, grow belong to tribes), so threatens tribal lands and violates policies.  These proposed mining sites are often funded by transnational mining companies, which have a predictable pattern of labor violations, exploitation, and environmental destruction.  Often the mining companies set up local shadow companies that go bankrupt, essentially removing responsibility for cleanup. 


PolyMet is a proposed mining area, at the headwaters of the St. Louis River.  Mining here would affect St. Louis River watershed, which goes to Lake Superior (she mentioned that already there is a study by the Minnesota Department of Health which revealed 1 in 10 infants in Lake Superior region are born with unsafe mercury levels!) The PolyMet proposal will destroy high biodiversity wetlands in and around the Fond du lac tribal areas, and would create a ‘perfect storm’ for mercury contamination of fish, and would harm drinking water supplies. Other risks include contamination of wells, air pollution, diesel/nickel waste, other toxins, and particulate pollution around the mining site. 


This is an environmental health and justice issue, as it poses a threat to maternal and child health due to heavy metal toxicity.  These health harms include lower intelligence, poor concentration, poor memory, speech and language disorders, among other things.  The following medical organizations have asked for health assessment of PolyMet Health risks:  Minn PHA, MMA, Minnesota Nurses Assoc, Minn Academy of Family Physicians, Dept of Health.  These calls to analyze have been thus far ignored, and there has been political inaction.  The PolyMet project is moving forward. 


In addition to the health issues listed above, the proposed project is a violation of the rights of indigenous people living on the Fond Du Lac reservation – a land of ceded territories that should be protected.  The UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples declares that there be “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources” (Article 32 (2)). 


No permits have yet been issued.  WaterLegacy published legal article, trying to object under the Federal Clean Water Act.  In short, the PolyMed mining project with sulfide mining in the Minnesota Lake Superior Basin would be unethical risk for water, health, and tribal resources. 


Visit WaterLegacy.org and sign their petition. 



Dr. Irma Cruz Nava and Gerardo Pacheco work with Comunidades Campesinas en Camino in Oaxaca, Mexico. 


First, Dr. Cruz talked about the current situation on the ground in Oaxaca with the teachers’ strike.  The teachers in Oaxaca are defending their labor rights.  The current government is proposing reforms, and most protect the interests of the dominant/neoliberal class.  And these harm poor and indigenous communities.  These reforms benefit the few, by privatizing healthcare, and taking away important capabilities of education in indigenous communities. Currently, for the teachers that are protesting in the streets, there has been a great show of solidarity work from local families, who bring them food and other assistance for those conducting protests and blockades. Other protests are happening throughout Mexico.  In Mexico City, thousands of doctors recently marched in the street against the proposed health care reforms and also to support the teachers.  “This is an awakening in Mexico, this social fight.  The people are being beaten and some have been killed.”  Other teachers and their supporters have been put in jail. 


They then showed a video which shared some of the work their organic farming collective does to grow and produce sesame oil.  The video also shared their community health work, and emphasized women’s participation in the health work.


Dr. Cruz says:  “We are damaging our common home.  Land is life, and the capitalist system which encourages us to be individualistic and consume more and more, leads to environmental destruction, as well as lack of education, good nutrition, health care, and other opportunites.” 


CCC brings health to the communities within this current system and struggle. There are very few resources in the areas where they work.  She shared that there are many political shows, such as when political figures have press conferences to open “new “ hospitals, but once the cameras and crowds go away, the resources are taken away, so there is no real functional system.  The proposed laws and reforms grossly undercut a system that is already lacking.  So in this context CCC works with community health groups in the Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, organizing health groups of indigenous farmers and their families. 


Next, Gerardo Pacheco of CCC spoke.  He sent warm greetings from the indigenous organization in Oaxaca.  “We are small producers, formed in 1990s. We are different indigenous groups including Zapotecas, Chontal, Mixe, and others. One of the principles that we believe in is that it is important to keep the roots of indigenous culture alive in our communities, to have an alternative type of life.”


CCC became an organized group of farmers about 20 years ago, and one of the founding principles was to take care of the environment.  They work on the land without exploiting it- land inherited from their ancestors- that brings health and nutrition.  “As indigenous people, we are the ones who understand how to live without exploiting the land.  Respect to our brothers, to support one another are what we believe in”.  Currently they have about 5000 members.   Their hope is to continue to build a new economy based on solidarity and respect for the land.


Details of their work include the following

  • Organic crop production- It is not just about money/commercialization.  “If we think only about that, we will not have anything.  We want to feed our children and also offer healthy options to the market.  This is collective social work. Purchasing sesame oil promotes this work and these ideals.”


Gerardo discussed the abundance of mango farms in the region, but notes that the government has taken over these farms, which are not organic, and use lots of chemicals. He notes that the U.S. exports many of the toxic chemicals used on the land. “Our hope is that my children and your children continue this battle, for clean land and water, sustainable growth and agriculture for health.”


Q/A session: 

Q: Minnesota mining project- Is this work community or tribe initiated? 

A: Fond du lac tribe has been leading this work for over 10 years.  Worked with EPA, agencies, etc. WaterLegacy is a grassroots movement of non tribal citizens in Minnesota, and we act to support tribal leadership and don’t conflict with tribal rights and resources.  


Q:  Do you see a difference in what the government is doing now compared to previously in Honduras?  Is there more support? 

A (Olivia Caceres):  coup, murder of my mother all had a big impact.  The violations against indigenous rights, this has not been a free or democratic reform, it lacks autonomy or open sessions.  They have not been consulting indigenous communities.  The people feel frustrated, impotent.  Everyone is “included”, and it looks good, however the pueblos don’t want the dams, don’t want mineral extractions.  But govnt and companies come and do it anyway.  The corporations and transnationals have already been given the permission to do these things.  If the companies don’t do their work, they get paid anyway.  My tribe has resisted for over 500 years of oppression and extermination, and we will carry on.  Even if they kill us, our pueblo will continue.  Our spirituality carries us.  This has a lot to do with the discontent of the people.  The USA has been part of these projects, the market projects, the housing projects.  The “charity” work is not what we need.  We need horizontal solidarity, not charity work to get votes.  The govnt understands how to control all of this.  People continue to get murdered, and it continues to be a dangerous place. 


Request by Dra. Irma Cruz:  there are a lot of problems all over, violations of human rights, contamination of the earth, etc.  It is time to act, to generate life through solidarity.  PLEASE don’t let yourself be separated from what is happening.  Don’t abandon us, don’t quit, we need to work together to keep going with the human rights work we do.  We ask all the volunteers here, to visit us in Oaxaca.  Go to our countries, work alongside us, accompany us, not just to send money, but to have volunteers with us, to understand us.  To be there with us is the most important.  We want to sustain ourselves.  If you want to support us, we ask you buy our products.

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