Mining as a Development Factor in The Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca:
an Ethical Evaluation
Mario Enrique Fuente and David Barkin

The dispute regarding the granting of mining concessions in indigenous territories has intensified over the last decade. The main actors in this conflict – the State, investors and the community – each have their own concept of a national project, and development. The latter two groups agree that the national project is only possible if it is based on the competitive incorporation of processes of international economic cooperation; thus the notion that sustainable development is linked to the need for sustainable economic growth, where mining extraction is a comparative advantage.

But this debate is not only present in the daily clash of visions between the mentioned social agents, but also in the area of discourse that produces public policy (economic, environmental, educational). The Mexican government’s position emphasizes evaluating mining from a cost-benefit analysis standpoint (where socially fabricated capital is commensurate with natural “capital”) and highlights the importance of technological development as a strategy to reduce environmental problems. All of this is based on an economic theory that identifies the market as a factor to balance and regulate society. The language to value nature is one-dimensional: monetary. Academics both create and maintain the meaning of sustainable development that has been reproduced, justified and implemented in the majority of public policy.

The fields of environmental economics and political ecology show the lack of understanding for other ethical dimensions of sustainability, such as the mentioned generation of distribution conflicts (economic and environmental), inter-culturalism and the presence of other languages to value nature expressed by communities with strong Mesoamerican cultural ties. With this approach, three analytical implications arise: a) the relationship between economic distribution conflicts and environmental issues; b) the inscription of the principle of distributive justice as a fundamental attribute of sustainability; and c) social participation in building niches of sustainability as an epistemic contribution and a dialogue of knowledge and inter-culturalism.

In this way, the ecological dimension (unequal ecological exchange) and sociocultural and ethical implications can be added to the still relevant criticism from Prebisch (1950) (unequal economic exchange) of the comparative advantages model. Mineral extraction (not production) is profitable for the industry not only because of the fiscal facilities provided by the Mexican government, but also because they do not take into account the ecological8 and sociocultural costs; moreover an underestimate of future demand (discount rate) persists. In energy-material terms, this development model extracts and exports high quantities of raw materials at low prices from the Third World, which in turn imports lower amounts of the same processed material at much higher prices (Martínez-Alier, 2004).

In the concrete case analyzed here, regarding Capulálpam de Méndez, the community does not share the homogenous vision of development and progress driven by the Mexican government and companies working in the mining industry. These communities have a set of institutions that favor the right to consult and to express other notions of development and sustainability. Their evaluation incorporates cultural dimensions alternative to the orthodoxy; first in the evaluation of water (quantity and quality) and later in other cultural values (landscape, holiness). The dynamic association between territory and communality is derived from the importance of the land as the basis for cultural identity and life sustenance; communality is a political-cultural instrument. Moreover, these field practices expressed in communality are not static. They require the daily construction of autonomous spaces, which are fragile and require constant reconfiguration as a function of signals from the institutions of neoliberal economic rationality: the State and the market. Their configuration at the same time implies the confrontation of diverse political conflicts, not only outside of, but also within the very communities themselves. These clashes are currently playing out in the Capulálpam de Méndez community and in the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca in a variety of areas of rural society (Fuente and Barkin, 2011).

The teachings of these community conflicts are diverse. From an epistemic perspective, it demonstrates that communality is a fundamental institution to drive alternative languages to evaluate nature besides the vision of the global economy. On the other side it is also political: it indicates that the extent to which the State intervenes authoritatively or violently can generate social dissent, but at the same time can also catalyze organized responses from social groups (such as communality) that manage to realize that they have been excluded as citizens from the nation-building project.

This work is an analytical invitation to listen to and understand other voices in the conformation of new socio-environmental scenarios and environmental justice in the national project; these are voices for knowledge dialogue (Leff, 2004) and intercultural dialogue (Zemelman and Quinanar, 2007). In this way, in the context of a single concept of modernity and post-modernity posited by the model of economic globalization, this work sets forth the possibility of transmodernity and inter-culturalism (Dussel, 2006), or of an alternative modernity (Toledo, 2000). But it is also a call to attention regarding the need to review our academic paradigms.

Given the environmental and multicultural features of Mexico, the redefinition of sustainability from other ethical perspectives is a task not only of theoretical-methodological importance, but also of epistemic and political significance for building a more inclusive, democratic and just nation: all of these attributes are inherent in sustainability. The emerging fields of environmental economics and political ecology recognize these evaluations, and from there, the epistemic challenges arise between these emerging fields and the practices of these communities.

8 Not only the costs inherent to the process of exploration and extraction, but also those implied in greenhouse gas emissions (like carbon dioxide).