Rosalinda Dionicio is a leader of the United Peoples’ Network of the Ocotlán Valley in Defence of Territory. Since 2009, the organisation has been demanding the closure of the San José mine, owned by a subsidiary of the Canadian company Fortuna Silver Mines, which they say has caused environmental destruction and water shortages in their communities. Rosalinda is a survivor of a 2012 attack by gunmen in which her colleague Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez was assassinated – one of many serious human rights violations suffered by the organisation. She recently visited the UK on a speaker tour to raise international awareness of the plight of her community. Here, she shares her story with PBI UK.

On the beginning of her life as a Human Rights Defender

"The organisation came about with the arrival of the mining company in the community. We held a meeting and decided to ask the company for information, but they didn’t pay any attention to our concerns, so we got together with other communities and created the Network to defend our territory. We became an organisation on the 10th of May 2009 and began by trying to raise awareness.

We knew that it wasn’t just San José de Progreso which would be affected by the mining company and that it would also have an effect on other communities such as Magdalena, San Martín and Rancho Antoro. We knew that the issue of water would be complicated because of the altitude. At that point, the mine hadn’t started excavating or extracting materials and they said we didn’t know what we were talking about, but we believed that the environmental impacts would have a negative effect on the health of the community and other municipalities. To find out more, we formed teams to collect information and went to other mines, like the San Javier mine in San Luís. It was then that we discovered the myth of the ecological mine. No matter whether it was open pit or not, the destruction the mine was going to cause would affect all of us. That’s when we really got to work.

There have been many complications. Sometimes things have gone wrong. We have been persecuted and there have even been assassinations. But we have to look at it all as an example, as a reference, so that we can make sure that other communities don’t have the same experience that we did. All this has led to the creation of a network of community defenders that together have managed to put a stop to projects, not just in the valley, but also along the coast and in other areas. All the regions have come together. For example, in Paso de la Reina there is a company that wants to build a hydroelectric dam on the Río Verde and there are many municipalities that will be affected, so now they are working together and supporting each other in resisting the project."

On the obstacles Faced by Human Rights Defenders:

"There are so many obstacles. We need reporters and researchers to support the needs of the communities and demonstrate proof of environmental damages. The law does not let us move forward. When we need to make a complaint, we are always restricted. We ask for information, but we are only given partial information. We face a series of obstacles that mean we lack the resources and support to stop the megaprojects. The companies have everything to their advantage, but we are always having doors closed on us, to the point that we are risking our lives. It is difficult, but we also believe that we must do something, at least by organising ourselves and keeping ourselves informed, so that we can be a united front, a strong group of people.

The government has passed laws, but these laws have made it even easier for megaprojects to be implemented in the country. They say they want investment for the development of Mexico, but we don’t see this as a good thing, because rather than investing in the people of Mexico, this kind of investment only helps a small number of businessmen and transnationals get rich. The communities don’t receive anything, they are often displaced, and their resources are taken from them. We just get poorer and poorer. We don’t see any laws that help the communities. All the laws that have been passed give more opportunities to more companies. Just last year, for example, the government passed a law establishing special economic zones, effectively giving away land to companies with no consideration for the affected communities. In this sense we are extremely vulnerable.

There is no law that guarantees the rights of communities and the people. We see it as a crisis of human rights. It’s fashionable to talk about human rights, but one of the problems we face is that there is still no real way of ensuring that human rights are respected. There is no body responsible for this. We as community defenders have seen an increase in violence and due to the nature of our work we are the ones that have felt this crisis the most."

On the threats faced by Human Rights Defenders:

"In the case of San José, we are persecuted, we have been criminalised. In 2012, there was an attack against us. Our colleague Bernardo Vásquez was killed, I was hurt in the leg, and our other colleague, Andrés Vásquez, Bernardo’s brother, also suffered a bullet wound. That was in San José, but defenders have been criminalised and attacked elsewhere too. We are persecuted by the state because they see us as an obstacle to development. It has been hard. As well as physical injuries, we have suffered the psychological impacts of persecution, harassment, even disappearances. It’s difficult. Everything that has happened has affected us psychologically.

We don’t have any time to rest, because there is violence every day. The more we organise, the more the more the government does too. A sign of this is the increase in militarisation. It used to just be a conflict with the state police, but now the federal police, the paramilitary, they are involved too. We know that the military have a different kind of training. They don’t come here to make dialogue and resolve the situation. They come to shoot and attack us. It’s worrying. When the earthquake happened on the 7th of September, they occupied the town. They wanted to give the impression that they were helping people in need, but we know that they didn’t do it out of good will. They came here to take control and spy on the community. Even when they say they are here to help they come with their guns. This is something we’ve noticed happen more and more, especially over the past year."

On strategies for protection and advocacy:

"One of the best ways we can protect ourselves is by networking with other communities. That way, we know that we are not alone. We are in the struggle together and we support each other. Visibility is also important. We need to draw attention to violations and clarify what is going on. Letters from other countries really work. When we were attacked, I was impressed by the response from so many organisations, both national and foreign.

It must be understood that it is wrong for this to happen anywhere. We want to raise awareness and draw attention to the problem, so that it doesn’t happen in other communities. We want to avoid what happened in San José. In Oaxaca there are endless concessions, which is really worrying. Thanks to this tour and PBI’s accompaniment we think we are making our voices heard. People might not be able to intervene directly, but at least they can put pressure on the situation, not just in the case of San José but in all the struggles in Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico.

There have been many threats but PBI accompaniment has helped to minimise these threats. PBI have also carried out awareness campaigns. In 2016, there was a national campaign in defence of the territory of mother earth, which helped us move forward and coordinate with other states. We realised that we were all part of the same struggle. The campaign drew our attention to other resistance movements that we hadn’t heard about before."