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A saguaro cactus at twilight in the Ejido el Bajío, Sonora, Mexico in September, 2023.
A saguaro cactus at twilight in the Ejido el Bajío, Sonora, Mexico in September, 2023. Photo: Giuliano Salvatore – Fundación Bajío.

Reportage • Dawn Marie Paley • October 13, 2023 • Leer en castellano

Puffs of asparagus and rows of orange and olive trees follow the narrow highway north from the city of Caborca, Sonora, toward the Pacific Coast. The green leaves burst from the desert thanks to deep water wells drilled for farms focused on selling fruit and vegetables to the US market.

At a nondescript pull off near a roadside restaurant offering fresh shrimp prepared with chili and lemon, the road turns into a bumpy sand track. Getting stuck there is as easy as after a big snowstorm, the powder flying while the tires dig in. Climbing away from the coast, the Gulf of California comes into turquoise relief, and the barely visible sand trail leads deeper into the desert. A fuchsia sunset tinged with clementine streaks fills the horizon against the deepening blue sky. 

Eventually, the flat cast of a mined out hill enters our view, and in the fading light we glimpse broken down machinery, abandoned buildings, and a series of massive letters that once read “Fresnillo,” after the name of the company that made good with gold gotten from these hills.

The evening is exceedingly beautiful, the silence near total, broken only by the low hum of a generator. The fifteen or so journalists and activists who made the journey to learn about Ejido El Bajío talk quietly among ourselves as stars begin to appear and the heavy afternoon heat finally begins to taper off. 

A mining conflict in the heart of the desert

Ejido el Bajío was founded in 1971 through a Presidential Decree, the 75 founding members, each of whom shared title to the land, were mostly Indigenous men from southern states who came north to work on larger farms. By the 1980s the ejido was mostly abandoned due to a lack of water and difficulty in working the land. But some of the landowners returned and set up in a hamlet called El Saguaro, working part of the year as seasonal laborers on plantations in Baja California, and coming back again and again to the land they had come to love.

Our group was invited to the ejido, which comprises over 19,000 hectares, to learn more about the struggle to protect these sensitive desert lands. It was the first time the communal landowners have hosted a delegation. In previous years, tensions were high, and there weren’t conditions for outsiders to visit—or for locals to safely transit—the area. The conflict was due to the presence of major gold concerns, particularly Mexico’s Penmont mining company, a subsidiary of London-headquartered Fresnillo PLC. 

A mined out hill, since abandoned, in the Ejido el Bajío
A mined out hill, since abandoned, in the Ejido el Bajío. Photo: Giuliano Salvatore – Fundación Bajío.

In 1997, an open pit gold mine called La Herradura began operations on the edge of the ejido’s land. Ten years later, Penmont began to push into the ejido, offering one time-payments to ejido members in exchange for industrial operations, hollowed out hills and tons and tons of waste. When the landowners I met referred to “la mina,” it was shorthand not only for environmental devastation, but for a system of state, federal and paramilitary forces that terrorized the community for years.

Though initially some landowners agreed to the company’s terms, the bulk of the association was dead set against large scale extractivism. They began using local courts and tribunals to assert their legal rights as landowners. What’s even more remarkable is that they began to win. By 2014, members of the ejido had won over 67 suits in their favor. Among them was a series of historic rulings ordering the company to return all of its illegally gotten proceeds to the rightful owners of the land. 

As they advanced their causes in the courts and through protest actions, they faced intense persecution. Groups of landowners were rounded up and detained on two occasions and imprisoned on trumped up charges. Armed guards, “mining police,” militarized Federal Police and soldiers became a fixture in the remote territory. 

In 2021, a former ejidal President and his partner were killed in Puerto Peñasco, and found a list with the names of the other members of the ejido pinned to their bodies. In total, four ejidatarios have been killed and two disappeared since they began to confront powerful interests on their lands. The stakes are high: Fresnillo PLC, which is linked to some of the most powerful politicians and businessmen in the country, declared earnings of $436 million from their operations in Ejido El Bajío between 2010 and 2013. 

Quiet returns to the night

It’s been three years since mining activity in the ejido came to a halt. Since 2021 things began to quiet on the lands belonging to the ejido, though the ejidatarios continue to receive threats. There is no water available on the ejido, and most of those still in the area live in El Saguaro. A handful of ejido members have set up a series of permanent camps around the mine’s main access roads, to keep an eye on all traffic going in and out of their territory. 

some of the waste left behind by the Penmont mining company in the Ejido el Bajío
Some of the waste left behind by the Penmont mining company in the Ejido el Bajío. Photo: Giuliano Salvatore – Fundación Bajío.

Erasmo Santiago Santiago and his partner Margarita López have lived in the community since 2000. They raised their children in El Saguaro, and have spent the best part of the last ten years living in a lookout camp beside one of the tailings ponds the miners left behind. López, who is a ñuu savi woman originally from Oaxaca, now knows how to use many of the desert plants to heal, and Santiago is an ejidatario who, after spending nearly two years in prison, has become one of its most visible spokespeople.

As we chat, their niece arrives in a pick up truck with her two young daughters. Cooking oil sputters over the wood range where her other daughter prepares eggs for breakfast. They buy supplies and bring in water and ice from Peñasco, and meticulously care for everything they have. Their camp is made of black plastic tarps and tubes and an abandoned portable left behind by the company. Their only source of electricity is a car battery rigged up to a solar panel, where everyone charges their phones.

After years under siege from corporate and military forces, López and Santiago are beginning to dream of a different kind of future for the ejido, one based on keeping the local ecosystem intact and encouraging ecologically minded visitors to come and see for themselves.

The Sonoran pronghorn’s decline

Our visit took place just after the paperwork officially recognizing part of ejido as a federal protected area went through. On August 30, 2023, Mexico’s National Commission for Natural Protected Areas certified almost 2,500 hectares of the ejido as a voluntary conservation area, which forecloses other uses of the land for at least the next 15 years.

“This is a transitional area with very little rainfall, maybe 100 or 120 milliliters per year,” said biologist Federico Godinez Leal, who previously worked as the director of the nearby El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve. “What helps here is the sea, the fog, and the ocean winds.” These conditions help explain the unique biodiversity in the area.

A turtle takes its time walking through Ejido el Bajío
A turtle takes its time walking through Ejido el Bajío. Photo: Giuliano Salvatore – Fundación Bajío.

To the untrained eye, seeing life in the desert is a challenge. Even with help from our guides, many of the creatures in this environment are difficult to see, hiding in caves, blending in with the sand, or growing in folds of prehistoric rocks.

Among them is the Sonoran pronghorn, a deer-like animal with turned-in antlers that is considered the fastest mammal in North America. They can run almost 100 kilometers an hour, and they’re so elusive they’re sometimes called “desert ghosts.” As if that wasn’t enough, Sonoran pronghorns have a second super power: they are not known to drink water. 

Instead, in winter, they hydrate by eating tiny desert flowers that appear in the ephemeral blooms that follow the rain. Throughout much of the rest of the year, Sonoran pronghorns get the water they need from the cholla cactus.

Listed as endangered in the United States since 1967, and in Mexico since 1984. During thousands of years, well before Mexico or the United States came into being, Sonoran pronghorns freely roamed the Sonoran Desert. It’s no exaggeration to say they’ve had a tough ride, and that their very survival is intertwined with the cruelest aspects of modernity. 

The Sonoran pronghorn was extirpated from California by hunting, cattle ranching and habitat loss. Nearly half of their territory in the US is today occupied by the Barry M. Goldwater Complex, where combat pilots “hone their skills” including by dropping live ordnance (the Air Force says it checks for pronghorns before bombing). 

As if that wasn’t enough, environmental groups and members of the Tohono O’odham nation raised the alarm that border wall construction threatened delicate ecosystems in the Sonoran Desert. By the time Donald Trump left office in 2020, 140 km of border wall had fragmented the binational areas that make up a key part of the habitat for Sonoran pronghorn and other critically endangered desert species.

Conservation as land defense

In Mexico, Sonoran pronghorns are especially vulnerable due to habitat loss linked to open pit gold mining, massive solar energy projects, and new housing developments along the Gulf of California. Mining activity is “basically destroying the habitat of the Sonoran pronghorn,” said Carlos Castillo, a biologist with the Wildlands Network who has worked in the region for decades. “The characteristics and the physiology of the Sonoran Pronghorn means it uses the desert plains and what we call dune fields, or hills and low dunes, to flee from their predators,” he said. “These are exactly the places that are being destroyed.”

At one point, the number of Sonoran Pronghorns in the US dropped to under 100. Over the past decades, there’s been a binational push to restore the population. Today in Mexico there are an estimated 416 of the animals, 331 of which live in Ejido el Bajío.

The view from partway up one of the hills protected from mining activity in Ejido el Bajío
The view from partway up one of the hills protected from mining activity in Ejido el Bajío. Photo: Giuliano Salvatore – Fundación Bajío.

Our group followed Santiago and other landowners up to the top of one of the hills that rise from Ejido El Bajío’s flatlands. Looking west, we could see the ocean, and due south, the hills were destroyed and flattened for the Herradura mine, which is still active. But facing east we saw a mostly untouched landscape where the promise of protecting the pronghorn means much more than saving an endangered species. It means facing down powerful mining interests, and working to honor their fallen comrades.

Were it not for the struggle by members of the ejido, the hill underneath our feet, which is spotted with cacti and saguaros, where wild sheep and pronghorns come to eat, would have been transformed into another mine dump.

“We were able to bring back, to rescue nature in this area,” said Santiago, gesturing toward the wildlands below. The ejido’s goal is to encourage low impact tourism into the area, forging a different future based around ensuring human and more than human life in the territory can thrive. “For us, certification is a big step forward,” said Santiago.

The Community, Mining and Journalism gathering was held September 21-25, 2023, with the support of the Embassy of Switzerland in Mexico, the Bajío Sahuaro Foundation, and Ejido El Bajío.