I visited Cananea Municipality and the Sonora River region in August 2018, as part of the academic project entitled Conversing with Goliath. Cananea has been an emblematic municipality in Mexican mining. Historically, it has been the cradle of labour rights that influenced the 1910 Mexican Revolution, it was the centre of iconic mining-worker strikes throughout the rest of the 20th century, and in 2014 it was at the core of one of Mexico’s worst environmental accidents caused by mining, which impacted another seven municipalities along the Sonora River Basin.
Cananea is also associated with an emblematic multinational corporation in the extractive, transport and construction industries, Grupo México. In 1989, as part of the neoliberal package that the country experienced, Grupo México bought the state-owned copper mine, Buenavista del Cobre. Since then it has become the corporation’s jewel for extracting copper and zinc. The mine is located in Cananea, but over the last few years it has expanded southwards into the neighbouring municipality of Arizpe.
Because of the expansive frontier of global mining, the industry is cutting across several administrative boundaries, that increasingly require a regional lens to study it. If we consider the laws, regulations and administrative procedures that mining governance involves, one realises that mining (as well as other large extractive industries) is a multi-scalar process in which national, regional and local institutions and actors interweave and interplay.
The history of Cananea and of its neighbouring municipalities have given the region a certain mystique, which is palpable when you visit Cananea for the first time. Although you see, feel and smell mining, Grupo México’s presence is not striking. It is until you spend a few more days there that one begins to notice the corporation’s logos in urban furniture, school buses, church stained-glass and most importantly in people’s psyche, which is reflected in their conversations about the everyday fear, anger, admiration, loyalty or resignation they feel towards Grupo México.
It is Grupo México’s quasi-physical absence but immaterial presence that drove my research, recently published in Latin American Perspectives. Aided by political economy, the article provides a public-policy perspective to help understand mining governance in Cananea and the Sonora River region. It argues that
the (mis)management of information and implementation of citizen participatory mechanisms has produced administrative domination in the relationships between government authorities and Grupo México. This domination has been achieved by a threefold strategy: (1) the corporation’s distancing from policy responsibility, (2) legitimacy through control, and (3) the concealment of coercive tactics.
The article’s argument is based on a Gramscian understanding of hegemony in the governance of place, in particular, focusing on the element of consensual coercion. However, the decentred power relations that go beyond the state, sought complementarity in Foucault’s concept of governmentality “to unravel the everyday practice of administrative processes carried out by both state and nonstate actors without abandoning the importance of historicity and scale.”
The administrative domination that the article draws upon focuses on the bureaucratic and procedural processes of everyday governance, which combine national, state-level and municipal regulation, environmental sanctions and citizen participatory processes with Grupo México’s corporate social responsibility policy. This policy is embodied and implemented by the corporate’s brand, Casa Grande. Although the hegemonic presence that Grupo México has upon Cananea’s everyday life has been discussed elsewhere, in my article it is observed how Casa Grande plays a key role in legitimising the corporation despite the distress brought by the 2007 mining-strike and the 2014 toxic spill into the Sonora River.
Casa Grande has contributed to creating a participatory culture in the governance of Cananea and the Sonora River region, while ensuring that no direct political responsibility for decisions made can be ascribed to the corporation. The mining division, alongside Casa Grande, have implemented or supported a series of contradictory processes that mismanage the information provided to state and civil society organisations, while creating spaces of citizen participation.
Grupo México simultaneously distances itself from civil society (its absence), while reapproaching it through Casa Grande’s programmes. These contradictions contribute to concealing the coercive side of Grupo México, which is continuously present in its system of surveillance and militarisation of its premises, the labour control measures implemented within the mine and, through the presence of local mafias that take advantage of the corporation’s hostile approaches in defending its premises, water wells and land.
It would be a mistake to think that the emblematic case of Cananea and the Sonora River region are unique in Mexican mining governance. The expansive frontier of the extractive sector—not only in Mexico but more broadly in Latin American and beyond—that increasingly relies more on corporate social responsibility, alerts us to the dangers that contemporary enclave economies produce when included in their discourse democratic and sustainability concepts.
While scholars seek critical and alternative experiments to challenge corporations such as Grupo México, we should not forget that the “mainstream” cases reveal strategies and tactics of corporate counter-insurgency that feed corporations’ attempts in maintaining hegemony. Although one might think it is laudable how corporate social responsibility “cares” for sustainability, one realises corporate intentions become futile when history and geographical-institutional scalarity are taken into account.