Energy & Mining

A New Way Forward


Mining has been a highly profitable activity in Mexico for 500 years, but it will soon be highly sustainable, too.

Mining is by no means a new industry in Mexico. Indeed, one of the attractions of Mexico for the early colonialists circa 1500 was its wealth of minerals, especially silver and gold, among other metals. After almost five centuries of silver and gold mining, the modern country of Mexico is still the world’s number one producer of silver and among the top ten producers of gold worldwide. The country is also home to many mines of non-precious metals such as zinc and copper, as well as coal.

Mexico’s terrain is highly conducive to mining activities, as millions of years of tectonic activities have created many mountain ranges in the country which make the tunneling of underground mines much easier and cost-effective—albeit more dangerous, too. It is believed that these very same tectonic activities have also resulted in silver and gold mineralization and the presence of numerous streaks of precious metals in areas such as Sierra Madre Occidental and its neighboring regions.

In recent decades, over 200 local and international exploration companies have began sizing up the potentials of other regions such as Chihuahua, Sonora, and Zacatecas. And, exploration activities often lead to satisfying results in Mexico. It is estimated that mining makes up 3-8% of the country’s GDP. “A top-10 global producer of over a dozen minerals, Mexico’s multi-billion-dollar mining sector makes up around 8% of Latin America’s second-biggest economy,” according to Reuters.

Profitable, as the mining industry undoubtedly is, it also comes with a downside: mining activities can be highly hazardous for the environment if done irresponsibly and purely for the sake of profit. Mining operations have been linked to erosion, deforestation, and the poisoning of underground waters. Open pit mines—as opposed to underground mines—have a remarkably high impact on the relocation of local communities, as well. Fortunately, however, Mexico has become a more eco-conscious developing economy in recent years, particularly after the signing of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. Also of note are awareness raising efforts by the country’s own activists and NGOs.

Mining in Mexico is carefully monitored by the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT)—a government agency launched in 2000. All mining enterprises, even exploration and feasibility studies, are not possible without a go-ahead permit from SEMARNAT.

As of 2021, Tonatiuh Herrera, deputy Minister of Environment is the highest official in charge of checking the regulatory compliance of all mining enterprises, including in terms of sustainability. Herrera said to Reuters in a 2021 interview that “open pit mines will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis due to their ‘enormous’ impact on local communities and especially water resources,” adding that open pit mines have not been entirely banned.

The regulations are ostensibly imposed indiscriminately and without any signs of corruption in the system so far. Grupo Mexico, a Mexican mining giant, is currently waiting for a final permit from the authorities to begin work on a USD3 billion open pit copper mining mega project, called El Arco, in the Mexican state of Baja California.
Sustainable mining is not limited to anti-pollution practices, with another major component being health and safety standards. After all, the memories of mishaps such as the La Espuela coal mine disaster of 2002 and Pasta de Conchos mine disaster of 2006 are still alive in the public consciousness of the nation.

As such, federal labor laws and various regulations on the health and safety of work environments have been imposed more seriously over the last decade or so. Two new landmark pieces of legislation, including a 2008 law on the security of coal mines and a more all-inclusive law on the health and safety and work conditions of underground and open pit mines (NORMA Oficial Mexicana 023-STPS of 2012) have made mining notably safer.

Companies, too, are embracing the expansion of sustainable practices in the mining industry, as they realize that sustainability is a win-win deal. Fernando Alaní­s, director general of Industrias Peñoles, the second largest mining company in the country, recently talked to TBY about the importance of “accountability, promoting an environment of co-creation, and fostering interdependence,” adding that “It is important to understand that we work in a joint ecosystem; everyone depends on others. It is more of a philosophy, and we are looking to instill this philosophy in our operations.”

Thanks to the nation’s rising sustainability standards, some of Mexico’s mining giants have become so world-class in terms of their practices that they have ventured out of the country into the rest of Latin America. Carlos Silva, CEO of Santa Cruz Silver Mining told TBY that an international mining company has “proposed the sale of its assets in Bolivia, and we acquired them. We have acquired six mines in total, and this way, we no longer have all our eggs in one basket. We are also giving our investors more options other than Mexico.”

Such breakthroughs would not be possible if Mexican mining companies were not following the highest sustainability standards. Santa Cruz Silver Mining, for instance, is the first Mexican mining company to qualify for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). It is hoped that several other Mexican mining companies will qualify for IRMA in 2022, enabling them to become international market players in Americas and beyond.