Banamichi, Mexico – Liseth Mendez and Judas Barrios milk two cows covered in a cloud of tiny persistent flies as the sun taints in red the surrounding mountains near a ranch less than a kilometre from the Sonora River.
It seems futile because the milk will go to waste, but it’s necessary to keep the cows in good health and it provides the couple another day’s pay.
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“There are no buyers,” said Adrian Villa Acuna, the ranch owner, hiding his frown underneath a white hat. “No one wants milk from the Sonora River.”
Growers, cattle ranchers and dairy farmers such as Acuna are bearing the brunt of a man-made ecological disaster after 40,000 cubic metres of acid-laced copper sulfate and heavy metals spilled into the river from a mine on August 6.
Grupo Mexico, the massive mining conglomerate which owns the Buenavista del Cobre mine in northern Sonora, initially said it was due to heavy rains but later recognised it was due to a structural failure in a containment pond.
Mexican Environmental Minister Juan José Guerra Abud called it “the worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico“.
More than 140km away from where the incident happened, agriculture and cattle ranching has been paralysed in seven towns along the river.
The affected municipalities of Bacanuchi, Banamichi, San Felipe de Jesus, Aconchi, Arizpe, Ures, and San Jose de Garcia are part of a region known as the historical spine of the state, and have thrived because of the river.
The aftermath of the spill, however, has left 22,000 people along the Sonora river without a regular running water supply. They now rely on donations of bottled and pumped water distributed in water trucks, a new-found reality inconvenient in everyday life.
Less clear is the scope of the economic damage.
Acuna and four other producers in Banamichi collectively throw out more than 2,200 litres of milk a week. Acuna alone loses $1,000 each week.
For him, it is not just a financial loss, it is also painful to watch. “So many people that could have a glass of milk,” he said. The state of Sonora estimates that over the past month, 235,000 litres of milk a week were wasted – in large part because people were afraid to consume the milk.
‘How are we going to survive?’
Acuna is both confused and frustrated with federal Mexican officials, who haven’t provided an official document to show his buyers that there is nothing wrong with the milk. “My cows don’t drink from the river,” he said.
Sagarpa, the federal agency that oversees the quality of the milk, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
There's no life without water. How are we going to survive this?
Conagua, the Mexican federal agency that monitors water quality, has closed 320 water wells as a preventive measure. Most of them are used for agricultural and livestock purposes. Those wells are located more than 460m away from the river on a stretch of land that runs for 190km.
It includes a canal that supplies Acuna’s ranch. That means he has another problem: He can’t irrigate the fields to grow feed for his cattle. In five days he will run out of water.
“There’s no life without water,” said Acuna. “How are we going to survive this?”
Acuna is not alone. Thousands of other producers want the mine to pay restitution for the damages.
“This has gone from being an ecological issue to an economic and social one,” Roberto Romero, Sonora’s minister of the interior, told Al Jazeera. “The economic impact is escalating to the state of losing entire crops – and that’s without counting the losses from the absence in sales of milk, cheese, and all its derivatives.”
Romero described what he termed a “psychosis” among buyers who fear to purchase any products from the region. As a result, the state will begin to buy from producers. The state and the Cattle Union have disbursed close to $700,000 from Grupo Mexico in emergency funding to help the towns and producers affected. But for many, that amount is just a drop in the bucket, and will barely make up for the lost revenue.
The state filed a lawsuit seeking financial reparations against Grupo Mexico on September 3. The State Human Rights Commission of Sonora estimated the damages at $152m. Some project a higher figure.
“The ethical thing to do would be for Grupo Mexico to try to resolve this situation, instead of continuing to defend itself, especially when we know that [it] is a company that has the resources to do it,” said Romero in a press conference.
The company made $9.3bn in consolidated sales in 2013.
Grupo Mexico has apologised publicly for the incident in newspaper ads, but did not respond to repeated inquiries by Al Jazeera on the lawsuit. The company already faces a criminal complaint filed by Profepa, a governmental prosecutorial agency that works on environmental issues, and potential penalties of $3m.
Uncertainty on water contamination
Released information regarding the conditions of the water in the river and surrounding wells has not been very clear, confusing cattle ranchers and farmers even more.
Conagua’s latest water assessment available to the public and media is dated August 19. But agency officials say they have taken as many as 1,100 samples of the water and are wait ing for the rains to compare results before they release an update.
There's nothing in place, no information. If we don't have water right now, we won't have pastures for the spring.
The pH level – which measures acidity in the water – is normal. But there is an elevated presence of metals like arsenic, cadmium, copper, chrome, and mercury, according to Conagua. Those metals, depending on their concentration, could be harmful for both human beings and animals, said Hector Duarte Tagles, an epidemiologist and professor in environmental industrial engineering at Sonora State University in Hermosillo.
“The health effects could show in the long term and are not detected immediately [in human beings],” Tagles told Al Jazeera .
Tagles and other academics are urging the government for more transparency in providing information about water quality and response to assess the environmental damages. “There’s nothing in place, no information,” said Martin Pena Molina, the head of an association of 150 irrigation users in Banamichi. “If we don’t have water right now, we won’t have pastures for the spring.”
Molina ordered his own assessment of the canal water on August 21. The results showed the presence of barium and arsenic at levels above the international standards of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Tagles analysed the information separately for Al Jazeera and said that while the level of arsenic is within the Mexican norm, it is nevertheless a concern because of the metal’s impact on the cardiovascular system, and because it has been proven to cause cancer.
There’s a negative domino effect for day labourers.
Guadalupe Alvarez, 41, a resident of Aconchi, is feeling the heat on both fronts. She started picking chiltepines, a type of small red chilis, once her husband ran out of work in the fields. But it is tough to work under the sun because she has developed a severe allergy on her arms to the potable water distributed for household chores and personal hygiene.
In Arizpe, a town 97km from the mine, farmer Luciano Gomez, 52, sits with the mayor to get an update on water conditions. But there is none.
“My cows are still drinking water from the river,” Gomez told Al Jazeera. “I don’t know the magnitude of the problem that is coming up. What consequences will my animals have?”
He has noticed that all life in and along the river is dead, including fish and deer.
Gomez estimates that he will lose 1.5m pesos ($125,000) in investment and income. “What will I do?” said Gomez. “All my dreams are left there in the land. Not just ours, but also our grandparents’ [dreams].”