• Manganese;
  • Mexico;
  • social participation;
  • social representations


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. 4. RESULTS

Previous studies have shown high levels of manganese exposure and neurocognitive damage in the population living in the mining zone in Molango, Mexico. One of the objectives of the Intersectoral Group on Environmental Management for the mining district has been to provide public participation in the risk management plan. To achieve this, it is important to know how the different social actors represent the mining activity. The objectives of this study were to characterize the social representations of the mining activity by different social actors. A qualitative design was used based on in-depth interviews of residents, public officials, and a mining company representative. The analysis was conducted according to themes for each group of actors. Essentially, distinct social representations of the different mining activities were identified. Residents viewed mining activities as synonymous with contamination and, therefore, as having affected all areas of their environment, health, and daily life. These activities were seen as a collective risk. The public officials and the mining company held that there was no evidence of harm and saw mining activities as a generator of regional development. Harm to health and the environment were seen as a stance taken by the communities in order to obtain economic benefits from the company. These images of the “other” are shaped by social, political, and cultural factors. They make it difficult for the actors to reach cooperative agreements and thereby affect progress on the risk management plan. Decisionmakers need to take these differences into account when promoting social participation.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. 4. RESULTS

Mining is one of the main industrial activities conducted in Mexico. In 2010, it replaced tourism as the fourth largest generator of income after the automotive industry, petroleum, and migrant remittances.[1] In fact, the amount of land allotted to mining increased 53% during the most recent six-year government term.[2] Nevertheless, extraction and mining processes can create social and environmental problems as well as result in serious impacts on the environment and the health of exposed residents. This is the case of the Molango mining district located in the High Sierra of the State of Hidalgo. Operations in this mining district started in 1960 by a mining company, and they currently include parts of the municipalities of Molango, Xochicoatlán, Tlanchinol, Lolotla, and Tepehuacán (Fig. 1). This region also contains the second largest manganese (Mn) deposit in Latin America and the fifth largest


Figure 1. Study communities, Molango mining district.

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worldwide. In addition, proven manganese reserves in this mining district add up to 30 million tons plus possibly 200 million tons more.[3, 4] The mining company produces and trades manganese and ferroalloys minerals. Given the poverty conditions present in the zone, when the mining activity began it generated great expectations for local and regional development. Nevertheless, some time later it became a large source of concern for the inhabitants of the region. By the mid 1980s, some of the communities in the High Sierra of the State of Hidalgo stopped the company's work, closed roadways, and pressured government officials to address the problem of environmental contamination that was affecting their health and their environment as well as their housing, crops, and animals. Some of the communities involved in these actions are included in this study. The problem became socially and politically visible as a result of this movement, and in 1995 the government of the State of Hidalgo created the Intersectoral Group on Environmental Management (MIGA, Spanish acronym) for the Molango mining district. This group was composed of the three levels of government (federal, state, and municipal), representatives from the community, the Autlán mining company, and the academic and scientific sectors. Its objective was to promote the participation of all of the actors in the risk management process. The process for managing risk in the Molango district began with the creation of the intersectoral group, and in 2005 it developed the Mn risk management plan for the mining district.

In 1997, in response to the concerns of the communities, the state government requested that the Health, Environment, and Labor Institute conduct the first study to evaluate the risks from exposure to Mn. This study showed high levels of Mn concentrations in the blood of residents (7.5–88 mg/L) and air concentrations were two to three times higher than those reported in urban zones. It showed an inverse relationship between Mn contents in blood and hemoglobin and a lower cognitive capacity among individuals living in the affected zone.[5] Later, studies coordinated by the National Institute of Public Health based on an ecosystem health approach showed concentrations of Mn in air exceeding international recommendations for the nonoccupationally exposed population (estimated at 0.05 mg/m3) as well as blood levels of Mn above recommended levels (5.0–31.0 μg/L) and an association between Mn in air and motor and cognitive alterations in adults in exposed communities.[3] The most recent research showed adverse cognitive effects from Mn exposure. This included effects involving the intellectual capacity of school-age children—in which younger girls were the most vulnerable social group[6]—and neurological motor effects in children.[7]

Nevertheless, the evaluation of risk by experts can often be very different than readings or representations by exposed communities and governmental authorities responsible for management and decision making to reduce or mitigate the risks. This makes it difficult to incorporate the different social actors into the initiatives or plans to control risk. Even though Mn contamination continues to be one of the main concerns of residents in the exposed communities in the Molango mining district,[8, 9] the different social actors that make up the intersectoral group on environmental management in the mining district face serious difficulties in reaching cooperative agreements for advancing the risk management plan, especially with respect to reducing environmental exposure to Mn.[10, 11]

Therefore, it was considered important to characterize and analyze the social representation of residents, public officials, and mining company representatives regarding mining activities and attempt to analyze the historical and social contexts of the groups and their interactions; that is, the elements that have contributed to the construction of the perspectives that social actors have about mining activities. What are the social representations of residents, public officials, and the mining company about the impact of Mn on health, daily life, and the local environment? This was the question that guided the analysis so as to understand the social actors’ positions and actions related to the mining problem and try to direct the findings toward the possibility of managing risk based on the development of minimal agreements among the social actors.

This analysis has significant implications for the communication of risks related to mining.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. 4. RESULTS

Social representations according to Moscovici, the main formulator of the concept, provide practical and everyday forms of knowing.[12] Social representations originate and emerge from the dialectics established during everyday interactions among subjects, their universe of previous experiences, and the conditions in their environment. They are a set of images, meanings, or reference systems that involve the way in which social subjects understand the events in daily life, the characteristics of their environment, the information circulating in their surroundings, and the persons around them both near and far.[13] Social representations are symbolic constructions of meaning or socially constructed cognitive images, and they are observable only through the expression of the individuals. Thus, they serve as a bridge between what is social and what is subjective.[14]

A large part of the research on social representations in the field of risk has used these to understand risk perception. For example, Joffe and Bettega[15] explored social representations of the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS among adolescents in Zambia. Joffe and Lee[16] examined representations of risks in relation to food in the context of the avian flu epidemic in Hong Kong, China in 2001. Studies by Washer[17, 18] analyzed representations related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (commonly called “mad cow disease”) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A recent study by Wiesner et al.[19] explored representations of the Human Papillomavirus.

For example, the study by Joffe and Bettega[15] highlighted the contribution of the ideological function of social representations to reinforce different statuses and social roles. On the basis of this, power differences in relationships are established and the reproduction of the social order is perpetuated. In addition, Washer and Joffe[18] suggested the existence of “risk societies” in which the globalization of the means of communication contains elements that contribute to the representation of risk. In the context of mining, the study of the social representations of women in the mining region of Cajamarca, Peru provided evidence of how social representations express a state of vulnerability and defenselessness felt by both farming and urban women. This study also reflected the presence of power structures within these representations in which being a woman and poor means to be at a disadvantage against the mining company; the latter represents economic and political power.[20] Thus, social representations have permitted developing an approach to the study of the social construction of risk in different social contexts.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. 4. RESULTS

3.1. Study Design and Population

This study is based on data from the second phase of the study entitled “Health Risk Attributed to Mn Exposure in the Communities of Cuxhuacán, Chiconcoac, Tolago, Chipoco, Malila and Nonoalco.” The communities included in the study were selected based on their distance from mines and/or manganese-processing plants (Fig. 1). These communities are part of the High Sierra region of the State of Hidalgo where poor farmers live in conditions of high marginalization.[21] According to data from the 2010 Tenth National Population and Housing Census, 2,744 of the 4,372 people who live in the six communities are 18 years of age or older.[22] The main economic activity is seasonal farming performed under the maize crop system. The land being farmed has a rugged topography and the farmers use ancestral techniques that are part of their traditional farming knowledge (Table I).

Table I. Profile of the Study Communities
  1. a

    Degree of marginalization per locality (CONAPO, Spanish acronym, 2010).

  2. b

    National Population and Housing Census (Censo Nacional de Población y Vivienda 2010, INEGI, Spanish acronym).

Proximity to mines or manganese processing plantsFarNearNearNearInsideInside
 (7 km)(1 km)(1 km)(1 km)(–1 km)(–1 km)
Total populationb565513783959940612
Population 18 years and olderb372323458586627378
Average schooling levelb5.
Percentage of the illiterate population 15 years or oldera23322319715
Percentage of the population 15 years or older with incomplete elementary educationa474636332530
Percentage of households inhabited without plumbed watera29255337
Percentage of households with dirt floorsa15761446
Percentage of private households without refrigeratora395045383133
Degree of marginalizationaHighHighHighHighMediumHigh

Seven people were invited from each community to participate in the study during its first phase. These participants knew about the problems in their community, including Mn contamination. This decision was made considering two factors. First, by interviewing seven people in each community, we would obtain 42 in-depth interviews. This would provide sufficient data to understand the social representation of mining contamination. Second, the financial situation of the project did not allow for conducting a larger number of interviews. Nevertheless, during the fieldwork other residents in the same communities requested to participate in the study, and therefore those interviews were also included in the analysis. The public officials and the mining company representative were chosen according to their importance to risk management. A qualitative design with in-depth interviews was used. Interviews are a good technique to understand social representations of risk. They enable participants to explain in detail the themes addressed by the studies and introduce themes in which they have interest. Examples of these are studies by Joffe and Betega[15] and Joffe and Lee.[16] Sixty-two interviews were conducted: 47 with selected community residents, 14 with public officials, and one with a mining company representative. The latter was chosen based on “typical” case criteria, that is, according to a profile of essential attributes or traits based on the characteristics of interest to the study. In this case, it was important to consider this official's knowledge about, and connection to, the issue of risk management. On the basis of this strategy, the informant sought was one who had a differentiating nature and reflected the set of attributes. In other words, the informant was illustrative of the phenomenon in the study.[23]

3.2. Procedure

Residents were interviewed in their homes and public officials were interviewed at their workplace. The mining company representative was interviewed in a municipal office since at that time he was also a public official. The interviews were conducted between August and December 2006 with the help of an interview guide containing the following themes: (1) experience in the community, (2) the meaning of Mn in the local context, (3) connections between Mn and the health–illness–death process, and (4) interaction with institutions that manage risk. In the case of public officials, these themes were adapted according to their position, and the evaluation of their role in this socioenvironmental problem as local government representatives was highlighted. The interview with the mining company representative explored four themes: (1) the impact of the mining activity at the local and regional level, (2) impacts on the local environment, (3) health risks due to exposure to Mn emissions, and (4) the relationship between the mining company and the communities.

3.3. Analysis of Information

After obtaining informed verbal consent, the interviews were audio recorded and then transcribed. The data analysis was conducted using the method proposed by Taylor and Bodgan[24] and included the following stages: (1) complete and repeated reading of the transcripts to identify the themes contained in the interview guide, (2) searching for emerging themes by looking for phrases or words from the informants that capture the meaning of what they said and comparing statements to see if there was any concept that unified them, (3) developing categories based on the themes, (4) coding the data while making the codes fit the data and not the reverse, (5) separating the data pertaining to each of the categories, and (6) interpreting the data. The Atlas-ti (v.5.0) program was used for coding.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. 4. RESULTS

4.1. Population Characteristics

Of the 47 residents interviewed, 19 were men and 28 were women aged 22–88 years. Ten of the participants were from Cuxhuacán, seven were from Chiconcoac, and eight from Tolago. Another 10 were from Chipoco, seven were from Nonoalco, and five from Malila. Nineteen of the 20 men in the study worked in farming and 27 of 28 women worked at home. Thirty-six of the 47 residents were originally from the community. The public officials held different public positions in various municipal governments: there were two municipal presidents, two directors of ecology, two municipal secretaries, six health officials, one economic project director, and one director of sustainable development. The company representative was in charge of community relations.

4.2. Environmental Contamination

The residents in the mining district indicated that the mining activity has generated a lot of contamination, which has been all-pervasive. Their comments that “everything, everything has manganese” and “before everything grew” but “now the land is really contaminated” suggest that for the residents contamination has no limits and that Mn has affected all of the components of the environment and, of course, the people (Table II). The social representation of the effects of mining activity and its effects on the natural environment and human health can be seen in the explanatory model in which Mn is thought of as an element that alters the air quality. When Mn turns into dust, smoke, and gas, the air becomes impure; and when it enters the clouds, it contaminates them as well. According to the residents, they know how to differentiate between a bad cloud (contaminated) and a good cloud (not contaminated). The water in turn contaminates the ground and alters the characteristics of the soil, thereby affecting the quality and quantity of crops planted. The contaminants directly penetrate the plants, which are consumed by animals and humans, and this causes illnesses. From the residents’ point of view, the air is not part of nature but rather part of a divine entity that makes it impossible to avoid exposure to it. As one of the interviewees mentioned:

Of course I believe this [air contaminated by Mn] affects us. The air that one breathes in affects us. Sometimes for a long time at night. It happens at night. It happens during the day. What are we going to do with the air? It's up to God. When my children were little I would hide them all. I would cover them with some blankets so they wouldn't inhale the air because I was afraid their little lungs would get sick…and now things are the same [the contamination], because the mine is still functioning. (Cuxhuacán, female, 54 years)

Table II. Perceived Impacts of Mn Contamination at the Local Level
Type of ImpactCuxhuacán n = 10Chiconcoac n = 7Tolago n = 8Chipoco n = 10Nonoalco n = 7Malila n = 5
  1. n = number of interviews conducted in each community, X = the subject was mentioned in one interview, XX = the subject was mentioned in two interviews, XXX = the subject was mentioned in three or more interviews.

Effect on crops (corn, beans, peaches, guava, coffee, oranges, avocado, lima beans, chayote, zucchini, garden produce)XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Damage to housingXXXXXXXXXXX XXX
Air contaminationXXX XXXX
River contaminationXXXXX XXXXXXXX
Soil contaminationX XX XXXX
Water contaminationXXXX XXXX
Livestock deaths XXXXX XXXX
Contamination of grassXXXXX  X
Water scarcity XXXXX XXXX
Damage to wire fencing in fields XXX   
Greater workload for women XX XXXX

The effects of Mn contamination on the environment have been observed by a reduction in the number of species and plants, and more often by the accumulation of contaminants on the plants. The residents associated mining contamination with a decrease in the production of fruits and other crops in the region. For example, it was said that the corn plant has been affected in three ways: it does not grow, the kernels do not get plump, and the plant is susceptible to infestation such as locusts. They also alluded to the impact of Mn on the soil in terms of the earth's sterility. The women attributed Mn to the death and disappearance of plants and vegetables (with high nutritional content) that used to grow on their patios and plots:

Everything grew before. Everything. But not anymore…not anymore because the land is really contaminated now. Might it be the dust? The potato used to grow…many things…but I think so, that the Mn does contaminate…and when one plants they just stay real small with that dust falling on them. Yes it contaminates. They don't want to believe it, no. But well it [Mn dust] does contaminate. It is very strong…the zucchini, for example, the zucchinis almost never grow anymore. (Tolago, female, 60 years)

They also mentioned the constant presence of Mn dust in food, water, and the clothing of miners. In the communities where the river is an important resource for daily subsistence, notions about harm included death and disease of fish and other marine species since the processing plant discharges into the river that runs through the community. As mentioned by one of the interviewees:

When it's hot there are few [fish]. But those that are there get sick and you can't even eat them. The fish hang around and they get like sores on the backs of the ones called catfish and those parts where the sores are seen, if you touch them they're really rotten. The skin of the fish gets really rotten. Same with the bream fish. And so that's how it is. We see it [the contamination]. The river is very contaminated. (Cuxhuacán, male, 35 years)

Mining contamination is also represented as something “abnormal” for the rural situation of the communities. The testimonies of the residents show they are aware of other types of contamination such as smoke from firewood. Nevertheless, their comments reflected a view of that contamination being different than the emissions released from the processing plant and the deposits (jales) where the Mn residues are confined. The idea also existed among the residents that exposure to Mn has not been voluntary, and they could not decide whether or not they agreed with the company's establishment in the zone at the time it occurred.

4.3. Local and Regional Development

Unlike the social representations of residents, mining activity does not generate environmental contamination according to public officials, especially those in executive public service positions. They perceived it to be a generator of local and regional development especially because of the jobs and social development projects created in the zone. As one interviewee mentioned:

Not to offend anyone, really, but sometimes the education we have had, the culture that has been instilled in us makes us think that talking about mines means talking about contamination. When we don't also see the positive side such as sources of employment, sources of access to highways and roads and other benefits that have always been provided by these mining companies that exploit manganese in our region. (Molango, municipal official)

As another interviewee mentioned, the greatest environmental problem in their municipalities is contamination from garbage and they considered Mn contamination to be a secondary problem. Two important elements identified in this hierarchy are the number of communities and persons affected and how long each environmental problem has existed in the zone.

The most important environmental problem in the zone is the garbage because garbage is a widespread problem in the municipalities and manganese contamination is not [present] throughout all the communities in the region. And it's been this way for many years…we're giving much more importance now to the garbage, let me tell you, because it is everywhere. (Lolotla, municipal official)

Given this evaluation, regulations have been developed in two municipalities to address this problem. In addition, several municipalities are coordinating efforts to jointly build a landfill with the budgets from their communities. The mining company official agreed with the public officials in terms of the mining company being important to regional and community development because of both the roads that have been built as well as direct benefits provided to the communities. As one of the testimonies indicates:

I would say that it has contributed significantly to the development of the zone and this region of the state…an example of the importance of the company here in the region is that well in a three-way collaboration with the state and federal government the highway was built, the short route to Mexico Tampico, of course. So the company could more easily move its finished products…Since 1991, for 15 years the company has worked to improve its environmental performance. The evaluations performed specifically of its emissions are within the norm. (Mining company official)

The company was also considered to be socially and environmentally responsible and to meet the guidelines. It was therefore not seen as generating environmental contamination.

4.4. Health–Illness–Death

The pervasive character of contamination extends to the effects of Mn in the health–illness–death process. The residents associated a large number of illnesses with Mn contamination. Those most reported included “cough,” “fever,” “burning of the eyes and throat,” “brain ache,” “chest pain,” “lung pain,” “bone pain,” “body aches,” and “skin rashes and pimples.” Residents associated even less-observable effects with Mn because it is thought of as a harmful element that accumulates in the body and makes it sick. For example, they suggested Mn makes children forget everything, they are unable to learn in school, and it makes it difficult for them to develop normally. Residents also mentioned other more severe effects such as Parkinson's disease and death, and also pointed to effects on people's balance, weight loss, and looking “transparent” which lead to reduced work opportunities (Table III).

Table III. Impact of Mn on the Health–Disease–Death Process
Impact of Mn on HealthCuxhuacán n = 10Chiconcoac n = 7Tolago n = 8Chipoco n = 10Nonoalco n = 7Malila n = 5
  1. n = number of interviews conducted in each community, X = the subject was mentioned in one interview, XX = the subject was mentioned in two interviews, XXX = the subject was mentioned in three or more interviews.

Respiratory affects:      
Sore throatXXXXXXXX X 
Effect on lungs—difficulty breathing, chest painXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Asthma    XX
Nose irritation XXXX   
Burning or irritation of the eyesXXXXXXXXX X
Mucous XX    
Conjunctivitis X    
Bronchitis  XXX XXX
Rash, itching, blotches, pimplesXXXXX   
Parkinson     X
Disorientation X    
Memory loss X    
Decreased vision XXXXXX X 
Body aches XXX    
Loss of weight and color  X  XX
High blood pressure X   XX
“Brain” painXXXXXX  XXX
Damage to any part of the body    XX
Children get sick more often and make illnesses worse XX XXX
Mn accumulates in the body and makes it sick    XXXXXX
Interferes with the development of children    XXX

Mn is also represented as a factor influencing the frequency and seriousness of illnesses, and it is thought of as an entity that can affect any part of the body or the entire organism. The logic underlying this perspective is based on the following explanatory model mentioned by one of the interviewees:

Well since Mn gets into the blood and the blood goes through the whole body. I think that any part of the body or the whole system can be affected because manganese is in the blood and the blood is in the whole body. (Nonoalco, 34-year-old female)

Death attributed to Mn contamination was mentioned in many interviews. Half of the persons interviewed in two of the most exposed communities mentioned this effect by commenting on the death of direct family members such as small children or grandparents. In another community, residents commented that people die at an early age. Another dimension of the communities' social representation of mining activity was that they considered Mn contamination to be a collective risk more than an individual one. They indicated that there is consensus in the community that most of the people suffer from “brain pain” (the back of the neck), irritated eyes, cough, and lung problems as a result of Mn. This collective risk extends to all the communities exposed to Mn.

In addition to these evaluations of pervasiveness and collective risk was the perspective that Mn contamination creates new harmful states in the body in terms of the health–illness pattern having been radically modified since the mining activity began in the region. In the communities they talked about “new” or “unknown” illnesses existing today, that is, illnesses or discomforts that did not exist before the mine arrived. Residents also suggested that the contamination makes the body more susceptible to illnesses, that people die at younger ages, and common illnesses are now more serious and more difficult to cure. They also referred to these harmful states through expressions such as “their body gets damaged,” “manganese is poison,” and “the contamination is affecting us.” The residents evoked images of “bodies contaminated” by Mn in which the physical appearance is important for recognizing the effects of contamination. As one of the interviewees stated:

I have a nephew named Angel. He's really skinny. He's so contaminated. He lives with that. But really contaminated and he doesn't work anymore. The dust is harming him. The dust is harming him now…And what are we going to do? Not able to move. With no resources. And with the very heads of the government [the authorities] over there first. And they communicate well with them so that afterwards they then come here to see us. (Tolago, 69-year-old male)

From their perspective, all the illnesses are due to inhaling contaminated air or ingesting water and food that is also contaminated by Mn dust.

Unlike what the residents indicated in terms of the effects of Mn on health, the public officials considered Mn contamination and the health damage as something not real or objective but rather rhetoric used by the communities to pressure the company and obtain economic benefits. The following testimony by one of the officials interviewed identifies this:

What I have experienced in my 46 years has made me realize that not necessarily [does Mn cause harm]. There are large errors there when saying that manganese causes respiratory problems…How many years and years have our ancestors lived in contact with manganese and it hasn't been a cause of death?… Now people are sort of taking advantage of that to get something out of it, trying to get them [mining company] to give them [residents] material or laminates. (Molango, municipal official)

The mining company's representations were very similar to those of public officials. It perceived itself as an environmentally responsible company, which therefore does not create risks to the collective health of the region. This image was supported by data generated by the company's medical team. As the official from that company explains:

What I can say with great certainty is that the company monitors the conditions that it could impact. We feel that the impact on health is practically null…the medical services it provides does analyses of workers as well as their families. So the indicators they have shown that, fortunately, we have not detected problems that can be attributed to exposure to manganese. That is, it would not be considered a high risk. (mining company official)

Also similar to the public officials was the belief by the company that when petitions by the communities are not addressed they use contamination and health risks to pressure the company and obtain benefits:

with all due respect, if carrying this banner of contamination and harm were to stop there would be no way to pressure the company for aid. (mining company)

The public officials' view of their role was that of intermediaries between the mining interests and the communities. The municipal authorities considered that they should be the first contact that the company should make in order to offer benefits to the communities and they should also be the ones to receive the citizens' demands. Thus, they perceived the company as a substitute for the state to satisfy social needs. As one of the interviewees commented:

If they [the company] would have met with me [the municipal president] at that very moment we would have gone to the community and talked with them first and told them, “Look, there are going to be sources of work here, access to the community. The mining company is willing to support us with this. Or, What do you need? What I think right from the outset, priority needs should be drinking water, electricity, maybe access to roads… [state] policies are about progress, wellbeing, social peace and we would be precisely like their [the state's] right arm to be able to obtain conciliations from the mining company…(Molango, municipal official)

The public officials perceived their work not as institutional agents belonging to the state whose job is primarily to protect the collective health but rather as mediating agents to avoid conflicts that could be generated in the region as a result of mining activity. Therefore, the public officials were always aware of their political role, especially during elections. This position can be identified in the following testimony of one of the interviewees:

I told them [the mining company] my intention is not to destabilize the municipality. I am interested in working and for things to be calm…I don't want to stir people up or cause an uproar so that things get done. (Xohicoatlán, municipal official)

Even health officials did not consider mining contamination to be the primary risk but rather the climate. They also mentioned they could not talk about the negative impacts of Mn because they lacked solid information. The head of the sanitary district—whose health services cover most of the communities in the mining district—indicated that the ailments registered in their clinics included acute respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal problems, and skin diseases. Nevertheless, they have been unable to connect any of these with Mn exposure:

I would feel a little limited as far as responding to this question [about the impact of Mn on health] since we lack a lot of information about how this problem is really affecting the inhabitants…we have not been able to connect the illnesses registered in our health clinics with manganese exposure. (sanitary district official, Molango)

Health authorities mentioned that they have not been able to design a plan to decrease exposure because of the lack of information about the harm to health caused by Mn. The actions taken to prevent respiratory illnesses were focused instead on protecting the population from weather changes; for example, recommending that the population avoid drastic changes in temperature.

4.5. Vulnerability

The residents also perceived a sense of vulnerability to the effects of mining contamination. They were certain that contamination represented a threat to health but they perceived themselves as unable to confront the problem. From their perspective, this vulnerability is related to economic and social factors. They indicated that the poverty in which they live restricts access to economic resources, which prevents residents from having good nutrition and therefore makes the effects of contamination more severe. They also identified poverty as a factor that prevents access to technical-scientific knowledge about the effects of Mn on health and particularly to competent and timely medical services to treat those effects. This view is seen in the comments of one of the interviewees:

And I'll tell you, unfortunately we're never going to be able to prove that the people are dying because unfortunately we don't have, there are people who don't have the resources to take someone, a person who is sick, to a specialist. And a specialist, well now that is really expensive. But we are sure that [Mn contamination] is affecting us. What we don't know is how, but we do, we do realize it and we do know that it is the mine that is affecting us. (Chiconcoac, 39-year-old male)

Similarly, the government agencies' position on the problem and type of relationship they established with the mining company are factors perceived by the residents as unfavorable to risk management and that increase the risk to the collective health of the region. The residents have a negative image of both the mining company and the governmental institutions in the area. They believe that government agencies, such as health agencies, municipal and state authorities, and the state congress, favor mining interests. This is observed in the following testimony of one of the interviewees:

Since the company has a lot of money they would just go to those who do the studies and they would give them money and that would be the end of it. And I don't know if you have seen that sometimes they come here to put up monitors but they only put up those monitors when there is no contamination. And when there is [contamination] they don't [put them up]…because the government is the one who defends the company. It doesn't defend the people but rather the company. Well the company pays them taxes. (Chiconcoac, 50-year-old male)

4.6. Risk and Benefit

Another component of the residents' social representation of mining activity is the inequality between its risks and benefits. The people interviewed indicated that the mining company has obtained huge profits from the exploitation and sale of Mn. They expressed that mining activity has also brought positive things such as jobs for some of the people in the community and some social development projects, but they are not sufficient in quantity or quality since they are subjected to illnesses and constant environmental degradation. As one of the interviewees said:

I have always felt that we are facing a giant because we continue to be contaminated and it does not directly benefit us. Someone who has a job now at least they are benefiting, but many, most of the people are not. We are being affected even without obtaining anything. They are getting the wealth but all we are getting is the contamination. (Tolago, 39-year-old male)

Unlike the comments by the residents, the mining company representative indicated that the company is a benefactor because it provided more benefits to the communities than what it should have provided. In addition, the interviewee mentioned that they had meetings with officials at the beginning of each municipal government term to inform them of the budget amount designated by the company to the communities:

Talks have been held with the municipal presidents at the beginning of their administrations and they are told, well here we are and we have in the annual operating budget an amount for aid…there are meetings with them. The social commitment is with the communities that are nearest and they are responded to…the company is providing much more than what is legally required. (mining company representative)


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. 4. RESULTS

According to the analyzed testimonies, it can be said that fundamentally different and even opposing social representations of mining activities exist among the social actors participating in the study. On the one hand, the residents in the mining district consider mining activity as synonymous with environmental contamination, which has affected all parts of their surroundings, health, and daily life. On the other hand, the public officials and mining company representative see it as a generator of development and consider the contamination it generates as a secondary problem with no local or regional environmental impact.

On the basis of a superficial analysis, it could be said that the distance among the perspectives and positions of the actors would indicate that the process of communicating risks—implemented when the initial studies were conducted—has not been as successful as expected because mining activity represents risks for some actors and benefits for others. It is worth mentioning that the process implemented in these communities to communicate risks did not follow a traditional sequence, which first identifies the danger, routes of exposure, and dose response and then addresses management and risk communication. In this case, the risk communication was included during the early stages of the evaluation of risks and involved working with two strategies. One strategy occurred at the community level through a process created to reflect and exchange opinions about Mn and its effects on health as well as to discuss the results generated during the research process. The other strategy took place at an interinstitutional level with federal, state, and municipal authorities and the mining company itself with the understanding that these are the key actors responsible for decision making about reducing emissions and managing risk in the mining district.

Nevertheless, the question to be discussed at this time is whether the social representation of mining activity and its associated risks are created only based on a process of communicating risks or whether other factors and processes are involved and the identification of those factors. We believe that the social representation of mining activity has been created not only out of a program to communicate risks but also from a set of social, political, cultural, and institutional factors, and processes that are socially and historically determined. The current social representations of the residents of the mining district reflect what everyone knows about Mn contamination and the way in which they give meaning to the risks; they are part of today's social collective knowledge in the communities. These representations are the result of the residents' original perceptions and their view of natural and social environments as well as the health–illness process. They also result from their experience over the last 50 years with mining exploitation and their contact with institutions managing risk in the zone over the past decade. That is, social representations are the result of the social, historical, and political contexts in which the risks occur.

In traditional societies such as the communities in the mining district, the thinking is more holistic than in nontraditional societies where nature is seen as separate from human beings. In the holistic view of the residents, air contaminated with Mn dust affects all of the elements and when humans come into contact with it illnesses are produced. Their knowledge about the air enables them to differentiate between when it is clean and when it is contaminated based on its density and smell. They also can differentiate between a “good” (not contaminated) cloud and a “bad” (contaminated) one. This model is consistent with that of Lammel,[25] who discussed the perception and representation of risks related to contamination among Totonac indigenous peoples in the state of Veracruz. Their view of mining contamination was established in the social imaginary over time. It involved underlying cultural suppositions related to idealizations of what is socially “appropriate” and schemes for interpreting reality[26] as “abnormal” or “matter out of place.”[27] They saw the contamination as directly crossing the boundaries of space or personal safety, as other studies have indicated.[28, 29]

These notions about contamination and the health–illness process in these communities in Hidalgo's High Sierra contain elements of the Nahuatl view of the world and nature mixed with other elements they have been experiencing and learning about. There are studies that mention how for the Nahuatl, contamination is an issue deeply rooted in their view. The natural environment is of primordial importance to them not only because of what it provides—such as food and elements for their subsistence—but also because it transcends the material world since it is connected with the symbolic concept that man has about his environment.[30] On the basis of this view, health–illness is closely related to balances and imbalances in different areas—natural, social, and divine—and the loss of health is due to an imbalance in one of these areas.[31]

The experience the residents have had over the last 50 years of mining exploitation has been more negative than positive since it has had a strong impact on their social and cultural structure. Although mining activity has created paying jobs for the inhabitants in some communities and provided for the construction of services, it has also generated other impacts. It has transformed land use, which has resulted in a decrease in the amount of agricultural land, an increase in excavations and detonations, and the release of dust and gas into the air. This caused air pollution and damage to residents' housing, affected pastures and crops, and contaminated rivers, water currents, soil, and grasses. Livestock deaths have occurred and the population began to observe harm to their health during the most critical period of contamination. Thus, expectations gradually began to turn into constant concern for the residents in the region and have even led to conflict and social mobilization, as documented in Section 'BACKGROUND' of this article. The social and political factors involved in the construction and management of risk in the Molango mining region are widely described by Paz.[10, 11, 32] What we can say here is that this process exemplifies how the construction of what can be called an environmental problem is not only a product of objective conditions related to contamination arising over the years but also the result of a process that occurred over time involving collective definitions based on certain conditions. This is consistent with research by Best[33] about the construction of social problems.

Other factors exist that are involved in social representation. First, the residents of the Molango mining district have historically lived in poverty conditions, which lead to high vulnerability and can result in a constant state of uncertainty and fear. Many studies have suggested that environmental damage can take on a particular meaning for impoverished populations. A study conducted in 14 developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to evaluate the meaning of the natural environment in impoverished areas shows that there is a common perception among the poor. They consider the quality of the environment to be a significant determinant of health1 as well as the development of their capacities. It is also considered essential to meeting their needs for security, energy, and quality housing. Access to and control of natural resources were emphasized in rural areas in terms of food security and agricultural production.[34] Thus, various studies have documented how poor people who live in rural zones are particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation because of their dependence on natural resources.[35]

Studies in Zimbabwe have shown that the use of wildlife resources by rural homes for consumption and sale is quite broad (fruits, vegetables, birds, insects, animals, fish, medicinal plants, wood, and foraging for animals). These studies suggest that such resources can play a significant role in the economy of homes because access is collective and they do not require human labor for their reproduction.[36] Meanwhile, there are no studies that demonstrate the degree to which the loss of flora in the Molango mining region may be attributable to Mn contamination and its impact on household economies and breaks in consumption patterns. Nevertheless, the residents' degree of dependence on environmental resources is suggested by their references to the effects of contamination: death of domestic animals (cattle livestock) during the most serious period of contamination, disappearance of horticulture, loss of fruits from their patio gardens and/or parcels, death of fish and other water species, and decrease of very important crops in the region, such as corn and coffee. This dependency is seen as degraded or threatened by contamination and this effect is magnified by the poverty conditions of the communities, which are considered to be highly marginalized.[21]

For example, in the mining zone of Cajamarca, Peru, extraction and processing of gold has generated significant contamination. The poorest families there do not use domestic animals for their own consumption but rather they are exchanged for other goods and products or other animals. In cases of extreme necessity, they are sold to pay for certain expenses such as medicine, school fees, or funerals. Because the death of a domestic animal puts the household economy of farming families at risk—especially those maintained by women—the death of animals in that community due to causes attributable to mining contamination is a major source of concern. Similarly, the effect of contamination of plants is a concern for women from Cajamarca because the crops lost as a result of mining contamination were mostly used for self-consumption and to a lesser degree for exchange. This puts the nutrition of the rural population at risk and, thus affects their quality of life and health status.[20]

Studies about risk perception conducted in the zone have shown that some perceived risks were consistent with those observed by epidemiological studies, such as learning delays, attention deficit, and memory loss in children.[8, 9] Evidence of this agreement between what can be called sociocultural epidemiology and biomedical epidemiology has also been shown in mining contamination in the Cantumarca Zone in the municipality of Potosi, Bolivia.[37] Nevertheless, other risks also exist in our case—such as burning eyes, itchy nose, cough, and sore throat—that may be more related to exposure to sulfur dioxide emitted by the processing plant than to Mn exposure. What is consistent between the scientific evidence and folk knowledge are the ways in which Mn enters the body primarily through inhalation and secondarily through ingestion. Air plays an important role in both cases, which is consistent with that documented by Catalán et al.[8]

The health risks related to environmental contamination from Mn reported by the residents can be analyzed in a broader context based on the model proposed by Phil Brown.[38] This model analyzed how breast cancer and asthma are environmentally induced diseases and critiqued the dominant epidemiological model that presumes that the cause of the disease is related to individual factors while ignoring social and environmental causes. Brown's model is based on three axes: (1) upstream–downstream, (2) individual risk factor/community level environmental hazards, and (3) lay involvement in research. Brown emphasized the importance of social movements in mobilizing these debates both in academia as well as politics. Nevertheless, the study is not about the facts themselves but rather how the phenomenon is perceived and represented and the processes that facilitate or determine social constructions.

Another factor involved in the construction of the social representation of residents is their view of the actors responsible for mitigating the contamination. This is a result of the historical relationship of the communities with the government and mining company. In an attempt to repair the damages and in a certain way to avoid confrontation with the communities, the mining company began to negotiate directly to resolve some of the communities' demands and began to provide materials to compensate for the affected property. Paz[10] analyzed governance in the mining district and documented five agreements signed between 1987 and 1991 by the mine with the federal government and some of the communities affected to compensate for damages through in-kind payments or particular services. This author indicated that the mine had contributed money to political campaigns and supported municipal presidents and party and government leaders, and in exchange some authorities have shown a good deal of solidarity with the industry when confronted with their responsibility for the ecological degradation and its impact on the health of the population. This has generated in the communities mistrust of the company, governments, and entities in charge of risk management in the mining district. Finally, the social representation of unequal risks and benefits is understandable. The income and profits of the company have grown such that in the first quarter of 2010, the company was the leader among the 10 companies in the Mexican stock market (Banca Mexicana de Valores) with the most growth.[39] In contrast, the results of scientific studies continue to show evidence of harm to the population's health. Most of them continue to live in conditions of poverty and high social deprivation according to information from the National Population Council[21] and the National Committee for the Evaluation of Social Development Policies (Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social—CONEVAL).[40]

Meanwhile, elements underlying the social representation of public officials include the company's provision of public services to the communities (a function that is the responsibility of the state) and the generation of jobs. Furthermore, the public officials' lack of responsibility and self-defined role to mediate conflicts instead of mitigate or reduce the risks from Mn is due to the government dealing with the problem as conflicts of interest between private parties instead of confronting it as an issue of public concern, as mentioned by Paz.[10] For example, the public officials demanded in-kind and cash payments from the company to “compensate for damages.”

The social representations that have been generated by the conflict and the way it has been handled has led to these actors adopting a position today. The municipal presidents in the five municipalities involved do not seem to take responsibility for managing the problem and continue to fail to include the issue in their municipal development plans.[10, 11]

The mining representative's social representation of the lack of harm and the company's discrediting of the risks perceived by the residents is a result of the relationship that the company has had with the communities in which physical violence was substituted by symbolic violence and obligations by favors and privileges.[10] The social representation of the company as socially and environmentally responsible is inconsistent with that recently indicated by the Secretary of Employment and Social Welfare in the sense that the Autlán Mine is one of the mines with the highest risks, and where at least 150 observations need to be corrected in order to avoid work-related accidents.[41]

What is clear is that the large distance among social representations makes it difficult to incorporate the different actors in a risk management plan for the mining district. This undoubtedly has a consequence on greater exposure and risks to the collective health. It also exemplifies how the study of social representations helps to understand how the social construction of risk in the mining district region developed out of perceptions as well as the conditions of vulnerability in which the residents of the region live. Thus, there is a need to deconstruct representations that segregate, exclude, and prevent the advancement toward reaching minimal agreements to manage risk. It may be necessary to implement a co-orientation strategy based on the context as proposed by Kirsten et al.[42] A co-orientation methodology uses agreement and accuracy variables to develop four possible scenarios: true consensus, dissensus, false conflict, and false consensus. A very useful strategy to make it possible to engage in a participatory process in the risk management plan in the mining district would be to identify the co-orientation context and design the types of communications that would be most appropriate to that scenario. That is, the results clearly show that the residents, public officials, and mining company have different social representations regarding the risks and benefits of mining. Therefore, incorporating the co-orientation perspective could help to identify whether each group recognizes the social representations of others and if they perceive agreement or disagreement among them. If this exercise identifies disagreement among the actors, as suggested by the results of this study, we would say that dissension is prevalent and communication models should be focused on emphasizing dialogue and mutual learning so as to understand the interests and values underlying the different positions held by the social actors. An intervention could be designed to improve risk communication in such a way that the different social actors recognize the social representations of “others” as legitimate and respect them. This would reflect great progress toward achieving social participation in risk management.

A co-orientation evaluation can facilitate that process while also taking into account what was mentioned earlier about social representations of risk consisting not only of a risk communication process, but also involving other elements such as the political, social, and economic contexts as well as the historical relationships among the different actors.

If the objective of the Intersectoral Group on Environmental Management for the mining district is to encourage social participation in risk management—which involves the shared building of dialogues and negotiations among the diverse actors[43]—then these results must be taken into account and the role they have played in environmental management should be more thoroughly analyzed.

This study was carried out in 2006, and it is worth mentioning that the state government and mining company began to work on action plans to decrease Mn emissions in order to reduce exposure after the National Institute of Public Health communicated the latest results to the different actors (including those herein) and issued recommendations. A new stage of the project is currently underway to evaluate the risks and social representations of risk based on the implementation of these control measures.

While this study does not identify new and/or emergent elements that contribute to the construction of the theory of social representations, it is important to mention that it does make it possible to understand a specific situation. In this case the socioenvironmental problems related to mining in Mexico can be understood. Here, a series of initiatives or collective actions for risk management were carried out in response to social, local, and global demand without equal representation in the process or even a participation that the different social actors most desired. It was, therefore, necessary to identify theoretical frameworks to understand this situation. Social representation theory was ideal since an understandable framework for the problem could be built by identifying the different concepts about what represents a risk to the different actors. Thus, the theoretical contribution of this work is based on the proposition that the inclusion and comparison of different actors (representations) is necessary in order to understand a phenomenon and identify its contribution to the social construction of risk.

Therefore, the contextual characteristics need to be considered in a study of this nature so that the results presented herein are explained by the conditions described about mining practices in Mexico, and that perspective helps us to understand other processes pertaining to similar contexts.


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  6. 4. RESULTS

We want to extend our gratitude to the people who participated in this study and the local authorities that supported the performance of the study in the communities of the Molango Mining District, Hidalgo. The project was approved by the Science and Bioethics Research Committee at the National Institute for Respiratory Diseases, and financed by the International Development and Research Center (IDRC) of Canada, Project 100662.

  1. 1

    This perception is consistent with the World Health Organization (WHO), which calculates that 24% of the worldwide morbidity burden and 23% of all deaths can be attributed to environmental factors, and in developing countries the percentage of morbidity attributable to environmental causes is 25%. A. Prüss-Üstün, C. Corvalán. Ambientes saludables y prevención de enfermedades: hacia una estimación de la carga de morbilidad atribuible al medio ambiente: resumen de orientación.


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