In this Yes to Life, No to Mining emblematic case study, Joám Evans Pim, villager in the Frojám Community Conserved Area and activist in Galician anti-mining network ContraMINAcción, explains how small communities like Frojám are confronting destructive mining by regenerating community governance and traditional territories.

Mining in Galiza: Romans, fraudsters and killing fields

Significant mining in Galiza can be traced back to the ancient Roman invasion of the region. This brought with it gold mining on an previously un-seen scale and left profound scars on both the landscape and indigenous societies.

Galiza lies on the north west Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula (top left of this satellite image).

Although indigenous Galizans were themselves skilled metallurgists, up until the arrival of the Romans the ores they worked were gathered on a small scale, leaving almost no trace in the archaeological record. It took almost 2,000 years after the end of Roman mining in Galiza for developments of a comparable scale to re-emerge.

During the late 19th century a number of foreign investors entered Galiza, following regulatory changes that created favourable conditions for opening of new mines. One such investor was a former tanner and city councillor from Coventry in the United Kingdom, named Gilbert Burbury.

Burbury had moved to Galiza after his arrest in the UK during the 1860s on charges of fraud. In 1883, Burbury and his son applied for mining concessions in the foothills of the Frojám Commons in Galiza. They called their concessions ‘Phoenicia’- a romantic reference to the mythical Cassiteride Islands, where tin was said to exist in legendary abundance.

A map of Europe according to Greek geographer Strabo, featuring the mythical Cassiteride Islands to the north west of Iberia. Photo: Wikimedia

For over a century, under various owners, the group of concessions started by Burbury remained active, becoming one of the largest sources of tin and tungsten in the Kingdom of Spain.

Throughout the 20th Century, metal mined in Frojám and neighbouring common lands helped fuel the killing fields of Europe.

In 1914 the British Ministry for Munitions purchased the San Finx Mine - built by Burbury at the site of his original concessions - as part of efforts to deprive the German armed forces of tungsten supplies. Then, at the outbreak of World War II the mine fell into the hands of the Spanish fascists under dictator Francisco Franco and helped fuel the metal-hungry Nazi war effort.

During these conflicts, mine profits skyrocketed due to the demand for munitions. Galizan common lands (lands held 'in common' by communities, rather than privately owned) were ransacked- ravaged by open pit mines that left behind lunar landscapes.

What is Tungsten?

Tungsten means 'heavy stone' in Swedish

Also known as Wolfram ('wolf dirt' in German), it is the strongest natural metal on Earth.

It has played a central role in the evolution of military technology in the 20th Century.

For example, tungsten mined at San Finx contributed to the manufacture of high velocity shells with a tungsten carbide core, first used by Nazi armed forces to pierce the armour of British tanks.

Vital to a variety of emerging military, renewable energy and consumer technologies, demand for tungsten is predicted to skyrocket again in coming decades.

A legacy of destruction

The collapse of international metal prices in the 1980s led to the collapse of mining operations in San Finx and other similar developments. Mines were abandoned, while administrations turned a blind eye to lack of restoration, pollution from acid mine drainage and safety threats from the scattered pits and shafts.

It was left to communities like Frojám to take on restoration efforts at their own expense, sealing off hazardous pits and replanting degraded areas with trees.

A photo of the San Finx mine site, taken in the 1990s. Photo: Vida e Ría

In spite of being abandoned, the concession holders at San Finx maintained the fiction of activity at the mine until the year 2000 to avoid the expiration of their permits. During this time the owners also continued to show hostility toward common land communities like Frojám that unilaterally took action to re-occupy the lands that had been taken by mining and degraded for decades.

In the late 1990s, the San Finx Mine Director threatened to cut down trees planted over former mining grounds, saying:

“You plant them, but we’ll see who fells them”.

'Critical minerals': a mine re-born

The recovery of metal prices in the second half of the 2000s, immediately after the burst of the Spanish property bubble, brought about a new, highly speculative and on-going rush to extract metal ores in Galicia, backed by EU policies incentivising the domestic extraction of 'critical' raw materials, including tin and tungsten.

Photos from the current San Finx mining site. Photos: YLNM

As open pit developments extracting aggregates for construction in the context of the 1995-2008 housing boom started to go out of business, a number of investors associated themselves as a company named Incremento Grupo Inversor, with the aim of revamping abandoned metal mines, including the San Finx, Santa Comba and Touro deposits in Galiza.

In reality, the company only managed to mine large pots of public money in the form of subsidies from friendly administrations. Incremento Grupo Inversor raked in 2 million Euros in just three years, without making significant progress to re-open the mines. When debts surfaced, the company declared bankruptcy and the San Finx mine was handed over to SACYR, a large Spanish construction conglomerate.

Since the nominal reopening of the San Finx mine in 2008, first by Incremento Grupo Inversor, then SACYR, surrounding common land communities and mussel gatherers and fishermen’s guilds of the estuary area just 7km downstream have repeatedly confronted the mining companies and the Galician administration to stop the appropriation of common land and the pollution of the river with heavy metals.

The Muros-Noia Estuary, with mussel-growing platforms in the bay. The rivers that run past and through the San Finx mine site empty into this estuary. Photo: Wikimedia

Their stories of resistance are paralleled by ongoing struggles against a new mining 'boom' throughout Galiza- from the successful battle of Corcoesto to the protracted conflicts still underway in Triacastela and Terra Chá, Touro and the Ulha basin.

People of the common land

Farmers and Commoners, Frojám, Galicia, 1986. Credit: ICCA Consortium

Frojám is one of many small communities in Galicia that falls under the rather unique category of Common Land Communities (Comunidades de Montes Vizinhais). It is also one of the first recognised Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) in Europe.

About ¼ of Galiza’s total land mass (29,574 km2) is officially classified as Common Land, belonging to 3,300 Common Land Communities. These communities vary in size from a few hectares to several thousand hectares ―the average being around 200 hectares― and from just one or two 'open houses' (casa aberta) ―homes in which people still live― to hundreds or even thousands, the average being around 40 houses. All in all, approximately 15% of Galizan population lives in commons open houses.

What is an ICCA?

  • A people or community closely connected to a well-defined territory;
  • Where the community is the major player in decision-making (governance) about, and management of, the territory;
  • And the community's management decisions and efforts lead to the conservation of the territory and associated cultural values.

There are considerable differences in terms of how active these communities are. Many have been dormant for decades, abandoned as the land they are entitled to has come under the direct control of the government or extractive companies through contractual arrangements or outright occupation. Others suffer the same chronic corruption and authoritarian control that is endemic in the local structures of the state.

Corporations and governments alike are aware that small, ageing, economically deprived communities present very little or no resistance to imposed extractive projects. They enlist local 'caciques' (political power-brokers) to sow social disinformation and disunity as a prime strategy to minimise social contestation.

A farming family working the lands of the people of Frojám. Credit: ICCA Consortium

However, because of their relative freedom from the political control of the State, some common land communities have also become fertile ground for the development of emancipatory alternatives that challenge injustices like rural depopulation, suppression of public services and imposed extractive projects.

Frojám, and other common land communities like it, maintain traditional practices of direct assembly democracy and collective decision-making. They are also responsible, in many cases, for basic services such as water supply, distributing the wealth of the forests and income among commoner open houses. They retain great independence.

Galizan common lands also represent the immemorial ties between people and territory. This intimate connection has sustained a contemporary reclamation of ‘indigeneity’ by Galizan traditional rural communities who increasingly feel threatened by encroachments that challenge their ability to sustain traditional governance and land practices that are increasingly foreign to mainstream Galizan society.

Frojám's resistance to mining is that of a commoning community in this distinct, emancipatory tradition.

Fire and water

In 1889, the chief mining engineer for the Government’s Mining District of Ourense and Ponte Vedra, Mr. Antonio Eleicegui, complained about the Spanish State’s inability to confront native Galizans in their opposition to Burbury’s mining operations:

“Although the Civil Governor has addressed the complaints [of the prospector], the truth is the indigenous people are able to foil the mandates of authority”
The large riverine mine tailings dam, built in 1939 and abandoned in 2000, is of great concern to communities downstream. Photo: Vida e Ria

Two years later, the people of Carbia set fire to the British prospector's home, initiating a resistance campaign that continued until 1906, when the roof of Burbury's house was blown up with dynamite.

Popular resistance to this specific mine motivated the first known environmental lawsuit in Galiza, over river pollution and ecological damage caused by mining, in 1914.

In one of the first known appearances of Frojám in the modern press, a small notice in the May 21st 1901 issue of La Correspondencia Gallega indicates that:

“The majority of the peoples of the villages of Frojám, Silva Redonda and Vilas, in the district of Lousame, are opposed to the water concession requested by Mr. Henry Winter Burbury to use the waters of the Frojám and Silva streams.”

More than 100 years later Mr. Burbury's name appeared again, in the Galizan Official Bulletin, as Incremento Grupo Inversor attempted to revive his 1898 water concession to bring the San Finx mine back into operation, and a new story of fire and water began.

As they had many years before, common lands communities affected by the mine met to discuss how to resist the company's plans to reoccupy their respective territories. The resistance that has emerged to obstruct the resurrected San Finx Project- which we'll explore in more detail later- has been met with attempts at intimidation and coercion.

A river courses through Frojám community commons.

On the morning of May 1, 2016, villagers in Frojám sensed, from the strong north-easterly wind, that a forest fire had begun to rage across their common land. Quad bikes had been heard moments earlier in the north-eastern zone of the Commons, and as soon as the first clouds of smoke were seen, villagers rushed toward them equipped with basic fire-fighting gear.

The immediate intervention of the villagers and, soon after, the fire service, managed to halt a quickly advancing fire that the wind was pushing toward the small community. A dense oak wood that serves as a living firebreak reduced the damage to about 10 hectares (10.000 m2) of the commons’ 100 hectares of ancestral land.

Wildfires, like this blaze near Vigo, Galicia, can spread rapidly and cause massive destruction in Galiza's forests. Photo: Wikimedia- Contando Estrelas.

Even before the last flames were put out, people in Frojám had begun to believe that the fire was set intentionally in the most favourable conditions and best locations for causing maximum harm and damage.

For decades, fire has been used in rural Galiza as a means to keep people scared and silent. Just months before the forest fire was set, a delegation of villagers from Frojám and the neighbouring commons had urged the new managers of the San Finx mine, SACYR, to meet with them, demanding that the integrity of their land be respected.

Sarcastically, the mining engineers responded:

“Don’t worry, we’re already leaving!”

Revival and resistance: expanding common ground

When the last flames of the May 2016 fire in Frojám were put out, a decision needed to be made: retreat or contestation?

Rain clouds over the forested hillsides of Frojám. Photo: Enteng Bautista, YLNM

The history of Galizan indigenous communities is one of resistance through rhizomatic - 'root-like' - networks that have enabled dispersed and geographically isolated communities to work collectively to fend off multiple threats.

Immediately after the fires, Frojám chose the path of contestation and sought to begin reconnecting this root-system of indigenous Galizan social organisation.

A map of Frojám community common land. Photo: ICCA Consortium

Frojám has focused resistance efforts on gaining greater recognition for its status as a commons, cared for and shared by and for the community; a status that is anathema to the privatised, market-oriented world of mining corporations and states.

The village has achieved this through strategic engagement with new paradigms of protected areas; actively re-occupying and regenerating lands occupied by the State and mining companies; and creating horizontal connections with new allies locally, regionally and globally.

Building solidarity

The main obstacle small rural communities resisting large, sometimes multinational, corporations face is the perception that 'it’s only us against them'. The feeling of impotence and fear of reprisals that arises from this mindset is often paralyzing.

Fishermen from the Muros Noia Estuary share a platform with commons farmers at a public gathering on the subject of mining. Photo: YLNM

As in the traditional Hawaiian ahupua‘a mountain-to-sea ecosystems, a sense emerged that a watershed root-system of action needed to be nurtured in response to mining in Galiza- from the headwater forests where Frojám lies, to the beaches and mussel gathering sand banks in the estuary, where the rivers born in the forests empty into the sea.

The circle of concern has already widened significantly, as Frojám has joined and found allies in regional anti-mining network ContraMINAccíon, and collectives of citizens and associations concerned about water, like Vida e Ría.

Regional representatives from the YLNM Network at the San Finx mine site in 2017. Photo: YLNM

The people of Frojám have also reached out beyond Galiza and Spain to build wider networks. In March 2017, Frojám welcomed visitors from around the world. Delegates from the international Yes to Life No to Mining Network- hailing from Australia, Finland, Philippines, New Zealand, Nigeria, Colombia and the UK- exchanged views and facilitated a discussion among a dozen groups in the wider Lousame area.

Re-connecting with the land

In Frojám, as the conflict with the mine peaked in 2016, the idea of opening the commons to schools and families from around the area was raised, seeking to engage children and their parents with how Galizan communities feel and relate to their land.

The interruption of intergenerational continuity in the stewardship of common land communities and their commons is as threatening as dispossession, and eventually leads to the extinction of communities.

In March 2017, two schools (approximately 150 participants) initiated the Montescola Programme in Frojám, restoring an area previously degraded by acacia and eucalyptus trees and mining pits and shafts.

Volunteers and youth plant trees in Frojám. Photos: Verdegaia

Each child and their parents planted a tree and were provided with a map indicating its precise whereabouts, so that it can be easily located during future visits. The children and their families returned in January 2018 and again in March 2019 to tend to their trees and suppress acacia and eucalyptus sprouts, while proudly wearing a badge with the phrase 'Levo no coração uma árvore' ('I have a tree in my heart'). Most of them knew the location of their tree by heart and in relation to the trees of other children around it. Several children who had left the school after completing their last year still returned with their parents to renew their connection with the trees, the land and their friends.

These actions are part of a campaign to restore the areas burnt in 2016, and beyond, by planting 10,00 native trees. They are also ― and perhaps most importantly― an effort to create a place for people to assemble and work together in Frojám, expanding the circle of concern for what happens here.

Education on the land is all the more important in the face of the mining industry's attempts to mis-represent the history of Galicia as one of popular mass-extraction, in which mining is portrayed as a vital cultural and historical activity.

The Galizan mining lobby (represented by the Official Chamber of Mining) and complicit governments are insistently trying to forge this idyllic historical perspective through school materials and the San Finx Mining Museum. For communities like Frojám, this is a careful effort to hide the intensity of social conflicts and to deny the massive environmental impact of mining developments is underway.

Hundreds of school children visit the San Finx mining museum every year. Their learning experience there teaches them nothing about the 1960 mine tailings dam failure that heavily polluted areas downstream, or about the alleged long-term heavy metal contamination affecting the rich mussel gathering areas in the Muros-Noia estuary.

A shell-fish gatherer in the Muros Noia Estuary. Photo: Vida e Ría

These visits, euphemistically called 'school tourism' by the Galizan Administration, are part of a social engineering programme designed to create a positive image of the mining industry.

Ironically, many of the school children attending such visits in San Finx come from families whose livelihood directly depends on mussel gathering (over 1,500 families in the Noia area) and who have spearheaded recent protests against the mine’s pollution.

These social engineering efforts are an increasingly important field of contestation. The mining lobby is investing in the indoctrination of children now in an attempt to suppress the struggles to come in the next 15-30 years.

ICCAs: A new paradigm of protected area

Almost a year after the forest fire, representatives of the Frojám Commons sat waiting nervously in a large room in the Spanish National Environmental Education Centre (CENEAM), in Valsaín (Segovia).

For the first time, two local communities were going through a national peer-review process to be formally declared Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCA). After hearing the reports from evaluators and listening to the commoners, the committee of experts adopted the decision to approve both proposals.

In October 2017, the Frojám Commons entered the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) managed by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, making it the first ICCA to be added after going through a national peer-review process.


ICCAs represent a paradigm shift from conventional state-centric approaches to the conservation of protected areas, by recognizing the crucial role of indigenous peoples and local communities and their customary practices in the conservation of biological and cultural diversity.

This new approach, acknowledged since 2004 by a number of decisions of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is also creating new paths for ICCAs to organize and collaborate at regional and global scales, including active involvement in shifting international regulations and creating new institutions and procedures based on community governance and decision making.

Since the International ICCA Registry was established at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), a number of Galizan common land communities have been formally recognized as ICCAs.

At time of writing, four Galizan ICCAs had been included in the Registry.


In December 2017 SACYR was forced to suspend its operations in the San Finx mine after failing to obtain water discharge permits. For over a century the mine has been discharging mine drainage into the river, contaminating areas downstream, including the Muros-Noia estuary, with heavy metals.

The San Fins River runs orange with mine waste. Photo: Vida e Ría

After reopening in 2008, the administration again turned a blind eye while millions of cubic meters of heavily contaminated waters were dumped into streams. Building social pressure in 2016 made the situation unsustainable for the administration, especially after criminal investigation procedures were initiated.

However, instead of acknowledging past mistakes and trying to put an end to ongoing pollution, concession holder and administration spiralled into extravagant arguments to escape cleanup responsibilities: mythical Phoenician settlers, Almanzor’s legendary raid over Santiago’s cathedral bells, a purported natural background of heavy metals, or a non-existent hydroelectric dam, were all referred to in an attempt to deny the concession holders’ responsibility over pollution and critical infrastructures, such as the mine tailings dams.

These critical ongoing issues are magnificently dissected in the 2019 documentary San Finx 1960.

And so the struggle to stop the mine continues, as do efforts to expand the circle of concern for Froxán and strengthen solidarity.

The Compostela Declaration

In February 2019, ContraMINAcción together with Yes to Life, No to Mining brought together 14 mining awareness platforms and networks from across the Iberian Peninsula, often facing the same corporations and pro-extractivist policies.

14 Iberian platforms unite in Galiza. Photo: ContraMINAccíon

The Compostela Declaration, issued unanimously by these groups at the meeting, demands that mining corporations and their greed are not to be placed over the will and life of people and local communities, on the basis of “financial speculation, lies, skulduggery, denial of impacts, false and biased propaganda and imposition”.

"Mining is not life, but the destruction of life and of natural and cultural heritage. Mining also represents pollution, danger, precariousness, dismissal, instability, closure and abandonment." - Compostela Declaration

The Declaration identifies excessive consumption as a driver for extractivism and explores how movements can spearhead a transition towards post-extractivist societies.

These are certainly some of the greatest challenges for an emerging movement that brings together a constellation of local collectives and struggles. It is this movement that has vigorously confronted the 'Galicia is a mine' programme, creating new synergies and building a powerful critical discourse against extractivism that is slowly permeating broader sectors of society.

This emblematic case is part of the Yes to Life, No to Mining series exploring how communities around our living planet are successfully defending their lands, waters and livelihoods from mining, and building life-sustaining alternatives.

Read more about the ecology of Frojám Commons Woodlands in the ICCA Registry.

Find out more about the Frojám Community's efforts to plant 10,000 native trees and restore wet heaths, rehabilitating areas damaged by mining and the introduction of species like Eucalyptus and Acacia

Watch documentary San Finx 1960 to learn about the struggle to protect Galician waterways from mine waste.

Brought to you by the global YLNM Network. Dedicated to the community of Frojám. With thanks to Joam Evans Pím and ContraMINAccíon.