Extractivism in Latin America: the violations of rights

Latin America is at a crossroads. Either measures are put in to transition from the extractive model on which the region has become increasingly dependent in recent decades, or the situation in the region will become completely unsustainable in social, environmental and climatic terms, and even in fiscal and economic terms. The high prices of minerals and hydrocarbons, according to a study by the Latin American Network on Extractive Industries (RLIE), have quadrupled between 1990 and 2011, making the region more attractive and profitable for companies, as shown in 2013 with 27% of investments in mining exploration worldwide occurring in Latin America. At the same time, Latin American countries have it seen this as a major source of public revenues, direct foreign investment, economic growth and increasing foreign trade. That is, a range of indicators that governments like to advertise as proof of good governance.

However, on the other side of the coin is the social, environmental and climate damage which governments, businesses and international initiatives, such as the Initiative for Transparency in Extractive Industries (EITI), rarely include in their reports on the development of mining activities. Nor do they include information on the systematic violations of human rights, especially the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples that are affected by extractive activities. As journalist and Uruguayan researcher Raúl Zibechi rightly points out, “extractivism” creates a permanent state of emergency because “laws, legal protections of local populations disappear with the extractive model.”

Given this, it should be no surprise that the exploitation of minerals and hydrocarbons, but also other types of extractive activities such as hydroelectricity, forestry and agriculture, among others, is a permanent cause of social and environmental conflict in Latin America. To give just one example, the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America (OCMAL) has identified at least 210 conflicts caused by 220 mining projects and affecting 315 communities. In the list of countries where these conflicts occur, Mexico takes the lead with 37 cases, followed closely by Peru and Chile with 36 cases each, Argentina with 26 and, as further away, Colombia with 13. However, it is also important to mention the situation of countries like Honduras, which has fewer conflicts (in this case four), but where violence, harassment, criminalization and murder of defenders of human rights is particularly flagrant.

According to a study by Global Witness published in 2015, of the 116 assassinations of environmental and land activists in 2014 that could be identified (because of serious information gaps this figure is likely to be higher), three-quarters occurred in Latin America . The most dangerous country is Honduras, where there have been 111 murders of activists between 2002 and 2014, of which 40% of the victims were indigenous. The development of hydropower, mining and agro-industrial activity seem to be the main cause of these violent deaths.

The most recent case occurred only a few weeks ago, when Berta Caceres, a Lenca indigenous leader and member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was gruesomely murdered. Another victim of that attack, Gustavo Castro from the Mexican organisation Otros Mundos Chiapas and the Mesoamerican Movement against the Mining Extractive Model, has not been allowed to leave Honduras, despite the risk to his life. Days later, Nelson Garcia also from COPINH, was assassinated. This Council, as well as a number of organisations and national, regional and international actors, claim that these were not isolated cases, instead being part of a general trend of attacks on defenders of indigenous lands. In particular, they point out the direct links with the hydroelectric project Agua Zarca and place the blame on the company Desarrollos Energy.

This shows the enormous interests behind extractive projects and how entrenched corruption and collusion are within the countries of our region, where justice for these murders is rare and no impunity measures are put in place to ensure non-repetition of such acts. The attacks on Berta, Gustavo and Nelson and the official investigation that followed shows how governments join forces with companies to carry out projects to place their interests over those of the populations living in the territories that are invaded and occupied systematically by extractive activities.

Now, with the fall in the prices of minerals and hydrocarbons, the situation is exacerbating the risks, with a new scenario opening up. The decline in profitability of projects, and in generating public revenue, is being offset by an increase in production, leading to an expansion of the extractive frontier. This is accompanied by a weakening of institutions and of social and environmental regulation, neutralisation of human rights legislation, reduction and closure of civic space, increased repression, limited access to information and tax regression. The intention is to carry on with the extractive model at all costs, no matter who likes it, leading the region to a race to the bottom.

In this context, the need for alternatives to extractivism is increasingly urgent. To this end, the participation of the populations, especially those who live and love the lands they live in, is needed, such as Bertha, the COPINH and many other people throughout the Americas. Therefore, the attack on the defenders of the lands is an attack against all people, against humanity, because, besides the loss of lives, it undermines the construction of other models and lifestyles that do not endanger the populations and the environment in the region. These need to be approaches that seek to protect the entire planet, if we take into account the impact of mining activity on climate change.

That is why we join the call by RLIE and PWYP for justice for Berta and Nelson, and for the safety of Gustavo and COPINH. We demand that these and all other attacks against activists and defenders are investigated, that the real perpetrators are brought to justice and that measures to ensure non-repetition be established.

#JusticiaParaBerta / #JusticeForBerta

#SeguridadParaGustavo / #SafetyForGustavo

Follow us on Twitter: @RLIE_

Aroa is the Coordinator of the Latin American Network on Extractive Industries (RFIE) and a member of PWYP’s Global Council and of the PWYP Board

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