Mining and resistance in Latin America

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Moving towards a ‘post-extractive model’ and living well?

By César Padilla*

The increase in mining activities in Latin America has not slowed since the middle of the 90s. The region attracts around 27% of all investment in this sector and there are many projects which are yet to start. Some countries base their exports on mining and others are trying to join the list.

Chile and Perú top the ranking of mining countries par excellence, whilst Colombia is trying to start the “mining engine” so as to be part of the club and Argentina is fighting to compete for the investments of the major transnationals. Bolivia, traditionally a mining country, this year has managed to revive the stagnant sector, reaching mineral export figures which are on a par with hydro-fuel exports. An effort to nationalise mining and sectoral law reforms are giving renewed spirit to this activity, which is increasingly in the hands of the State.

The temptation of mining

What is certain is that mining has been a part of the ‘extractive strategies’ adopted by the majority of the countries of the region, irrespective of the political leanings of their governments or whether they have traditionally been mining countries.

The international economic scene, on the other hand, has favoured the strengthening of mining activity, due to the high demand for minerals coming from countries in Asia. This has increased the price of non-precious metals, such as copper, to historical levels. Furthermore, in times of crisis, gold becomes a safe haven and demand increases at the same level as it protects the currency assets, when faced with a generalised monetary crisis.

Both the extractive direction of almost all the countries of Latin America, as well as the behaviour of the international markets, which tend towards an increase in demand and prices, have been consolidating in order to create a scenario which favours greater expansion of mining in the region.

These countries have opted to profit from this context, in order to gain greater income by attracting Direct Foreign Investment and minerals exports, accentuating in many cases the primary exporting role which has little added value.

Despite the signs which show that, in many cases, extraction can cause the so called Dutch disease and that the abundance of raw material, which although seemingly brings luck, is instead a curse which perpetuates poverty and dependence, the majority of governments are opting for this economic growth strategy, be it for increasing growth or to pay social debts, in the case of left wing governments.

Refusal of communities and resistance

On the other hand, the pressure on the territories has been causing increasing rejection from the local communities and more conflicts with the mining companies and the States. The undeniable and well known impacts of mining have led to each project being accompanied by a rejection from the community. The increasingly generalised perception is that mining affects the environment, uses up water sources, is polluting and is full of danger due to the toxic substances used. This has led to an increased questioning of mining.

We can also add to the list of objections; the promises and deceptions on development, employment and regeneration of local economies, as well as the human rights violations, the imposition of projects, the criminalisation of the opposition to the activity, forced displacements or occupation of ancestral territories. Mining is therefore an activity which increasingly generates resistance by local communities. A sign if this has been the proliferation of socio-environmental conflicts as soon as a future project is announced.

This process of rejection has had the consequence of strengthening anti-mining movements and diversifying the different strategies used in the struggles. In the last five years we have seen a clear marked increase in organisations which are against mining activities. Important intellectuals have taken up the cause as well as the Catholic Church in Latin America, where movements linked to liberation theology have also joined this struggle on the basis on ‘care of creation’.

Resistance to mining in a context of greater awareness on the environment is leading to increasing attacks made by the media and official social defamations of all types, where not even the measures of the Inter-American Committee of Human Rights (IACHR) are able to intervene.

It is, perhaps for this very reason that resistance to mining is increasingly coming “from the ground”. These are the very communities that have been proposing greater limits on mining activities. The successful cases of resistance, which fortunately are increasing with time, are those supported by actions of these communities. The official institutions have had to respond, through varied measures, to the community demands.

The indigenous communities and their organisations have played a fundamental role in strategies used to defend territories. Both in Bagua, in Peru, as well as resistance in the Ecuadorian amazon against extraction projects, are a clear sign of this. The struggles of indigenous resistance to mining in Guatemala and recently, in Panama, are further examples.

Criminalization

Peru and Ecuador have shown significant processes of criminalisation of social protest, with hundreds being charged, whilst in Colombia, Mexico and other countries in Central America, direct violence is used, which is generally carried out at the hand of irregular groups or mercenaries who are serving the interests of transnationals and national partners. The absence, negligence or ineffectiveness of the State must also be considered as an indirect form of criminalisation.

Organisations

The coordination processes have fundamentally contributed to actions of resistance and organisation when faced with the rush towards mining in Latin America. Solidarity, both technical and human rights and environment based, amongst the communities and supporting organisations, is an expression of these processes.

The exchange of information, the creation of joint strategies and articulated campaigns are supporting the resistance of communities affected by mining. These actions not only address the region of Latin America but they also include, and increasingly so, organisation of the Northern hemisphere. There has been a globalisation of anti-mining struggles in the region. At the moment we see campaigns against the businesses VALE, Newmont, Barrick Gold, Goldcorp; and other more general campaigns, such as that against the use of cyanide in the region’s mining activities.

Cross Cutting Extraction

Both the countries with neo-liberal regimes (such as Chile, Peru and Colombia), as well as those linked to the left or XXIst century socialism (Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) are putting their energy into economic growth based on extractive activities.

Many communities and critical social actors laid great hopes in alternative governments, believing that, out of social and environmental justice, as well as out of sovereignty and respect for the communities, that mining would be treated with caution, by re-evaluating above all the transnational mining activities and their bad practices.

Contrary to these hopes, extraction still exists and is firmly implemented within the alternative governments, who justify the negative effects of mining under the pretext of paying social historical debts (no doubt deserved by the impoverished and neglected sectors of society). The concept of “sacrifice”, used for the environmental and social destruction of mining, is adopted by some countries in order to justify the supposed need for national extraction.

Bolivia, for example, has a large artisan or small mining sector, known as “cooperative-based mining”, which has not managed to make significant changes towards the perception of trans-national mining. The re-nationalisation of the Huanuni mine, which was privatised during the neo-liberal governments and which was returned to the State by Morales’ government, shows a vision of mining, in socio-environmental terms, which is identical to any other trans-national mining activity.

This has been seen in the denouncements made in the communities along the bank of the Huanuni river or the Uru Uru and Poopo lakes, who are suffering dumping of mining waste into their river beds and basins. This dumping affects traditional agricultural practices or artisan fishing in the aforementioned lakes. There was also a dispute over water in San Cristóbal, which signals a similar phenomenon in Potosí.

Towards a post-extractives model?

These aforementioned cases show that the extractive model does not follow a development model which is ideologically divided between traditional right wing neoliberal thought and that which some people call the ‘neo-extractive left wings’. The concept of ‘post extraction’ is not a vision which the government has. If it were, it is only associated with the depletion of natural resources, more specifically in reference to the non-renewable. However, post-extraction is beginning to enter into the debate, when faced with the failure of extractives as a development strategy. This trend changes according to the demands made by the communities who are affected by mining, and the extent to which they are ignored by those who govern the region.

In order to create pressure for a change of paradigm of extraction or post-extraction, different arguments are used, ranging from the 169 ILO convention to the destruction of the planet and of the indigenous concept of sumaj kausay (well being), as an alternative.

Unlimited extraction has led to an increasing number of groups in Latin America which have confronted this irrational style of economic growth which in reality is impoverishing and have proposed real alternatives both to mining and to social injustice in general. The process of restriction, and even prohibition, of mining as a main development model has been gathering strength in the region.

The laws banning mining in Costa Rica, the failure to modify the mining law in Panamá, the rejection of granting compensation in the Cabañas case of El Salvador, the Yasuní proposals in Ecuador and the questioning of the GreyStar project in the moors of Santander in Colombia, as well as other examples, are signs, even partial ones, of success of the movements who are critical or opposed to mining in Latin America.

The ideas on post-extraction are still at the early stages. Nevertheless, it has been gaining strength in a context which has been plagued by recurring crises (such as the most recent financial property crisis), which have been created and sustained within the capitalist system.

Perhaps the strengthening of the post-extraction proposals has diminished the race to the bottom without having any alternatives. Perhaps managing to understand the sumaj kausay, and daring to live it, is part of the key to overcoming the socio-environmental crises, which up until now, have been caused by extreme and irrational extraction and a form of capitalism which refuses to recognise limits. At least alternatives to this way of living gives hope to the communities of Latin America and the world.

*César Padilla is coordinator of the Observatory for Mining Conflicts of Latin America, Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina (OCMAL).

This article was published in nº 47 of Pueblos - Revista de Información y Debate, tercer trimestre de 2011 (Information and Debate Journal, third trimester of 2011).

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