[News] Natural Resource Extraction vs. Indigenous Rights and the Environment in Latin America
news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Apr 25 11:17:21 EDT 2014
Weekend Edition April 25-27, 2014
*Natural Resource Extraction vs. Indigenous Rights and the Environment
in Latin America*
The Politics of Pachamama
by BENJAMIN DANGL
When I sat down to an early morning interview with Evo Morales over a
decade ago in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the then-coca farmer leader and
dissident congressman was drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice and
ignoring the constant rings of the landline phone at his union's office.
Just a few weeks before our meeting, a nation-wide social movement
demanded that Bolivia's natural gas reserves be put under state control.
How the wealth underground could benefit the poor majority above ground
was on everybody's mind.
As far as his political ambitions were concerned in terms of Bolivian
natural gas, Morales wanted natural resources to "construct a political
instrument of liberation and unity for Latin America." He was widely
considered a popular contender for the presidency, and was clear that
the indigenous politics he sought to mobilize as a leader were tied to a
vision of Bolivia recovering its natural wealth for national
development. "We, the indigenous people, after 500 years of resistance,
are retaking power. This retaking of power is oriented towards the
recovery of our own riches, our own natural resources." That was in
2003. Two years later he was elected Bolivia's first indigenous president.
Fast forward to March of this year. It was a sunny Saturday morning in
downtown La Paz, and street vendors were putting up their stalls for the
day alongside a rock band that was organizing a small concert in a
pedestrian walkway. I was meeting with Mama Nilda Rojas, a leader of the
dissident indigenous group CONAMAQ, a confederation of Aymara and
Quechua communities in the country. Rojas, along with her colleagues and
family, had been persecuted by the Morales government in part for their
activism against extractive industries in the country. "The indigenous
territories are in resistance," she explained, "because the open veins
of Latin America are still bleeding, still covering the earth with
blood. This blood is being taken away by all the extractive industries."
While Morales saw the wealth underground as a tool for liberation, Rojas
saw the president as someone who was pressing forward with extractive
industries -- in mining, oil and gas operations -- without concern for
the environmental destruction and displacement of rural communities they
left in their wake.
How could Morales and Rojas be so at odds? Part of the answer lies in
the wider conflicts between the politics of extractivism among countries
led by leftist governments in Latin America, and the politics of
/Pachamama /(Mother Earth), and how indigenous movements have resisted
extractivism in defense of their rights, land and the environment.
Since the early 2000s a wave of leftist presidents were elected in Latin
America on platforms that included using the region's vast natural
resource wealth to fund social programs, expand access to healthcare and
education, redistribute wealth, empower workers, fight poverty, and
build national economic sovereignty.
Within this shift, the state, rather than the private sphere, has taken
up a greater role in extraction to benefit wider society, rather than to
simply fill the pockets of a few CEOs of multinational corporations, as
had been the norm under neoliberal governments. The environmental and
social costs of extraction are still present, but with a different
economic vision. "Extractive activities and the export of raw materials
continue as before, but are now justified with a progressive discourse,"
explains <http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/4025> Puerto Rican
environmental journalist Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero.
While many economies and citizens have benefitted from the state's
larger involvement in the extraction of these resources, extractivism
under progressive governments, as it had under neoliberalism, still
displaces rural communities, poisons water sources, kills the soil, and
undermines indigenous territorial autonomy. As Argentine sociologist
analyst Maristella Svampa writes
Latin American "progressivism's practice and policies ultimately
correspond to a conventional and hegemonic idea of development based on
the idea of infinite progress and supposedly inexhaustible natural
resources." Buoyed by the progressive discourse and mandate of the Latin
American left, this extractive trend has produced alarming results
across the region.
Following Argentina's 2001-2002 crisis, the Nestor and Cristina Kirchner
presidencies have worked successfully to rehabilitate Argentina's
economy, empower workers, and apply progressive economic policy to make
the country more sovereign; following years of neoliberalism, where
public services and state-owned enterprises were privatized, the
Kirchners have put various industries under state control, and used new
government revenues to fund social programs and make the country less
beholden to international lenders and corporations.
As a part of this shift, in 2012, the Argentine state obtained 51%
control of the hydrocarbon company YPF, which was privatized in the
1990s. Last year, however, Argentina's YPF signed a deal with Chevron to
expand natural gas fracking in the country, operations set to proceed on
Mapuche indigenous territory. In response, indigenous communities to be
affected by the fracking took over four YPF oil rigs. "It's not just the
land they are taking," Lautaro Nahuel, of the Mapuche Confederation of
Neuquén, explained to /Earth Island Journal
"All the natural life in this region is interconnected. Here, they'll
affect the Neuquén River, which is the river we drink out of." Protests
against YPF-Chevron fracking plans are ongoing in the country.
Uruguayan President José "Pepe" Mujica, who has garnered international
attention recently for his government's legalization of marijuana,
abortion and same sex marriage, and his offer to host released
Guantanamo detainees, is moving forward with a deal with Anglo-Swiss
mining group Zamin Ferrous for a major open-pit mining operation that
would involve the extraction of 18 million tons of iron ore from the
country over the next 12-15 years. Aside from the mining operation
itself, the plan includes the construction of pipelines to ship the ore
inland to the country's Atlantic coast. Critics have pointed out that
the plan would wreak havoc on the region's biodiversity and displace
local farmers. In response to the plans, a national movement is
currently underway to organize a referendum to ban open pit mining
<http://uruguayciudadanossinmegamineria.org/> in Uruguay.
While Brazil's President Luiz Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma
Rousseff, both of the Workers' Party, have helped expand the middle
class in the country, and initiated successful social programs aimed at
eliminating poverty and hunger, their administrations have also presided
over vast economy of extractivism that leaves no place for small farmers
or environmental concerns. Brazil is home the largest mining industry in
the region: in 2011 it extracted more than twice the amount
minerals than all other South American nations combined, and is the
world's largest producer of soy, a GMO crop rapidly expanding across the
continent with a mixture of deadly pesticides that are killing the soil,
poisoning water sources, and pushing small farmers out of the
countryside and into Latin America's urban slums.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has famously championed the
environment in his country, aiding with the passage of a 2008
constitution that gave rights to nature, and beginning an initiative in
2007 to keep the oil in Ecuador's Yasuní National Park in the ground. In
exchange for not drilling the oil in this area rich in biodiversity, the
plan called for international donors to contribute $3.6 billion (half of
the oil's value) to the UN's Development Program for global programs in
healthcare, education and other areas. Last August, with only $13
million donated, and $116 million more pledged, Correa announced that
the initiative had failed, and that oil extraction would proceed in
Yasuní. In a televised address, the president said, "The world has
Yet while Correa rightfully spoke of the obligations of wealthier
nations to contribute to solving the dilemmas of the global climate
crisis, at home he expanded the mining industry and criminalized
indigenous movements who protested extractive industries in their
territories. Under his administration, numerous indigenous leaders
organizing against mining, water privatization measures, and hydrocarbon
extraction have been jailed for their activism.
Criminalization of indigenous activists fighting against mining in Peru
has also become the norm for this mineral-rich nation. Under the
presidency of Ollanta Humala, mining has boomed, and with it so have
conflicts where local communities are fighting to defend land and water
In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has spoken widely of respecting
/Pachamama/, fighting against the world's climate crisis, and utilizing
indigenous philosophies such as /Buen Vivir/ (Living Well) for living in
harmony with the earth. His government has enacted progressive policies
in terms of creating more governmental revenue through the state
management of natural resource extraction, and using that revenue for
wage increases, national social programs in healthcare, pensions,
education and infrastructure development. The Morales administration and
his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), has also pressed forward
with constitutional changes and laws that protect the environment,
empower indigenous communities, and make access to basic utilities and
resources a right. Yet the rhetoric and promise of many of these changes
contradict the way MAS policies have played out on the ground.
The government has advocated for a plan to build a major highway through
the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park. Protests against the
government plans galvanized a movement for indigenous rights and
environmentalism. In response, the government led brutal repression
against families marching in protest of the highway in 2011. Government
violence left 70 wounded; victims and their families and allies are
still searching for justice.
Most recently, the MAS promise of respecting Mother Earth and indigenous
and small farmer rights clashed against another of its plans; the Mining
Law, which was passed by the MAS-controlled congress in late March, and
was on its way to the Senate, when protests against the law forced the
government to suspend its passage pending more input from critics. While
private cooperativist mining groups, notorious for their lack of concern
for the environment and local communities impacted by mining, protested
the law because it did not grant them to the right to sell their
resources to foreign and private entities without sufficient government
oversight, other groups with different demands have put forth their
critiques. Separate from the cooperativist miners, these farmer and
indigenous movement critics are more concerned with issues such as water
access and the right to protest.
The Mining Law gives the mining industry the right to use public water
for its water-intensive and toxic operation, while disregarding the
rights of rural and farming communities to that same water. Furthermore,
the law criminalizes protest against mining operations, leaving those
communities that would bear the brunt of the industry's pollution and
displacement without any legal recourse to defend their homes. In
response to the law, a number of indigenous and small farmer
organizations have taken to the streets in protest.
I spoke with CONAMAQ indigenous leader Mama Nilda Rojas of her view of
the Mining Law. "The Morales government has told us that it 'will govern
by listening to the bases, and that the laws will come from the
bottom-up.'" But this is not what happened with the Mining Law, Rojas
said, which was created without sufficient input from representatives of
communities impacted the most by mining. "This is a law which
criminalizes the right to protest. With this law we won't be able to
build road blockades, we won't be able to march [against mining
operations]," she explained. "We're well aware that it was the same Evo
Morales who would participate in marches and road blockades [years ago].
And so how is it that he is taking away this right to protest?"
"This government has given a false discourse on an international level,
defending /Pachamama/, defending Mother Earth," Rojas explained, while
the reality in Bolivia is quite a different story.
Meanwhile, outside of Latin America, governments, activists, and social
movements are looking to places like Bolivia and Ecuador as examples for
overcoming capitalism and tackling climate change. The model of Yasuní,
and respecting the rights of nature can and should have an impact
outside of these countries, and wealthier nations and their consumers
and industries based in the global north need to step up to the plate in
terms of taking on the challenges of the climate crisis.
In many ways, much of Latin America's left are major improvements from
their neoliberal predecessors, and have helped forge an exciting path
toward alternatives that have served as inspirations across the world.
Overall, they have brought countries out of the shadow of the
International Monetary Fund and US-backed dictatorships, and toward a
position of self-determination. For the sake of these new directions,
the neoliberal right hopefully will not regain power in the region any
time soon, and Washington will be unable to further meddle in an
increasingly independent Latin America.
Yet as the march toward progress continues in its many forms, and
election years come and go, the losers of Latin America's new left are
often the same as before -- the dispossessed rural communities and
indigenous movements that helped pave the way to these presidents'
elections in the first place. In the name of progress, Mother Earth,
/Buen Vivir/, and 21st century socialism, these governments are helping
to poison rivers and the land, and displace, jail and kill
anti-extraction activists. Solidarity that is blind to this
contradiction can do a disservice to various grassroots movements
struggling for a better world.
If an alternative model is to succeed that truly places quality of life
and respect for the environment over raising the gross domestic product
and expanding consumerism, that puts sustainability over dependency on
the extraction of finite raw materials, that puts the rights to small
scale agriculture and indigenous territorial autonomy ahead of mining
and soy companies, it will likely come from these grassroots movements.
If this model is to transform the region's wider progressive trends,
these spaces of dissent and debate in indigenous, environmental and
farmer movements need to be respected and amplified, not crushed and
"We are on our feet, marching against extractivism," Rojas said. "Mother
Earth is tired."
/*Benjamin Dangl's* latest book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements
and States in Latin America
Press) is on contemporary Latin American social movements and their
relationships with the region's new leftist governments. He is editor of
TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and
UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin
America. Email BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com./
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