By Luis Vittor
Latin America’s governments and its indigenous peoples are clashing over the issue of mining. Governments, motivated by economic growth, have established legal frameworks to attract foreign investments to extract mining resources. When those resources are located in indigenous lands where the residents oppose extraction, conflict is frequent. But what motivates this opposition of indigenous people and local communities? What mechanisms have the communities and the indigenous people developed to express their disagreement with this new activity within their territory?
Around two decades ago, mining in Latin America entered a new phase. From the beginning of the 1990s, governments have been modifying regulatory frameworks to compete for foreign investment. Each country aims to offer more benefits and security to investors, relaxing national norms that could create obstacles for the development of mining projects. Mining is often considered to be “of national interest” and/or “of public utility” (Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, among others). In other places, the state itself participates in the mining ventures (Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador). The policies have allowed companies to acquire rights to explore and mine millions of acres, taking advantage of the governments’ benefits and the high price of minerals.
Much of the land granted for mining intrudes into indigenous territories. In fact, many communities do decide to accept mining activity, signing agreements with companies and the state. However, an increasing number of communities and indigenous peoples are expressing their opposition to mining through their own initiatives or those of their local government. These local initiatives are called a neighborhood referendum (consulta vecinal) in Peru, good-faith referendums in Guatemala, peoples’ referendums or popular referendums in Colombia and community referendums in Ecuador. The voting procedures are held without the authorization of the federal state, but the decisions are closely scrutinized by the local communities and municipal authorities.
Peru has seen a number of neighborhood referendum processes in the past decade: in Tambogrande (2002), Ayabaca and Huancabamba (2007) and Islay (2009). These communities decided against mining activities that go against their way of life and direction of development. In referendums in the provinces of Candarave and Tarata (2008), the communities have voiced their opposition against the use of water resources for mining activities. In 2012, the community of Kañaris also held a referendum on the mining project Cañariaco.
In March 2002, residents in the city of Esquel in Argentina voted in a popular referendum to oppose the development of a Meridian Gold Company mining project. And in Guatemala many communities—and in particular, indigenous communities—have expressed their opposition to mining through referendums. Such was the case in the village of Sipcapa, where in June 2005 the Sipakapense Mayan communities organized a first community referendum in which they vigorously rejected the Marlin mining project. In 2012 no less than 74 of such referendums have taken place, and according to the 2012 Annual Report of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the indigenous communities of Guatemala have been among the most active in voicing their concerns regarding mining in their territories.
In Ecuador, the Kichwa indigenous people carried out a communitarian referendum in the localities of Tarqui and Victoria del Portete (2012), rejecting the mining project Quimsacocha. In 2009, Embera indigenous and Afro-descendent communities in Colombia’s Chocó held a referendum and opposed the mining project of the Muriel Mining Corporation. In July 2013, the inhabitants of the town of Piedras in Tolima, Colombia, declared themselves in opposition to all mining activities in their territory.
In her 2007 book No pero Si: Communidades y Minería, Alejandra Alayza asserts that one of the principal causes of mining conflicts lies in previous state decisions regarding subsoil explorations. According to Alayza, the state makes unilateral decisions when it grants concessions and mining licenses, so “no adequate agreements had been made with local populations over the use of natural resources in their zones.” In effect, state policies for mining concessions can be understood as an imposition of federal rule on indigenous lands without any consideration for their inhabitants’ rights, the use of their territory and its resources.
In the first place, indigenous peoples are generally not informed about the state decision to grant rights to third parties over the subsoil, which breaches indigenous rights to land and territory established by law. Usually, the community will be merely informed of the decision by the company that has been granted the concession to explore and extract resources from the subsoil of the lands in question. In many cases, the communities have no other option than to accept initiation negotiations between unequal actors regarding the use of their land while giving up their internationally recognized rights to their territories. If the community is not willing to reach an agreement for whatever reason, there is no efficient mechanism or procedure to bring its position to the attention of the state. It is on these grounds that the communities are now expressing their resistance against mining.
Moreover, the territories of communities and indigenous populations are neither abandoned nor unproductive: they serve traditional community usage or are used in intensive activities such as agriculture, cattle raising or tourism. Above all, these communities generally constructed a way of life and a vision of their own form of development based on the natural possibilities of the territory. Yet the concessions are granted without even evaluating the actual use of the land nor the benefit that this generates for its communities.
Indigenous territories are often part of a water basin or a fragile ecosystem such as lakes, moorlands, cloud forests and highland wetlands. The water serves agriculture, livestock and human consumption. These resources and their value for subsistence of the inhabitants and their local economies are not taken into account when granting concessions nor are given sufficient weight in environmental impact assessments.
Mining by its very nature causes environmental and social damage, both on a large and small scale. It contaminates water bodies such as river and lakes and also underground sources of water. It causes air pollution because of its gas emissions. Mining tends to have a negative impact on the quality of soil and to affect biodiversity. Moreover, mining affects public health; it generates forced displacement of communities and changes their livelihoods. All throughout the history of mining, the exploitation of metals has generated tremendous consequences, including environmental and social disasters. Nowadays, many countries are conducting inventories of the environmental impact of mining, using the concept of “liabilities” to calculate negative costs. For example, in December 2012, Peru registered 7,576 “environmental liabilities” from traditional mining alone, as reported in the Peruvian Ministry of Mines and Energy’s Annual Report. Although 1990s environmental laws modified the modus operandi of traditional mining, modern mining also generates negative environmental and social impacts.
For the indigenous peoples who have sufered the negative impacts of mining, there are sufficient arguments to oppose the increase of such activities in their territories. They want to prevent these negative impacts from happening—or happening again—in their communities. It is an argument based on memory and on observation—and reinforced by scientific information.
In accordance with international law, indigenous peoples have the right of property over the lands that they have traditionally occupied, and where mineral resources exist in the subsoil, states are obliged to consult indigenous peoples before companies can start their exploration and extraction activities (as mentioned in Articles 14 and 15 of Agreement 169 of the OIT on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights of the Organization of American States).
Resistance to mining is often expressed through lawsuits or the exercise of rights, and therefore it frequently leads towards a practical and political legal empowerment on the part of the indigenous peoples. In many cases, the communities base their decision on rights recognized by national and international juridical instruments protecting indigenous rights; in particular, they refer to the right to hold referendums (consulta) to guarantee the continued enjoyment of fundamental rights such as ownership of their lands, as well as the right to decide their own priorities of development, health, culture and other aspects of their lives.
The territories occupied by indigenous peoples often coincide geo-culturally with areas of great biodiversity or many strategic resources for life on the planet, such as water and forests. One can clearly see this situation in the Amazon area, with the greatest number of indigenous peoples and some of the most biodiverse territories in the world; Mexico, which is part of the geo-cultural area of Mesoamerica, provides a similar case.
The position of indigenous resistance tends to be stronger in those areas in which indigenous territories are also biodiverse. In a similar fashion, the importance of environment or territory, whether as a source of subsistence or a supplier of common goods such as water, is non-negotiable for communities that resist mining activities in their territory.
The right to freely determine the model of development of the indigenous or communitarian territory through referendums is a new theme that fundamentally questions the limits of the power of the state in regards to the property rights of indigenous peoples or of other local groups.
From the point of view of governments, the communitarian referendums conspire against the sovereignty of the state. Federal authorities do not recognize their validity because supposedly these processes are not binding. From the point of view of indigenous peoples, the referendum is a right derived from international law that establishes community participation in decisions affecting the residents. The decision to allow mining is submitted to the consent of those who live in the territory.
Luis Vittor is a Peruvian economist and an advisor to the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI).