At the end of last year, at the height of the spread of the Omicron variant, an important battle was being waged for clean water and a healthy environment, the value of which has only become clearer in the last two years.
At one of the many frontiers of mining in Argentina’s Patagonian province of Chubut, indigenous Mapuche-Tehuelche communities and citizen groups flooded the streets for days just before Christmas 2021.
A US-Canadian mining company, Pan American Silver, had been lobbying lawmakers to reverse a nearly 20-year ban on surface metal mining and the use of cyanide in mineral processing, which threatens precious water supplies. When lawmakers forced and zoned for mining where the company wants to operate on the plateau of the province, people took to the streets in their thousands and faced a violent police crackdown.
But the people prevailed and succeeded in a few days in having the zoning law repealed.
This is just one example of the important frontline struggles that have fought to continue to organize during the pandemic despite the difficult conditions. This story and others are collected in a new report: No reprieve for life and territory: COVID-19 and resistance to the mining pandemic.
No reprieve examines how governments and mining companies have taken advantage of social constraints during the COVID-19 pandemic to increase their profits and declare mining “essential” for economic recovery and energy transition.
This report focuses on case studies in nine Latin American countries: Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. It was developed by the Coalition Against the Mining Pandemic-Latin America, part of a global network of environmental justice groups.
In nearly every case studied, indigenous peoples and other mining-affected communities have faced increased repression, criminalization, targeted violence and militarization in response to their efforts to protect water and land. long-term impacts of mining.
A global trend of repression by mining companies
In the United States, we know the criminalization and repression of movements for environmental justice, racial justice and indigenous rights at the behest of the extractive industries.
Indigenous peoples fighting to defend and protect their lands have faced severe repression and legal persecution in the United States, including during the Enbridge Line 3, Line 5and standing rock protests. The intense policing and militarization of the movements has been accelerated by the so-called “Critical Infrastructure Lawsimposed by state governments. These laws confuse peaceful protest with acts of domestic terrorism and have been a key tool pushed by the fossil fuel industry to expand oil and gas pipeline projects.
This echoes a global trend.
For years, international organizations have documented industry pressure to contain resistance through repression and violence. “Activists in the North face increased criminalization”, Adrien Salazar of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance told CNN last year. Meanwhile, “environmental defenders in the Global South face a growing risk of death.”
In 2021 alone, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that 147 human rights activists had been murdered. In the first four months of 2022, another 89 people had already been murdered.
The majority of activists killed were land defenders, environmental activists or members of indigenous communities. According to Defenders of Human Rights and Civil Liberties Program36% of attacks against human rights defenders documented by the center relate to the extractive sector.
This type of repression ultimately costs people their health, lives and well-being. At the same time, it undermines democratic systems and endangers our environment.
Mining companies peddle bogus solutions
During the pandemic, extractive industries have criminalized and threatened defenders or advocated for more repression by portraying themselves as important to economic recovery.
Despite the threats metal mining poses to land and water, No reprieve documents how this industry has repositioned itself as “essential” while benefiting from rising market prices for gold, silver and copper, leading some mining companies to make record profits.
Beyond Argentina, this trend has been evident elsewhere in Latin America through policy changes that have made it easier to obtain mining permits, eased environmental oversight and offered tax breaks. Some countries, such as Panama and Ecuador, have decreed special plans to make mining a central axis of economic recovery.
Unlike the United States, where repression often primarily benefits the fossil fuel industries, Latin America has seen a rise in violent extractivism by companies arguing that the minerals they mine are necessary for the renewable energy technology.
Globally, the installation of renewable energy infrastructure and the manufacture of electric vehicles are expected to increase demand for certain minerals and metals, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. This has led to initiatives in countries like Peru and Mexico making lithium mining a strategic priority for the state.
These challenges underscore the need for a just transition to renewable energy that does not repeat the same abuses of the extractive industry. Regardless of the ore or metal, frontline and indigenous communities still bear the brunt of the harms of mining that are rarely addressed and have met with widespread resistance.
State favoritism towards the mining industry during the pandemic even led to the perception that this was a crisis suited to the mining industry.
Iván Paillalaf, a member of the Mapuche-Tehuelche community of Laguna Fría Chacay Oeste in Chubut, believes that “the crisis that currently exists in Chubut… is an intentional crisis; a crisis that was created precisely to try to impose this activity so that people see no other way out than mining.
This does not mean that communities have viewed the pandemic itself as a conspiracy, but rather that they have seen how corporations and governments are taking advantage of the social and economic constraints it has created. This reaffirmed for them the urgency to continue to defend their communities and territories in these difficult conditions.
Heroic resistance across the hemisphere
Even with these obstacles, these Latin American communities offer an inspiring example of resilience against difficult odds. Resistance remains strong in Chubut and throughout the hemisphere.
Despite lockdown orders that have hampered organizing efforts, a People’s initiative expand the surface mining ban at Chubut to include exploration and prospecting activities that have garnered twice the signatures required by law to qualify. This initiative was rejected without debate in 2021 before the legislator tried to reverse the existing ban. But the movement in Argentina is stepping up its efforts this year, aiming to collect 100,000 signatures.
In the North as in the South, repression and violence are exercised against those who oppose the extractive industries. This is part of the extractive capitalist model that allows private corporate interests to dominate human rights, self-determination and democracy.
The cases detailed in No reprieve demonstrate the need to consider a future beyond the extractivist economy. In times of a pandemic and in the face of a climate crisis, the fight to defend our territories and collective health is more essential than ever.
Ennedith Lopez is a New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF.org) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting research and action by scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.