In depth

Central Articles

Territory, natural resources and social conflict in Latin America

Tica Font
Director of the International Catalan Institute for Peace
Tica Font

Tica Font

'Twice today, soldiers of the Marine Corps carried out indiscriminate machine-gun attacks on the farmhouse of Bajo Cuembí, Perla Amazónica, Putumayo, sowing panic among the school children…' So begin many news stories discussing the social conflicts that have been spreading for over a decade throughout Central and South America.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, social unrest was marked by the use of land to implement agricultural projects. The Green Revolution changed the way food was produced: large pieces of land were concentrated, monocultures were implanted, fertilisers and pesticides were introduced, heavy water use began, etc. As a result, millions of small farmers became indebted, needed to sell their land or were expelled from their land through violence. Millions of them were forced to immigrate to the outskirts of cities and became poor. Even today, large corporations engaged in food production continue to put pressure on farmers to introduce monocultures dedicated to soya, sugarcane, banana, African palm or livestock, or the farmers are pressured to leave their lands. The heaviest pressure is currently focused on the widespread production of crops for biofuel.

However, over the last 15 years, the primary social conflict has centred on the underground, on the implementation of large-scale mining projects in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. For example, of the 114 million hectares comprising Colombia, over 8.4 million are used for mining and 37 million are zoned for the exploitation of hydrocarbons. The mining conflict has gone hand in hand with conflict in the building of dams to produce electricity (usually to supply mining projects). In Central America alone, there are 340 construction projects affecting 170 rivers. The boom in mining and infrastructure macro-projects is part of Latin American government's attempt to develop and prosper. The region's economic engine and economic growth are based on an extractive economy.

It is important to note that most of these projects are located in rural areas or on indigenous community lands where the state has had virtually no presence and the people have built their own models of development different from those the government wants to implement. These communities oppose the mining projects, claiming that such projects deteriorate and pollute the lands and cause the deforestation of large tracts of land. They protest against the heavy use of water by mining companies (some of which use one million litres of water per day), a use that causes river flows downstream to decrease and affects crops, the life of the fish and domestic supply. They also complain about the pollution of land and water (streams and groundwater) and about the fact that the courses of rivers are changed. The Angostura mining project (Colombia) with an environmental permit to extract gold provides for the use of 40 tonnes per day of cyanide. The construction of a hydroelectric plant like La Cerrón Gran in El Salvador displaced 13,339 inhabitants as a result of land flooding.

Those living in the regions that are the site of infrastructure mega-projects or extractive activities feel as though all this activity will affect them; they believe they will lose ownership of the land where they plant their food and where their cow and their animals graze or that they will contract diseases as a result of land and water pollution. They are certain they will not benefit from this activity, neither economically nor in health or educational services, and in the case of electricity production, the beneficiaries will be the mining companies, but not the inhabitants. The peasants and indigenous people defend their traditional way of interacting with the land and water and are against the implementation of this activity.

Social problems arise when the villagers, peasants and indigenous people, oppose these industrial activities and express their opposition. The companies that have received licences try to divide the population through promises to create jobs and minimise the human, social and environmental impacts of their activity. But because this activity is part of the government's development goals, in the face of social rejection, public forces tend to generate barriers to protect this economic activity.

In recent decades, indigenous movements have conducted an organised struggle to defend their cultures, their lands, their skills and their wisdom. They are fighting for rights outlined in ILO Convention 169 which establishes the obligation of governments to ask these people about the various legislative proposals or drafts that may affect them in order to gain their consent or reach an agreement. However, it is important to note that this consultation is not binding, that is, even if the people are against a project being carried out, the project may still be conducted if the government believes it should be. This right of consultation is being widely violated.

Pressure on peasant and indigenous communities to accept the implementation of mega-projects is carried out by singling out and threatening leaders and through criminalisation, discrediting in the media and even litigation brought against the social organisations. In the case of Colombia, with a long history of the use of violence, communities have been victims of massacres, economic blockades, forced displacements, threats and murders carried out by paramilitary and guerrilla groups with the aim of seizing the land and paving the way for the entry of multinationals or collecting revenues for the resources extracted.

The most recent report from the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) states that mining areas are militarised and paramilitarised; 'The armed forces protect private investment and paramilitaries suppress social protest and create displacement.'

On 18 June 2010, the priest Martín Octavio García of the community of San José del Progreso (Oaxaca, Mexico), after a smear campaign against him for disseminating information about the consequences of mining, was kidnapped and beaten by villagers supporting the Fortuna Silver mining company. The same day, the municipal president and the councillor of health were killed during a confrontation. Later the priest was arrested and charged with murder. He was eventually released for lack of evidence.