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Exploration and extraction of natural resources endangers indigenous peoples

Jordi Noè
Member of AlterNativa Intercanvi amb Pobles Indígenes

Jordi Noè

In October, 2003 the UNESCO passed the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage which considered the importance of this kind of heritage as a beacon of cultural diversity and a guarantee for sustainable development. In September, 2007 the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted, recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and communities to safeguard and protect their religious and cultural sites, to demonstrate, showcase, celebrate and revitalize their cultural and spiritual traditions and practises.

If we understand who is protected under these agreements and rights' acknowledgement, it becomes clear that we are not weighing their importance by number of individuals or the surface area occupied, but rather the intrinsic importance of the cultural diversity these communities represent.

In July, 2013, the Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples rights presented a report stating that "The worldwide drive to extract and develop minerals and fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), coupled with the fact that much of what remains of these natural resources is situated on the lands of indigenous peoples, results in increasing and ever more widespread effects on indigenous peoples' lives."1 If we add to this the major infrastructural projects (hydroelectric, road networks, mega wind farms), open pit gold, copper and coltan mining,... we can begin to get some level of understanding of the immense and ever-growing level of socio-environmental conflicts playing out in indigenous territories.

And, what is behind these mega-projects and operations concerning resource extraction? Large transnational companies whose sole objective is to stock-pile and maximize profits. The transnationals negotiate with weak democracies, dominated by festering oligarchies, states which operate a singular and unquestionable model for economic growth obeying capitalist principles of accumulation. Transnationals supersede the functions of the state in rural areas where they operate; offering public services which do not exist or which were extremely deficient: access to drinking water and healthcare services, emergency transport, donations to local council budgets... That is how they co-opt local authorities and destroy the social fabric and existing social networks, even going so far as to create new and friendlier organizations2.

There are way too many examples of how the destruction and contamination of the environment and the natural surroundings has a devastating impact on the way of life, as well as social and cultural reproduction of indigenous peoples. 40 years of oil development in the Paztaza River basin in Peru have resulted in the area being declared an environmental emergency zone, where the Quitxues, Achuar, Shapra and Kandozi tribes live. Guatemala is witnessing the worst period of criminalization, persecution and militarization since the Peace Agreements. The brutal deforestation in Borneo endangers the Kayan, Kenyah and Penan peoples; the alarming situation of the pygmies in the area rich in minerals around Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of The Congo. All of the aforementioned cases and many other similar cases are endangering the spiritual practises, social organization, and survival of these communities' world-view. This world-view is interwoven with their natural surroundings, not only in terms of a physical place, but also as a spiritual place. The reference to places where beings live, which merely because they are not visible to the human eye, does not mean they are less real, forms part of their world-view and serves as a tool for interpreting everyday events and governing community life.

In this sense, let us put to one side for a moment the evidence and denounced harmful effects to the environment and health resulting from the exploration and extraction of natural resources. Instead, let us focus on the singular element which makes us part of a community and a natural setting where we live and reproduce our lives and social relationships. We are of course taking about intangible cultural heritage, a reflection of the cultural and social identity of any peoples. And it is this rich and diverse cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, in the majority of cases closely linked to the land and the territory as if it were one and the same indivisible concept, a concept which the exploration and extraction of natural resources is waging irreparable destruction on.

Even so, we should avoid the naivety of thinking that indigenous peoples turn their backs on modern comforts, technological progress and material goods. Nevertheless, they are faced with an unbridled economic growth model, where natural and energy resources are essential, where belonging to the 1% of the rich is as difficult as not ending up belonging to the remaining 99% poor. Experience shows them that they would be better off remaining as they are, if that's possible, and to face the extractivist projects which appear god-like in that they only bestow promises and calamity. And, in these cases the practise of some Amazonian peoples works extremely well in that, if a God to whom sacrifices have been made is not acquiescent to them, they kill the god and start worshipping another; the previous one was no good! And in this chain of events and realities we find continental political strategies arising from indigenous peoples that strengthen, reencounter and reinvent the essence of the harmonious relationship between these communities with nature and the land, implementing projects involving companies and states that chose, not to live with more, but to live well. So simple yet so obvious.

[1] Report from the Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples rights presented during the 24th period of sessions of the Human Rights Council. A/HRC/24/41, July 1, 2013. Study on Extractive industries and indigenous peoples.

[2]An example can be found in the report: CAMPANARIO BAQUÉ, Y. and GARCÍA HIERRO, P.: The case of the Spanish company Repsol. CODPI, 2013 which can be consulted at