LAB author Matt Kennard who has begun work to research and write a LAB book about community resistance to mining, interviewed Lucio Cuenca, director of Santiago-based OCMAL, the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, on his recent visit to London.
Latin America is enjoying an uptick in resistance to multinational mining companies and new alliances are being created across the region. Perhaps the best example of this is the Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina (OCMAL), the region’s first pan-regional anti-mining network, based in Santiago, Chile, but with affiliates in nearly every country in Central and South America.
A continent that has seen minerals ripped from under the ground and hauled overseas for nearly half a millenia is fighting back against those taking them — and achieving real successes. Some are calling it ‘resistance renaissance’ in the continent that has since the 16th Century been synonymous with mining and extractivism.
But now, from El Salvador’s full ban on metallic mining to a small Colombian community kicking out mining giant AngloGold Ashanti, across the continent local communities are racking up victories. Alongside these successes, there are hundreds of communities still in the middle of often bloody campaigns to temper environmental and social destruction brought about by the extractive industries.
Connecting the dots
These struggles have largely been ignored by the international media, and until recently there was no project capable of connecting the dots between the resistance movements across the continent, while looking into the companies — many located in the UK and Canada — that are at the centre of these controversies. OCMAL is doing this.
Recently Lucio Cuenca, the director of OCMAL, visited London to talk about the network and generate solidarity among groups working on the conduct of transnational corporations in the Global South.
I’m here because I want to take on the biggest companies and biggest projects in our countries, we require a global strategy. We need to create alliances, and make our struggles visible .
I tell him that in the UK what we are often told is that these companies are bringing much-needed jobs and investment to Latin America.
‘What I would say is there is a double standard,’ he says. ‘One thing is what the companies promise and say in the countries where they are based, like here; and another thing is what they actually do in our countries. They say they will work with the standards that they have here in England, and in our countries they say they will abide by the law in our countries, but in reality we have standards much lower than the industrialized countries.’
More important, the companies are so powerful often that they succeed in infiltrating our state governments and working to lower the regulations and standards even further.
The companies often dismiss the organisations resisting mining as unrepresentative groups of radicals and extremists. Is this true? ‘All we are trying to do is make visible cases where there is a local community affected and having their rights curtailed,’ he says. ‘The resistance is from local communities, which are regularly having their rights abused.’
One of the major issues is the disruption and displacement mining often brings. ‘These aren’t lands that are unpopulated, these are lands that have culture and communities, where there is a form of life that has been sustained for a long time, and then it is destroyed by a mega project of extractivism. It has a significant impact. That is what we are denouncing.’
The illusion of benefit
Even in the host countries, mining companies often point to employment as the best justification for their operations. But, Lucio says, this too is an illusion. ‘There is a certain myth they have created to justify the activity. One of those is the social benefits. This means jobs. But in Chile, mining is one of the economic industries with the least jobs. There is an eight million workforce, and in mining, which is 70% private, there are just 70,000 jobs, less than 1%. With indirect jobs, the total comes to 230,000, less than 3% of all jobs. For something which has such an impact on the environment, and communities, it doesn’t bring a lot of jobs.
social benefits for the communities …are just a way of buying the will and the conscience of the communities temporarily, [they] never solve deeper problems.
‘They also talk of the social benefits for the communities, the transfer of resources from the company to the communities if they authorize the project. But these resources do not have a long term impact or change the local community. They are just a way of buying the will and the conscience of the communities temporarily, but it never solves deeper problems.’
OCMAL is in a good position to talk about the resistance as a whole across the region. Is this a good time for resistance to mining?
Until governments change their policies, mining will remain a threat.
‘There are positive results, but we are not in a great position because our governments are turning to the right, and they are deepening the reliance on extractivism, and looking for ways of facilitating and protecting the investments made by outsiders in mining,’ says Lucio. ‘But despite this, there are important successes. But until governments change their policies mining will remain a threat.’
OCMAL has created a map which lists all the community struggles across the region — an invaluable resource for activists working to repel mining companies. This work to link struggles across the region has also been bolstered by a ‘How-To Guide’ on how to resist mining companies which has been compiled by OCMAL and is being used from Ecuador to Nicaragua.
‘There are important processes happening,’ says Lucio. ‘In Argentina there are various provinces that have signed laws that outlaw metallic mining; there’s El Salvador as well, and Costa Rica. In Chile, where there is a long mining tradition, and a culture ingrained in the system around the interests of the mining companies; despite this there are now areas which are starting to mobilize in total opposition to mining. It takes time to develop an effective opposition to mining because the mining industry has been intensively promoted over the past three decades. We need time to catch up, and that’s happening.’
So is he optimistic about what he and his allies can achieve? ‘I have an optimistic outlook in this respect,’ he says. ‘We are in an adverse position, in terms of the governments and the policies, but there is a social movement mobilized to confront the mega mining projects. There is hope, too, because people are refusing to accept the dictates of this model of development which the corporations tell us is the only way to grow.’
These issues are covered in Chapter 7, ‘Mining and Communities’, of LAB’s book Voices of Latin America – Social movements and the New Activism, which will be launched on 18 January 2018. LAB will be explore the issues in depth in a new book, to be published in 2020, on Community Resistance to Mining in Latin America, as Matt Kennard explains:
‘Over the next year, I will be researching and writing an investigative book for LAB about the resistance to mega mining projects in Latin America. I will be going to Chile, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, to investigate this new, networked resistance. Each country will have a different mineral focus (Chile, copper; Argentina, lithium; Peru, gold; Mexico, silver; and Colombia, coal, etc). Questions will be asked about what the people of Latin America can do in a post-mining economy. Is survival possible?
‘I will also investigate the companies themselves, their often intricate tax arrangements, and their liberal use of tax havens to channel their profits.
‘This comprehensive project, in partnership with OCMAL, MiningWatch Canada, London Mining Network, War on Want and Christian Aid, will lift the lid on a new war against extractivism which has been joined in one of the world’s poorest regions. We will visit and listen to the communities at the forefront of the struggle. The human story will be told, as well as the wider implications for the region and the world.’