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Land in Latin America

Land is an issue that underlies almost every aspect of life in Latin America. What we are seeing is an increasingly dramatic struggle over who will control the region’s land – its forests, its rivers, its mineral wealth, its oil, its farming and its urban development. Will these resources be used to enrich big corporations, whether they be Latin American or foreign? Or will local people be able to lay claim to their own land, ensure that it will be protected and only exploited after full consultation with their communities?

At the forefront of the struggle are indigenous communities. We have posted this week a map, drawn up by Instituto Humanitas Unisonos, a progressive Jesuit institute in Brazil. It shows over a dozen flashpoints in different Latin American countries where indigenous communities are in conflict with their governments over mining and infrastructure projects. READ MORE. For every point on the map it would be easy to find half a dozen similar sites of conflict.

Many of these big infrastructure projects form part of IIRSA (The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America), a low profile but hugely important initiative, involving billions of dollars, to build vast roads, waterways and hydroelectric power stations to facilitate the export of South America’s minerals, oil and agricultural produce. A recent scientific study looked at the probable impact of 150 new hydro-projects, most of them part of IIRSA, planned for the six river basins that connect the Andes to the Amazon. It makes grim reading. READ MORE

The fever of indigenous communities to defend their land has affected small countries, like Suriname, the former Dutch colony. It is the only country in the western hemisphere without legislation to protect its indigenous peoples. And now the Indians are fighting back, appealing to an international court in pursuit of their land rights. READ MORE

Indigenous groups in Latin America are very different. On the one hand, there is a small Brazilian group, called the Awá, some of whom have not yet had contact with the outside world, whose very survival is under threat from loggers and cattle companies. Survival International has just launched an international campaign on their behalf. READ MORE. Elsewhere in Brazil, the Kayapó Indians have been trained in the latest digital technology and are making sophisticated documentaries, including one on a Miss Kayapó beauty show, that has raised a few eyebrows. READ MORE.

Indigenous groups, too, are dealing with their own internal problems, often exacerbated by the inaction of the State and the judiciary. We carry a report from the Mexican women’s organisation, Semillas, about one of their programmes to raise awareness among indigenous women about their current lack of land rights and to help them campaign to inherit their own land, as well as to participate in decisions about communal land. READ MORE.

It is not only indigenous communities, of course, who are active in the defence of their land. In the Brazilian Amazon a group of communities has decided that they can no longer wait for the authorities to take action and are proving on the ground that it is possible to recover devastated forest and make money at the same time. We carry a summary of their work, with a link to an inspiring video on their activities. We encourage all who understand Portuguese to watch this video. READ MORE

Despite the mushrooming of great local initiatives, it is a bad time for social and environmental movements in Brazil. They have just received a huge setback with the approval this week by Congress of a regressive new forest code. After analysing the content of the new code, the highly respected Instituto Socioambiental says that the only hope now is a veto by President Dilma. READ MORE. There will be more on this in future newsletters. Just before the code was approved, former government official, João Paulo Capobianco, launched a devastating attack on the government’s handling of environmental policy. ‘The government is pre-historic on the question of the environment’, he raged. READ MORE.  Brazil’s large landless movement (MST – Movimento dos Sem Terra) feels comparable frustration. It had hoped that the PT government, first under Lula and now under Dilma Rousseff, would limit the expansion of agribusiness, yet the reverse has happened. You can feel the frustration of João Pedro Stédile, one of the main MST leaders, in this recent interview. READ MORE

In other countries, the news is mixed. In Paraguay, LAB’s Claudia Pompa explains why the government of President Funes has been facing such criticism over its handling of the carperos case. READ MORE. But in El Salvador President Mauricio Funes has announced a project to promote local food production. It’s small-scale but promising.READ MORE