Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

2011: The Year of the Green War in Latin America

By 13 December, 2011

In Latin America mass demonstrations are putting at risk huge energy, mining and infrastructure projects. Thousands of peasants occupied the Azul, Mamacocha, Chailhuagon and Perol lakes, in the Cajamarca region of Peru. The Conga mining project proposes to relocate them, but the people fear losing their access to water.

“What is more important: water or gold? You can’t drink gold, you can’t eat gold. We drink water, our animals drink water, our cattle drink water. Water is for the Peruvians!” This was Ollanta Humala a few months ago while campaigning for president. Now installed in the Government Palace in Lima, electoral populism seems to have vanished. Last week, with such a strong social response to the mining project, Humala shot back and said “yes you can have the gold and water at a time.”

This is a rhetorical sleight where the President aims to find the difficult, if not impossible; to balance between exploitation of natural resources, ecology, community rights, market pressures and the need for resources. This challenge is repeated throughout Latin America and will be one of the greatest challenges facing the region over the next decade.

In Peru the situation is tense. The crisis in Cajamarca, a northern province in the country, erupted when the company Yanacocha, the largest producer of gold on the continent, set out the details of the Conga mining project, which meant extracting precious metals from over 4,000 meters high. 4,800 million dollars will be invested in the project with the promise of extracting 11.8 million ounces of gold and 3,200 million pounds of copper, leaving a fortune of millions of dollars for Peru, something which was supposed to be welcomed by the rural poor.

But the gold of the Conga is below four lakes that must be drained to accommodate a huge open pit mine, which will also devour huge wetlands, springs and five basins. Yanacocha, a Peruvian-American consortium, promised to replace the wells with artificial water reservoirs, prevent pollution, create jobs, bring work and health.

In the region, few believe them. Its inhabitants survive on their herds of llamas and their crops. They know that without water and with long summers subsistence is impossible. Also remember that in the region hundreds of people were poisoned with mercury near a mine of Yanacocha. Each month, the demonstrations increased. First they took to the streets, then they called an indefinite strike in late November and paralyzed the entire province. In addition, around the lakes, thousands of peasants camped in the cold and rain. They have proclaimed that “water is our mine and should not be contaminated” and threatened to defend the wells “with blood.”

After four months in office, this is the first crisis for Humala. Like his predecessors, and despite his promises, he sent police to the area, to unblock the roads and protect the Yanacocha premises. The conflict spread to his government, which is divided. José de Echave, Deputy Minister of Environmental Management, resigned last week after a confrontation with the Minister of Mining. The IDL-Reporters portal published a document from the Ministry of Environment saying that in the Conga project “processes, interactions and environmental services will be affected in an irreversible manner.”

Humala finally declared a state of emergency. The streets are quieter, but the president can not declare victory, because in Peru there are a hundred latent environmental conflicts and the Conga mining project is the fourth breaking event this year. But, Peru is no exception. Throughout Latin America, dams, roads, mines and tourism projects have been hampered by social protests, as in the continent there is an explosive combination of social, ecological and political factors. Solving this puzzle will be one of the greatest challenges in the region.

It is estimated that in the last ten years the prices of commodities have risen 97 percent and mineral resources, 285 percent. It is therefore increasingly profitable to invest in poorly accessible areas like forests or mountains, which were previously preserved and forgotten by governments.

It is also clear that in highly unequal societies, with states eaten away by corruption, authoritarian and often with little space for mediation, it is almost predictable that the tensions and conflicts are overflowing.

But perhaps the reason why the battles against the mega projects have become increasingly effective is that there are new forms of mobilization. Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, explained to the newspaper Semana: “On one hand, there are institutions and large international NGOs whose work is very visible, but with high-level effects. But on the other, there are popular movements, students, indigenous peoples, with new proposals for collective work, which are interconnected with each other and share strategies, managing to be huge and successful.”

With riches that are a real opportunity to end inequalities and develop their countries, Latin American politicians have a huge challenge, because they cannot rule against their people. Therefore, as Baptiste said: “It is threatening the survival of the continent, Latin America has played the last chance to build a society with autonomy, identity, sustainability and equality. Finding a balance, rather than a possibility, is indispensable.”

South America In Protest

Belo Monte
The third largest hydroelectric project in the world threatens the forest.

The Belo Monte project, a hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon jungle, in the Indian Territory. The governments of Luis Inacio da Silva and Dilma Rousseff supported the project, which would be the third largest dam in the world. On 9th November, after numerous requests, a judge ruled that by law the Indians did not have to be consulted. The decision was appealed to the Federal Supreme Court.

Investment: 11,000 million dollars

Jobs: 20,000

Flooded area: 50,000 hectares

Affected population: 14,000 native of nine tribes

Environmental Impact: Loss of biodiversity, impact on wildlife migration, impact on water quality.

Five mega projects affect the Patagonia.

Five hydroelectric megaprojects, two on the Baker river and three on the Pascua river, in Chilean Patagonia, will produce 20 percent of the electricity in the country. It was approved in May by the government of Sebastián Piñera. More than 70 percent of the population rejects the plans, which despite massive protests go ahead.

Investment: 3,200 million dollars

Jobs: 5,000

Flooded Area: 5,900 hectares of natural reserves.

Residents affected: Six Mapuche communities.

Environmental Impact: The project would affect six national parks, 11 national reserves, 26 conservation priority sites, 16 wetlands and 32 private protected areas. There are faults in the seismic hazard studies.

Amazon Highway
A natural Indian reservation would be crossed.

Route that connects the Andes to the Amazon, but that crosses Indigenous Indian Territory and Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure (Tipnis). The project sparked a strong demonstrataion, which was brutally suppressed by President Evo Morales. After a march of more than two months they came to La Paz in October. The bill was withdrawn, but Morales lost a lot of support from indigenous people and his popularity today is less than 35 percent.

Investment: 415 million dollars

Affected area: 306 km road running through an Indian reservation of 1.2 million hectares.

Affected population: 6,000 ethnic Indians Yuracaré, Moxenos and Trinity.

Environmental Impact: Deforestation, loss of biodiversity, which houses over 2,000 species of animals and trees, impact on rivers, plains and sub-Andean forests.

This article is a translation of a Spanish-language article originally appearing in Semana: semana.com/mundo/guerra-verde/168898-3.aspx

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