The Politics of Pachamama:Natural resource extraction vs Indigenous rights and the environment
Value Based Learning
Since the early 2000s a wave of leftist presidents were elected in Latin America on platforms that included using the regions vast natural resource wealth to fund social programs, expand access to healthcare and education, redistribute wealth, empower workers, fight poverty, and build national economic sovereignty. However, according to dissident indigenous groups in the country, persecuted by the Morales government in part for their activism against extractive industries, “The indigenous territories are in resistance because the open veins of Latin America are still bleeding, still covering the earth with blood. This blood is being taken away by all the extractive industries.”
While Morales saw the wealth underground as a tool for liberation, indigenous rural communities saw the president as someone who was pressing forward with extractive industries – in mining, oil and gas operations, without concern for the environmental destruction and displacement of rural communities they left in their wake. While many economies and citizens have benefitted from the state’s larger involvement in the extraction of these resources, under progressive governments it has affected rural communities, poisoning water sources, degrading the soil, and undermining indigenous territorial autonomy leading to alarming results across the region.
In Argentina, following years where public services and state-owned enterprises were privatized, the Kirchner presidencies put various industries under state control, and used new government revenues to fund social programs and make the country less beholden to international lenders and corporations. This included 51% control of the hydrocarbon company YPF, which ultimately led to a deal between YPF and Chevron to expand natural gas fracking in the country with operations set to proceed on indigenous territory. In response, indigenous communities to be affected by the fracking took over four YPF oil rigs. According to one of their leaders, “It’s not just the land they are taking….All the natural life in this region is interconnected. Here, they’ll affect the Neuquén River, which is the river we drink out of.” Protests against YPF-Chevron fracking plans are ongoing in the country.
In Uruguay, President Mujica, whose government legalized marijuana, abortion and same sex marriage, is now moving forward on a deal with the Anglo-Swiss mining group Zamin Ferrous for a major open-pit mining operation that would involve the extraction of 18 million tons of iron ore from the country over the next 12-15 years. Aside from the mining operation itself, the plan includes the construction of pipelines to ship the ore inland to the country’s Atlantic coast. Critics have pointed out that the plan would wreak havoc on the region’s biodiversity and displace local farmers. In response to the plans, a national movement is currently underway to organize a referendum to ban open pit mining in Uruguay.
While Brazil’s President Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff, both of the Workers’ Party, have helped expand the middle class in the country, and initiated successful social programs aimed at eliminating poverty and hunger, their administrations have also presided over a vast economy of extraction that leaves no place for small farmers or environmental concerns. Brazil is now home to the largest mining industry in the region: in 2011 it extracted more than twice the amount of minerals removed by all other South American nations combined, and is now the world’s largest producer of soy, a GMO crop rapidly expanding across the continent with a mixture of deadly pesticides that are destroying the soil, poisoning water sources, and pushing small farmers out of the countryside and into Latin America’s urban slums.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has famously championed the environment in his country, aiding with the passage of a 2008 constitution that gave rights to nature, and beginning an initiative in 2007 to keep the oil in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park in the ground. In exchange for not drilling the oil in this area rich in biodiversity, the plan called for international donors to contribute $3.6 billion (half of the oil’s value) to the UN’s Development Program for global programs in healthcare, education and other areas. Last August, with only $13 million donated, and $116 million more pledged, Correa announced that the initiative had failed, and that oil extraction would proceed in Yasuní. In a televised address, the president said, “The world has failed us.”
Yet while Correa rightfully spoke of the obligations of wealthier nations to contribute to solving the dilemmas of the global climate crisis, at home he expanded the mining industry and criminalized indigenous movements who protested extractive industries in their territories. Under his administration, numerous indigenous leaders organizing against mining, water privatization measures, and hydrocarbon extraction have been jailed for their activism.
In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has spoken widely of respecting Pachamama, fighting against the world’s climate crisis, and utilizing indigenous philosophies such as Buen Vivir (Living Well) for living in harmony with the earth. His government has enacted progressive policies creating more state management of natural resource extraction, and using that revenue for wage increases, national social programs in healthcare, pensions, education and infrastructure development. The Morales administration and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), has also pressed forward with constitutional changes and laws that protect the environment, empower indigenous communities, and make access to basic utilities and resources a right. Yet the rhetoric and promise of many of these changes contradict the way MAS policies have played out on the ground.
The government has advocated for a plan to build a major highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park. Protests against the government plans galvanized a movement for indigenous rights and environmentalism. In response, the government led brutal repression against families marching in protest of the highway in 2011. Government violence left 70 wounded; victims and their families and allies are still searching for justice.
In many ways, much of Latin America’s left are major improvements from their neoliberal predecessors. However, if an alternative economic model is to succeed-one that truly places quality of life and respect for the environment over raising the gross domestic product and expanding consumerism, that puts sustainability over dependency on the extraction of finite raw materials, that puts the rights to small scale agriculture and indigenous territorial autonomy ahead of mining and soy companies, it will likely come from indigenous and environmental grassroots movements. And if this model is to transform the region’s wider progressive trends, these spaces of dissent and debate in indigenous, environmental and farmer movements need to be respected and amplified, not crushed and silenced.
A value-based ethical framework for evaluating social and ecological events, conditions and practices
Anita L. Wenden
To answer the questions that follow, refer to the above account of the politics of Pachamama and the definitions of the following Earth Charter values provided on the home page of the EPE website www.globalepe.org
Are the government’s extractive policies ecologically sustainable? Will the indigenous policies of Pachamama lead to an ecologically sustainable Mother Earth?
In extracting the region’s vast mineral wealth from the underground, did the governments use their power and wealth to benefit all groups in the state ? If not, which groups benefited ? which groups suffered? How? How would the demands made by the indigenous groups have affected various citizen groups in each country?
Did the government solicit the concerns of affected individuals and groups regarding the extraction and use of the country’s mineral wealth? Have citizens taken their own actions to deal with the problems caused by extraction? If so, how?
Did governments put in place procedures for dealing with the value conflicts? What tactics did the protesters use to respond to government policies? How did government respond to the citizens’ protest? Did both groups use non-violence? or forms of violence?
How will the social and ecological problems resulting from these two approaches to economic , social development and environmental care, affect the quality of life of citizens in future generations? Is this a concern taken up either by governments or indigenous & environmental leaders in community planning?