Organizations such as Global Witness report the increasing rates of human rights violations against land and environmental defenders around the world. From 2016, Latin America is considered one of the global regions reporting higher number of cases and Mexico is not exempted from this pattern. Since the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office in December 2018, 18 murders of this kind have been reported. Community members, journalists, NGO staff and indigenous people are commonly the victims and increasingly women are doubly affected when other types of gender violence intersect their activism.
These atrocities prompt journalists and academics to ask themselves what is to be done to minimise this type of violent conflicts? Are the participative institutions existing in the country enough to prevent these conflicts? And how should governments and multi-lateral organisations intervene in order to mediate conflict when it has already burst?
Through our research project ‘Conversing with Goliath’ we have generated a map of conflicts derived from a 12-year newspaper review of the extractive industry in Mexico: mining, hydrocarbons, hydroelectric-dam and wind-farm sectors. The sources consulted were online outlets with highest circulation across the country, nationally and regionally.
Our map and overall research are one of the first steps to provide answers to the questions raised above. The map complements previous efforts carried out by Environmental Justice Atlas and Latin American Observatory of Mining Conflicts by providing a broader systematisation and a more detailed data categorisation.
The newspaper review encompasses 964 newspaper articles mentioning 304 extractive projects with 879 conflictive issues reported between January 2006 and January 2019. Results show (Figure 1) that in absolute terms, mining is the sector with highest number of conflictive issues, followed by hydroelectric dams and oilfields. In relative terms, gas pipelines (with environmental impact assessment) is the subsector with highest number of conflictive issues reported, followed by hydroelectric-dam projects.
The conflictive issues reported in mining, hydrocarbons and hydroelectric dams are generally associated to environmental damages; conflictive issues in wind farms are related to territorial planning mis-management practices, while mining also reports high number of labour violations in the workplace.
Figure 2 shows the states with highest number of violent conflictive issues. States with violent conflictive issues in two or more sectors are: Chiapas (hydroelectric and oilfields), Oaxaca (mining and hydroelectric), Puebla (mining, hydroelectric and oilfields), Sonora (mining and gas pipelines) and Veracruz (hydroelectric and oilfields).
Figure 2 shows the tendency to find violent conflictive issues in the south-eastern regions of the country which have been targeted as spaces to promote economic development through extractive and mega-infrastructural projects such as the Mayan Train. However, the north of the country is not exempted, the case of Sonora and other neighbouring states demonstrate this with regards to mining.
Tabasco is the state with highest number of violent conflictive issues in oilfields and gas pipelines. This number is likely to increase given President López Obrador’s recent declaration to construct a new oil refinery in this state and the changes to Tabasco’s penal code in July 2019, which increased imprisonment for street protesting and blockages for up to 20 years.
Our research also shows that Mexico has a broad institutional landscape promoting citizen participation that in principle could help to minimise violent conflicts through dialogue, deliberation and negotiation. There are five institutional frameworks that support participation with regards to the extractive industry: environmental, human rights, agrarian, political and property rights.
Depending on how communities use these institutional frameworks they can welcome or reject a project within their locality, obtain or not economic compensation (i.e. for business to have access to their land), and reach an agreement with or without violence. However, these options will always incur in a trade-off.
The newspaper review indicates that environmental participatory institutions are likely to be non-violent if communities accept compensation. Prior consultation, which sits under the human-rights framework for indigenous communities, cannot reject an extractive project when no economic compensation is accepted.
Most interestingly the agrarian assemblies, which are result of the 1910 Mexican Revolution which distributed land to peasants across the country, are the main initiatives to stop a project when combined with customary law of indigenous communities, other forms of protest and no economic compensation. Violence is not entirely absent but minimised as agrarian assemblies tend to use agrarian law to begin lawsuits and injunctions against the business promoter and government agencies favouring the latter.
Participatory spaces, such as municipal planning committees found under the political framework, existing since the 1990s, have curiously been overlooked or ignored as forms to negotiate the terms of developing (or not) an extractive project.
Agrarian assemblies and improvised negotiating tables are the best forms in which communities, project promoters and state agencies can minimise violence insofar as communities’ priorities and terms of compensation are seriously taken into account.
These results are important to bear in mind because they demystify the common belief that communities and NGOs in Mexico protest violently against these issues.
When not listened to, the newspaper database shows, that in 558 conflictive issues reported across all extractive sectors, communities are ready to take formal legal action against businesses and state agencies; 79.82% used only institutional-legal action; 8.29% used non-institutional action (street protests, road blockages) and 11.87% used a combination of both. Almost half of the cases using institutionalised means were accompanied by a human-rights NGOs teaching and advising communities how to get involved in legal action. These results are important to bear in mind because they demystify the common belief that communities and NGOs in Mexico protest violently against these issues.
Across all extractive sectors, the database shows that 385 conflictive issues report informal practices carried out outside the regulated sphere by businesses and state agencies; 56.62% of these conflictive issues regard to informal and illegal practices carried out jointly by both types of stakeholders. This result indicates that more attention must be drawn onto what businesses and government agencies do or achieve informally as their negotiating practices tend to be primordial in developing the extractive sector and very likely to be sources of further violent conflict.
Results of a survey we distributed in 2018 to professionals and experts with jobs related to the extractive industry (N=110, 70% response rate), which complement the database results and show that private sector respondents believe that the presence of NGOs in advising communities increases violence when an extractive project is about to start or is under development.
In contrast, third and public sector respondents believe that violence escalates when communities are internally fragmented, in the presence of military or other state-armed groups and in the presence of organised crime. Increasingly activists and academics observe that project promoters tend to increase the fragmentation of communities through their economic compensation schemes and violence escalates through businesses’ dependence on state militarised forces to protect their premises when communities protest.
Author note: "This research has been sponsored by the British Academy. To learn more about the research project visit: https://conversingwithgoli.wixsite.com/misitio/el-proyecto "