Latin Americans pay price for corporate environmental destruction

As the COP20 conference comes to a close in Lima, can the corporations whose ‘externalities’ foster climate change ever be brought to book?

Nick Fillmore
11 December 2014

Public asset, private depredation--the global carbon sink that is the Amazon rainforest. Flickr / Phil. Some rights reserved.

The UN COP 20 climate negotiations in Peru have been focusing on what nation-states need to do to reach a binding climate agreement a year from now. What is not on the table is how corporations are to be called to account for the climate damage they cause in developing countries—damage for which those countries are, however, held accountable.

A new report  details how multinational corporations are destroying the environment and causing serious climate damage in Latin America. The report describes the destruction caused by three European corporations, which it says is typical of the damage caused by multinationals throughout the continent.

“Multinational corporations are relentlessly expanding their operations into ever more vulnerable and remote regions of the world,” says the report, written by three public-interest groups: the Democracy Centre of San Francisco, the Corporate Europe Observatory of Brussels and the Transnational Institute of Amsterdam. The corporations under the spotlight are the Spanish fossil-fuels giant Repsol, the Swiss-based mining and resources conglomerate Glencore-Xstrata and Enel-Endesa, an Italian consortium.

In the case of Repsol, it says that “the relentless pursuit of new gas and oil reserves in Peru takes direct aim at the region’s indigenous territories and forests, leaving social destruction and environmental decimation in its wake”. Of the copper-mining operations of Glencore-Xstrata , it claims: “Scarce water resources, already stretched by climate change, are being contaminated with impunity.” And it says Enel-Endesa is attempting via its Latin American subsidiary Emgesa to portray a massive hydro-electric dam as a “clean energy” project, yet “rather than benefitting local people, the electricity is destined for dirty industry at discount prices”.


The results in Latin America of such poor corporate behaviour are environmental damage, overuse of water resources, increasingly high carbon emissions and often hardship for indigenous communities. But most developing-world governments are not capable of forcing corporations to be more respectful of the environment and climate. And nor, back in Europe, are corporations held accountable for what they do in developing countries.

The Latin Americans lose in three ways: their climate and environment are severely damaged, they have to pay for their carbon surpluses and practically all the profits from intrusive mega-projects go back to rich countries. This irresponsible corporate behaviour is further reason for northern countries to agree to commit billions of dollars to the Special Climate Change Fund, which is intended to compensate the global south for damage done by the north.

indigenous people from various parts of the world made a strong appeal  for UN leaders and national governments to address the damage suffered by their communities

With profits down at many northern corporations since the 2011 recession, they are ‘invading’ every country in Latin America. In particular, Spanish corporations have become so well known for their numerous and ambitious development projects that they are often called the ‘corporate conquistadors’—recalling how the Spanish conquered much of Latin America centuries ago, in search of gold, silver and cheap labour.

Repsol—one of the largest of the many Spanish companies involved—is criticised for extracting natural gas from the middle of Peru’s delicate rainforest, with dozens of drilling platforms, hundreds of kilometres of pipelines and other infrastructure. The report says Repsol is to expand further, “at the cost of devastation of indigenous communities and their cultures, as well as the destruction of forests, biodiversity and water resources".

In another part of Peru, the southern Andes, the mining activity of Glencore-Xstrata is putting “extreme pressure” on the water supply, says the report. The lives of indigenous communities are closely tied to a hundred lakes and four river basins. In 2009, dangerous levels of contamination led to miscarriages, deformations and deaths among livestock in the area. Independent studies showed the company had polluted the water supply with heavy metals such as arsenic. Harsh and sometimes violent confrontations have taken place but still local citizens are at risk.

The report claims powerful multinational corporations manage to overcome resistance to their damaging environmental practices by infiltrating a country’s political process, making promises that are never met, or by simply ignoring local opposition.

Indigenous impact

At COP 20 in Lima, indigenous people from various parts of the world made a strong appeal  for UN leaders and national governments to address the damage suffered by their communities. “Due to global warming, our people are suffering a constant variation of the climate,” said Klaus Quicque Bolivar, who lives in the Peruvian Amazon. “There is an excess of heat. The rivers are warming up; there is less agricultural production and natural reproduction of fishes. Some animal species are disappearing and the cycles of wild fruits are varying.”

But many indigenous participants expressed concerns about whether their views would be included in the final document. While the indigenous community had its say during a brief session, delegates from the multinational corporate sector were getting much more attention and were busy lobbying national government delegates at the conference, to adopt industry-friendly solutions to fight climate change.

If the outcome of this UN climate conference is anything like others held in recent years, the recommendations of the indigenous community will receive only token acknowledgement in the final communiqué—an outcome sure to remind them of what it’s like to fight powerful corporations in their own countries.

COP 20 concludes tomorrow. Participating countries hope to be able to produce a document of agreements that will be the basis for a final accord to be signed in Paris a year from now.  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData