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Mining giants like BHP pretend to be solving climate change. But in Latin America, they are deadly.

Communities around the world are resisting BHP's neo-colonial mega-mining projects. Climate activists in the global north must join them.

Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz TJ Chuah
25 October 2019
Frontline human rights defenders travel from Latin America to the UK to challenge BHP
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Image: London Mining Network and Mark Kerrison

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.

While recent climate protests grabbed headlines, marred by police violence and the closing down of civil society space, one lesser known action that should be at the top of the climate justice agenda took place on 17 October: four frontline human rights defenders traveled from Latin America to the UK to challenge BHP, a UK-based multinational mining company – the largest in the world.

Communities around the world are resisting BHP’s neo-colonial mega-mining projects. They teach us all important lessons about resilience in the face of ecological breakdown aggravated by the constant threat of state-sanctioned corporate violence, and aggressive corporate strategies seeking to capitalise on climate breakdown.

The mining industry is a major, but largely hidden, contributor to climate breakdown, causing 20 percent of global carbon emissions and displacing communities already vulnerable to climate shocks in the process. Many of these same companies are heavily invested in fossil fuel extraction, and are among the world’s highest emitters, with BHP recently listed in the top 20.

Yet this same industry is aggressively promoting prolonged, expanded extractivism as a solution to the climate emergency, saying it will deliver the minerals and metals needed for growing renewable energy demand.

In Chile, BHP’s activities have violated the rights of indigenous communities, their lands and water sources – and resistance to mining is key to the social movement ecosystem in the country. Just this week, miners from BHP’s Minera Escondida copper mine joined unprecedented and widespread protests calling for an end to Pinera’s neoliberal government agenda. The protests have been heavily repressed by the military with a death toll of at least 21, and hundreds injured - something which has not been seen since the era of the Pinochet dictatorship 30 years ago. Lucio Cuenca, director of the Observatory for Environmental Conflicts in Latin America (OLCA) in Chile, explains:

“You can’t unlink what’s happening on the streets of Santiago from the water crisis or the broader ecological crisis. These crises have been caused by overexploitation of resources and privatisation of water, and aggravated by the prolonged mega-drought in Chile.

“Chile hosts the world’s largest copper and lithium reserves, but behind these ‘reserves’ lie vital climate-critical ecosystems like glaciers, salt-flats, watersheds, homes to ancestral indigenous communities who are ‘competing’ for water and space with some of the world’s largest mining companies.

“BHP’s Minera Escondida in Antofagasta is the largest copper mine in the world. This project extracts vast amounts of water, three times more than any other BHP operation. The water is extracted from the Atacama Salt Flat ecosystem leading to irreparable damage as the watershed is depleted. BHP has no plans to stop using groundwater from these ecosystems until 2033, and by then it will be too late – this is all happening whilst Chile is experiencing severe drought.

“However, BHP is shamelessly using the climate crisis as an opportunity to greenwash its image and carbon emissions. It is promoting itself as part of the solution to the climate crisis, and not as a crucial part of the problem. BHP is increasing its extraction of 'green' or 'critical' metals such as copper for cars, wind turbines and solar panels, in order to take advantage of an increasingly lucrative electric vehicle market in the global North.”

In reality, meeting the metal and mineral for renewable energy demand through expanded mining entails the creation of sacrifice zones: widespread destruction of climate-critical ecosystems and disruption of communities already vulnerable to climate change on a massive scale. No amount of technical improvements, greenwashing or 'social value' can make mining on this scale safer or more sustainable.

This is certainly what communities in Brazil’s Minas Gerais region believe – they have experienced the worst type of mining disaster. On January 25th, a tailings dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, collapsed, unleashing 12 million cubic metres of toxic mining-waste. It left a trail of devastation in its wake, killing 300 people, with many more whose bodies are still missing.

This was not a sudden tragedy, but a corporate crime foretold. Only 90km from Brumadinho, four years ago, another tailings dam burst at the Samarco mine killing 19 people, destroying 600km of river basin and affecting one million inhabitants. In both instances, one corporate multinational was the culprit, Brazilian mining giant Vale. In the case of Samarco, Vale was a joint owner of the operation alongside BHP.

Tchenna Fernandes Maso is a community lawyer from Mariana, and member of the coordination of Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB). MAB is a social movement made up of communities affected by dams in Brazil, which has been working to secure justice and reparations for communities affected by these devastating crimes.

“Tailings dams are ticking time bombs, ready to explode at any moment. What happened in Brumadinho has made this clear. We already have more than 9 cases of dam ruptures in Brazil. If we count from 2002, every two years there’s been a tailings dam rupture. The issue is that all these highly polluting and dangerous tailings dams are positioned above towns that have large populations and this is a very serious risk.

“For those affected by Brumadinho and Samarco, we are demanding that communities have access to justice. Communities are already at a huge disadvantage because of the asymmetries of power in relation to corporations. We are demanding integral reparation, that is, a holistic and deep understanding of justice based on community needs.

“Instead, BHP's actions in the territories affected by the collapse of the Samarco tailings dam have transformed human rights violations into a major business. The creation of the Renova Foundation [created by BHP and Vale to repair communities] has distorted the process, dividing communities by quantifying harms and commodifying the suffering of communities. Thus, what should be an exemplary integral reparation, in view of the seriousness of the contamination and environmental destruction, is permeated by the economic interests of the corporation and its shareholders to the detriment of the rights of affected communities.”

Communities opposing BHP’s operations are on the frontlines of the fight for climate justice, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Colombia, where human rights defenders are killed at the highest rate of any country by far. It is in this context that threatened leaders Alvaro Ipuana and Catalina Caro struggle for reparations and justice from BHP for the impacts of Cerrejón – the largest open-cast coal mine in Latin America, located in La Guajira in northern Colombia, on Wayúu indigenous and Afro-descendant territory. Communities in La Guajira have been displaced, their lands devastated, and their leaders face threats and violence for the work they do to uphold and protect their rights and access clean water, air and land.

Alvaro Ipuana is the highest indigenous authority in his community of Nuevo Espinal, one of many communities forcibly displaced by Cerrejón.

“They kill people in Colombia every day, all of them are our compañeros. We’re all in this fight together but we can't do anything to stop the killings. The only sin we have committed as social leaders is to tell the truth about human rights violations, about the misuse of natural resources, resources that belong to our territories.

“Because we stand in the way of their occupation and their extraction, there are criminal organisations working hand in hand with third parties as part of an association to threaten and displace us. When the death threats come, they are a very effective way of generating pressure against us and our communities, especially when the threats come with a request to abandon our lands.

“We became defenders of rights, for one reason: because we have been harmed and displaced from our territories. I hope that the people here in the UK find out that we exist, and realise that my life and my community have a link to the lives of the people here.”

Climate movements in the global North must centre affected communities in the South and use their privileges to fight against climate violence beyond fossil fuels and carbon. Catalina Caro Galvis finds the growth of movements here energising, but offers critique. Catalina is from Bogotá and works for CENSAT, an organisation that has supported communities in La Guajira affected by Cerrejón opencast coal mine for decades.

“Movements have emerged in the global North from a logic of ‘I fight when the garden of my house is affected’, but I feel that these new movements have begun to think about how everyone is affected, and as everyone is affected, we all need to demand justice and to put pressure on those who are truly responsible.

“In Colombia, our movements and struggles usually have visible heads, but these leaderships are fraught with complications because they are often male, chauvinist, and patriarchal. I feel that movements here [in the UK] are more decentralised in their leaderships, as they are quite anarchic and in that sense I find it very interesting. Also on direct action? I like it. We in Colombia cannot do that because the state security apparatus would kill us.

“What’s important now is to connect the global with the local. I would like to see a more anti-capitalist and class-based analysis coming from these movements, because climate change is only one expression of the crisis of capitalism as a model for the reproduction of life today. What we have to do is dismantle the capitalist model and all its consequences.”

True solutions to the climate crisis lie with those who have been resisting the expansion of colonialism and extractivism for centuries. The heart of a new economy based on ecological and social values lies in our ability to engage and develop visions for a just transition that prioritise dialogue with those communities and movements – we should listen to them.

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