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How do extractive industries and agribusiness repress rural communities in Latin America?

Conflicts and resistances involving territories and natural resources have been increasing in Latin America in recent years. Where and how are these conflicts taking place, and who is most affected?

Hillside with 'No a Conga' carved on its side Anti Conga mine slogan carved on the hillside above the Peruvian city of Cajamarca. Image: Alan/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

Latin America’s human rights record has been challenged by the accelerated growth of the extractive industries in the region over the past few decades – ‘traditional’ industries such as mining and agriculture, as well as new technologies for oil extraction. Throughout the continent, resistance movements that campaign for alternatives to this hegemonic model continuously suffer violent repression, through the use of force, intimidation and submission to judicial processes. 

As we will see, contemporary extractive activity usually presents territorial conflicts through the dislodging of the populations that inhabit those territories. The extractive model therefore implicates accumulation by dispossession – a model based on the expansion of capital through the intensive use of the environment, which is interpreted as a commodity. This process of accumulation by dispossession is intertwined with the expanded reproduction of capital by the exploitation of labour and by a system of global capital.

Here I’ll present some of the most emblematic conflicts and resistances in Latin America in recent years involving territories and natural resources.

 

Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbon exploration has generated huge territorial conflicts from the beginning – unsurprisingly, with a global capitalist system that depends on fossil fuels. Hydrocarbon activity has caused innumerable conflicts between countries as well as civil wars, and has also advanced into ancestral territories of indigenous peoples, peasants and medium-sized producers.

Although the advance into these territories in Latin America has occured since the beginning of the 20th century, developments in the oil and gas industry have brought the issue of land to the surface once again in the first decades of the 21st century. New technologies have allowed oil to be extracted from areas that were previously not profitable due to their geological conditions. These are the so-called unconventional hydrocarbons, whose main extraction technique consists of hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking), which makes it possible to obtain hydrocarbons (shale gas and shale oil) trapped in rocks or compact sands (tight gas). Therefore, this century has experienced a growing cycle of conflicts over hydrocarbon activities, whether in the conventional or non-conventional format, that affect various Latin American territories.

Argentina is home to the Vaca Muerta deposit – in the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro and Mendoza – which is the largest in the continent, just behind the deposits explored in the United States. It is estimated that almost 1,400 unconventional wells have been built in Vaca Muerta so far. There, the progress of the exploration of conventional and unconventional oil and gas is met with resistance from different communities of the Mapuche people in Neuquén (Campo Maripe, Tratayén, Kaxipayiñ, Paynemil, Winkul Newen, among many others), as well as the small producers of cattle, crianceros, of the region and medium-sized fruit producers of the Upper Valley of Rio Negro and Neuquén. The development of hydrocarbons has generated significant environmental and health impacts on populations, from spills and contamination of large areas by drilling, to gas emissions on the surface. This activity has also had a strong impact on the flora and fauna of the region, as perforations are conducted even in protected natural areas, such as Auca Mahuida.

Resistance to fracking has resulted in repressive acts by provincial and federal security forces, mainly against the Mapuche communities

Resistance to fracking has resulted in repressive acts by provincial and federal security forces, mainly against the Mapuche communities. For example, the community of Campo Maripe – where more than 200 conventional and unconventional oil wells operate – has experienced three repressive episodes, while the Community of Tratayén was recently evicted from part of its territory where hydrocarbon drilling occurs. Almost all Mapuche community leaders and authorities are prosecuted for participating in different protests (road and route cuts, taking oil installations, demonstrations, etc.) against the advance of hydrocarbons in their ancestral territories. These resistances and demonstrations have managed to pressure authorities to prohibit oil exploration in more than 50 municipalities throughout the country, although both the provincial and national governments continue to advance policies that promote the hydrocarbon industry in general and fracking in particular.

In Mexico, extraction and unconventional hydrocarbons have not expanded as much as in Argentina, but you can already see their social and environmental consequences. Almost 30 unconventional wells are estimated to exist in the country. A national organisation, the Allianza Mexicana contra el Fracking (Mexican Alliance Against Fracking), has already been formed to enable communication between indigenous communities, peasants and small and medium-sized towns that are affected by fracking. The organisation now joins other 44 social organisations that have already managed to ban this activity in some municipalities, such as Tanlajás and Xilitla in the State of San Luis Potosí, the municipality of Cuetzalan in the State of Puebla and hundreds of indigenous and peasant communities in zones where oil exploration occurs.

Additionally, in the municipality of San Martín in Colombia, there were several demonstrations and popular uprisings in opposition to fracking wells that were being built in their territories. For this, they suffered intimidation, threats and repression by police in 2016. These mobilisations managed to generate empathy in other areas where unconventional hydrocarbons are also being explored, culminating in a unanimous decision by the Department Assembly of Santander to reject the use of fracking in that department that same year.

 

Mega-mining

Mining is a constitutive activity of the Conquest and ransacking of America. Many of the Latin American countries have a strong mining tradition and these riches have been one of the bases of the domination and dependence of the entire continent. In the last decades, mining activity experienced a new boom through technological innovation that allows more valuable minerals (gold, silver, among others) to be retrieved through the use of leaching, a technique that consists of dynamiting large portions of the deposits in the mountains and then separating the valuable minerals from those remaining using a chemical mixture that contains cyanide and requires large amounts of water. Although mining is also a polluting activity, "open-air mega mining" – as this large-scale mining process is called in Latin America – causes strong social and environmental impacts, even greater than traditional mining.

The inhabitants of the Cajamarca region oppose the Conga Project, an open-pit mega-mining project that has destroyed almost 20 lagoons that were sources of fresh water

These large mining projects are found all along the Andes, and also in the jungles and forests of the continent, and with them come resistance movements. Here, too, indigenous peoples, peasant movements and small- and medium-urban populations are the protagonists of the resistance – attempting to defend their territories against the intensive use of water, the destruction of mountainous landscapes and the contamination of glaciers, streams, lakes, rivers and other sources of fresh water.

A paradigmatic example of these resistances against mega-mining can be observed in Peru. The inhabitants of the Cajamarca region oppose the Conga Project, an open-pit mega-mining project that has destroyed almost 20 lagoons that were sources of fresh water in the area. The same happened with the Yanacocha mega-mining enterprise, also in Cajamarca, the largest gold mining venture in the world, as well as that of Tía María in Arequipa, in the country’s south region. 

In all cases, thousands of residents – many of them peasants and indigenous – have made numerous protests demanding the cessation or non-implementation of these projects through petitions, referendums, demonstrations and roadblocks. Because of these protests, which began in 2002, the inhabitants of these regions have suffered strong repressions that have killed dozens, and injured and imprisoned hundreds. To this day, resistance to mega-mining is one of the most important reasons behind social protest, and also criminalisation of social protest, in Peru.

In Argentina, protests against mega-mining projects also began in 2002, with demonstrations in the southern city of Esquel. Its inhabitants, together with the indigenous communities of the area, opposed the development of a mega gold mining project and managed to stop it after a referendum where more than 80% of the population voted against the mine. In light of this success, no more referendums of this type have been officially accepted in Argentina, preventing local populations from having a say on the extractive projects to be carried out in their regions.

Thus, citizen assemblies have emerged in different areas of the mountain range to oppose different mega-mining ventures in the cities of Tinogasta and Andalgalá (Catamarca), Famatina and Chilecito (La Rioja), Jáchal (San Juan), Tupungato, San Martín, Lujan de Cuyo and Maipú (Mendoza), among many other towns in the Andean provinces. In these cases, locals chose demonstrations, assemblies and roadblocks as the tools to give their demands more visibility.

In all these cases, the modus operandi of the states’ authorities has been judicial persecution and repression of social protests

Simultaneously in Mexico there have also been strong movements of resistance to mega-mining in different states: Chihuahua has 13 such conflicts, Zacatecas 12, Puebla 8, Oaxaca 7, Chiapas, Michoacán and Baja California Sur 5 each, Sonora, San Luis Potosí, Durango, Guanajuato and Colima 4, Veracruz, Querétaro and Hidalgo 3, Jalisco, Coahuila and State of Mexico 2; and Baja California, Nayarit, Morelos and Aguascalientes 1, respectively. In Mexico, more than 100 conflicts are currently registered against mining projects, which makes it, according to Forbes magazine (2016), the country with the largest number of mining conflicts in Latin America.

In all these cases, the modus operandi of the states’ authorities has been judicial persecution and repression of social protests. In the case of Argentina, however, laws were passed banning open-air mega-mining projects in some provinces. Some of these laws were recently repealed, opening again the possibility for mega-mining companies to advance in those provinces, as is the case of La Rioja. 

Agribusiness

Since the late 20th century, hegemonic agriculture in Latin America has been marked by so-called ‘agribusiness’, which implies a deepening and intensifying of agroindustrial production oriented to produce for export. The logic of the international commodities market and the monopoly by multinationals determine the prices of products to the detriment of small and medium producers. This has occurred within a context of technological and business innovation that has given rise to the hegemony of transgenic crops in a large part of Latin America’s arable land. These crops, such as soy, corn and African palm, among others, create a uniform landscape of monocultures focused on export and a huge concentration of land in the hands of large establishments. This, in a continent with the highest inequality indexes in the world.

Agribusiness-related conflicts take place across all of Latin America; the protests and social movements resisting this territorial advance of agrarian capitalism are numerous. This productive model has the greatest territorial extension in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but agribusiness also occurs with great intensity in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Central America. Even in countries like Mexico, where land is more fairly distributed, this model has been growing exponentially.

The most important responses against agribusiness are carried out by indigenous peoples and various peasant movements that have been resisting evictions since the 1990s, and often occupy lands to work in an alternative way to the dominant model. Brazil has the two best-known cases of peasant movements: The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST, for its Portuguese acronym) and the Movimiento de Pequeños Agricultores (MPA) (Movement of Small Farmers), which have recovered thousands of hectares through their occupations and settlements. After occupying the land, they begin an alternative production process to the hegemonic one, which allows them to consolidate a de facto agrarian reform in their territories, as well as the construction of so-called "food sovereignty". 

These occupations have received strong reprisals from landowners and their private security guards. The peasants have also suffered strong repression by public security forces. Peasants have been murdered, wounded and imprisoned for protesting, which includes large demonstrations and occupation of public buildings.

Peasant movements resist the exponential process of "sojización" (“soyification”) of the Paraguayan countryside at the cost of repression, imprisonment and killings of dozens of peasants

Argentina also has several peasant movements – the Movimiento Nacional Campesino Indígena (MNCI), the Frente Nacional Campesino (FNC), the Organización de Trabajadores Rurales de Lavalle (OTRAL) and, more recently, the Unión de Trabajadores de la Tierra (UTT) – that resist evictions and/or have occupied land to implement productive schemes linked to rural logics, with an agro-ecological vision. At least ten peasants, indigenous people and/or activists have been killed for these occupations, eviction resistances and roadblocks in the last ten years – including Javier Chocobar, Miguel Galván, Cristián Ferreyra, Roberto López and Santiago Maldonado [LINK], the young man who disappeared during the repression of a protest of a Mapuche community in Cushamen in Argentine Patagonia, and appeared dead almost three months later.

In Paraguay, several peasant movements resist the exponential process of "sojización" (“soyification”) of the Paraguayan countryside at the cost of repression, imprisonment and killings of dozens of peasants in the last ten years. This scheme is replicated in other countries where agribusiness has been strengthened as a model of hegemonic production in rural regions. 

Other conflicts around extractivism

In addition to the aforementioned, there are a series of extractive activities and large-scale infrastructure projects that affect the rural areas of the American continent and generate processes of struggle and resistance from different social movements. For example, pine and/or eucalyptus forest enterprises of large paper mills, hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants, large roads, pipelines, gas pipelines, large commercial ports, etc., all cause significant social and environmental impacts.

Some of these resistances can be observed among the Mapuche communities in southern Chile who have been resisting pine plantations in their communal territories. These communities have been subjected to heavy repression by the Carabiniers – the Chilean national police force – and the imprisonment of their leaders, in addition to stigmatisation and social racism at the hands of the media, political elites and a large portion of the population. In recent years, hundreds of Mapuches have been taken to court, in addition to another dozen indigenous political prisoners from other communities, while several have been murdered and hundreds injured by repressive forces. Additionally, the increasing implementation of the anti-terrorist law has enabled authorities to persecute the Mapuche communities that protest against these extractive projects and for the recovery of its territory and ancestral culture.

Another example is the indigenous communities of the Moxeños, Tsimanaes and Yuracarés Indigenous Territories and Isiboro Secure National Park (TIPNIS) in Bolivia that, since 2011, oppose the construction of a highway that is projected to go through the national park and indigenous territory to connect the regions of Cochabamba and Beni. This highway is part of the planning of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) that promotes large-scale infrastructure projects to improve the extraction of natural resources as well as the mobility of goods through "interoceanic corridors" between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. 

These people have led demonstrations and roadblocks to protest against this project, which is spearheaded by the administration of Evo Morales who supports this project that has divided part of the TIPNIS communities. The project has marked a turning point for his government in relation to the peasant and indigenous social movements: while some continue to support the government, other groups protest that, despite identifying itself as a "government of indigenous and social movements", the Morales’ government promotes extractivism, from activities related to hydrocarbons, mega-mining, agribusiness and large infrastructure projects, such as the TIPNIS highway.

Bottom-up alternatives to the hegemonic model

A series of lifestyles coexist within the extractive hegemonic model, even though they are presented as opposite: mostly indigenous peoples, peasant movements, Afro-descendant populations, artisanal fishermen and other subaltern actors of rural regions. Some of these social movements propose and build lifestyles in their territories that present an alternative to the extractive model.

Throughout Latin America, ancestral forms of food production and ways of life coexist – many times subsumed, while many others in frank dispute with the productive logics of hegemonic agrarian capitalism. These ancestral productive forms – which we can call alternative – are predominantly carried out by the indigenous peoples and peasant communities that inhabit a large part of the continent’s territories. In addition to these are the productive activities for self-support in complementarity with the production of food for local and/or national markets.

There is also a diverse range of small- and medium-scale producers who are not necessarily indigenous and/or peasants who produce food for the local and/or national market through different systems, although generally incorporated in part or totally in the production, distribution and commercialisation of the agribusiness or agroindustrial model. On the other hand, different currents within the agronomy sector were consolidated in the last few decades, which are linked to the peasant and indigenous struggles, that systematised forms of alternative production to the hegemonic model of agribusiness, thus combining technical and agronomic knowledge with the knowledge associated with peasants, indigenous people and other subaltern rural actors who excel in what is now called agroecology.

These experiences present possible alternatives to the mainstream lifestyle and propose new ways to produce healthy and cheap food. They represent, here and now, alternatives to extractive activities such as hydrocarbons, mega-mining and agribusiness that are presented as the bearers of "development" and "progress" but that end up generating greater social inequalities, the destruction of the environment and the disarticulation of other ways of life. These resistances and the alternatives that emerge from peasant, indigenous and rural struggles showcase the hope of social change, which has already begun in the re-existing territories of Latin America, Our America.

About the author

Juan Wahren is an Argentine sociologist and assistant researcher at CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council). His research is focused on rural sociology, Latin American social movements and territoriality. He teaches at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA).  

Juan Wahren es sociólogo argentino e investigador asistente en el CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigación Científica y Técnica). Su investigación se centra en la sociología rural, los movimientos sociales latinoamericanos y la territorialidad. Es docente en la Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA).


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