By Luis Ángel Saavedra
Tens of thousands of protesters — many of them indigenous or campesinos — have marched from their villages to government offices in mineral-rich Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, demanding protection of the environment they depend upon, as large mining and other natural resource extraction projects in these nations are backed by their governments.
It is part of a large-scale rejection of these projects, such as mining, oil and logging, which many of these governments support as international commodities prices have soared in recent years.
The protesters are looking to protect vital resources like water, which many say is under threat of becoming privatized.
Some recent government decisions on these projects violate water-protection laws. For example, Ecuador’s constitution declares water as a basic human right. In Argentina, a glacier-protection law was vetoed by President Cristina Fernández, but it was reinstated and took effect after a long legal battle in October 2010.
“The extraction of natural resources and the protection of water are not compatible,” said Maude Barlow, a Canadian environmentalist and water rights activist.
For Barlow, water is not only a human right but a right for all living things. At the Alternative World Water Forum in Marseilles, France last March, she called for a unified movement to protect it.
Notably, the largest protests occurred in countries governed by self-proclaimed progressive leaders, such as Argentina, Ecuador and Peru, whose presidents tapped popular movements to get to power only to renege on their campaign promises.
In early March, hundreds marched in the northwestern Argentine province San Juan against open-pit mining, to reject the Pascua Lama and Veladero projects, run by Barrick Gold. In Mendoza, Gov. Francisco Pérez declared a “water emergency” while the San Jorge copper-gold project in his province has been given a green light.
“This project will consume millions of liters of water which will be returned [to the environment] with contaminating metals and substances,” said Agustín Aramayo, a mountain-climber who placed a placard against the project at the peak of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. President Fernández has tried to play down the protests and threw her support behind the mining projects when addressing the latest session of Congress, which began March 1. At the inauguration of the Cerro Vanguardia mine in Santa Cruz, she said that the protests are scaring people and are irresponsible because the country needs harmonious growth and development.
“Often, people talk through slogans,” she said, adding that mining cannot be derailed because “it has created many high-ranking, well-paying jobs.”
Protests forced a change
In Peru, concerns about water are no different. In early March, hundreds of people participated in the National March for the Right To Water and Life, an 800-kilometer (500-mile) protest from the northern highland Cajamarca department to Lima to protect the local lagoons from Conga, a giant copper-gold project that is threatening the key water resources. Upon their arrival to Lima, protesters presented constitutional reforms to declare water a human right and prohibit mining at river heads and near glaciers, as well as a ban on mercury and cyanide often used to separate gold from rock.
Former priest and environmental activist Marco Arana, who led the protests, said that the proposed reforms also entail the recognition of villages’ right to decide on extractive industries on their lands, through previous consultation.
Cajamarca’s population has been vehemently opposed to the project, run by Yanacocha, a joint company that includes US miner Newmont Mining Corp. and Peru’s Buenaventura. A revision in November of the hastily-approved environmental impact study for the project found gaping holes, including the absence of the impact on the water resources.
The massive protests against Conga and President Ollanta Humala’s subsequent defense of the mine caused a collapse of his Cabinet. The president’s response amounted also to a sharp turnaround from his campaign promises.
The story was similar in Ecuador, where on March 8, indigenous protesters marched from Pangui in the southern Amazon, where Chinese miner Ecuacorriente has been operating. Despite road blocks that were set up on the route, the protesters arrived in Quito on March 22, numbering some 40,000.
President Rafael Correa tried to confront the indigenous mobilization by organizing parallel marches in each of the provincial capitals where the demonstrators arrived, and in Quito he called for one in Arbolito Park, a historic site for indigenous protests. Government supporters, however, had to quit when they saw the magnitude of the indigenous mobilization.
The presidents that have faced these protests have all spoken of the need for these resources in their nations’ growth, and casting the demonstrators as enemies of development. But in the end, the protests forced a change, at least in discourse. Fernández recently spoke about respect for the environment. Humala had to contract foreign experts to review the Conga project and Correa took back his insults to the indigenous leadership and said he respects indigenous communities.