Indigenous peoples across Latin America have demonstrated their determination to protect their communities and their territories over the centuries and, in the process, have proven their role as stewards of the environment. Threatening to encroach upon ancestral lands, contaminate water sources, and divide communities with the construction of mega projects, national and multinational companies have long wreaked havoc on the environment and taken advantage of indigenous communities. Yet, the communities have not sat idly by. Instead, groups throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have organized to protect their people and their lands.
Today, on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we celebrate the environmental stewardship of indigenous communities throughout Latin America. The first part of our blog recognized the leadership of indigenous women. This second part celebrates communities that have prevailed against powerful corporate interests. Over the years, numerous victories have been won by indigenous peoples that have safeguarded rainforests from deforestation, rivers from dams, and agricultural lands from mining. The legal successes won by, or on behalf of, indigenous communities are often a result of companies or governments found to be out of compliance with Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization—the right to formal and open consultation regarding any new project on indigenous lands. Here, we highlight some recent environmental achievements won by indigenous nations against the economic interests of big industry.
Indigenous peoples oppose large mining projects that threaten their territories and ways of life.
In 2014, the health and livelihoods of Guatemala’s Xinca people were threatened by one of the largest silver mines in the world. The continued operation of Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine would have contaminated the local water sources of this indigenous community A legal suit brought about on behalf of the Xinca ruled to suspend the mining license after finding that the Ministry of Energy and Mines failed to respect the consultation rights of the Xinca peoples. Tahoe lost more than 40% of its stock market value as a result of the suit.
Similarly, Brazil’s Kayapó indigenous community helped stop construction of a gold mine, Esperanca IV, in the municipality of Altamira, which was shut down by federal inspectors in 2016 just a year after it received its license. The government stopped the project and fined its operators 50 million reais (USD 16 million) violating deforestation restrictions. Mercury and other pollutants from the mine threatened the Curuá River, the source of livelihood and food of the Kayapó people. They spoke out against the project from the beginning and celebrated the Brazilian government’s decision last year to stop the project. They vowed to continue fighting future projects that threatened their territories and communities.
National and international projects to dam rivers throughout Latin America spark organized indigenous movements.
After the killing of indigenous leader Berta Cáceres and two of her fellow activists for protesting a dam in Honduras, the Agua Zarca Dam project lost funding last month and its construction was halted.The internal conflict and violence surrounding the project caused two European development banks backing the controversial dam to stop all involvement. The first part of our blog discussed how, like Berta, other women have also stood up in defense of their environment and communities.
In 2014, the environmental impact study of a massive hydroelectric project in Chilean Patagonia lacked proper relocation plans for indigenous and local people causing Chile’s government to overturn the project’s permits. The hydroelectric project HidroAysén included plans to build five dams on two of Patagonia’s pristine and remote rivers, Baker and Pascua, and would have flooded 5,900 hectares of land. Chile’s Committee of Ministers made their decision after an eight-year battle between indigenous and local communities, national and international NGOs, and the project’s developers.
Last year, the development permits for a dam opposed by the indigenous Munduruku community were cancelled by Brazil’s environmental protection agency. The São Luiz do Tapajós dam would have flooded 145 square miles of rainforest that is the home and ancestral land of 12,000 Munduruku people. The project was rejected by the indigenous community for the negative ecological impacts it would have had on the Tapajós River and the social cost that the surrounding communities would have suffered when forced to relocate after the dam’s construction.
The momentum from organized indigenous communities against corporate interests brings about real change.
The potential economic benefits of mega projects for Latin American countries can result in governments looking the other way on certain regulations to allow for a project’s construction. Neither the governmental authorities nor the executives of multinational corporations will experience the potentially devastating effects that these projects can have on the local environment. Yet, indigenous communities living in the affected areas must deal with the real and lasting consequences on a daily basis.
While indigenous communities are often small in numbers and lacking in political power, their determination to protect their peoples and their territories is steadfast and they are making a difference. Today, we recognize the hardships of many indigenous communities throughout Latin America in the face of powerful corporate interests. Today, we celebrate the strength and perseverance of the men, women, and children who have risked, and sometimes lost, their lives in the fight for justice. Today, we thank these indigenous communities for their work as stewards of the environment and we learn from their example and from their courage.