The cost of mining in Latin America

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The cost of mining in Latin America

The UN says we have 12 years to reach our climate goals. But three very big mining companies are extracting fossil fuels in Latin America. Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz write.


A family sits at a shelter for displaced people of the Bento Rodrigues district of Mariana, Brazil. It is covered with mud after a dam owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd burst. Credit: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2018 says we have just over ten years to keep global warming under 1.5°C and protect millions from drought, heat waves, storms, and floods – especially in the global South.

But industries like mining – at the heart of fossil fuel extraction – are growing, and are ignoring the need for action.

A new report from War on Want writes about three of the most powerful mining companies in Latin America – Anglo American, BHP Billiton, and Glencore.

The activities of all three Latin American companies have consequences for climate change. Organizers of the opposition to these very big projects flew out to protest against BHP at their annual general meeting in London in October 2018. The Wayuu Women’s Force is an indigenous group defending their land from Cerrejón, Colombia’s biggest coal mine on their ancestral territory. They came to talk about the human rights and environmental abuses their communities have suffered. Back in Colombia, there have been death threats against the Wayuu from the far-right paramilitary group, Águilas Negras. There were leaflets along the railroad by which coal is transported from Cerrejón. The mine in La Guajira is owned by Anglo-American, Glencore, and BHP Billiton and exports coal to Europe and the UK. The leaflets promise to ‘clean’ the region of the indigenous Wayuu and calls for ‘death to them all’. But Wayuu women aren’t beaten by these threats.

‘We have long worked under threat of violence in our communities to defend our water, our territory, and the rights of indigenous and Afro-descendent people from the multinational companies. These companies steal and pollute our land. We cannot surrender. This is already a fight for our lives.’

For others taking action against mining projects, there is the threat of violence. Mining is the second deadliest industry for environmental human rights defenders. There is often harassment, intimidation by police, and human rights violations when there are protests against mining projects.

And there are land grabs that lead to the displacement of indigenous people.

Leticia Oliveira is a campaigner for the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB). It is one of Brazil’s most powerful social movements. It started after the collapse of a toxic waste dam, which killed 19, destroyed a whole river basin, and affected almost one million people.

She says people have lost their jobs, their neighbours, and often their family as a result. ‘The residents have no way to plant, to fish, to live as they always have. Their lives are ruined and many health problems follow, including depression, and suicide, all because of this very big change.’ BHP partly owned the Samarco crime, as it is called.

It’s important to remember that mining industries are part of neoliberal globalization. The exploitation of labour and the free extraction of raw materials from the Global South for profit in the Global North first arrived in the world economy during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Since then, European colonization has come and gone. With the rise of digital technology, copper and zinc have taken the place of cotton and tea but the rules remain the same.

Former colonies still depend on the export of raw materials for their economies and the institutions, parliaments, and board rooms of the Global North make the decisions. This means the former colonies cannot develop their industry, advance technologically, or invest in their democracies.

Today, mining is a very destructive model of economic development. It exploits nature: metals, minerals, fossil fuels, land, water, and people.

It contributes to climate change, inequality, and human rights violations. But international institutions, economists, and governments say mining is the only way to ‘economic development’ in the Global South. This is why it is so difficult and dangerous – to oppose it.

The heart of the global mining industry is in the City of London, where most of the world’s biggest mining companies are based. They have licenses in the UK, but they are not accountable by the UK government and instead they have political and financial support.

We need laws that can guarantee the rights of communities, workers, and the environment, and hold business to account. At the BHP annual shareholder meeting, there were questions about the plan to close their Cerrejón coal mine. But their answer spoke only about how the project would last 100 years.

When there were questions about when there would be help for the communities affected by the Samarco crime in Brazil, the company talked only about their plan to start the project again because it was good economically.

Rosa Maria Mateus, a Colombian lawyer, spoke to the BHP directors, and said: ‘The coal from which you make your profit is coal with blood on it. It carries the tears of women who mourn their territory, children sick from coal dust, communities that have lost so much - their rivers, their culture, their ancestral spirituality, and their language.’ Full regulation of the mining industry will be the answer to reversing climate change that their projects have caused. But the answers will not come from the mining companies themselves.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)