Latin America Successes- Climate Change, Rights for Nature & Cyanide-Free Zones
by Dawn Paley
Over the past years, environmentalists and activists from North America have consistently looked to the south for inspiration and guidance in environmental and climate struggles. Throughout the hemisphere, and in the face of adversity, poverty and repression, communities have organized on a local level in defense of the health of their water, land, and air.
On occasion, these local struggles have translated into national issues
with global resonance. Governments seen as progressive, like those of Bolivia, Ecuador and Costa Rica, have taken initiatives stemming from grassroots movements. Unfortunately, pressures on these same governments have also meant that new legislation isn’t always respected. Conflicts around the extractive industries continue in each of these three nations. However, official recognition of the need to approach environmental struggles in a more holistic way carries a symbolic and sometimes practically effective weight when it comes to new proposals for industrial development and exploitation.
Below are three examples of how grassroots struggles in Latin America have resulted in high-level initiatives that have changed the way the world looks at ecological movements.
World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth
This gathering, convened by the Bolivian government, took place in the city of Cochabamba in 2010. It brought together activists, environmentalists, journalists, and others from around the region, as well as Bolivian community members, who drafted an important declaration on the future of the earth and the need to act on climate change. There were even some in attendance who set up a protest camp criticizing the government of President Evo Morales for pushing forward with mining and highway projects in their territory.
The declaration, known as “The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba,” begins by doing what northern organizations rarely do, calling attention to the direct connection between capitalism and climate change. “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life,” reads the introduction of the People’s Agreement.
In terms of reversing climate change, the People’s Agreement calls for a cut of the rate of carbon in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million (ppm) to 300 ppm. Regardless, the largest climate organization in the world, led by Bill McKibben, set its own number, from which it takes its name: 350.org. Though 350.org was present at the Cochabamba meetings, they did nothing to revise their target for carbon reduction, and continue to push for a reduction to 350 ppm.
The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba stands out as a clear declaration of what a popular climate movement could educate and work towards, offering an alternative to the weaker targets set out in the United Nations Conference of Parties talks. It also suggests a formula by which developed countries – which are responsible for driving the climate crisis – check their privilege and pay down the atmospheric debt they owe to less industrialized nations.
The Rights of Nature
In 2007, elected representatives in Ecuador began a process of constitutional assembly, which ended in the adoption of a new Constitution in 2008. Though there were problems with the way the new Constitution was worded, especially with regards to the right of indigenous communities to have a meaningful say over mega-projects that would impact their land, it did do something none had before, by assigning rights to nature.
Nature, or Pachamama, is recognized in Ecuador’s Constitution as having the right to be respected, to reproduce and regenerate. The state promises to apply the precautionary principle: with regards to endangered species and ecosystem destruction; to prevent the introduction of genetic material that could impact the country’s rich ecological heritage; and bans environmental services, which can be understood as false solutions to climate change based around the carbon market.
Though Ecuador continues to be a country where oil extraction wreaks havoc on ecosystems and communities and where large-scale mining threatens agricultural lands, the recognition that nature has rights that should be protected has had an influence on an international level. Three years after Ecuador’s Constitution, Bolivia adopted laws on the rights of nature, as have a handful of US cities, including Pittsburgh.
Legislation adopted in Costa Rica in 2010 meant that the country became the first in Latin America to completely ban mining that uses cyanide to separate the gold from the ore.
The law, which essentially prevents the development of any new open pit gold mines in the Central American country, also bans the use of mercury in metal mining. It came after a hard fought struggle by community activists and environmentalists seeking to prevent contamination linked to large-scale mining.
Cyanide is used in many low-grade open pit mines, allowing, for example, a mountain that contains a gram of gold per tonne of ore to become a commercially viable project. According to the World Health Organization, “Poorly operated or abandoned mine sites are often significant sources of water contamination; contaminants of particular health concern from these sources include heavy metals, and mineral-processing chemicals, such as cyanide.”
The banning of cyanide in Costa Rica followed an ineffective ban on open pit mining passed in 2002, which allowed a string of Canadian companies to open and operate a mine called Bellavista. The mine’s cyanide containment area cracked in 2007, leading to a nation wide campaign against use of the toxic chemical.
Similar bans have been enacted in parts of Argentina where large scale mining threatens ecosystems and peoples’ livelihoods. The provinces of Rio Negro and Chubut, Tucumán, La Pampa, Córdoba, San Luis, and La Rioja have all enacted bans on cyanide, though communities continue to struggle in the courts and on the streets to ensure they are upheld. Some US states, including Montana (where the use of cyanide in mining was pioneered) have also passed cyanide bans over the past years.
Dawn Paley is an editor-member of the Media Co-operative. She is based in Mexico where she is at work on her first book.